SPORTS

Grey Cup coaches Kent Austin, John Hufnagel have CFL history together

11/26/2014 12:50 EST | Updated 01/26/2015 05:59 EST
VANCOUVER - They'll share the sidelines at B.C. Place as opponents Sunday, but Grey Cup head coaches Kent Austin and John Hufnagel have a CFL history together.

Austin began his CFL career with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1987, when Hufnagel was a player-coach with the club. Austin went on to play 10 seasons with the Riders, B.C. Lions, Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, winning two Grey Cups ('89 with Riders, '94 with Lions) and passing for over 36,000 yards.

But on Wednesday, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach and general manager credited Hufnagel, the head coach/GM of the Calgary Stampeders, with helping him make a seamless transition to the three-down game following his collegiate career at Ole Miss.

"I've got a lot of respect for John," Austin said. "It (Canadian football) was a different game, a totally different game than what I was comfortable with and used to.

"Having somebody like John to kind of cut the corners, to give you the shortcuts that you needed to at least have a chance to be successful early on instead of going through huge growing pains with a guy that didn't have a lot of experience playing the position, was a huge benefit."

And it was clear Wednesday that Austin still holds Hufnagel in high regard, allowing the Calgary coach to answer questions first and often agreeing with his counterpart.

Hufnagel, 63, remembers a young Austin taking advantage of his chance to play after injuries to other quarterbacks, including Hufnagel.

"My first year as a coach, I was a player-coach, and that player part of it only lasted three quarters then I tore my Achilles tendon," he said. "We had two young quarterbacks at the time, Jeff Bentrim and Tom Burgess, (but) they were injured.

"I brought Jeff Tedford up (but) he lasted four plays and broke his foot. And in that timeframe, Kent walks in, and prepares himself to play and his first start was against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Hamilton. He won his first start, had a terrific football game."

Hufnagel and Austin followed similar paths to their current positions.

Both played at major U.S. colleges (Hufnagel starred at Penn State) and spent time in the NFL before coming to Canada. After winning Grey Cups as players, Hufnagel and Austin began their coaching careers in the CFL, then headed to the U.S. before returning north of the border to head up their respective franchises' football operations departments.

After serving as an assistant with Saskatchewan ('88) and Calgary ('90-'96), Hufnagel took over as head coach/GM of the Arena Football League's New Jersey Red Dogs. He had stints in the NFL as quarterbacks coach with Cleveland, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and New England and offensive co-ordinator with the New York Giants before returning to the Stampeders.

During his time in the NFL, Hufnagel had the opportunity to coach big-name quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning as well as Tom Brady, earning a Super Bowl ring with New England in 2003.

Hufnagel said he didn't have a burning desire to leave the CFL when he left for New Jersey. But after being bypassed for three head-coaching positions while an assistant with Calgary, Hufnagel said he wasn't about to let the next opportunity pass him by.

"Once all the smoke cleared (in '95) I was still an assistant coach with the Calgary Stampeders, which was fine," Hufnagel said. "But I did say that — to myself — the next time the phone rings and a head coaching job is offered, I would accept it, no matter what the time of year.

"And happened to be the New Jersey Red Dogs . . . and that's why I left the CFL, to take advantage of a head coaching job."

Austin finished his playing career after the '96 season with Winnipeg. He joined the Ottawa Renegades quarterbacks coach in '03 before becoming Toronto's offensive co-ordinator. He was hired as Saskatchewan's head coach in '07. After winning a Grey Cup he returned to Ole Miss as the offensive co-ordinator and then spent three seasons as Cornell's head coach before returning north with Hamilton in 2013.

Austin and Hufnagel are the only ones in the CFL with the dual coach/GM titles, with Austin also being Hamilton's director of football operations.

"I'm not sure it's an advantage, it's a little bit more single-minded as far as the direction you want to take," Hufnagel said. "And everybody that's working for you has that single direction.

"It's a lot easier to get things you want as far as the grocery list. And so I enjoy it. It's a unique position, and I relish the job that I have in Calgary."

Austin agreed.

"I would just reiterate what John said," he said. "I mean, it gives you the ability to choose your team and to piece the puzzle together the way that you and your staff believe is the best.

"...At the end of the day, if you can make the decision to build your team, then the buck really falls with us to put together a team that has a chance."

Hufnagel has certainly put Calgary in position to win since his return, amassing an impressive 89-36-1 regular-season record. But some football pundits point to Calgary's 6-5 playoff record and just one Grey Cup title over that span. Twenty-five players remain from the Stampeders squad that lost the 100th Grey Cup game to Toronto in 2012 and Hufnagel said those individuals have a chance Sunday to end the negative talk.

"There's been a lot of things said about this group of players over the years," he said. "Until they do something about it, it's going to keep on being said.

"I don't judge myself, that's what you guys (reporters) do. I just go to work every day and try to do the best job I can. We have a pretty good regular-season record and we're batting one game over 500 in the playoffs. I'm not so sure there's a whole lot of teams over the last seven years that can say that."

Austin is appearing in a third straight Grey Cup as a head coach, winning in '07 with Saskatchewan before losing last year's finale to the Riders at Mosaic Stadium.

"The truth of the matter is you have to have many great people around you," Austin said. "I've been really fortunate to have the ability to have a great staff, first and foremost, have a great organization in both cases that produced an environment to allow us to be successful."

Hufnagel said the first coaches to make a favourable impression upon him as a player were the late Joe Paterno at Penn State and Cal Murphy, the longtime Winnipeg head coach/GM who died in 2012. Once he became a coach, Hufnagel credits New England coach Bill Belichik and B.C. Lions GM Wally Buono, Hufnagel's head coach in Calgary, as the ones who've influenced him the most.

"Cal was a tremendous football coach," Hufnagel said. "I really respected how he handled the day-to-day functions of the team and how he handled the players.

"Having one year with (Belichik) was a bonus as far as me developing into a head coach because of the structure that he brings to a football team. Wally, well, I based most of my organization and how we do things from Wally's program. Those three have had a big impact on whatever I've accomplished in coaching."

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