11/22/2012 01:07 EST | Updated 01/22/2013 05:12 EST

Rookie head coach Scott Milanovich leads Toronto Argonauts by example

TORONTO - As his Toronto Argonauts filtered into a hotel restaurant for a media breakfast, Scott Milanovich was already hard at work.

Sitting in a nearby chair, the tall Toronto coach was absorbed in his notes. The more time the better to plot the downfall of the Calgary Stampeders in Sunday's Grey Cup.

Milanovich had already warned his players there was work to do after meeting their media responsibilities.

"The first thing I hear him say was 'All right we need to get back and work on our first down install,'" running back Chad Kackert said. "He's really focused on the task at hand."

The 39-year-old rookie head coach, who also directs the Argo offence, comes across as calm, professional and very, very thorough.

At Wednesday's coaches' news conference, Milanovich was unfailingly polite and showed John Hufnagel, his 61-year-old Calgary counterpart, nothing but respect — referring to him throughout as Coach Hufnagel or Coach Huf.

He even prompted Hufnagel, who has hearing problems, by repeating questions as needed.

Milanovich, who has won two Grey Cups as an assistant coach with the Montreal Alouettes, also showed a dry sense of humour and was self-deprecating, saying the Argos' Grey Cup march was not about him.

"My name being on that Cup is not important to me. I have two (championship) rings. I also lost one to this gentleman sitting next to me," he said, referring to Hufnagel and the 2008 Grey Cup when Calgary beat Montreal 22-14.

"What is important to me is for our players' names to be on there. This is about them, this has never been about me."

Milanovich says Toronto's championship quest is also about general manager Jim Barker, the community, the organization and growing the Argo brand.

"I'm just fortunate and thankful that they gave me the opportunity to be a part of this," he added.

It was a speech that might not have sounded right coming out of some mouths. But it seemed a good match for Milanovich.

When the topic came up, Milanovich acknowledged he could have better handled the off-season hiring of defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones — a close friend — from Hufnagel's Stamps.

"What had originated as Chris calling me to congratulate me (on getting the Toronto job) turned into more than that," Milanovich said.

The Argos were fined by the league for mishandling the hire.

Milanovich made fun of his own quarterbacking career, mischievously noting that then-Cleveland Browns quarterback coach Hufnagel released him before his contract became guaranteed — and opened up about his upbringing.

The son of a high school football coach in Pennsylvania, Milanovich appeared to almost tear up when recalling how he and his dad used to watch game film on a white bed sheet.

His father taught him the game and it's clear the message stuck.

"His message to me was always about poise," Milanovich said. "When you're the quarterback and you're a leader, everybody looks to you when things go badly or when things go well, to see how you're going to react.

"His mantra to me was always stay even-keeled. And I learned the same lesson from Tony Dungy when I was fortunate to have played for him in Tampa Bay."

Milanovich exudes calm, although his players say there is a sterner side.

"For the most part, he's very professional and treats us like men," said receiver/returner Chad Owens. "But when he needs to step up and let us know that we're messing up, he's going to do that.

"He's a tremendous leader, he's a winner and you can tell what kind of player he was by the way he coaches."

Said Kackert: "He's a fair coach and he does a good job of staying focused on what needs to be done."

In a season that sometimes saw the Argos shoot themselves in the foot, Milanovich patiently answered question after question about costly penalties, although as the season wore on, it seemed clear he was clenching his teeth as he did so.

He refused to throw players under the bus, taking the blame himself.

"Clearly I didn't have them ready to play tonight,'' Milanovich said after a 36-10 loss to Saskatchewan on Oct. 8. "And I've got to do a better job of getting them ready to go, giving them the chance to be successful offensively.

"The only encouraging thing about tonight is we get to play again next week.''

Toronto lost two more times before turning it around.

Milanovich says being accountable has always been the way he leads.

"Players are smart," he said. "They see through phoniness and when you're fake. When things go bad, they want to see who's going to have their back ... I want then to know that I'm accountable when I make mistakes. And I think that helps them be accountable when they make mistakes too."

Veteran quarterback Ricky Ray has worked closely with Milanovich, learning his offence and the way his coach operates.

"He makes you a more disciplined player," said the first-year Argo quarterback. "He rewards making smart decisions rather than making tremendous plays.

"Some of the offences I've played in, it's like you squeeze the ball into triple coverage, sometimes you get rewarded for making a great play. Where here he's been like 'Hey, buddy, don't be doing that.'

"It just reinforces that this offence is about making smart decisions. He's going to scheme to get guys open. When it's there take it, when it's not there's other stuff to come too.

"There's been numerous times this year where we've got into games and we've been down or I've made a mistake early in the game and he just says 'Hey stay patient, it's a long game. You don't have to do anything, you don't have to force anything.'

"Where at other points in my career you get behind, you feel like you've got to go out there and get it all back on one play. He just forces you to try and make good decisions and do positive things out there."

He also gives his players a clear road map.

Prior to the East final in Montreal, Milanovich warned Ray that he was going to take some lumps.

"I said 'Ricky you're going to take some shots today. You're going to have to hang in there, you'll have to plant your feet and you're going to deliver because guys I felt like would be open in this game," the coach said after the game.

"And that's exactly what he did. He took some big hits, hung in there. ... That's why he's here, that's why he's the guy we want."

It has not all been smooth sailing, however.

A knee injury to Ray was an unwelcome bump in the road, slowing both the offence and Ray's absorption of the Milanovich offence

After opening the season 6-4, Milanovich's team stumbled through a 1-5 patch that included a three-game losing streak.

Toronto won its last two games to finish at 9-9, defeating Edmonton and then Montreal in the playoffs to earn a place in the 100th Grey Cup.

Kicker Swayze Waters says Milanovich gets it right when it comes to balancing being an authority figure and part of the team.

"In a sense I view him as kind of a friend almost, even though he's much older than me," said the 25-year-old from Mississippi.

"Half the time, we'll be talking just about things and the other half when it's time to turn on that switch and get in our books and study film and stuff, he's knows how to have command of the room and command the respect when he needs it, but not in an overpowering way.

"I would say I guess he's like a players' coaches and he's been one of my favourite coaches to play under."

A former star quarterback at the University of Maryland, Milanovich went on to play in the NFL, NFL Europe, Arena Football League, XFL and CFL. He finished up as a Calgary Stampeder before transitioning to become the team's quarterbacks coach.

He moved on to NFL Europe as an assistant coach before joining the Montreal Alouettes in 2007 as quarterbacks coach. He moved up to offensive co-ordinator and assistant head coach, alongside Marc Trestman.

Having worked closely with Trestman during the Als' Grey Cup experiences, Milanovich says he had a good teacher.

"It's all about budgeting and managing your time," he said. "I had some pretty good plans from the past to go on."