CFL Pass

Better Together: Steinauer, Ticats taking team-first approach

 remember a day, long ago, when the Toronto Argonauts held one of those “football 101” seminars, the kind meant to bring new fans up to speed on what the game was all about.

Orlondo Steinauer, currently about to embark on his first season as Head Coach of the Hamilton Ticats, was a free safety for the Argos at the time, and he was our table mate. My guest asked him about where he played on the field and when Steinauer answered, they replied that it sounded pretty cushy, just hanging out back there with “time to smoke a cigar if you wanted to.”

I recall Steinauer smiling – a knowing smile – and being very gracious in his answer; that it may look like he had not much to do but that, in fact, his responsibilities were many. He pointed them out, one by one. No trace of hurt feelings, no trace of ego. Just an explanation.

That was in the era of the 2004 Grey Cup Champion Argos, with Steinauer acting as an on-field defensive captain for the team, along with linebacker Mike O’Shea. The team’s coordinator, Rich Stubler, prepped the defence all week long, and then allowed his two star defenders to coordinate on the fly, as they ensured everybody out there knew their responsibilities. On occasion, it was suggested, Steinauer and O’Shea even had the green light to change the defence completely, if they saw something in their opponents’ offensive array that called for it.

Back then, fifteen or so years ago, while Steinauer was still playing primetime football himself, CFL executives were saying it: “That guy’s gonna be a great head coach.”

Now, as the 2019 season dawns, we’re about to find out just how true that time-worn assertion will be, as Steinauer takes the reins for Hamilton.

It seems that his philosophies and attitudes haven’t changed all that much since that football 101 session. All viewpoints are welcome, all will be considered.

“We have a nice, open forum where if they don’t agree with something, they can always voice that to me,” Steinauer said of his assistant coaches during an early training camp interview session. “It’s a ‘we’ thing.”

Quiet smarts underlined by a willingness to do the “we” thing have seemingly always been hallmarks of Steinauer’s personality, both as a player and as a rising star in the assistants’ ranks, and those are qualities that are expected to help make his career as a head coach a successful one.

As a player, he could do it all, even if it was possible that he may not have preferred to.

Steinauer was one of the first defenders that I can recall, who could effortlessly shift from position to position, without fuss, and excel. Indeed, he was named an All-Star at three different defensive positions, including corner, half and free safety.

We may see a lot of players shifting from spot to spot these days when it comes to CFL defences, sure. But back then, Steinauer was a bit of an outlier and it was his studious nature mixed with self-assuredness and a team-first attitude that must have contributed to that success.

That was all displayed once again, early on in his post-playing career.

As an up-and-coming coach, he was thrust prematurely into a defensive coordinator’s role, back in 2011. It was then that the Argonauts fired defensive coordinator Chip Garber and elevated their first-year defensive backs coach and former star player into the role, mid-season.

Steinauer did a good job with that. A defence that picked off just three balls in its first six games nabbed eleven in its next ten. Buoyed by optimism and hungry for more, Steinauer was eagerly anticipating his first full season as a DC, in 2012. I remember having the conversation with him, and the column I wrote about it as the 2011 season was coming to a close. He was jazzed up. He had plans.

But that’s when Scott Milanovich was hired as head coach, replacing Jim Barker. And Milanovich wanted his guy, Chris Jones, as his defensive coordinator.

Suddenly, Steinauer’s fast track was slowed by a waving caution flag and he went back to coaching defensive backs in 2012. Yet no one, I don’t believe, ever publicly saw an indication that he was sour about it.

The Argos won the Grey Cup that year. Steinauer learned a bit more from Jones, and took that knowledge to Hamilton as the Ticats’ new defensive coordinator in 2013.

In Hamilton, he rose quickly to become one of the top DCs in the CFL. Again, he was patient, dutiful.

When it became apparent that Head Coach Kent Austin wasn’t going anywhere, Steinauer coached at Fresno State for a season before being lured back to Hamilton when June Jones took over from Austin. I can’t imagine that Steinauer wasn’t given some assurances that he was next in line when he agreed to return to work with Jones and Defensive Coordinator Jerry Glanville. Then, as the Argos and BC Lions began their searches for head coaches this past off-season – most assuredly with Steinauer at or near the top of their lists – the Ticats elevated him to head coach, rather than risk losing him.

Steinauer had waited patiently, long enough. Finally, he was where so many predicted he’d be.

He is obviously ready for this opportunity and seems quite relaxed as the show is about to begin.

When you check out video from the Ticats’ website, where Steinauer is featured at practice wearing a hot mic, you get the strong sense that the man is enjoying all the moments leading up to his regular season debut as HC, when the Ticats play host to Saskatchewan Roughriders on Thursday night.

That video shows Steinauer charging briskly around the field, keeping a hawkish eye on all units of his team, effusive in praise when warranted, correcting attitudes and techniques when necessary, then quickly moving on to the next thing.

“Next play is what you can control, Bralon,” he’s heard hollering at an unseen and, it seems, frustrated receiver Bralon Addison. “We’ll rip your ass in the meeting. Let’s go.”

He can also be seen commandeering someone’s phone and calling upstairs to a Ticats’ official, so he can be assured there will be ice cream for all after practice. “Gotta get that stuff in order,” he says, in a playfully incensed tone. “Details.”

The Ticats are a team with a cornerstone quarterback in Jeremiah Masoli, two of the best receivers in the league in Luke Tasker and Brandon Banks, and a defence filled with impressive playmakers, including experienced veterans like linebacker Simoni Lawrence, corner Delvin Breaux and nose tackle Ted Laurent. Quarterback-rushing monster Ja’Gared Davis has been added to the mix as well, and hopes are higher than Hamilton Mountain.

As the Ticats get ready to begin the season as the favourites in the East, Steinauer has been preaching the value of high tempo practices along with the importance of good communication among teammates.

“Physical mistakes, men, those are going to be tolerated,” he bellows at one point during practice. “Mental mistakes? Those are going to be challenged and coached hard.”

Then, he stresses the buddy system, perhaps thinking back to the time he and O’Shea worked so well together as captains of the Argos’ defence.

“Have an accountability partner,” Steinauer says to his gathered charges. “You’re gonna double your chance of being right.”

During a media conference looking forward to Thursday night’s game against Saskatchewan, Steinauer is asked about the opponents his team will face. His answer sums up the philosophy he’ll use as the backbone for preparations for what’s likely to be many, many games to come in his head coaching career.

“What I’ve found over time, is that if you spend to much time focusing on them and not on yourself, you’re kinda doin’ yourself a disservice,”
he says.

“Definitely respect what they have and what they might bring, but trying to guess what they may do just detracts from our focus.”

Head down, do your thing. Do it right. Don’t be distracted by the other guy. It’s football 101, Orlondo Steinauer style.

He’s been practicing it for years, as a player and as an assistant.

Finally, at long last, he gets to preach it, as a head coach in the Canadian Football League.