CFL Pass

Dickenson ready for regular-season debut as Riders head coach

HAMILTON — Craig Dickenson is a contradiction to the perception of the gruff, intimidating head football coach.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders’ first-year chief strategist is personable, approachable, funny and candid with the media, and is genuinely interested in the players, coaches and other people he meets.

“I believe that nice people do finish first and I’ll live my life that way until the day I die,” Dickenson, 47, said Wednesday.

“You try to treat people right, do the right things, work hard and good things will happen.”

Dickenson, who makes his regular-season debut as a CFL head coach on Thursday against the host Hamilton Tiger-Cats, is an advocate of treating players and people with respect.

“Don’t be fooled by his pleasantries,’’ Riders general manager Jeremy O’Day cautioned. “Craig wants to win very badly, but he wants to do it the right way and he feels like there’s a way of doing it.

“He holds the players accountable and the players won’t take advantage of him. They won’t mistake his kindness for weakness.”

That approach is appreciated by Riders slotback Cory Watson, who was with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Edmonton Eskimos when Dickenson was the special-teams co-ordinator with those teams.

“Nice guy might be an understatement when you’re talking about Craig,” Watson said.

“He’s more of an encouraging individual. He’s going to encourage you when you need encouraging. When it’s time to get on you, he tells you want you need to do in terms of execution and you can hear it in his voice.”

Free-agent defensive tackle Micah Johnson is familiar with the Dickenson brothers after spending the past six seasons with the Calgary Stampeders — whose head coach is Craig’s younger brother, Dave.

“Coach Craig is extremely relatable,” Johnson said. “When he comes in (to the locker room), he’s talking to everybody and he has good conversations. He’s trying to connect and have a good rapport with everybody individually.”

That connection doesn’t mean Dickenson is a pushover.

“He’s a nice guy, but don’t get that twisted,” Johnson said. “He’s not going to let you BS him or play bad football. He’s going to hold you accountable.

“He has done a great job of letting us know what he wants and what he expects. He lets everybody be grown men and take leadership in the room.”

Dickenson’s philosophy was established while growing up in Great Falls, Mont. His parents — Bob and Sue — were teachers and provided a solid foundation for Dave, Craig, and his twin sister Amy.

“I have good parents and they have always taught me to be respectful,” Craig Dickenson said. “We didn’t have a lot growing up, but we always had love and respect and that just rubbed off.”

Another influential person in Dickenson’s life is Jack Johnson, who was the head football coach of Great Falls’ Charles M. Russell High School Rustlers for 41 seasons before retiring in 2013. Dave and Craig both played for Johnson in high school.

“Those boys and their sister Amy were all so bright that I thought they would be in medicine or something like that,” Johnson said from his home in Great Falls. “They all ended up in the coaching field and I’m proud of them.”

Even back then, Johnson felt there was potential for Craig to enjoy a long career in coaching.

“He had the ability and he was a very disciplined and a very bright kid,” Johnson recalled. “He just loved the sport and it’s such a good fit. I’m sure he has a passion for the sport and David (did) as well.”

The Roughriders’ head coach has spent 14 of his 17 seasons in the CFL as a special-teams co-ordinator, working with the Stampeders, Eskimos, Blue Bombers and Montreal Alouettes in addition to making two stops in Saskatchewan. He has won Grey Cups in 2008 (with Calgary) and 2015 (Edmonton).

“I thought special teams were my niche and I worked really hard at becoming an expert in my field,” said Dickenson, who doubles as the special-teams co-ordinator. “I liked the idea of coaching everyone on the team and you have to do that when you’re coaching special teams.”

Dickenson never felt that being a CFL head coach was the be-all and end-all, saying he was content coaching special teams.

But everything began to change on Jan. 15 when Chris Jones — the Riders’ head coach and general manager for the past three seasons — left to become the senior defensive assistant with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. Ten days later, Dickenson was introduced as the Riders’ 47th head coach.

Dickenson, however, isn’t all about football. If he wasn’t a football coach he would be working in the mountains in some capacity with Parks Canada or the United States Forest Service. He has also served as a snowboard teacher.

“I love being in the mountains and it’s made me a better coach,” Dickenson said. “I’ve become a more well-rounded as a person and I have a better perspective of people with different abilities.

“When you teach snowboarding at a hill for a few years, you can find good students and really poor students and older people who have never done it before. It has really challenged me on how to present the material and how to deal with people of different skill levels. That was super-helpful in coaching.”

The varied experiences have brought him to Thursday, when he will be focused on leading the Riders to a victory over the Tiger-Cats in his head-coaching debut.

“The main thing is I will finally be able to call what I want to when I want to and no one will be able to overrule me,” Dickenson said.

“Other than that, I have to figure out when to throw the challenge flag. That’s the nice thing about being a head coach. All of those ideas and opinions that you have, you get to act on and execute them.”