SIMMONS: Doing the impossible is what Pinball Clemons does best
Three years ago, the Argos were all smiles as they introduced the Dream Team in their locker room in mid-winter.
There was Jim Popp, the legendary general manager, coming to Toronto alongside coach Marc Trestman, with his incomparable won-loss record in Montreal. What could be better than that?
And then came a Grey Cup in Year One and a parade and momentary excitement for a team that now struggles to find anyone outside their core that actually cares about the Argos.
Last season was a disaster, ending with the classless firing of Trestman on an early morning cellphone call, while still seated on the team bus.
This season has been worse — arguably the worst in franchise history.
The Argos have been terrible many times before. Just not this terrible.
They lost 64-14 in their home opener. They lost 55-8 Saturday night in Vancouver, scoring a late touchdown to avoid being shut out. The crowds at BMO Field, either the numbers announced or the actual turnouts, have been the smallest ever seen.
The firing of Popp on Monday was a football mercy killing. It was overdue.
The magic he had in Montreal — maybe a lot of that was connected to the great Anthony Calvillo — never materialized with the Argos. The Grey Cup won in the snow in Ottawa now seems more fluke than reality, looking back.
And now what?
It’s back to the future with the wonderous Pinball Clemons as general manager, a man unlike any I’ve met before. He can turn the world on with his smile, to steal a line from Mary Tyler Moore, and no matter how lousy you’re feeling on the worst day you can remember, a hug from Pinball, a greeting, a hello, the eye contact, changes your day. He has that kind of power. He had it as a player. He had it as a head coach.
Now comes the double challenge — maybe this one the greatest of his post-playing career.
Turning the Argos into winners is one thing. Making them relevant is something entirely different. You can do one and not the other in Toronto.
Doug Flutie won back to back Grey Cups with Don Matthews coaching and barely moved the needle on attendance. Ricky Ray won two Grey Cups with the Argos on teams that weren’t in any way great and it didn’t sell another ticket to anyone.
Pinball is being asked to fix the football team. That’s doable.
Getting more people to care — getting people to buy tickets — that’s a Rubik’s Cube, times 10. The move outside to a great stadium didn’t get people excited the way the move to McGill got people excited in Montreal.
Now the stadium is empty and the team is disastrous and Bill Manning, the team president in charge, wouldn’t know Ronnie Lancaster from Ronnie Stewart. Or to be more modern, probably wouldn’t know Mike O’Shea from Mike Reilly.
But because it’s Pinball, you have to believe. Just a little, but still you have to believe.
I remember the press conference held at Erindale College where he was named head coach in 2000. One game he was a player, the next day a coach. It didn’t seem proper or logical. That’s not how football works … or any sport for that matter.
But Pinball being Pinball, he found a way to succeed. He got better as the years went on. He won a Grey Cup as head coach in 2004. The three years that followed that, he was 32-22, two first-place seasons. He had become a terrific coach. His final five years on the job, he averaged 10 wins a season.
With this dreadful team and a coach in Corey Chamblin who may in over his head. He talks in Pinballisms, about creating an ethos of excellence, building bridges not fences, the kind of fire and brimstone stuff he brings to his after-dinner speaking, which pays him very well. If you haven’t heard Pinball speak live, you’ve missed something. He’s the best I’ve ever heard. He makes you laugh and cry and the night is an experience you’ll never forgot.
“If you’re the smartest guy in the room, it’s your own fault,” said Clemons Tuesday.
And Manning was certain he wanted Pinball running his football team. He asked and asked and asked again and Clemons kept saying no. And after the game Saturday night in Vancouver, one of the worst games in Argo history, if not the worst, Pinball realized his calling. It was time to come home.
He’s been around Toronto and the Argos for 31 years, played for three Grey Cup winners, coached a Grey Cup winner, been around for two others. Six titles in all. He pointed out the quarterbacks Tuesday: Doug Flutie, twice. Ricky Ray, twice. Matt Dunigan once. Damon Allen once. If they’re not all in the top 10 all-time, they’re awfully close.
Popp tried to get Bo Levi Mitchell last off-season. He offered him the moon. Mitchell took less money to stay in Calgary.
The Argos quarterbacking combo of McLeod Bethel-Thompson and James Franklin has been rather suspect. Two Argos-developed quarterbacks, Cody Fajardo and Trevor Harris, have had impressive seasons in Regina and Edmonton. Bad management and salary cap struggles let good players walk away for nothing.
“In terms of leadership,” said Manning, “this is Michael’s team.”
He is working with John Murphy, who has an excellent background in personnel and scouting. And more Pinballese: “My greatest strength is understanding how important I’m not.
“I didn’t need a job,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of jobs. I’m here because I love it, because I care about our fan base.”
In one of their conversations, Manning asked Clemons why he hadn’t been involved with the Argos in football the past 10 years.
His answer was rather simple: No one asked.
They’re asking now, for the impossible. And impossible is what Pinball Clemons does best.