CFL Pass

Hamilton Tiger-Cats' success fuelled by head coach and locker-room culture

CALGARY – There’s no lack of storylines for Sunday’s Grey Cup showdown between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, two teams that haven’t won a CFL championship in a long, long time.

Before taking a deep dive into the x’s and o’s and the strengths and weaknesses of the Ticats and Bombers – front and centre is coach vs. coach,  Orlando Steinauer vs. Mike O’Shea. Former teammates (from 2001-08 in Toronto), they won a Grey Cup together in 2004 – both of them were Argos captains. They served on the same Argos coaching staff that won a Grey Cup in 2012. Also, they were once involved in a trade for each other. In 2000, Hamilton acquired O’Shea from the Argonauts for a package that involved Canadian running back Eric Lapointe and the rights to Steinauer.

Steinauer played in three Grey Cups, winning twice – he was on the 1999 Ticats, the last Hamilton team to win a Grey Cup. O’Shea played in and won three Grey Cups with Toronto.

And now, on Sunday, they will guide their teams into the Canadian Football League’s championship – Steinauer in his first year as the Ticats head coach, O’Shea is in his sixth season running the Bombers.

Steinauer has established a strong culture in the locker room – there’s plenty of love and respect inside and outside of the walls. To be part of Ticats Football is special, an honour. The coach needed a buy-in to make it work. He got it.

“In training camp, we liked the makings of it, but you never know how your football team is going to shape up,” said Steinauer. “We always are emphasizing that it’s 21-30 days to make or break habits. We were trying to engrain habits into this men, we were trying to build into their mindset to understand the culture we have here. You really don’t know what you have until you get a bigger sample. Our coaching staff did an outstanding job of understanding strengths and weaknesses of the athletes. And (the players) bought in. We said from the beginning it will be as good as they want it to be and they’ve taken ownership of this football team.

“The coaches were going to set the expectations – this is what we expect from you – but the players were going to set the standard for the 2019 team. It has nothing to do with 2018 or 2017 or any other season. So when somebody goes down (with an injury), that standard has been set by the starter or whoever was in before. When you’re accountable to the person next to you, that’s important. When you go in there, you don’t want to let your teammates down. That’s when you start to have the makings of potentially something special.”

The star-studded Ticats dominated opposing teams during the regular season. Maintaining a strong core from a 2018 team that lost to Ottawa in the 2018 East final was important. Plugging holes and adding new life to the culture has also worked.

“(Receiver) Speedy (Banks) could go anywhere in free agency, (Linebacker) Simoni (Lawrence) could go anywhere in free agency – they choose to stay (in Hamilton),” said Steinauer. “It’s not just because of this building (Tim Hortons Field), it’s a feeling of belonging. That’s the connection they feel.”

Another Grey Cup storyline: The quarterbacks – neither started the season as his team’s starter. Hamilton’s Dane Evans was the backup to Jeremiah Masoli, who suffered a torn ACL in late July and was sidelined for the season. Winnipeg’s Zach Collaros, a former Ticat, began his roller coaster ride as Saskatchewan’s starter, had a concussion, was traded to Toronto and was then dealt to the Bombers.

When Evans was the backup, he put in the work like he was the starter. It’s paid off, he’s been a terrific addition to the dynamic Ticats offence.

“Man, routines are things that are boring when you talk about them,” said Evans. “But we do the same things every week, we look at the same slideshows, we watch the same cutups and it works. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We’re in a good rhythm.”

For the Ticats, 2019 has already been really good – they had a 15-3 regular-season record, best in the CFL. There’s still unfinished business – the team’s goal is to put an exclamation mark on it Sunday.

“For sure we knew we had to (beat Edmonton) to get to Calgary,” said Evans. “We’re definitely not done, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy. There’s nothing wrong with being happy, but we’re not satisfied.”

Here’s the skinny on the participants: The Ticats are 8-12 in the Grey Cup. They last played in the game in 2014 in B.C., losing 20-16 to Calgary. Hamilton last won a Grey Cup in 1999, beating Calgary 32-31. The Bombers own a 10-14 Grey Cup record. They last appeared in the championship game in 2011, losing 34-23 to B.C. The last time Winnipeg won the Grey Cup was in 1990 against Edmonton. With this appearance, Winnipeg joins Edmonton in a tie for the most Grey Cup appearances at 25. For those who care about such things, Hamilton swept the season series, beating Winnipeg 23-15 in Week 7, then 33-13 in Week 16.

“This game carries carries a lot more than just (being) the Hamilton Tiger-Cats playing the Winnipeg Blue Bombers,” Jim Barker, a been-there-done-that guy who’s with the Ticats as an offensive assistant, told’s Chris O’Leary.


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