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O'Leary: Esks, Milanovich forming perfect partnership

In the time that Brock Sunderland had let his head coach go, he watched some of the most coveted head coach candidates in the CFL find new homes. None of them were in Edmonton. 

Sunderland relieved Jason Maas of his duties on Nov. 27. Rick Campbell landed with the BC Lions on Dec. 2. Maas found his next gig on the same day when he joined the Saskatchewan Roughriders as their offensive coordinator. Paul LaPolice went to the Ottawa REDBLACKS on Dec. 7. 

While those names disappeared off of the figurative board, Sunderland didn’t stress. This isn’t the first time he’s had to come up with a plan on relatively short notice. In losing Mike Reilly to the BC Lions in free agency last year, he learned that he had to have Plans B, C and D ready and waiting if the ground he was standing on suddenly shifted. 

As he watched those coaches find new homes, the name at the top of that figurative board hadn’t changed. Sunderland just didn’t know if it was attainable. 

“He was at the top of the list but with an asterisk of does he want to leave?” Sunderland said of Scott Milanovich. “The biggest challenge was just not knowing if he wanted to leave the NFL.” 

Of course, Sunderland got the name at the top of his list. Milanovich was hired on Dec. 12, marking the second time in 2019 that Sunderland made some magic when it came time to restock his roster. 

After five years as the head coach of the Toronto Argonauts, Milanovich joined the Jaguars coaching staff in 2017 as their quarterbacks coach. His name had come up in CFL coaching rumours over the years, but many wondered if he’d want to leave the NFL.

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Having first connected with him when they were with the Alouettes in 2007 — Sunderland was the Als’ director of scouting and Milanovich was their quarterbacks coach — Sunderland wanted to test those waters. 

“The biggest thing was if Jacksonville was going to be on board with allowing me to speak with him because they’re still right in the middle of the season,” Sunderland said. 

“Luckily for me, for the organization, for Scott, they were phenomenal. David Caldwell and Doug Marrone were unbelievably good to work with. They were classy and they were very helpful,” Sunderland said. 

“I always thought there was probably a pretty good chance that I would come back,” Milanovich said on Monday at Blue Mountain in Collingwood, Ont., where the CFL is holding its annual president and GM meetings. 

“I love the game. The game of football’s become such a get-your-playmakers-the-ball-in-space game. The CFL has always been that way. The aggressiveness from an offensive coach’s perspective is that you have to have the ability to create and do cutting edge things. All of those things are fun for somebody like me.” 

Once they’d navigated the hurdle of talking in-season, the conversation came easily. Sunderland flew to Florida and Milanovich hosted him at his home in Ponte Vedra, Florida. Sunderland had seen the type of teams that Milanovich ran and while Sunderland moved into the GM role while Milanovich was in the NFL, the two picked up from where they’d left off in their Alouette days. It was a fast coach-GM connection.

“They were very informal,” Milanovich said of the discussions they had. “I told them I didn’t have time to throw together a bunch of PowerPoints and a big book. We just sat there sat on my back porch and we talked about vision, what things were important to me, what things were important to him, how I like to lead and we just kind of got a feel for each other again. We’d stayed in touch but hadn’t had a conversation like that in a long time.”

“It was very easy, it was a cool interview,” Sunderland said. “It really was two fantastic conversations. He picked me up, drove over to his house and we had a conversation with his 180-pound mastiff’s head in my lap out on his balcony, just talking ball. 

“It was just two football junkies talking football, talking philosophy because I knew him and I know what he’s about as a person. It was just kind of us making sure that we aligned philosophically on how we want to run things. He’s been a head coach. He’s had success as a head coach. So that was all easy.

“It was probably an hour and a half into our conversation where, for me, it was a no brainer. Then it was just up to him, if it worked for him and his family and his career ambitions at this time.” 

In many ways, Edmonton provided the perfect situation for Milanovich. 

“(It was) a great opportunity with one of the best franchises, in my mind, in the CFL. A chance to work with Brock, which I think is really important, that relationship with the general manager,” he said. “I mean, there are a million reasons. Trevor (Harris), the facilities, the love that (the fans) have for the Eskimos. Where my family’s at and our lives all those things made it appealing to me.” 

Harris is central to that. Milanovich worked with him in Toronto for the first four years of Harris’ CFL career. He admits that he hasn’t seen enough of Harris’ time in Edmonton to give an in-depth analysis of where his starting quarterback, but he saw the Esks’ playoff win over the Alouettes and it looked familiar. 

“Trevor was what I’d always known him to be: extremely accurate,” Milanovich said. “(He’s a) student the game. Over the course of the last three or four years since I’ve coached him, I think he’s gone from a guy that thinks he’s an elite quarterback to a guy that knows he is. That’s a big step to take. 

“When you feel that way, you’re able to overcome a mistake and you’re still going to find a way to win the game. All of those things, confidence-wise, leadership wise, you have to prove some of those things before the true leader in you can come out.” 

In a year that saw him sign Harris and go in a new coaching direction with Milanovich, Sunderland’s thought process has been the same. 

“I want to win a Grey Cup,” he said. “I mean, that’s what everybody wants. I’ve never shied away from saying that our goal is to win the Grey Cup. I’m not saying we’re going to win; there’s no benchmark of we have to win this. 

“But every year going into it our goal unequivocally is to win the Grey Cup. That’s why I flew to Florida, that’s why we went through the steps of getting permission from Jacksonville. It’s why Scott didn’t sleep for three weeks while he was coaching quarterbacks and doing his responsibilities for them while also building a staff for us. That’s the goal. That’s why we’re all in this.”


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