Very little down time for Milanovich in return to CFL with Eskimos
COLLINGWOOD, Ont. — It's shaping up to be a hectic off-season for Scott Milanovich.
The 46-year-old native of Butler, Pa., finished his third season in the NFL as Jacksonville's quarterback coach last month. But Milanovich didn't make vacation plans following the Jaguars' season-ending 38-20 win over Indianapolis on Dec. 29.
Instead, he immediately stepped into his new post as head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos. Milanovich has had to juggle assembling a staff with evaluating the roster of an Eskimos squad that finished fourth in the West Division and upset Montreal 37-29 in the East semifinal before losing 36-16 to Hamilton in the conference final.
Milanovich didn't have designs on a return to the CFL — he served as Toronto's head coach from 2012-16 — until Edmonton GM Brock Sunderland came calling. Jason Maas was fired following the Hamilton loss after posting a 39-33 regular-season record over four seasons on the Eskimos' sideline.
"More than anything, it was probably the relationship I have with Brock," Milanovich said during the CFL's winter meetings, which concluded Thursday in Collingwood, Ont. "It just felt right.
"Honestly, I've always been kind of a feel guy. I think a huge part of it is the relationship between the GM and head coach and I've known Brock since we were together in Montreal."
Sunderland worked in the scouting department with Montreal (2004-07) while Milanovich was the Alouettes quarterback coach (2007) before adding the offensive co-ordinator's duties (2008-11). Sunderland went to become a scout with the NFL's New York Jets (2007-2012) while Milanovich was hired as Toronto's head coach, leading the Argos to a Grey Cup title in his first season and being named the CFL's top coach.
Early in his coaching career, Milanovich would've prepared long and hard — complete with a power-point presentation — for an interview for a head job. But it was a much more casual situation when Sunderland arrived at Milanovich's Florida residence to discuss the Eskimos' position.
"It was us talking about our philosophies and what we believe in," Milanovich said. "And you know, we found our ideas and thoughts were pretty much the same.
"When you have a great relationship and all those things match, then I think you've got a chance. I mean, I missed it, I missed the CFL, I missed being a head coach and all of those things."
Milanovich left Toronto amid uncertainly regarding his future with the franchise. But his decision to join the Jaguars wasn't because of a burning desire to coach in the NFL.
"It was an itch I wanted to scratch at some point, but I didn't have to," he said. "There were a lot of circumstances surrounding (the Toronto) situation but I really was never caught up in being an NFL coach probably because I had a few years playing (1996-99 with Tampa Bay, 2000 with Cleveland)."
Jacksonville reached the '17 AFC title game and took a 17-10 lead into the fourth quarter against New England. But quarterback Tom Brady rallied the Patriots to a 24-20 victory.
In the Super Bowl two weeks later, New England erased a 25-point deficit en route to a thrilling 34-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
"That was disappointing because, yeah, we were close," Milanovich said. "But that's Tom Brady.
"I can tell you sitting up in the booth at Gillette Stadium, I didn't feel like it was over. That one hurts, but what hurts worse still is the 2008 Grey Cup we lost at home (22-14 to Calgary at Olympic Stadium) when I was with Montreal."
Montreal, with Milanovich running the offence, did win consecutive Grey Cup titles (2009-2010) under head coach Marc Trestman and remains the league's last repeat champion. Edmonton has captured 14 CFL crowns, the last coming in 2015 with Chris Jones as head coach.
Sunderland won't be the only familiar face in Edmonton for Milanovich. Starting quarterback Trevor Harris and backup Logan Kilgore both played for the coach in Toronto.
"Yeah, that helps for sure," he said. "I'll be honest, though, I don't know our full roster yet, but people I've talked to say we're close so I'm very excited about that."
Wins and losses are magnified in the ultra-competitive West Division. Last year, for example, only four points separated the top three teams (Saskatchewan, Calgary and Grey Cup-champion Winnipeg).
By comparison, Hamilton (league-best 15-3 record) finished a whopping 10 points ahead of second-place Montreal (10-8) in the East Division. They were the only two teams from the East to qualify for the CFL playoffs.
Milanovich experienced the Hamilton-Toronto rivalry first-hand, but is also very familiar with the grudge that exists between Edmonton and Calgary. He not only played quarterback for the Stampeders in 2003, he also served as their quarterback coach that year.
"It's a big deal, I know that," Milanovich said. "Looking forward to it."
Milanovich created an impressive coaching tree in Toronto. Head coaches Mike O'Shea (Winnipeg) and Orlondo Steinauer (Hamilton), Jones (assistant with Cleveland, NFL) and Maas (now Saskatchewan's offensive co-ordinator) were all Argos assistants under Milanovich.
"I just pick what I like," Milanovich said. "I guess I respect people who're genuine and have some edge to them but are also humble and understand team first.
"Orlando and Osh, they have some edge but they're also humble and understand team first. They're not afraid of confrontation but they still have relationships with their players and push their players. Those are the kind of things I look for because you spend so much time together as coaches that you better be able to get along and respect each other."
But Milanovich won't be sentimental when he faces his former coaches in 2020.
"No," he said matter of factly. "I mean, there's nothing better than being a friend.
"The problem in this league is you play each other so many times that you don't keep bragging rights for very long."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2020.
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