CFL Pass

Hufnagel a no-brainer for Canadian Football Hall of Fame induction

John Hufnagel has rarely been the loudest guy in a room.

When he talks, though, people listen.

“Very seldom did he raise his voice or blow up at anybody, but when he did, you knew it was serious,” said Wally Buono, the Stampeders head coach throughout the 1990s when Hufnagel was the team’s offensive coordinator. “When John worked with me, he set a standard that’s very, very high. Whether he’s an offensive coordinator, a head coach, a president or a GM, John’s a very bright individual. Very cerebral. He doesn’t talk much, but when he talks, you should listen.”

This summer, it was announced that Hufnagel would be going into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, along with three other former Stampeders — Henry Burris, Fred Childress and Greg Vavra. There’s no induction ceremony this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this week we’ve been celebrating the four in our pages in conjunction with what would have been Grey Cup Week.

It was a no-brainer that Hufnagel would make it into the hall someday. There are few people who have his record of success in the CFL.

As a quarterback, he threw for 21,594 yards and 127 touchdowns during his CFL career. As a coach and administrator, he’s got a record that’s almost unrivalled.

As the Stamps’ offensive coordinator in the 1990s, he implemented an offence that changed the Canadian game and carried the team to two Grey Cups.

“If you look at what we did in the 90s when John was in Calgary those seven years and you look at how the offences revolutionized how they played, how they aligned, how they blocked … John went to the one-back, no-back offence with Doug (Flutie) in the shotgun or with Jeff Garcia in the shotgun,” Buono said. “That revolutionized football both in Canada and the way defences had to align, and it eventually trickled down to the U.S., both in college and the NFL.

“That’s how we won. That’s how we built our offence and John built the offence. Whether he was the very first guy or not, John was the guy who developed it.”

For all Hufnagel’s significant contributions to those magical 90s Stamps teams, it’s telling that he’s probably more celebrated for the job he’s done with the organization since returning to Calgary in 2008 after a stint coaching in the NFL.

The Stamps had been a mess for the better part of half a decade, but with Hufnagel as head coach and GM the team turned the corner immediately and won the Grey Cup in his first season.

Hufnagel kept his quiet composure as head coach, but players quickly learned that it was always worth listening. Henry Burris, the Stamps’ starting quarterback in 2008, says Hufnagel’s speech before the Grey Cup that year was the best he’s ever heard.

“I haven’t heard a pre-game speech better than that worldwide,” Burris said. “The ‘we-have-them-right-where-we-want-them’ speech was definitely a trendsetter for that given evening.

“Look at the legacy he’s created for himself being a builder but also a former quarterback who’s been able to take the things that he’s learned under Wally Buono and turn it into such a successful career.

“Look how that team has been able to win year-in and year-out. He has the right tools about him as far as what it takes to create a winning culture. He definitely did that from Year 1 with all of us together.”

Hufnagel’s Hall of Fame case has only been bolstered in the years since. They’d make the Grey Cup in 2012. They’d win it in 2014 with Bo Levi Mitchell at QB, and would then go on to make three straight championship appearances between 2016 and 2018 when they won another Grey Cup.

Hufnagel changed and adapted with the times, but some things remained the same.

Mitchell remembers a practice in his first season as a starter in ’14. He was coming off a huge game against the Toronto Argonauts but threw a dumb interception early in practice.

“I was thinking (Hufnagel) wouldn’t even respond that much to it because this was right at the beginning of practice, as well, and he just lets me have it in front of everybody. Stops practice and lets me have it,” Mitchell said. “Dave (Dickenson), being the quarterbacks coach and O.C. at the time, he walks over and he could see I was a little bit in surprise that he would even react that way, at that point in the season, after a great win and Dave said, ‘Man, Bo, you’ve gotta understand, he does that to find out how you respond to it, and he wants to make sure he lets you know you made a mistake and he wants to make sure you never make that same mistake again.’

“I remember it came up about four or five weeks later — I was about to try to fit that same ball into a window in between two linebackers just because I thought I could do it. And instead of doing that, I check it down to Cornish and he breaks two tackles and goes for, like, 25 yards and got more yards than the initial throw would have gotten. And I just remember smiling on the field, thinking, ‘This is exactly why he does it.’ “

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