The last full week of the Canadian Football League season is often awash in Grey Cup celebration with possibly too much alcohol. Sometimes big news breaks, as teams who aren’t competing will make announcements that will set the tone for the upcoming season.
The Montreal Alouettes are no stranger to this, having used the backdrop of the 2001 Grey Cup to announce the hiring of the legendary Don Matthews as their new field boss. The move paid immediate dividends as Matthews was able to bring the Grey Cup back to La Belle Province in 2002, the first time in 25 years.
I’m not expecting this year’s Alouettes to make any such announcements, but it could have been a prime opportunity to declare who will be replacing Jim Popp as Alouettes general manager. This is uncharted territory for Montreal, as they have never had to search for a new GM in their 21 seasons since returning to the CFL.
It’s a move that will have to be made soon, for once the Grey Cup is handed out this coming Sunday the real work for 2017 will get underway for all nine teams. Montreal finds itself in a precarious situation, as they have a vacancy at the general manager/player personnel position and that in turn leads to who will be named the head coach of this organization as well.
Despite salvaging the last third of the season, there’s no guarantee that interim head coach Jacques Chapdelaine will be retained as a coach. While the Wetenhall family was quite effusive in their praise for the work Chapdelaine did here in Montreal, nothing is set in stone. Whomever is hired as the next general manager should be given carte blanche when it comes to fielding the best possible coaching staff. Whether or not they will be given such responsibility remains to be seen.
So who will it be? Who’s in line for this challenging yet potentially rewarding position? Let’s take a look at some of the names being bandied about and have a look at just how likely they are to be named the next Montreal Alouettes GM
The current front-runner and no doubt the preferred choice for the Montreal media is current Universite de Montreal head coach Danny Maciocia. Hiring him would give the local interest a shot in the arm, as the Montreal native has done a tremendous job in his tenure at the CIS (now USports) level.
His Carabins has been very competitive and are always a threat for the Vanier Cup, having appeared in the past two championship games and bringing home the trophy in 2014. Maciocia can also take credit for Noel Thorpe getting his break with the Alouettes, as the defensive wizard did a marvelous job in revamping the U de M’s defense and was able to parlay that into his current DC gig with the Alouettes.
Maciocia is no stranger to the CFL, having led Edmonton to a Grey Cup as a coach and serving as their general manager for four seasons. However, success didn’t stay with Danny as he fielded some truly deplorable teams and under his watch, the 35 year-long streak of Eskimos consecutive playoff appearances was snapped.
There is truly an appeal to hiring Maciocia, as he is bilingual and the Francophone media would only be too happy to speak with someone in football ops en francais. But what makes me leery is just how well-versed is he when it comes to drafting Canadian talent. Surely he’d try to get as many Carabins in an Alouette uniform as possible, but would that be enough? Has he seen enough of the other teams to truly evaluate the talent that is out there?
It’s one thing to temporarily give the head coaching job to someone because they can speak French. General manager is a different animal altogether and my concerns lie not only with his previous stint as a GM elsewhere, but just how dialed in is he with people south of the border as well.
The last point and this is key, is that Maciocia essentially has a job for life at the Universite de Montreal. Since assuming the coaching role there, he’s done a great job in establishing that school as a Canadian football powerhouse. He along with Universite Laval head coach Glenn Constantin have made football in Quebec at the university level into a juggernaut. A lot of people feel confident that Maciocia can do that in the CFL too.
But it’s one thing to coach a bunch of kids versus another to convince a group of grown men to buy into your vision. It’s a daunting challenge and when it’s all said and done, does Maciocia really want to trade in a sure thing in exchange for a scenario that offers zero guarantees?
Or does Maciocia see the potential to remake the Alouettes into his own team, possibly promote his friend Thorpe as head coach and prove that he is no longer the bumbling loser who salted the earth in Northern Alberta? Ego could play a part in that and if people thought Popp had a huge ego, what would they think of this move?
Unless the Alouettes are prepared to stroke a huge paycheque for Danny Mac, I just don’t see this hire happening.
Another name that is drawing interest is that of Ottawa RedBlacks assistant general manager Brock Sunderland. His savvy and scouting in working alongside of current RedBlacks GM Marcel Desjardins are a huge part in why Ottawa is playing in its second straight Grey Cup game.
Sunderland is also no stranger to Montreal, having worked in their scouting department from 2004-2007. He also worked as a scout for the New York Jets before returning to the CFL and setting up shop in the nation’s capital. So Brock not only has CFL experience and knowledge of Canadian talent, but also has those crucial ties to the American football landscape.
If Sunderland can bring that background with him in a return to Montreal, it would help ensure that Montreal’s Canadian depth remains a top priority. He may want to show the CFL community that Ottawa’s success was not solely the doing of Marcel Desjardins.
He would be inheriting a slew of players that are due to be free agents and the likelihood of them all signing back is dubious at best. That can be a tough test for any Canadian Football League GM, much less one who has never been given the keys to the car.
This could be a great move for Montreal, but I can also see Ottawa wanting to keep this young dynamo in their organization for as long as possible. If the RedBlacks win the Grey Cup this Sunday, that would only bolster his already-rising stock.
For reasons I cannot begin to understand, the name of Marc Trestman is also being taken seriously by many as a potential GM candidate. Not to be disrespectful to one of the reasons why the Alouettes were back-to-back Grey Cup champions, but hiring Trestman (who has never been a GM at any level of football) would be a very risky move.
Bringing him back to Montreal would yield extremely high expectations after all of his unbridled success as this team’s field boss. As Jim Popp proved, being great at one position doesn’t automatically make you great at another. While some can handle the dual role (such as Wally Buono and John Hufnagel), it can be a lot of one’s plate when starting out (Chris Jones).
While Trestman did many wonderful things in Montreal, the one thing he failed to do was develop a quarterback to succeed Anthony Calvillo. The man who was renown as a quarterback whisperer was always reluctant to hand over the QB duties to another, even when games were out of their opponents’ reach.
The failure to do that makes a lot of people question Trestman’s abilities to develop other players. His stays in the NFL didn’t prove to be as successful as he would have liked and it’s worth noting that most who go to the NFL then return to the CFL tend not to be nearly as successful as their first go-around.
And not only would he have to develop players, but also find players that need to be developed. Can Trestman do that successfully? Or is his talent truly that of taking great players and making them legends, like he did when he squeezed an extra five years out of Calvillo?
I do think highly of Trestman as a man and as a coach, but letting him oversee the day-to-day operations of this football club? I’d be leery. Not to mention Trestman is still being paid by his two NFL teams NOT to coach, so he’s likely going to enjoy his time off and refocus his energy for his next football move.
This move gets a hard pass from me.
A name that hasn’t been mentioned too loudly is that of current Alouettes Assistant General Manager Joey Abrams. Which strikes me as interesting, because of where he stands with the organization, one would think this would be a highly touted, under the radar move.
Abrams has been with the Alouettes for over a decade, working his way up the scouting food chain until finally settling into his current role. Not only has Joey been a part of contract negotiations in his current role, he’s worked exclusively with Jim Popp in evaluating talent on both sides of the border.
He’s participated at CFL combines on both the regional and national levels as well as mini-camps in the USA. He’s been very active in evaluating who’s been overlooked by other leagues/teams, helping Montreal maintain its depth. With all that under his belt, he certainly has the chops when it comes to determining who to draft.
Whereas Popp was always front and centre with the Alouettes’ transactions, Abrams has worked diligently behind the scenes and no doubt learned a lot as Popp’s right-hand man. He also knows how this organization operates and if hired, one would think that it would be a smooth transition and a face that many already know/trust.
Joey also has established roots in Montreal and is visible at all levels of football in Quebec. He may not be the name on everyone’s lips when it comes to a replacement for Jim Popp, but I think he’d be one that yield all the benefits of the previous regime without any of the negative that seems to permeate in this city.
I don’t think the Wetenhall family would miss the mark with this particular hire.
There are lots of other names out there, but I don’t see any of them being a particularly good fit. Names such as Jim Barker, who many are speculating will be let go after a dismal 2016 for the Argos. Some have suggested that John Hufnagel is itching to get back on the sidelines and would relish the role of both Head Coach & GM in Montreal. Also mentioned in passing were Eric Tillman and Craig Dickenson.
A big factor in who the Wetenhall family hires will be whether the next GM will be on board with keeping certain members of the coaching staff, such as Jacques Chapdelaine and Anthony Calvillo. Anyone else brought may not see this general manager position as such a great one if they are saddled with coaches that have either won favour with administration (Chapdelaine) or are entities unto themselves (Calvillo).
Honestly, do you want to be known the GM who fires the greatest quarterback this team has ever known? Or are you confident enough that you will hire a coach that will be on board with trying to bring out the best in AC as part of his staff?
Even once you’ve solved that particular riddle, you still have the prospect of evaluating this team’s free agents and deciding who to keep and who to let walk. Not to mention that the talk of the Alouettes being in salary cap hell still refuses to disappear. Hiring an inexperienced GM is not a move this team wants to make going forward.
There is immediate pressure to deliver a strong performance, as the Alouettes have missed the playoffs two years in a row. First to worst and back to first has happened many times in the Canadian Football League and it can easily happen for Montreal, but the right pieces need to be in place.
If Andrew Wetenhall wants to step out of his father’s shadow and establish himself as the guiding voice of this franchise going forward, he will have to choose his next GM wisely. You can say what you will about how the Jim Popp era ended, but the results of what Popp brought to this team speaks for itself. This football team was once the model of how all CFL teams should operate.
It got away from that vision and while I loathe to use him as an example, this ownership group must channel their inner Donald Trump and vow to do what it takes to “Make The Alouettes Great Again”. It starts with hiring the right football mind, regardless of what langauge he speaks and who he’s worked for in the past.
So while the Alouettes are not in a position right now to make any Grey Cup news, they are hopefully using this down time to properly evaluate where they stand. Perhaps before December rolls around, a press conference will be called to announce a new leader for this once-proud football team.
Sometimes change is good. The Alouettes took a big chance in letting Jim Popp leave after 21 seasons at the helm. With any luck, their next hire as general manager will have a reign just as long and fruitful.