Hamilton’s desperate third-down gamble

What were the Ticats thinking? Hiring someone who looked the other way as his stars engaged in sordid behaviour would never get a generous hearing

When people you know do curious things, it’s always hard to reconcile the act with the person. I was thinking of that recently as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats publicly lost touch with their senses, hiring a toxic former Baylor University coach to repair their imploding Canadian Football League team.

Art Briles had been ensnarled in a sordid tale of coverups and sexual assaults relating to the Baylor team that he coached to prominence in the United States the past decade. He was fired after a stinging report about the case that alleged “significant concerns about the tone and culture within Baylor’s football program as it relates to accountability for all forms of athlete misconduct.”

This is never a good thing to have attached to your name. Even less so in today’s era of hyper-sensitivity about sexual assault. You’d have thought the Tiger-Cats should have been aware of that. That somewhere, someone’s antenna might have jangled at this brain wave.

Evidently not. Being 0-8 will do that. Mired in a disastrous winless season, the Ticats decided to have their head coach Kent Austin step away from the post. The solution, according to team president Scott Mitchell and Austin (also the general manager), was to hire Briles as assistant head coach. As a football decision, it might have made sense. Briles has been extremely good at coaching up formerly mediocre teams. Baylor was a top 10 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) club under him after decades of mediocrity.

But there was the other thing. While forgiveness may eventually arrive for Briles, who’s written about how his faith informed his success, this moment was gauged as too soon for a second chance. The concept of hiring someone who looked the other way as his vaunted stars engaged in sordid behaviour was not going to receive a generous hearing.

However, it almost slipped past Canadians, who don’t know Art Briles from Art Hindle. As we learned later, the Tiger-Cats thought they might get away with the “He’s paid the price” gambit until the news about Briles hit social media – not in Canada but in the United States. Hell hath no fury like an American blogger scorned.

The story blew up on the Ticats. New CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie was brought in to get fresh eyes on the decision. Faster than you could say Jerry Sandusky, Hamilton was advised that Briles was a no-go for the league.

Belatedly, Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young appeared, issuing a mea culpa about the stupidity of the whole Briles affair. Young, who lives in North Carolina – not Hamilton – began the process of his team digging itself a deep hole.

“We made a large and serious mistake. We want to apologize to our fans, corporate partners and the Canadian Football League. It has been a difficult season and we are searching for answers. This is clearly not one of them. We have listened, we are reviewing our decision-making processes and we will learn. We will go on.”

As the Briles decision spun out of control, it also emerged that the Tiger-Cats’ desperation led them to audition controversial Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who disgraced himself out of the National Football League with domestic abuse allegations, substance abuse issues and a general lack of guilt about all of the above.

The CFL also felt obliged to step in and tell Hamilton that it was going to be a very tough sell giving Manziel a last-chance cameo with the Ticats. He’d need to pass counselling and legal hurdles. Nothing came of it.

That begs the question: what were they thinking? Knowing Mitchell for almost a quarter of a century, it seemed baffling that he couldn’t see what was so obvious to all. A level-headed guy, he has never seemed so divorced from reality that he’d try to force a decision he knew was wrong upon his team or his fan base. Especially in blue-collar Hamilton, he seemed to know that you can’t sell BS.

The Briles decision simply happened in the wake of all their other well-considered, planned ideas winding up with their team winless going into the Labour Day grudge match with Toronto. With everything they’d planned in ruins, the idea that you could accelerate Briles’s rehabilitation might make sense to desperate football executives.

It’s not an evil instinct. It was a panic born of dashed hopes. Not that it’s an excuse, but you can understand the instinct for the football folks to go outside the proverbial box. What’s unconscionable is the failure of every communications, human resources and media person hired within the team and the league to stop this before it got into the bigger world.

They were not 0-8. Their eyes were clear. Somehow they still failed to see.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats Art Briles Randy Ambrosie Johnny Manziel

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