Alouettes coach Dan Hawkins has big shoes to fill
New coaches in Montreal traditionally do well
Dan Hawkins likes the idea of starting his Canadian Football League coaching career with a winner.
But the veteran U.S. university coach has a tough act to follow on the Montreal Alouettes in Marc Trestman, who left after five seasons and two Grey Cup titles to become head coach of the Chicago Bears in the NFL.
"We may come wrapped in a different cloth, but deep down inside we're very similar when it comes to our feeling of what football is about and what the culture of a successful organization is," Hawkins said Friday on a conference call.
"It doesn't matter if I'm the new guy or I've been here five years, I always think the same way, that we can continue to improve and chase greatness."
Since the Alouettes returned to Montreal after a 10-year hiatus in 1996, first-year coaches have mostly done well.
Dave Ritchie in 1997 went 13-5, Charlie Taaffe in 1999 was 12-6, Don Matthews in 2002 went 13-5 and won a Grey Cup, while Trestman was 11-7 as a CFL rookie.
Of course, this was on a team that has had winning records every year in that period except 2007 (8-10), when general manager Jim Popp took over in a transition year, and 2001 (9-9) under Rod Rust and Popp.
"The reason that happens is that you win as an organization," said Hawkins. "It takes everyone.
"Everyone wants to point at the head coach and understandably so, but there are so many other factors. Jim sets the tone and brings the players in. To me, if you look at the first-year success, that's a real trademark and credit to the organization because that's the culture, the situation, that a new person walks into."
Special teams need improvement
Hawkins said he was impressed with the level of talent he saw both at a recent mini-camp in Orlando, Fla., and on the tapes he's watched of an Alouette team that went 11-7 in the regular season in 2012, but then lost at home to Toronto in the East Division final.
He starts out with the league's all-time passing leader at quarterback in Anthony Calvillo, although the 40-year-old is coming off surgery to fix a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder.
There's a tall and talented group of receivers led by S.J. Green and Jamel Richardson and bolstered by the acquisition of veteran Arland Bruce. And they have perhaps the league's best offensive line.
The defence has some question marks, particularly on the line, but it is special teams that will likely need the most improvement after an often grim 2012 campaign.
But Hawkins was most impressed with his player's work habits and attention to detail at the mini-camp, especially among the veterans.
"There's a tremendous level of talent, experience and leadership," he said. "They've won at the highest level.
"You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don't have the right culture, you're going to struggle."
Like Trestman before him, Hawkins came to Canada with no experience of the 12-man game. Trestman's adaptation took less than a season. It remains to be seen how Hawkins adapts to a new game and a new country.
Many new faces in camp
"We keep using a saying here: blessed are the flexible because they'll never be bent out of shape," he said. "Everything is new.
"That's part of the beauty of it — it's football here, but it's a whole different brand of football."
An new staff of assistants join Hawkins for his first season, including assistant head coach and offensive co-ordinator Mike Miller, who has been doing most of the off-season work with Calvillo on shaping the attack for 2013.
Meanwhile, Popp brought in an experienced backup in former Hamilton Tiger-Cat Quinton Porter.
Other veterans signed included defensive backs Byron Parker and Geoff Tisdale, and running back Jerome Messam.
Also in camp will be NFL veteran running back Dominic Rhodes, who won a Super Bowl with Indianapolis in 2007.
But Popp denied angling to bring popular and oft-debated former Denver and New York Jets pivot Tim Tebow to Montreal, which holds his CFL rights.
"I can report I've never had a conversation with him or his agent and I really don't expect to unless I hear them say they have interest in coming to our team," said Popp. "So there's nothing new on that front."
Battle to backup Calvillo
Calvillo can't last forever, although he's giving it a good try, and the Alouettes know they will need to find his successor one day.
The battle in camp will be between Porter, returning third-stringer Josh Nieswander and a Canadian, former McMaster star pivot Kyle Quinlan.
"We try to have a plan every year,"said Popp. "When the day comes that the star quarterback's not the guy any more, whether he retires or injuries force him out, you really don't know what you have until the other guy starts playing.
"When they get their chance, that's when you find out whether they can do it."
He likes all three candidates.
"Porter's had some very big games against the Montreal Alouettes," he said. "Nieswander is a smart, intelligent guy.
"Quinlan is very intriguing. He throws a (deep pass) like Ricky Ray does. And it's abnormal. And he can really do it well. He drops the ball right in. That's exciting. It will be fun to see them compete in camp and see where it goes. Quinlan will get a lot more reps. He's coming to camp to compete for a job."
The club will start camp with two players still recovering from off-season surgery. Rookie fullback Patrick Lavoie had a ruptured disc fixed while defensive back Seth Williams had ankle surgery.