Chris Rudge showed the Toronto Argonauts' commitment to head coach Scott Milanovich while again stirring the muddied waters of GM Jim Barker's long-term future.
The Argos re-signed Milanovich to a contract extension Thursday less than a year after hiring him. But besides the timing of the move — Toronto hosts the Edmonton Eskimos in the East semifinal Sunday —what made it peculiar was Rudge, the Argonauts CEO, lavishly praising Barker but not emphatically quelling the rumours about his future with a firm extension for the GM.
For weeks, speculation has swirled that former Edmonton GM Eric Tillman was heading to Toronto this off-season to replace Barker, who has a year remaining on his contract. That talk cranked into overdrive last weekend when Tillman was fired by the Eskimos.
Tillman not headed to T.O.
Rudge tried silencing the Tillman talk by endorsing Barker while stating emphatically the Argos have never spoken to the veteran CFL executive about coming to Toronto.
"I can tell you unequivocally there have been absolutely no discussions with Mr. Tillman at any point in time about any position with the Toronto Argonauts football team since I've been here," Rudge said. "I've been very pleased with the work Mr. Barker has been doing, we work well together and are planning the future well together and his position here is very secure.
"He'll be here certainly through '13 and into the foreseeable future. The general manager's position has not been in play and never has been in play and it's not really an issue we should suddenly be forced to deal with because it's on somebody else's agenda."
Barker said securing Milanovich's future in Toronto was crucial to maintain continuity within the organization, but he made it clear he'd like to remain also.
"Of course. I have my best friends here," he said. "In our football operations, I can tell you, there are no agendas, everybody's pulling the rope in the same direction and that's a fun situation.
"It doesn't happen very often and that's what makes this so appealing to be here. You work hard to get it exactly where you want it and there would really be no reason for me to want to leave."
Milanovich arrived here in December after five seasons as an assistant coach with the Montreal Alouettes and promptly led the club to a 9-9 record and second spot in the East Division.
The Argos never reveal contract terms. It was generally believed Milanovich signed a three-year deal to succeed Barker as head coach, but the extension is solid proof his original deal only covered two seasons.
Argos show loyalty to coach, not GM yet
The extension not only provides Milanovich with security but also removes the element of being a lame-duck coach in Toronto moving forward. The optics certainly aren't the same for Barker, who in December engineered the blockbuster trade that brought veteran quarterback Ricky Ray to Toronto from Edmonton.
In the CFL, GMs routinely sign players heading into their option years to new deals not only as a sign of goodwill but to show loyalty and commitment. That's something the Argos failed to do thus far with Barker.
And then there was leaving Barker to twist in the wind Thursday while putting Milanovich in the uncomfortable position of having to discuss the future of his boss and the person who gave him his first CFL head-coaching position.
Barker joined the Argos as head coach in 2010 and was named the league's coach of the year after leading the squad to a 9-9 record. He added the GM duties shortly afterwards when Adam Rita's contract wasn't renewed.
After posting a 6-12 record last year, Barker resigned as coach to concentrate on his GM's duties. One of Barker's first moves was hand-picking Milanovich as his successor.
Barker and Milanovich have long been considered a package deal and it wouldn't make sense for Toronto to commit further to Milanovich, then have to continue paying him longterm if a GM replacing Barker wanted to hire his own head coach.
Milanovich firmly believes Barker isn't going anywhere.
"My contract doesn't read that way (of two being package deal) but I think Jim and my relationship is pretty close," Milanovich said. "Obviously what he has done for me and the faith I have in him, he's mentored my career starting back from the XFL.
"Those aren't decisions for me to make but I have no concern that Jim's not going to be here, I can tell you that."
Door open for new GM deal
Rudge did keep the door open about a new deal for Barker, just not now.
"Those are the things Jim and I will talk about at the appropriate time," Rudge said. "When Jim and I started talking about this process right now we said, 'What's our top priority?
"No. 1 is the coaches and players so let's look after that because there's no sense of urgency around the relationship with Jim whatsoever."
Ray and Argos safety Jordan Younger, both team captains, strongly endorsed the re-signing of Milanovich.
"To have continuity here is big and I feel he does a super job preparing us week in and week out," said Ray. "He just keeps us focused and moving forward so as a player you can go out and play confidently."
Added Younger: "When we talk about being family and everything coach Milanovich is the epitome of that. You know right now what the expectation level will be, that you're playing for a coach that has a great understanding of how to manage men and let them be themselves while having them focused on the task at hand. This is a real good day for the Toronto Argonauts organization."