REGINA—A lot of the focus this week has been on Hamilton head coach and general Kent Austin, who won Grey Cups with Saskatchewan as a quarterback in 1989 and as a head coach in 2007. Those championships represent two of the three the Riders have won in their history, so it's fair to say that Austin's a prominent figure in town; in fact, a giant poster of him adorns one side of Mosaic Stadium. Now he's back as the enemy, though, preparing to lead the Tiger-Cats against the Roughriders in Sunday's Grey Cup. Austin said Wednesday he's still proud of his time in Regina, though, and honoured by everything the Riders' organization and fans have done for him.
"It's a great big honour," he said. "I'm very, very honoured to be recognized, obviously. I've said before, Regina's a place I loved being with my family, and we're very proud to have a history here."
That history ended shortly after the Riders won the Grey Cup in November 2007, with Austin leaving that January to take the offensive coordinator's job at his alma mater, Ole Miss. At that point, few figured he'd ever come back to Canada, given the higher profile (and often higher pay) jobs available south of the border. Austin did stay down there for a while, serving as the Ole Miss OC in 2008 and 2009, then moving on to the head coaching job at Cornell from 2010 to 2012. After that, he did elect to come back to the CFL, though, taking the job as Hamilton head coach and general manager this offseason. He said he didn't anticipate coming back when he left, but things worked out that way.
"Well, in this profession, first off, never say never," Austin said. "Most of your plans find a curve in the road at some point, right? What brought me back? There were several things, some of them professional: being able to work for a man I've known for many years in Scott [Mitchell], I trust his leadership. He's very talented and he's done a great job on the business side of the organization. And a great owner in Bob Young. I saw an opportunity with the leadership where they were dedicated to success and they weren't going to deviate from their desire to reach that goal, to build a championship-quality football program."
Austin said Hamilton also worked for him from a personal standpoint.
"On a personal level, it was an opportunity to stay near my daughter Kendall, who's at Cornell, just a four-hour drive away, finishing college. It was a chance to move back to a community that meant a lot to us when I was coaching in Toronto, where we have a lot of dear friendships. Two of my wife's best friends are in that area, one of my closest friends of my life is in that area. My children, my son actually went back to the same school he was at before we left to go to Regina. His friends got older and bigger, but they're all still in the same school. So it was a much easier transition for us for all this reasons."
He said the CFL was an enticing league to work in again, too.
"I felt it was a great opportunity to get back to a great league that's doing really well with lots of great coaches and a league that's uniquely Canadian and unique to football in the world. With only eight teams, it's pretty special to be a part of one of them."
Austin's post-Saskatchewan path involved a lot of jumping around, from Regina to Mississippi to New York to Hamilton. However, he said he doesn't have any regrets over his career moves, and although he might make a few different day-to-day decisions if he was doing it all again, even mistakes have provided him with useful learning information.
"Regret's probably not the right word," he said. "Would I have done some things differently, made maybe different decisions, not necessarily career moves but just decisions, daily decisions and things? I've messed up, I admit it, at times, yeah, but I've you learn from those, right, and hopefully become a better decision-maker. I don't have any regrets that way. I've learned from every place I've been and every coach I've coached with, every one, even a coach I didn't like that much on one staff. That's just an issue of whether you're going to open yourself up and put your pride on the sideline, because everyone has something to teach you, a different way of looking at things, a different perspective. I've drawn from every single person, at least I've tried to, that I've coached with. So those years have helped shape me as a coach and hopefully made me a better football coach."
Austin said his NCAA experience helped him grow a lot as a coach, especically learning from coaches he worked with at Ole Miss, then-head coach Houston Nutt and then-offensive line coach/running-game coordinator Mike Markuson.
"[It was] watching a man like Houston [Nutt] and his experience and the success he had, being part of his staff and seeing how he'd handle some of those things, what were some of the qualities that he embodied that helped him to be successful," Austin said. "Some of it doesn't transfer; it depends on the level that you're at and the team that you coach. But there are certainly some general things, like I said earlier about learning from coaches: Mike Markuson at Ole Miss was a big influence on me, there are just a lot of guys that I've been around that I've learned from."
Now Austin's trying to put that education to good use against his former team. He isn't the only ex-Rider trying to take them down, either; Hamilton quarterback Henry Burris, slotback Andy Fantuz and kicker Luca Congi all spent plenty of time in Saskatchewan. Austin said he and his players aren't going to get distracted by any reception for ex-Riders, positive or negative, though.
"We're not thinking about that, hopefully," Austin said. "It's not relevant to the game. We have a job to do. Andy has a job to do, Hank has a job to do, no different than the other side, right? We're focused on the things that will tangibly impact our ability to win the football game, not on any distractions that are ancillary to the process."
While there's a lot of attention paid to Austin and the Tiger-Cats returning to Regina, he said it's crucial for him to remember how rare of an opportunity it is to be in any Grey Cup.
"It's hard to get here," Austin said. "Every one of the Grey Cups are special."
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