While the NFL's interest in Montreal general manager Jim Popp has been making the vast majority of the CFL headlines this week, there's another intriguing drama playing out around a general manager. That would be in Ottawa, where the new expansion franchise is reportedly closing in on its candidate. That team isn't expected to start CFL play until 2014, but they need to find a general manager soon, as they'll be able to take four NCAA underclassmen in this year's non-import draft (the date hasn't been released yet, but last year's was May 3, and this year's will likely be around the same time), plus they'll have to prepare for the December 12 expansion draft. The general manager search has been ongoing since October, and key ownership figure Jeff Hunt confirmed to the Ottawa Sun's Don Brennan this week that it's down to four candidates*: those candidates would appear to be Montreal assistant GM Marcel Desjardins, former Hamilton coach Marcel Bellefeuille and former Hamilton director of player personnel Joe Womack, plus a fourth candidate currently in the NFL, which Sportsnet's Perry Lefko reported could be former CFL running back Lionel Vital, the Atlanta Falcons' associate director of player personnel.
Each of these names brings their own advantages and challenges. Vital in particular is certainly intriguing, as he has CFL experience as a player plus an impressive record as an NFL scout and personnel man since 1991. It also may help that he's currently working in Atlanta; the Falcons' general manager is Thomas Dimitroff, who got his start as a CFL scout and who's had some contact with Hunt and Ottawa scout Rick Worman in the past. If Dimitroff recommends Vital, there's a good chance Hunt will be listening even more than he usually would. Even without that connection, though, Vital's long and proven record as an NFL personnel man would make him a notable candidate. However, there are two particular questions about him: first, would he be able to adapt to the realities of the CFL, which involve several different elements than the NFL (the import ratio, the Canadian draft, the American negotiation lists, the need to grab talented players that fall through the NFL cracks, the passing-focused game, et cetera)? NFL success doesn't necessarily translate to CFL success, and some prominent NFL figures have dramatically failed in Canada (looking at you, Bart Andrus!). The bet from this corner is that Vital would be able to make the transition well given all the different environments he's worked in, but it's far from a sure thing. The bigger question may be if he'd want to make that transition, though.
Looking at it from the outside, Vital would seem like the kind of guy who might get a crack at an NFL general manager's job sooner rather than later. He's one of the top personnel men in Atlanta (he's listed at the top of their scouting division), and the Falcons have found a remarkable amount of success over the last few years. His resume's also very impressive, and he has strong connections throughout the league. Coming to Canada might give him the chance to get a head job sooner rather than later, but it probably wouldn't be a good career move; of all the talented general managers in the CFL, Montreal's Popp's the only one who's received any buzz for NFL openings recently, and that's only come after almost two decades of CFL success. He also hasn't landed an NFL job yet. If Vital wants a head job and doesn't think he'll get it in the NFL, then the CFL might make sense for him. It's no stepping-stone for personnel men these days, though, and that would seemingly weigh against the chances that he'll come north.
What of the other candidates? Well, Womack and Desjardins are both long-time CFL personnel men, and both have been rumoured to be in line for a GM's job for a while. However, Montreal may push hard to keep Desjardins if Popp does leave, and it's curious that Womack just left the Tiger-Cats. Bellefeuille would certainly be available, as he doesn't seem to have a current gig (after spending last year working in the UFL), but most of his experience is on the coaching side, and he'd be a much more logical hire for that position. Despite the winnowing down of the list to four people, there's still no clear answer here as to who Ottawa's going to pick and how it's going to work out. There's no immediate urgency, but they'll have to make a decision in the next month or so in order to be ready for the draft. This situation will be well worth watching.
*An interesting aside: that Brennan article originally had former CFL player O.J. Brigance rumoured as the fourth candidate. At first glance, there's some logic there: Brigance is currently the director of player development for the Baltimore Ravens. However, reporting him as a general manager candidate is very problematic; Brigance is battling ALS, the fatal disease that claimed Tony Proudfoot's life, and ESPN just ran a big feature on him this past weekend. There's no doubt from this corner that the inclusion of Brigance was an honest mistake, but it does go to show the disconnect that's often in place between the American and Canadian football media worlds.