Former Roughriders' coach Kent Austin is headed back to the CFL with Hamilton.Since the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' unexpected decision last week to fire George Cortez and move Bob O'Billovich to a consultant's role, there's been plenty of speculation that they were targeting Cornell head coach Kent Austin to serve as their new head coach and general manager. That speculation bore fruit Monday morning, with Drew Edwards of The Hamilton Spectator reporting Austin was the new hire and TSN's Dave Naylor adding further confirmation. The Austin hire is expected to be officially announced at a press conference at 3 p.m. Eastern Monday afternoon. (Update: It's official.) It's an unconventional move by Hamilton, and it seems to be a substantial gamble.
Many around the league have a good deal of respect for Austin, but he's only spent one year as a CFL head coach (2007 with Saskatchewan, although his team won the Grey Cup that year) and he's never worked in a personnel department at any level, much less been a general manager. Moreover, if you carefully analyze his coaching record, there isn't a lot that really stands out in a positive sense, especially lately. He spent one year as a quarterbacks coach with the Ottawa Renegades in 2003, then went to Toronto as offensive coordinator for three years (winning a Grey Cup in 2004) before taking the Saskatchewan job and leading the Riders to the 2007 Grey Cup in his first year. Sure, that isn't a bad record, but it's a very small sample size. After 2007, he left to take the offensive coordinator's job at Ole Miss, his old school. He worked there under Houston Nutt for two years, and the Rebels went 8-4 in both of his seasons(not counting bowl games). That's decent, but hardly spectacular.
Following that, Austin became the head coach at Cornell, where he's led the Big Red to 2-8, 5-5 and 4-6 records. Yes, Cornell isn't the easiest school to build a powerhouse at given the focus on academics, but that could be said about the whole Ivy League, and Austin's 6-15 mark in conference games is well worse than his 11-19 overall record. His Cornell tenure isn't exactly sparkling, and he may have felt the school was starting to consider making a change; that might explain why Austin would leave a high-paying NCAA job with substantially larger advancement possibilities (to bigger and even more well-paying NCAA jobs) for the CFL five years after he abandoned Canada for the NCAA. It's also extremely rare to see an NCAA head coach (even at a non-football powerhouse like Cornell) abandon southern possibilities to come to Canada; while the Tiger-Cats will undoubtedly see that as a victory for them, it raises the question of if Austin felt his NCAA career was stalling. Put it this way; fans at any significant NCAA program certainly wouldn't be happy to get a guy who went 11-19 at Cornell (and 6-15 in the Ivy League!).
Another key question is how Austin will handle the general manager's role. Carrying the titles of both head coach and general manager isn't easy even for experienced CFL hands, and Austin has never worked in a CFL personnel department. Keep in mind that while he gets plenty of credit (and deservingly so) for coaching Saskatchewan to that 2007 Grey Cup, that was a very impressive roster put together by Eric Tillman and the rest of the Riders' personnel department, and in that Grey Cup, Austin barely managed to beat a Winnipeg team that was forced to give quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie his first CFL start in the big game. Dinwiddie threw three interceptions and fumbled, but Saskatchewan still only won 23-19. That doesn't mean Austin will fail in Hamilton, but it adds to the sense of this as a high-stakes gamble; he certainly doesn't have a long, glorious and unquestionable record.
Pushing out Cortez and O'Billovich in favour of Austin is an audacious move that could either work well or fail spectacularly. The Tiger-Cats won't have many backup options if this plan goes south, either; they're already on their third head coach in three seasons, they just finished paying off Marcel Bellefeuille, they're likely going to be paying Cortez for the next three years and they're headed to a less-lucrative facility in Guelph during construction at Ivor Wynne Stadium. (Keep in mind that the Hamilton market, along with Toronto, was seen as a league-wide challenge in 2011 and that the Tiger-Cats and Argonauts received a combined $1 million in league funding this past year; while that funding was used for grassroots initiatives rather than coaches' salaries, it's interesting that a team with such obvious financial challenges can afford to keep firing and hiring pricey coaches.) Austin is likely the man in Hamilton for years to come, even if this doesn't work out all that well. The Tiger-Cats have crossed the Rubicon, and the die is cast. Now we're just waiting to see if it will land on a number that will make their gamble work out.