When the Montreal Alouettes announced Monday that they'd hired Tom Higgins as their new head coach, the key question was what that meant for general manager Jim Popp. Popp served as the team's head coach as well as GM for most of last season after firing Dan Hawkins five games into the campaign and reportedly wanted to stay on in both roles, but owner Robert Wetenhall elected to bring in Higgins instead, raising questions about how Popp would adapt to a situation where he didn't get to hire the coach and how Higgins (who had spent time as a general manager as well as a coach) would adapt to working under Popp. From a team conference call Tuesday that both Higgins and Popp took part in, though, it sounds like they're planning to work together for at least this year. Via Herb Zurkowsky of The Montreal Gazette, here's the key part of what they said:
Tom Higgins, the Alouettes’ new head coach, said one of the reasons he took the job was to work with Jim Popp.
“You’re one of the best general managers in North America,” Higgins said Tuesday morning from his home in Calgary, part of a conference call the Canadian Football League team convened after announcing his hiring the day before.
“I understand there are some emotions involved in all of this,” continued Higgins, 59. “The ultimate boss is (Als’ owner) Robert Wetenhall. I know the chain of command. Jim’s my boss.”
Higgins might answer to Popp, but Wetenhall and his son, Andrew, one of the team’s governors, made it clear Popp wasn’t involved in the decision-making process to hire Higgins. This despite the fact Popp wanted to remain as the Als’ head coach after replacing the fired Dan Hawkins five games into last season.
“Jim had a conflict of interest,” Andrew Wetenhall explained. “He provided a series of identified candidates that were available, but he wasn’t at the decision-making table. He wasn’t a candidate at the decision-making table.”
Popp doesn't sound too ticked off about it right now, though, at least publicly. Via Zurkowsky, here's what he said:
Although Popp’s heading into the final season of his contract as GM, he also did his best to assuage concerns of any potential schism. Nonetheless, he’ll remain a lame-duck GM until such time as a contract extension’s announced.
“I’ve been with the Alouettes 18 years. I plan on being there. I have no interest in leaving,” Popp said. “Circumstances come up, but they know how loyal I am."
So, everyone's playing nice, at least for the moment, and that could well help to defuse the unusual conflict created by a general manager not being involved in hiring a head coach, a situation TSN's Dave Naylor called "the most bizarre since the Gliebermen left the league". You never want your organization to be compared to the trail of disaster Bernie and Lonie left in Ottawa and Shreveport, but although the Alouettes' process here is certainly questionable, the eventual outcome could be quite a good one. Higgins was by far the most experienced candidate on the market, plus one who's found a ton of success at the CFL level, and there's a case that Montreal might have made the strongest head-coaching hire of the offseason despite waiting longer than anyone else. (Mike O'Shea in Winnipeg, Chris Jones in Edmonton and Rick Campbell in Ottawa all have substantial upside, but none of them have ever been a head coach at the CFL level, so they would seem to carry more risk than a veteran like Higgins.) If Higgins and Popp can work together, and if the organization can find a way to keep Popp in the fold going forward, this could be a great move.
It's that last part that could prove the most difficult, though. As mentioned above, Popp's contract expires after this season, and you'd have to think that any CFL team looking for a general manager at that point would take a serious run at him if he hit the market. There might be south-of-the-border interest, too. Popp received substantial NFL attention in the 2012 and 2013 offseasons, and that was before Marc Trestman, the former Alouettes' head coach under Popp, had a strong first season as the Chicago Bears' head coach. If Popp's available next offseason, the NFL may well come calling again. Extending his contract before then would be a smart play by the Alouettes, but that may be more challenging now thanks to them leaving him out of the Higgins decision. It's unclear why the team couldn't go to more effort to include Popp in this process and keep him happy. The end result may pan out for Montreal, especially if Popp and Higgins work well together and if they can extend Popp's deal, but the chances that Popp may head elsewhere after this season appear to have risen. This will be a storyline to watch throughout 2014.