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- American gridiron football player, coach, and executive
The Montreal Alouettes' announcement Monday (after Herb Zurkowsky broke the news) that they'd hired Tom Higgins as their new head coach would have been unforeseeable only a few months ago, but a strange group of aligning circumstances has led to a decision that could work out very well for the team (as long as they're able to retain general manager Jim Popp, something that isn't sure at this point). Popp did an excellent job after taking over the team's coaching job as well following the firing of Dan Hawkins after just five games, leading them to the playoffs despite a slew of injuries (including the loss of star quarterback Anthony Calvillo) and it looked like he would return as coach as well as general manager for 2014; TSN's Dave Naylor reported during Grey Cup week that the Alouettes had asked Popp to do so and that he was likely to accept. While the Alouettes' decision to turn to Higgins instead represents an unusual marriage and a potentially-perilous one, especially if they can't keep Popp, if they're able to have Higgins as HC and Popp as general manager, that perhaps has even more upside than having Popp retain both roles.
Why is this so odd? Well, Higgins, a former head coach in Edmonton and Calgary, was happily employed as the CFL's director of officiating through the 2013 season, but the league parted ways with him on December 5 (and while they said it was so he could pursue a coaching job, that's not how he saw it.) Meanwhile, the Alouettes' December decision to extend assistant coaches like Noel Thorpe and Ryan Dinwiddie made it seem even more likely that it would be Popp wearing the coaching headset again, as many outside coaches likely would have wanted to bring in their own staff. While the Popp move was never sealed, it seemed like the most likely move right up until this week, especially with so many other teams filling out their staffs, leaving few other options for Montreal. The Higgins hire came in as a curveball. That doesn't mean it won't work, though.
First off, Higgins is a talented head coach, and one with a proven track record of CFL success. Yes, he hasn't worked in that role for a while, as he served as the league's director of officiating from 2008-2013, but his two stints as a CFL head coach (in Edmonton from 2001-2004 and in Calgary from 2005-2007) went quite well; he made the playoffs in every one of those seasons, made the Grey Cup in 2002 and 2003 (winning it that latter season), put up a 72-53-1 regular-season record and won the Annis Stukus Trophy as the league's coach of the year in 2003 and 2005. That separates him from the last head coach Montreal hired, Hawkins, who was notable for his complete lack of CFL experience.
CFL experience isn't always required, as previous Montreal head coach Marc Trestman also came in without it and managed to win two Grey Cups and finish first in the East four times in five years before leaving for the NFL and being replaced by Hawkins, but it can certainly be beneficial, as can head-coaching experience. Higgins also has plenty of other experience in Canadian football, including as a CIS head coach with the University of Calgary (1982-1984), a CFL assistant coach (1985-1993 with Calgary) and a CFL assistant GM (1994-1996) and GM (1997-2004) in Edmonton. He's seen just about everything the CFL can throw at you over the years, and that might give him a notable advantage over a lot of the league's first-time head coaches.
Moreover, while Popp and others (such as Calgary's John Hufnagel) have shown it's possible for the right person to juggle the dual roles of coach and general manager, teams are often better splitting those roles. B.C. and Toronto have both made that transition in recent years, with Wally Buono and Jim Barker each electing to hire others to handle the coaching side before the 2012 season, and it's worked out quite well for both teams. While the bulk of a general manager's role is in preparations before the season and the majority of a head coach's role takes place during the season, making it possible to combine the roles, having someone who's only the head coach means they can spend much of the offseason working with their assistants to develop and tweak offensive and defensive schemes, while having someone who's only the general manager means they have a lot more time in-season to scour NFL and CFL cuts to try and bring in players who can upgrade your roster. Time is an important asset in football, and splitting those roles can provide your team with much more of it.
There are plenty of ways this could go wrong, of course. While Higgins hasn't been completely out of CFL for the last five years, the director of officiating job is substantially different from serving in a coaching role, so returning to the sidelines will carry some challenges for him. Perhaps even more crucially, it seems like Popp was left out of the loop here, and that doesn't bode well for his future with the team. Yes, Higgins has front-office experience and could potentially handle both roles, but as pointed out earlier, that's far from ideal for anyone (and the Alouettes' release makes it seem unlikely they'll go that way, as they talk about the benefits of splitting the roles). Popp has also proven to be one of the most successful GMs in the CFL, building the Montreal franchise from as far back as its days in Baltimore, and he doesn't seem to have lost his edge when it comes to finding great players. For example, his long-term pursuit of former Heisman-winning quarterback Troy Smith paid off in spades last year, with Smith turning into a legitimate star and the team's likely starting quarterback now Calvillo has retired. Going from Popp as coach and GM to Higgins as coach and GM would seem like a substantial downgrade.
Higgins' hire doesn't have to mean that Popp is shown the door, though. While both guys have egos and experience as both coaches and general managers, if they can be persuaded to work together and focus on their own roles, they could prove to be a great combination. Something that may help here is that there aren't a lot of other options out there. Every other team has a general manager currently, and while it's possible another team could be persuaded to show its GM the door in order to hire Popp, it's not a certainty. It's also not a certainty Popp would want to take a lesser role as an assistant GM. Moreover, Higgins doesn't have a ton of leverage to dictate his role with Montreal, either; this was the last CFL head coaching job open, and no one else seemed particularly interested in even hiring him as a coordinator. So, while this might not be a pairing either man picked, it's one that could pay off if they're able to work together, and if the Alouettes are able to retain Popp, bringing in Higgins to coach could be a coup for them. If not, though, this may be remembered as the day Montreal lost the architect of their dynasty.