Argos' GM Jim Barker and HC Scott Milanovich receive extensions from new owners

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GM Jim Barker (L) and head coach Scott Milanovich (R) will be sticking around with the Argos for three more years. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press.)
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It may be a lame-duck season for the Toronto Argonauts before their new ownership group of Bell and Larry Tanenbaum's Kilmer Group takes over on Dec. 31, but those new owners have already made at least one notable decision, and one that should lower some of the uncertainty about the future. The team announced Monday that the new owners have agreed to extend the contracts of general manager Jim Barker and head coach Scott Milanovich for three more years. Both contracts were set to expire following the 2015 season, so having the new group announce this way that they believe in the Argos' current management should help provide some stability during this season and going forward. That may be especially important, as the 2015 season will carry some significant challenges for this team.

While there have been ups and downs during Barker's tenure, he's generally done an impressive job, especially considering what he started with. The Argos went 4-14 in 2008 and 3-15 in 2009 with Bart Andrus as head coach, and that led to Barker replacing him in that role heading into the 2010 season. The Argonauts got much better that year, with Barker working with GM Adam Rita to pick up players like Chad Owens and Cory Boyd in free agency, Jermaine Copeland through a trade, and Joe Eppele and Spencer Watt through the draft. They put together a 9-9 season behind Boyd's powerful running and a strong defence led by the likes of Byron Parker, Ricky Foley and Ronald Flemons, and they knocked off Hamilton in the playoffs to make it to the East Final in Montreal despite starting the less-than-stellar Cleo Lemon at quarterback. Barker was elevated to head coach and general manager in 2011, with Rita's contract not renewed, and while that season was largely a disappointment (the team finished 6-12), it paved the way for what was to come.

Ahead of the 2012 season, Barker stepped back to only hold the general manager's role, and he brought in Milanovich as head coach (plus now-Edmonton head coach Chris Jones as defensive coordinator). The offensive and defensive innovation Milanovich and Jones brought to the Argos played key roles in the Grey Cup the team won that season, but the even more significant move came a few days later when Barker pulled off the CFL trade of the century, sending Steven Jyles, Shaw and a draft pick to Edmonton for quarterback Ricky Ray. It took Ray a little time to acclimatize in Toronto, and the team's existing players needed a little while to figure out how to excel in the systems of Milanovich and Jones, so the season had ups and downs, and the Argos had to win their last two games to make the playoffs with a 9-9 record. They pulled that off, though, and then got even better through the playoffs, downing the Eskimos, Alouettes and Stampeders to lift the Grey Cup. (One notable call along the way? Barker and Milanovich made the hard decision to release CFL rushing leader Boyd, which seemed crazy at the time and angered many fans, but paved the way for the emergence of eventual Grey Cup Most Outstanding Player Chad Kackert.)

2013 saw even a better regular season from the Milanovich/Barker-led Argos, as they finished 11-7 and earned first place in the East. However, they fell to Hamilton in a close East Final, hampered by a practice injury to Kackert and a comeback that came up short. 2014 was a bit more of a disappointment, as the team went 8-10 and missed the playoffs, but they showed some promising signs down the stretch, winning five of their last seven games. There are questions about last season and about the plans for this year, certainly, but based on what Barker and Milanovich have done in their respective tenures, extensions for them seem to make plenty of sense. Announcing these extensions now also seems smart; that takes away questions about what will happen after the season, and indicates that the new ownership group believes in the team's current leadership. That may be particularly important when you consider that 2015 could be a significant down year for this franchise.

The Argos' new owners and stadium may provide hope for the future, but 2015 could be a painful transition. Thanks to scheduling conflicts with the Pan Am Games and the Blue Jays, the team won't play a game at the Rogers Centre until Saturday, Aug. 8, the seventh week of the season. They have a technical "home game" this Saturday against Edmonton, but it's in Fort McMurray, Alberta, which should be much more favourable for the Eskimos. Toronto also didn't sign a single free agent this offseason and only brought back six of their 17 players who were set to hit the market, which raises questions about the budget of current owner David Braley. Moreover, they'll be starting the season without Ray; the East Division's Most Outstanding Player for the last two years has been placed on the six-game injured list as he continues his recovery from shoulder surgery, forcing the Argos to turn to backup Trevor Harris. Toronto also had to change defensive coordinators in midstream this offseason, with Tim Burke suddenly resigning in May. Add it all up, and it looks like 2015 might be a hard year for this team.

That's a big part of why it makes sense to do these extensions now. Without these, we'd likely see Barker and/or Milanovich twisting in the wind during a season that seems destined to go badly, mostly for reasons beyond their control. We've already seen stories about their expiring contracts, and those would only increase during the year. Announcing extensions for them during or after a poor season also might send the wrong message.

Giving the general manager and head coach extensions now means the Argonauts will have some stability as they move into their new era, and Barker and Milanovich have earned them with their work over the years. It also means that they can think about the long-term plan during this season. There's a chance this could still be a good year for the team despite all the challenges; surprises do happen in sports, and they often happen in the CFL. The odds seem against the Argos finding incredible success this year, though, so it makes plenty of sense to ensure that their key people will be around for some time to come. With Barker and Milanovich both sticking around, the team's future seems bright; it's just looking a lot brighter in 2016 than it is in 2015. 

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