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Ottawa Redblacks won over by Rick Campbell’s preparation

Neate Sager
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Rick Campbell (centre) with Redblacks GM Marcel Desjardins and co-owner Jeff Hunt (Mike Carroccetto for Yahoo! …

To succeed, the new Ottawa Redblacks have to straddle a gulf as wide as the Rideau Canal that passes by their soon-to-be-finished stadium.

Keep a clean slate and a safe distance from the bizarre and burlesque that characterized the CFL in the nation's capital for three decades of the Roughriders and Renegades. But evoke a sense of tradition, that illusion of permanency, for the hardcore fans whom co-owner Jeff Hunt once said "would sit on tacks" to watch a game, so that spreads out to an audience on the fence about the three-down game.

They get that in Rick Campbell — no association with a head coaching experience that didn't work out in another city, but someone who grew up steeped in the CFL. Campbell's spent 15 years as an assistant thinking about how he might go about running a team.

"When we first interviewed Rick, it was early December," GM Marcel Desjardins said during Friday's press conference to introduce the 42-year-old Campbell as the Redblacks' first coach, be it head guy or assistant. "It was a lengthy session but he kept us engaged the whole time. With his detail, with his level of knowledge of this league. One of the things that was key in the decision was to find somebody who was well-versed in the CFL because they would know all these little intricacies.

"His first interview, he hit it out of the park. The second interview, which was a lot shorter, that same feeling kept coming back and back again. It was a really easy decision to make."

'I think we can win a Cup one day with Rick Campbell'

Hunt, president of sports for Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, sat in on that second interview. They came away with a strong impression that Campbell was a rising coaching star.

"There's two things you look at, ultimately you have to put priority on one: who's going to be the best coach," said Hunt, who also owns junior hockey's Ottawa 67's. "There's going to be guys who, from a PR perspective, there might have been a different reaction. I think a lot of people saw Rick as an up-and-coming young bright star in our league. That's the feedback I'm getting.

"He's smart beyond his years and brings an enormous amount of experience. I think he's going to be good. I think we can win a Cup one day with Rick Campbell."

Desjardins noted that Campbell came in bearing "an important plan as it relates to our inaugural season." The feeling in Ottawa is that the Redblacks will have to demonstrate potential right off the hop in Year 1 to further distance themselves from the two failed franchises.

The Rough Riders never finished better than 9-9 during either the 1980s or '90s before closing up shop in 1996. Plus there was the time they drafted a dead guy.

The Renegades never cracked the .500 mark in their 2002-05 existence, but were hamstrung by unfavourable terms in the expansion draft and a leaguewide disregarded for the salary cap. The latter should be much less of an issue for the Redblacks.

"That's the great thing about the CFL right now," Hunt said. "Everybody spends at the [$4.5-million] salary cap. Nobody goes above it."

Campbell has some recent experience with jumping into the deep end in a new job. He was a virtual last-minute hire as Calgary's defensive coordinator in 2012, but helped the Stampeders go to the Grey Cup. The Stamps finished first in the West Division last season before their offence left early Christmas presents of fumbles and interceptions all over McMahon Stadium in the playoffs vs. eventual Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan.

His knowledge of the CFL will be tapped on Dec. 16 when Ottawa decides which Canadians and imports to pluck off the other eight teams.

"You're starting a new culture, new players," Campbell said. "When you take a new job at another place, there's things you inherit, traditions or cultures, just like you would in any company. This, what we make of it is what it's going to be."

As far as personnel goes, it's so preliminary beyond a confidence the Redblacks will have a seasoned quarterback come next June.

"You don't force a system on guys," Campbell said. "You adapt to the guys you bring in."

Ottawa has not been represented in the Grey Cup since 1981, the infamous Double Pass Interference game against an Edmonton Eskimos juggernaut guided by Hugh Campbell, Rick Campbell's father. That was also the last career game for Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gabriel, whose Grey Cup-winning catch in '76 is  seared into the city's consciousness, since there's been little else worth remembering.

The CFL doesn't even have every-down tight ends anymore, so you know it was long ago. That's the backdrop to the challenge the Redblacks believe Rick Campbell is cut out for. Build a winner, win over a generation of Ottawans that never got bit by the CFL bug, and be quotable in both official languages. Campbell, who attended high school in Edmonton, handled the "how's your French?" question with aplomb.

"I'm going to do my best to learn. I do a lot of listening to French but I'm going to improve my speaking."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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