November 11, 2010
If Edmonton Eskimos' head coach Richie Hall (pictured above at a press conference after a September loss) isn't fired by Friday, there are going to be a lot of media outlets with egg all over their faces. The rumours Hall was on his way out started as soon as the Eskimos' playoff hopes ended Saturday with their loss to Saskatchewan, and they got some extra fuel Monday with a piece from The Edmonton Journal's Mario Annicchiarico that predicted Hall's days were numbered:
"Whether head coach Richie Hall is there to guide the team is something Tillman will consider this week after meetings with staff. The betting is he makes a change and the buzz is he may look to former Eskimos defender Kavis Reed, the defensive co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this season, as a replacement if he's available."
The rumours continued to grow Tuesday with Dave Naylor's report at TSN that Edmonton could make a decision on their head coach by the end of the week, and that "few around the CFL will be surprised if the Eskimos are in the market for a new head coach." From there, things quickly went from rumours and speculation to Terry Jones' outright announcement late last night that "Richie Hall will be fired Friday." Edmonton does apparently have a press conference scheduled Friday, and it's now being reported everywhere from The Canadian Press to The Globe and Mail to TSN to Sportsnet to CKNW that Hall is all but gone.
As Annicchiarico reports, general manager Eric Tillman is still saying that a final decision hasn't been made yet, but the signs certainly don't bode well for Hall. Here's what Tillman had to say about the matter:
"Just a couple of hours ago we agreed to sleep on what was discussed and the next step will be to sit down one last time on Thursday or Friday. After that, I suspect we will have a press conference and something definitive within the next 24-48 hours," Tillman said later Wednesday evening.
"Unfortunately, we are well aware of the speculation that has preceded any decisions being made. There are, of course, very few jobs which are as high profile as head coach of the Eskimos, so we understand speculation comes with the territory. There was a report on Tuesday and then a different one today (Wednesday) while Richie and I were actually still in the middle of a meeting," added Tillman.
"When it's appropriate to speak to what decision is made, Richie and I will be available. But this isn't a baseball game with updated scores after every inning. We understand and appreciate the love and passion many have for the Eskimos, but there's a human factor involved here, too. Richie Hall is a wonderful person who deserves for this process to be handled with dignity and respect."
Tillman's decision to talk about Hall as a "wonderful person" who deserves dignity and respect rather than praise his abilities as a coach certainly suggests that Hall's days are numbered. It's also notable that while both were with the Riders, Tillman twice passed Hall over for the head coaching job in Saskatchewan, first hiring Kent Austin and then Ken Miller. That doesn't necessarily mean anything, as each coaching decision comes with its own context and list of potential candidates (and neither Austin nor Miller is available at the moment), but it does suggest that Tillman may not be the biggest believer in Hall's ability as a head coach.
However, the real question is if he should be. It seems Hall is all but gone, but is that the right decision for Tillman and the Eskimos to make? There are a lot of different factors that go into that, but they don't all weigh against Hall. After Edmonton's 52-5 loss to Calgary in early September, I wrote that the team should make a coaching change only if they believed that Hall had lost the team and if they had a better option. At that time, they didn't. The Eskimos' strong finish speaks well for the turnaround Tillman was able to instill since taking over the team in mid-September, but it also says a lot about Hall's coaching ability; despite the embarrassing early losses, the team never seemed to quit on him, and when he was given the right, talented pieces, the Eskimos found a lot of success. As John MacKinnon writes, though, Hall certainly can't be absolved of blame for the team's dismal start or much of their season-long turmoil.
In the end, most decisions on head coaches seem to come down to results. If the Eskimos had squeaked into the playoffs on the final day, it's likely that Hall would still be around even if they lost this coming weekend. They didn't, but it's worth remembering just how close they came. Does an eight-point loss to a talented Saskatchewan team in arguably the league's toughest road environment, plus a narrow B.C. Lions' road win over Hamilton, really say much that's negative about Hall? I don't think it does, but it seems likely that he isn't going to be judged on that result, but rather found wanting because Edmonton missed the playoffs.
I'd argue that we tend to frame coaching debates in the wrong terms, however. Most head coaching moves seem to be backwards-looking, focused on finding scapegoats and assigning blame for what went wrong. There certainly needs to be an element of that involved, as past performance does tell you something about a coach's abilities, but the personnel and circumstances they're working with in each situation also come into the equation.
In my mind, the most important thing in a coaching move is looking at the potential trade-offs involved and what they mean for the future. Coaching moves do not happen in a vacuum, and axing a head coach and finding his replacement are two sides of the same coin, rather than separate unconnected events. We accept this view when we're looking at players, as they're considered in terms of their own inherent value, but also in terms of what value they can bring in a trade and in terms of their potential replacements.
For example, look at Tillman's trade of Noel Prefontaine to Toronto for Canadian defensive tackle Etienne Legare (the second-overall pick in the 2009 draft) and the rights to import defensive back Damaso Munoz. That was followed by Toronto releasing import kicker Justin Medlock and Edmonton snapping him up. Prefontaine is an excellent punter and kicker who's had a great season, so trading him wasn't an indictment of his performance, but it was a brilliant move. Edmonton had a replacement waiting in the wings in Derek Schiavone, who played well down the stretch, and if he faltered, Medlock gave them a proven backup. The trade also helped their salary cap flexibility. They certainly didn't need to get rid of Prefontaine, but by doing so, they were able to snap up a couple of talented players, gain cap room and not lose much at the kicking position.
It's a similar question with coaching. Firing a coach in and of itself does not necessarily help, as the real question is who you replace him with. It also shouldn't be all about the coach's record. If you find a better coach, or one who's a better fit for your system, then it's a good move regardless of how well the team did. If you fire a talented coach because of a poor season and replace him with someone who's even a worse fit with your team, you've found a scapegoat but you haven't improved the team.
In general, I'd say Hall has demonstrated he can be a successful head coach in the right situation, but there are still certainly questions about him. Firing him for this season's record alone wouldn't be the right move, as that's just playing the blame game, but getting rid of him is defensible if the Eskimos figure they're able to make an upgrade with someone else.
Deciding to move on from Hall could be a great thing for the Eskimos if they're able to find someone who will fit better and lead them to better things. It could also be a terrible move if they wind up with a less-talented replacement who doesn't fit in with their system. If Hall is indeed gone, we can't fully evaluate the move until we see who Edmonton brings in and what they do with the team.