For years, Ryan Phillips was the elder statesman of Lockdown U, the stingy secondary that helped the B.C. Lions win two Grey Cups.
Fittingly, the unit is well represented in nominations for the CFL's all-decade (2010-19) team. Phillips and former teammates Dante Marsh and Korey Banks were all selected for consideration on the squad.
"It definitely speaks volumes about how we approached the game, how we played as a unit and how we put ourselves in position to win games," said Phillips. "We had a competitiveness that brought out the best in each of us so I'm happy to see those guys on the list.
"It's beyond well deserved and hopefully all of us, or at least some of us, get the nod."
Marsh was the first to join the Lions ('04) with Phillips arriving a year later. Banks came to B.C. in '06 after stints with Edmonton (2004) and Ottawa ('04-'05).
Collectively, they earned nine CFL all-star berths and 16 West Division all-star nods. They were also members of Grey Cup-winning Lions teams in 2006 and 2011, the latter coming after B.C. opened the season 0-5.
Phillips, currently B.C.'s secondary coach, remembers the Lockdown U moniker being introduced around 2006 and quickly taking root.
"Lavar Glover (who played with B.C. from 2006-09) was the one who started talking about Lockdown U and it transcended from there," Phillips said. "It's something we took very seriously and had a lot of pride in.
"We had T-shirts for it but also had T-shirts for guys' nicknames. We even had a Lockdown U classroom thing where guys were the principal, vice-principal, things like that."
But Phillips, a 37-year-old Seattle native, said Lockdown U was much more than just a name.
"Everyone brought a different dynamic, our style of play was all different across the board," he said. "I think that's what made us such a cohesive unit.
"Continuity is something that's taken for granted sometimes. The fact we were able to play together as long as we did, I think that's what made us as elite as they come and one of the better, if not the best, secondary that was put together for a long span of time."
For five-foot-10, 195-pound Phillips, B.C.'s 2011 Grey Cup championship remains a career highlight. He credits the acquisition of receiver Arland Bruce III from Hamilton on Aug. 3, 2011 as the turning point for the Lions.
"He came in an gave us a spark," Phillips said. "He gave us a new-found confidence in ways that I feel like only maybe he could do at that time . . . just assuring us that we're better than these guys and we're going to go out and dominate and we shouldn't expect anything less.
"Once we got to expecting that from everyone in the room, it started to show on the field. You need to have a spark, you need to find ways to win. It came late but not too late, thankfully, and once we started hitting on all cylinders I don't think there was anybody that could beat us."
Not surprisingly, Phillips said Bruce was his favourite receiver to face.
"He played with a confidence, an edge," Phillips said. "He was a guy who could catch the ball and run after the catch.
"There were many other good ones. Nik Lewis, of course, his name speaks for itself. S.J. Green and Fred Stamps were very, very good receivers. Adarius Bowman came into his own late in Stamps's career and for three, four years straight he dominated the league. Chad Owens made his mark for a while . . . he was just an all-around guy who could affect games offensively but also from a special-teams standpoint."
In Phillips' mind, consistency is what sets the great receivers apart from the rest.
"Consistency rises above everything," he said. "If I was going to put five or six guys in a box as far as the best of the best during that decade while I was there, it would be S.J. Green, Fred Stamps, Adarius Bowman, Nik Lewis, Chad Owens and Weston Dressler.
"Those guys dominated consistently every single year."
Phillips's second season as a CFL coach remains in limbo because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it's allowed him to spend time with family in Seattle while also preparing for the 2020 campaign, should it kick off.
Phillips said his transition into coaching has been seamless.
"I planned on being part of football after my playing career from either a front-office or coaching standpoint," he said. "I've always taken knowing the game, understanding the Xs and Os, very seriously . . . but I'm never going to be that guy who knows it all because I always want to learn and still be a sponge.
"I want to learn from people, be it younger players, (Lions head coach) Rick Campbell, (former B.C. coach) DeVone Claybrooks, Mark Washington, Dave Ritchie, Mike Benevides, Barron Miles, all the coaches I ever had.
"I've taken a piece from every one of them and tried to make it my own because they all have elements that are great for today's game."
That includes Wally Buono, the dean of CFL head coaches. Buono, 70, retired after the '18 season and his 282 regular-season victories, 13 first-place finishes and five Grey Cups (tied with Don Matthews) remain the most in league history.
"He's the person whose delivery I'd like to take because I feel like he knew how to get the most from players," said Phillips. "I had the opportunity to learn from him as a player and I took away a lot about how to manage a team, structure a team and deliver a message to get them (players) playing at the highest level week in and week out."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press