Presson, Sunderland, Elizondo out as Edmonton Elks clean house after dismal season

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It didn't take chairman Ian Murray and the Edmonton Elks' board of directors long to clean house after a dismal CFL season for the franchise.

The board terminated the contracts of chief executive officer Chris Presson, GM Brock Sunderland and head coach Jaime Elizondo on Monday. Edmonton (3-11) went winless at Commonwealth Stadium (0-7) and lost nine of its final 10 games overall to finish last in the West Division, tying Ottawa (3-11) for the league's worst record.

The fans weren't impressed, and let the team know. According to attendance figures published by the league, the Elks averaged 26,210 fans per game, their lowest attendance since the franchise moved into Commonwealth Stadium in 1978.

"Yes., the board heard it," Murray told reporters during a news conference. "We're not so much focused on exact numbers of fans in the stands but we were alarmed at the level of customer complaints and some of that operation.

"We hope that we've signalled to the fan base that we are taking this very seriously and we think it's a big problem. We are going to address it like it's a big problem and put an action plan in place that's pretty aggressive."

Edmonton ended its season with a 43-10 defeat to the B.C. Lions on Friday night. The Elks finished their schedule with three road games within six days (29-24 loss to Saskatchewan on Nov. 13, 13-7 win over Toronto on Nov. 16 and the loss in Vancouver).

The game in Toronto was originally scheduled for Aug. 26 but was postponed due to COVID-19 issues and rescheduled for last week.

The timing of the moves was somewhat surprising given Sunderland and Elizondo both reportedly had two years remaining on their contracts. Sunderland had been the Elks GM since 2017 while Elizondo completed his first season as head coach.

Edmonton was 31-37 during Sunderland's tenure, missing the playoffs three times. Presson joined the Elks in 2019.

Allan Watt, Edmonton's executive director of marketing, was named interim chief operating officer. Also, Wally Buono, a former head coach and GM with the Calgary Stampers and B.C. Lions, will serve in a transitional role with the Elks until a new GM is hired.

Buono certainly is a valuable resource for the Elks. A seven-time Grey Cup champion (twice as a player, five as a head coach), Buono amassed a CFL-record 282 wins with Calgary and B.C. and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014.

"Right now our relationship with Wally is a short-term contract," Murray said. "It may be that he helps us with other things over time but it's too early to say.

"At this time we're focused in a relationship on the next two months and making sure we get things in place that are critical around the general manager."

The Elks hope to name a new GM before the end of 2021 and a CEO in place by the end of January.

But Edmonton's struggles weren't unique. The 2021 season has been a challenging one for the CFL, which didn't play in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as scoring and offensive production have both been down.

Traditionally, quarterbacks and receivers have been the dominant performers but this year only two passers -- B.C.'s Michael Reilly and Winnipeg's Zach Collaros -- cracked the 3,000-yard plateau. Montreal running back William Stanback (1,176 yards rushing) was the top skill-position player.

"I think the league in general has some challenges," Murray said. "But our performance wasn't sufficient on our end and that's what we have to focus on.

"We know we can do better."

Edmonton's challenges weren't relegated to just the on-field losses. The club had to deal with a significant COVID-19 outbreak with 14 players testing positive.

At the end of the team's 10-day isolation period, offensive lineman Jacob Ruby was cut for misrepresenting his vaccination status.

In September, the Elks announced Sunderland was medically exempt from their policy requiring staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. It added the exemption was granted after consultations with multiple physicians.

Sunderland dealt veteran starter Trevor Harris to the Montreal Alouettes for defensive end Antonio Simmons on Oct., 17. Edmonton acquired quarterback Nick Arbuckle from Toronto on Oct. 27 and later signed him to a one-year contract extension but Arbuckle never played a down with the Elks.

Harris, meanwhile, made three starts with Montreal.

Instead, Edmonton stuck with rookie Taylor Cornelius, who finished with a 1-7 record. Cornelius's lone win came against a Toronto team that rested many of its starters after it clinched top spot in the East Division.

Even then, Cornelius finished 15-of-32 passing for 160 yards with three interceptions but had an 18-yard TD run.

Edmonton was heavily criticized last year when it unceremoniously let equipment manager Dwayne Mandrusiak go after 49 years with the franchise. Mandrusiak joined the CFL Players’ Association in April as an equipment safety adviser.

The Elks also dropped their long-standing Eskimos team name in 2020.

Sunderland hired Elizondo as head coach Feb. 1, shortly after Scott Milanovich resigned to join the NFL's Indianapolis Colts staff. Milanovich became Edmonton's head coach Dec. 12, 2019, stepping down as the quarterback coach with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars after three seasons to return to the CFL, where he got his first chance to become a pro head coach.

Milanovich guided the Toronto Argonauts to the 2012 Grey Cup title in his first year as a head coach. But he never got the chance to coach Edmonton as the CFL didn't play in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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