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August 25, 2000

Tiny crowd sees Argos fall to huge defeat Fewest ever at Skydome: Players put in paltry effort for coach

Sean Fitz-Gerald

National Post, with files from The Canadian Press

LIONS 51 ARGONAUTS 4

TORONTO - The boos from the angry crowd still hadn't stopped by the time Toronto Argonauts managing director J.I. Albrecht emerged from his booth.

He walked briskly through the lounge behind the SkyDome's football press box, greeting old friends and dodging reporters.

It was only halftime, and the Argos were already down 34-1 to the visiting B.C. Lions. It was beginning to seem like the Toronto players had finally had enough of head coach John Huard.

"Rumours are rumours," Albrecht said when asked if the team's performance would move him to fire Huard, an old friend, as reports continued last night to suggest. When pressed, he growled, "I said no comment," and walked out of the room.

John Jenkins, a former offensive co-ordinator with Toronto and Hamilton, was seen watching the game with his agent, Gil Scott, and Argos vice- president Paul Masotti.

What they saw were tackles being missed, easy catches dropped, and pass coverage that was as weak as the team's attendance.

Toronto ended up losing 51-4 in front of just 11,350 fans, the smallest crowd ever to assemble at SkyDome for an Argos game.

The lower bowl was so bare of bodies that on the first punt of the game, the TSN cameras didn't follow the ball, opting instead to pan the turf back to the receiver, avoiding showing the empty seats.

After four regular season home games this year, the Argos are averaging 14,757 fans a game. Last season, even with a mediocre 9-9 record, the Boatmen still pulled more than 22,000 for a game.

The blame, at least according to call-in radio shows and several CFL analysts, rests on the shoulders of Huard, the blustery rookie head coach.

"J.I. is really the person responsible for the players and the coaches," said Toronto's first-year owner, Sherwood Schwarz. "I have not lost faith in either of them."

Albrecht hired Huard, then a relatively unknown commodity in CFL coaching circles, in early February.

"He's the most cerebral coach I've ever been around. He's a coach for the 21st century," Albrecht announced at the time.

Huard coached the Acadia Axemen to two Canadian university football titles in three years, but seemed to lack any noticeable professional coaching credentials.

He raised the ire of several players on the team even before the first practice, when he criticized the 1999 Argo team.

Huard was low-key after the game yesterday, but somehow didn't act like a man in danger of getting fired. He was still as sarcastic as ever when asked if he thought his players quit on him.

"I've never been hung out to dry," he said. "They'd have to have some pretty big clothes pegs."

The Argos are 1-6-1 and still occupy last place in the CFL East division, and if last night is any indication, they are unlikely to move up any time soon.

Former Argo Robert Drummond set the tone of the game early with a pair of rumbling first half touchdowns.

He wasn't even touched on one five-yard jaunt to the left side of centre until after he was in the end zone. But he still defended his old team.

"I'm pretty sure their will was weakened because of the score and all the turmoil that's going around, but they didn't give up," he said. "They were hitting as hard on the last play as they were on the first."

Overall, Toronto gained just 87 yards in total offence, while allowing B.C. an impressive 513 with the ball.

When all was said and done, the crowd booed as it had at halftime, and B.C. Lions head coach Steve Buratto got the celebratory Gatorade shower.

"They really hooked me," he said of the post-game bath. "If I was a fish, they would have had to gut me, they got me that bad."

Buratto, who was hired last week after an embattled Greg Mohns bolted to the XFL, could be seen as a sign that bringing in a new coach can spark life into a listless football team.

Toronto offensive lineman Jude St. John disagrees with the theory.

"I'm sick of losing, and I know everyone else is too," he said. "That's ridiculous."

Strange as it sounds, St. John pointed out that if Winnipeg loses to Hamilton tonight, the Argos are still only one point out of a playoff spot.

"I don't think there's a guy in this room who'd let themselves be beat for any reason," he said.

"No matter what the reason."