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February 2, 2000

Argonauts' new man someone from past, part of 'family' He 'earns respect': John Huard is 'a coach for the 21st century'

Jim Bray

National Post

J.I. Albrecht got his man yesterday.

Then again, the managing director of the Toronto Argonauts has spent much of his 50 years in football getting John Huard, introduced yesterday as the Canadian Football League team's 37th head coach.

It was Albrecht, after all, who scouted Huard as a college player in the 1960s, who ignored suggestions the middle linebacker wasn't big enough for his position and who convinced the Denver Broncos to draft him.

"I'd sit in the press box, close my eyes and hear the hit," Albrecht said yesterday, "and I knew it was Huard."

He has always known it was Huard, it seems. He gave Huard his introduction to the CFL as a player-coach in Montreal, under Sam Etcheverry and Marv Levy. He recommended him to the Acadia Axemen in 1979, and to the Shreveport Pirates 15 years later -- the latter an experience that could have ended their relationship.

He was ready to name Huard the coach of his CFL team in Halifax, except there never was a team.

"[Huard is] the most cerebral coach I've ever been around," said Albrecht. "He's a coach for the 21st century. He's brilliant. "We're on the same page, in the same book, and we have been for years."

Ah, yes. For years. They've been making jokes about Albrecht's years, nearly seven decades worth, since neophyte owner Sherwood Schwarz hired him more than a month ago and Albrecht immediately tabbed septuagenarian Levy as his leading candidate to coach -- apparently putting the old back in the old boys' network.

Albrecht, it seems, doesn't mind. He said along that if a coach felt the need to send in a resume, he need not apply.

"It is a big family. If I don't know you, or know about you ..." said Albrecht. "I've been around [football for] 50 years."

Almost as long as the 55-year-old Huard has been around, period. Then again, Huard hasn't been around, not in CFL terms anyway, for the past five years.

It's that kind of contradiction that the Argonaut faithful -- and the Argos themselves -- will have to get used to.

Huard described football as simple yesterday, just moments after explaining he had spent the past five years writing two books, one of them a 750-page tome titled The Football Coaching Dictionary. Simple.

He talked about making up for lost time electronically, with HUE Scout, the software system he has developed as a scouting and physical evaluation tool. Simple.

And he was never more animated than when he talked about putting some jump back in the Argos by, of all things, jumping rope. Rope-jumping, he said, can help break down the lactic acids that build up in games.

Rope-jumping, he claimed, can prevent injuries. (In 12 years of coaching, he said, just three of his players have required surgery.) And rope-jumping, with the marathon-like walls jumpers face, say, every seven or 10 minutes, develops mental toughness and mental clarity.

Nothing, it seems, is quite as simple as Huard claims. He is old school mixed with new. He is a reputed disciplinarian who has been described as a player's coach.

"He earns respect," said Argos receiver Paul Masotti, whose playing days at Acadia University began the year after his new coach left. Huard's presence remained, however.

"It was like: 'You're not tough enough to be a John Huard player.' " Huard is an apparent control freak -- he has the Argos' schedule mapped out for the year, including days off for the players, of whom he is not yet familiar -- and yet his career has seemed so out of control.

He was fired in Shreveport without ever getting to coach a CFL game, although his dismissal was more likely a reflection of the failings of the Pirates' owners -- Bernie and Lonnie Glieberman -- than his own.

Shreveport didn't last much longer than Huard did.

"If I had known [Lonnie] was against my selection, I wouldn't have gone," said Huard.

He is comfortable, however, that his Toronto experience will be "very professional."

He talked not of players, but of playmakers.

And in a private moment with Michael Clemons -- if a moment amid a handful of reporters and photographers can be considered private -- suggested the Argos' Pinball would see much more of the ball this year.

"I love the ball," said Clemons. "The ball is my friend."

For a day, John Huard was too. J.I. Albrecht's past is the Toronto Argos' future. Successful at the university level -- he won two Canadian titles at Acadia and coached tiny Maine Maritime Academy to the ECAC Northeast Division III title -- Huard is now a professional.

And he's still looking for his first win.