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February 9, 2000

Skipping over a coach's attributes


Ottawa Sun

There's no question that if Toronto loses the Argonauts, there goes the CFL, and the Hogtown sports media have already decided that the executioner has been hired; his name John Huard.

The attacks against Huard, the new head coach, have been vicious, malicious, unfair and ignorant.

He has been portrayed as an inexperienced nobody, know-nothing, weirdo. But, football people who know John Huard, unlike the reporters and commentators who seem purposely disinclined to research the man's background and character, speak of him with respect, even awe, recalling a creatively brilliant tactician, a leader of men, a tough, demanding, hard-nosed disciplinarian, but never less than fair in pursuit of all that matters to him, and what should be all that matters to his players: Victory.

Huard, 55, married, father of three grown children, is a student of the pro game, attuned, and has rejected past NFL assistant coaching offers to concentrate on his successful companies in computer software, book publishing, and distribution of a new-type artificial football turf.

As a middle linebacker, he was the only two-time, first team All-American ever from the University Of Maine. He was a 1967 fifth-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos, from day one the starting middle linebacker and defensive captain for four seasons until he blew his knee.

His head coach Lou Saban said: "He's one of the toughest, smartest, players I've ever coached." Traded to the New Orleans Saints, Huard tore his achilles tendon in the first regular-season game. Two years later, he was the last cut of the New England Patriots. J.I. Albrecht, then GM of the Alouettes, signed him for two playing seasons before he took the job as offensive line coach at the University of Maine. AXEMEN COMETH From there, Acadia University as head coach of the Axemen from 1979 to 1983, twice finalists in the Atlantic Bowl, plus winning two national titles. Marv Levy, then head coach of the USFL's Chicago Blitz, recruited Huard as special teams coach for its one season before folding. After seven successful seasons as head coach at the division three Maine Maritime Academy, once winning the ECAC Northeast title, Huard got back into pro football in '94.

Albrecht, then GM of the CFL's Shreveport Pirates, signed him as head coach, but owner Lonie Glieberman fired him in training camp so that Glieberman could replace him with his boyhood hero: Forrest Gregg. When Albrecht recently became managing director of the Argos, he hired Huard. One who played as a defensive back for Huard at Acadia is Josh Arnold, a prominent Halifax lawyer. Arnold's honours English thesis was on John Huard the man, coach, teacher, strategist. "He had a big impact on my life, and on the lives of most people who know him. Few players wound up not respecting John Huard. They talk of his strength of character and integrity." And, yes, he had Axemen doing what has horrified the Toronto media. Skipping rope. Huard: "In my time at Acadia, only two players had operations. Not once in five years was there a hamstring or quad pull. The Toronto media reported me saying I'll make the Argos skip rope for 30 minutes after every game. Never said it. I said a minimum 30 minutes after the next day's practice. I skipped rope. I was the quickest, fastest I'd ever been, and no pain.

MENTAL TOUGHNESS "Skipping gives me a cardiovascular evaluation of a player, strengthens his ankles, tightens up the joints in the legs and knees, reduces lactic acid, reveals and develops true mental toughness. You're not out jogging with nice, distracting scenery. I'll be doing it right along with them."

The Toronto media, and some of the players, lambasted him for saying the top-rated 1999 Argo defence was lousy. Translation: Winning the 100-metre dash in 30 seconds is nothing to shout about just because everybody behind you ran it in 40 seconds. "I've looked at last year's game films. This is the year 2000, and they burdened Mike O'Shea with calling all the defensive signals himself; not sent in by the defensive co-ordinator.

That's not right, it's unfair on Mike. He doesn't have all the data we have about the opponent. What if he makes a bad call? It's on his mind. It creates undue, added, personal stress on the player." In the final analysis, winning and losing comes down to one's character in all its component parts. The media-prophesied death of the Toronto Argonauts won't be John Huard's doing; he knows he has what it takes.

His players? We'll see.