HAMILTON – When Kent Austin turned the Hamilton Tiger-Cats down in 2011, he had no idea he’d be running the CFL team a year later.
The Ticats and the Saskatchewan Roughriders both pursued Austin to fill their respective head-coaching vacancies in 2011 but he opted to stay in his job as head coach at Cornell University.
This time, the Ticats sweetened the pot.
On Monday, the club hired Austin as their head coach, general manager and vice-president of football operations.
“Last year the timing wasn’t right, it was not conducive for what was right for our family in our opinion,” Austin said during a news conference at a Hamilton hotel. “I had a tremendous opportunity given to me at Cornell . . . and wanted to honour that commitment.
“But things change and for me this opportunity continued to grow and continued to grow in our thoughts. I just thought it was the best time and my family really wanted to come.”
In his new roles, Austin is in charge of all football-related decisions, something he says was more attractive to him. Still, he was surprised the Ticats gave him a second chance.
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“Sometimes opportunities come around once in this profession and if you pass them up you don’t see them again,” he said. “But for whatever reason it did and came at a time that was right for us.”
Austin takes over as head coach from George Cortez, who was fired last week after compiling a 6-12 record in his first season with Hamilton. Bob O’Billovich is also out as GM and is mulling over an offer to remain with the franchise as a consultant.
Hamilton’s offence was one of the CFL’s most potent under Cortez, who also served as the offensive co-ordinator. But the defence struggled mightily and was a big reason why the Ticats missed the playoffs.
Hamilton led the CFL in scoring (29.9 points per game) and passing (298.2 yards per game) and was second in total offence (378.6 yards per game). Veteran quarterback Henry Burris led the league in passing (5,367 yards) and touchdowns (43) – both career highs.
However, the Ticats registered 45 giveaways (second only to Winnipeg’s 53) and were the CFL’s second-highest penalized squad. Defensively, Hamilton allowed a league-worst 32 points per game and was second-last in yards allowed (409.2 per game).
The watershed moment in the unit’s struggles came in Hamilton’s regular-season finale Nov. 1 versus arch-rival Toronto at Rogers Centre.
Hamilton entered that contest needing the win to make the CFL playoffs against a Toronto squad that had already clinched a post-season berth and rested 10 starters, including starter Ricky Ray. But the Argos earned a 43-40 victory on Swayze Waters’ 51-yard field goal on the game’s final play.
What’s more, fourth-stringer Zack Collaros calmly marched Toronto into field goal range after Hamilton tied the score.
“The two most important stats in football are turnover ratio and big plays,” Austin said. “If you win those two categories you have a really high probability of winning football games.
“We need to eliminate turnovers and make sure we win the turnover ratio and make sure we have big plays and not just on offence but on defence as well, what we call explosive plays.”
The quarterback is a key figure in three-down football, something Austin is all too familiar with. So it’s no surprise he believes pressuring the passer is important to a defence.
“I played the position and coached the position and sometimes you give quarterbacks too much credit in football,” he said. “There are times you need to get after the quarterback and pressure him.
“Not all the time but certainly we want to get teams in second-and-long in this league and give the quarterback a lot to think about.”
Austin joins the Ticats with an impressive coaching resume but with little front-office experience. He said he will evaluate Hamilton’s roster, its current front-office personnel and coaching staff before deciding what changes are required.
Austin said while he’d like his coaches to have CFL experience, he wants them to be shrewd evaluators who are capable of designing schemes that put Hamilton’s players in the best position to succeed.
Ticats president Scott Mitchell was dogged in his pursuit of Austin, saying the former CFL quarterback remained on his radar even after he decided to remain at Cornell.
“I always felt Kent was a person that had the talent to scale beyond being just a head coach so when things clarified themselves in our organization I felt like he was the perfect fit,” Mitchell said. “He’s got incredible natural leadership abilities, he’s a confident person.
“I think he is because of his success and because he builds a process that demands accountability. For us, I think we need someone who can be the face of the franchise that’s running football operations anyway they see fit and brings a lot of confidence and leadership to the organization.”
Austin won a Grey Cup as the Roughriders’ head coach in 2007 and helped the Toronto Argonauts win a CFL title in 2004 as the team’s offensive co-ordinator. The 49-year-old also earned championship rings as a quarterback with Saskatchewan in 1989 and B.C. in ’94.
Austin entered the coaching ranks in 2003 as a quarterback coach with the Ottawa Renegades. The following season he joined the Argos before being fired in 2006 but resurfaced as Saskatchewan’s head coach for the 2007 season.
Austin led the Roughriders to a 23-19 Grey Cup win over Winnipeg at Rogers Centre and was named the CFL’s coach of the year.
On Jan. 16, 2008, Austin became the offensive co-ordinator at the University of Mississippi, his alma mater. Two years later, he accepted the head coaching job at Cornell and is coming off a season where his team posted a 4-6 record.
Over three seasons at Cornell, Austin compiled an 11-19 record.
Hamilton hasn’t won the Grey Cup since ’99 under the late Ron Lancaster. But it hasn’t been for a lack of trying since businessman Bob Young became owner in 2003.
Young hasn’t been afraid to spend money, signing quarterback Casey Printers to a deal reportedly worth $500,000 annually in 2007. Last year, the Ticats signed free-agent slotback Andy Fantuz of Chatham, Ont., to a multiyear deal reportedly worth $190,000 a year and also lured Cortez from the NFL’s Buffalo Bills with a four-year contract that was said to be worth $300,000 a year.
Next season, Young’s team will be paying two head coaches – Cortez and Austin – but the Ticats owner believes his club has the right man in charge this time around.
“I’m not a fast study, it takes me a while to learn things,” he said. “We still have to get better and Kent gives us that change to get a lot better.”