Three Great Coaches Falling From Grace

Guest Blogger | Updated Aug 18, 2011

Written by Guest Blogger: The Rider Prophet

The last place you would expect to find the Winningest Coach in CFL history, the reigning Coach of the Year and a 3 time nominee for Coach of the Year would be at the bottom of the CFL standings. That would be like finding the Raptors at the top of NBA standings. But a quick look at the 2011 standings will show you that’s exactly where Wally Buono’s Lions, Jim Barker’s Argos and Ken Miller’s Riders can be found. We all know that change is the only constant in pro sports but surely something must be amiss for 3 great coaches to fall simultaneously from grace. How could this happen?

When it comes to coaches, one name stands above all others: Wally Buono. He has more wins than any other coach in CFL history, he has been named Coach of the Year three times and he has won 4 Grey Cups. It would be almost a sin to question is abilities. Yet unless things improve dramatically with the Lions this year, there is a very real possibility that David Braley may have to remove Buono from the sidelines.

This didn’t just happen overnight however. Buono’s Lions have been in a steady free fall since the 2007 season. That year they finished in 1st place in the West for the 4th straight year and were favoured to win the Gray Cup until they were upset by the Riders in the West Final. Seems they never really recovered from that loss as it sent them into a steady spiral downward.

The next year they started 0-2 en route to a 3rd place finish and a loss in the West Final. In 2009, they started 1-4 en route to a 4th place finish and another loss in the Division finals. Last year the downward trend continued as they started 1-7 en route to a 3rd place finish and an early playoff exit. Their 1-6 start this year has done little to reassure people that Buono is getting this team back on track.

While there is no denying that he will go down as one of the greatest coaches ever, given that his last tangible success as a coach was 4 years ago perhaps its time he admit that his best days are behind him and its time for him to step away. The writing is on the wall, though Buono would likely have to squint to read it.

Next up is Jim Barker. The man who single-handedly turned the woeful Argos around from a 3 win embarrassment in 2009 to a playoff team in 2010. The remarkable turnaround earned him Coach of the Year honours. It was the first trophy Barker had won since hoisting the first (and only) XFL Championship as coach of the LA Xtreme in 2001.

What’s most amazing about what Barker was able to accomplish with the Argos in 2010 is the fact that he managed to win in spite of fielding one of the worst passing attacks in recent memory. While many will argue that the inability to field a competent passing attack in a league that is based on passing should automatically disqualify you from Coach of the Year consideration, his accomplishments are impressive nonetheless.

Expectations were high in 2011 for the Argos as many assumed they would pick up where they left off in 2010 and continue to improve. While they started the year on a high note with a road, they have stumbled ever since. Their offense is as impotent as ever but unlike last year they are not being bailed out with great defensive play and they apparently used up all their trick plays on special teams last year. Turns out you can only mask the lack of passing game so long in an aerial based league.

Finally, Ken Miller, whose rise to fame was almost as rapid as his fall from grace. He spent a few years as an unassuming assistant. He was so low profile that I’m sure few even knew he was the Riders’ Offensive Coordinator in 2007 when they won the Cup. That all changed when he was tasked with the unenviable job of replacing Kent Austin (a certifiable superstar) as the Rider’s Head Coach. Miller stepped up to the plate and in 3 seasons with the Riders they won at least 10 games every season, never finished below 2nd place and made it to 2 straight Grey Cups… securing his own place among Rider royalty.

This season Miller decided to step back from coaching… mainly because the only thing that was older than him was the franchise itself. The Riders appointed him VP of Football Operations. While he was their coach, the Riders were perennial Grey Cup contenders. Now that he is in charge of football operations the only thing they are contending for is 1st overall pick in the 2012 CFL Draft. It seems to be a case of the Peter Principle: rising to one’s level of incompetence.

While Miller’s abilities as a coach are unquestioned, his abilities in the front office are highly questionable… much like the decision to appoint someone with no prior experience or qualifications to run football operations. One can’t help but wonder how long Miller will last in this role… most men his age are watching Matlock, eating supper at 4pm and migrating to Arizona for the winters.