Ottawa Redblacks general manager Marcel Desjardins rallies prospective athletes at the start of the open tryout camp for free-agent players hoping to earn a spot on the CFL team at Keith Harris Stadium at Carleton University in Ottawa on Sunday, April 27, 2014. Justin Tang/Ottawa Citizen Assignment# 116683
Photograph by: Justin Tang, Ottawa Citizen
Even as a boy growing up in Oskee Wee Wee country, Marcel Desjardins was hooked on Ottawa football.
Desjardins was 10 when Rough Riders quarterback Tom Clements scrambled right and threw on the run to a wide-open Tony Gabriel in the end zone during the dying seconds of the 1976 Grey Cup game, Ottawa’s most recent fling with CFL glory.
“My first recollection of football,” Desjardins says, “Clements to Gabriel. Tony was from Burlington. As a kid, you latch onto something like that. (The Rough Riders) became my team.”
In the 38 years that followed, the Riders died (1996) and were reborn as the Renegades (2002-05), rising now again in this 2014 revival as the Redblacks, a handle so perplexing that the team and three of the newspapers that cover it all use different variations of the nickname (REDBLACKS, Redblacks, RedBlacks, Rouge et Noir). Don’t even ask about the mascot.
Over the same four decades, long before he imagined being general manager of a newbie CFL team in Ottawa, Desjardins grew up in Aldershot, a chip shot away from the Burlington Golf and Country Club, attended school in Hamilton, studied radio broadcasting at Fanshawe College in London, earned a Bachelor of Commerce at Laurentian University (with a major in sports administration), interned for the OHL Sudbury Wolves, worked for the Canada Games Council, then the CFL head office co-ordinating player personnel matters from 1994-99.
At each stop, Desjardins was a quick study. Inquisitive. Decisive. In the CFL office, he discovered he knew more about the game and its history than most of his colleagues, because he was a fan. In 1999 he jumped at the chance to work for a team, rising up the ranks in the Montreal Alouettes front office, to be general manager Jim Popp’s assistant GM from 2002-06, and again from 2008-12.
He learned to scout for that special species of CFL-adaptive talent, often turning the wheel of the car over to his wife, Michelle, while he filled out scouting reports in between NFL camps.
Then there was that other posting, from late summer of 2006 to the fall of 2007. It should have been a dream job. He went home to become GM of a Hamilton Tiger-Cats franchise that was in worse shape than he’d imagined. Fat player contracts – by CFL standards – quirky bonuses, Desjardins had to bring them in line as the league decided in 2007 to get serious about a $4-million salary cap. (Now, to the horror of a Redblacks team desperate to launch, the league and players are at a bargaining impasse negotiating a new cap structure).
As the tough cop, Desjardins found himself trading away name players, cutting others, all while trying to turn around a losing Ticats team. At 40, cutting his teeth on his first GM job, Desjardins figured he had time on his side after the initial bloodletting, but the sands shifted beneath his feet. A new club president meant he was no longer working for the man who hired him in the summer of 2006. In about as ugly a manner as could be conceived, Desjardins was fired, on Nov. 3, 2007, moments before the final game of a 3-15 season with his family sitting in the stands. Stunned, he watched the first half of the game in a kind of trance, then left Ivor Wynne Stadium, the same place his grandmother used to take him and his brother, Philippe to watch her beloved Ticats when they were boys.
A day later, Desjardins had his old job back with the Alouettes, even if it wasn’t announced immediately.
“That’s the relationship Jim Popp and I have,” Desjardins says of his Montreal mentor.
It was largely based on the recommendation of Popp — who built the Alouettes and the Baltimore Stallions before them into a model CFL franchise — that Desjardins was hired in 2013 by Ottawa club president Jeff Hunt and the owners from the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG). Hunt was advised by former Rough Riders GM Dan Rambo.
“He’ll be outstanding,” comes the southern drawl over the phone from Mooresville, North Carolina, the off-season home of Jim Popp. “People don’t give him a lot of credit, he was outstanding in Hamilton. He was asked to clean up the organization, clean up the salary cap, he did all the things he was asked to do.”
Desjardins learned at the hands of Popp the way Popp learned from CFL titans Al Ford and Don Matthews. How to meld differing opinions into the same team goal. How to delegate and empower those around you, while not forgetting to have fun in this crazy league where so few staff handle all manner of duties.
“I was there for 12-and-a-half years, I learned everything I know from Jim,” Desjardins says. “Second to none in terms of a person, in terms of his ability, in terms of his vision. When I talk about being pro-active, he’s the guy who thinks outside the box more than anybody.”
Desjardins turned 48 on Victoria Day, still young for a CFL manager, although a pending lockout might age him and his peers.
“He’s very calculated,” Popp says of Desjardins. “He can be different in the public eye. Very calm. He’s very polite, has great mannerisms, very well spoken — behind closed doors he lets his hair down, a very fun person and well-rounded.”
On Monday: Read Desjardins Part II
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