It was late January, 2013 and the Redblacks football staff of one was sitting by Door No. 5 of the Ottawa CFL club’s temporary offices on Industrial Avenue.
With a cellphone tethered to his personal laptop as an Internet source, Marcel Desjardins was literally working with the blank slate of a computer screen.
Over the past 16 months, the infrastructure of the Redblacks has slowly but significantly – think time-lapse photography — emerged into a tangible thing, even as the hammers ring out at a Lansdowne Park stadium in progress.
Though the Redblacks still operate out of the temporary Industrial Avenue offices shared by the OHL Ottawa 67′s, the general manager now has a complete football operations staff, coaches, trainers and equipment people, plus a football camp roster of about 90 players. All are ready to move into the Carleton University training camp digs once the light signals green.
“We’ve gone from the name to the logo, to players, to a head coach, more players, a uniform – and training camp is two weeks away,” Desjardins said in an interview just before the collective bargaining impasse that threatens the start of all CFL camps, including Ottawa’s own scheduled June 1 launch.
Isn’t this just Ottawa’s luck – fans wait nine years for football to return and NOW the players and management decide to dig their heels in.
Whether camp starts on time, Desjardins has already made a statement – in words but more by actions – that he expects his new team to be competitive. Around the Redblacks, “expansion team” is a wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap phrase, too close to “excuse for losing.”
Consider the recent draft of Canadian college players. When he might have made a fuss over his historic first overall pick, Desjardins calmly dealt the pick away to the Calgary Stampeders for a player who could bolster the offensive line right away, centre Jon Gott.
That was just the beginning of Trader Marcel’s wild night. He then dealt quarterback Kevin Glenn, who’d been acquired in the dispersal draft but was unhappy when Ottawa later signed Henry Burris as their starter. Glenn went to the B.C. Lions for a fifth overall pick, which Desjardins swapped for the fourth overall pick so he could get Montreal Carabins defensive back Antoine Pruneau. On it went.
A shrinking violet, Desjardins is not.
“By trading a No. 1 pick, we secured a player we know is going to be our anchor for the offensive line for an extended period of time,” Desjardins said.
There is also this. Preserving Henry. It’s tough enough to be a CFL quarterback who turns 39 on June 4. Playing behind a first-year team could be detrimental to 39-year-old bones.
“Henry is our investment,” Desjardins says. “We need to protect him to the best of our abilities, so that’s where that (veteran) centre comes in.”
Handing the ball to Burris, a longtime starter who first stepped on a CFL field in 1997, was a statement in itself. The Redblacks aren’t resigned to being league doormats in Year One.
“If we want to develop and grow (slowly), do we sign Henry Burris, 38 years old?” Desjardins says. “Maybe not. Not that he doesn’t have years left, but maybe we go in a different direction.”
As for dealing Glenn, Desjardins didn’t want the distraction of a QB controversy in the first days of training camp. “Bigger picture, it wasn’t worth doing that.”
It’s unfortunate because Glenn would have provided excellent depth at the vital position. Behind Burris, Ottawa has Thomas DeMarco, 24, who has some CFL experience with B.C., and Corey Leonard, 27, a former Arkansas State quarterback who also spent time on the Lions roster, but has been out of the game for two years.
Desjardins will leave it to others to predict a win total for the first season. For a comparison, the expansion Ottawa Renegades were 4-14 in year one and improved to 7-11 the next year.
“We’re just going to be the best we can be,” Desjardins says. “We feel we’re going to win some games. How that translates into wins and losses is too hard to tell.”
Looking on, Montreal Alouettes general manager Jim Popp thinks the Redblacks might surprise some people, partly because this time around the organization was given more lead time and a superior dispersal draft than the Renegades.
“They’ve done a great job setting up a coaching staff, finding people with experience,” Popp says. “They’ll be very competitive, better than parts of other teams in their first year, that’s my view of them.”
Popp recognizes more than a few of the Redblacks staff. Assistant GM Brock Sunderland and pro-college scout Jeremy Snyder both have a history in Alouettes football operations. Canadian scout Miles Gorrell has played for nearly every CFL team. Head coach Rick Campbell, a former defensive co-ordinator with the Stampeders, is the son of CFL icon Hugh Campbell.
After 16 months on the job, Desjardins likes the commitment of the organization, which is setting up first-rate facilities at Lansdowne and Carleton. With its new high-performance centre and locker room, the university will be a major upgrade from the makeshift complex at Kemptville used by previous Ottawa teams.
Redblacks players can expect a working environment as good or better than most CFL clubs, with some touches many teams don’t have, such as a full-time human performance coach, in Kyle Thorne.
Fans can expect an organization that goes out of its way to be the anti-Glieberman or Horn Chen Riders, when every day was a circus.
“We’re not going to become more of an entertainment product than a football team,” Desjardins says. “We can’t compromise why we are here, to give out beads, do those stupid things. Those negative connotations don’t come into our environment, we’ve moved on.”
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