Distractions ultimately sank Eskimos’ Tillman
Openness with media, need to justify Ray trade irked colleagues
Eric Tillman has always sold himself as the accessible general manager. Long before he came to Edmonton — in his Grey Cup-winning stops in B.C., Toronto and Saskatchewan — he wanted to be the media’s darling; the go-to for information around the Canadian Football League and most important, with the team he was building at any point in the two decades he’s been a GM in the league.
In his time in Edmonton, Tillman’s openness with the media — this paper included — began to irk Tillman’s coworkers. A competitive edge was sometimes sacrificed, whether in an upcoming game or in contract negotiations. His eagerness to deliver (read “craft”) the message — in the 2012 season in particular — proved to be a distraction to a team that was trying to create an identity in the post-Ricky Ray era.
As big as the Ray trade was — it became the storyline of the Eskimos’ season the day it was made on Dec. 12, 2011 — it could have faded away, had Tillman allowed it to.
After a Week 2 17-1 loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders that had the Eskimos exposed at the quarterback position, Tillman went on 630 CHED and said that on an emotional level, he regretted trading Ray. He was back on the air a few days later to clarify the statement and emphasize that he stood by then-starter and key component of the trade, Steven Jyles.
That didn’t save Jyles from having to face a scrum of reporters asking him how he felt hearing that his GM had said he regretted trading for him. It also meant head coach Kavis Reed had to revisit the same questions that he’d faced every day through training camp.
There were smaller matters that ate away at Tillman’s standing within the organization. Earlier this season, he heard a comment on the radio that compared Reed to the Professor on Gilligan’s Island: something along the lines that Reed was a good coach who could take two coconuts and turn them into a radio.
As the man who supplied the coconuts to the Professor in that analogy, Tillman took exception to the comment and tore a strip off of the radio station for allowing the comment to be made. Meanwhile, the Eskimos lost that week in Winnipeg on a late Jyles fumble.
Tillman travelled to watch his team only once this season, going to Toronto on Aug. 27, where his Eskimos beat Ray for the second time. Tillman lingered outside the Eskimos locker-room after Kerry Joseph led the team to a win (Jyles left the game with a hurt knee). When neither the Edmonton nor Toronto media interviewed him that night, Tillman vented his frustrations to his employees, who were attempting to assess their quarterback future.
Jyles started just one more game in 2012, before Joseph, 39, assumed starting duties. Matt Nichols, the only under-30 quarterback on the roster, didn’t come into the picture until both Jyles and Joseph were injured.
After Nichols showed promise but some rough edges in that Sept. 28 loss, Tillman implored this reporter in a lengthy phone conversation that night to write a story that called for a return of a Jyles-Joseph quarterback combination the rest of the season. He couldn’t deliver that message because of the optics. A media member could.
Mired in a five-game losing streak just over a month ago, Reed expressed frustration over team information being leaked to TSN.
Reed grumbled about the TV network finding out that he had assumed offensive co-ordinator duties earlier that week. Next, they found out that linebacker J.C. Sherritt was injured. Tillman denied that he supplied the info, but his reputation for sharing made many assume he was the source.
“I’m going to start asking the guys out east what’s going on with our football team,” Reed said on Oct. 1.
On Oct. 17, Tillman ruffled feathers in the organization when he shared with a local paper a list of quarterbacks that the team had on its negotiation list. Eskimos employees were angered that the information was made public, claiming that it put the team at a competitive disadvantage. Tillman had got permission from the league to share the names on the list, but the gesture drove a wedge between him and his employees.
Rhodes was aware of that wedge and on Oct. 25 he went to the Eskimos board of directors and told them he wanted to fire their general manager.
“I went to the board, told them of my decision and on that same day I had their full support,” Rhodes said at Saturday’s news conference.
There was certainly dysfunction between Tillman and his staff, who felt that while they tried to work with the pieces they had in front of them, they had to work against Tillman and his mission to justify the Ray trade.
It was also suggested at the conference that Reed had done elements of Tillman’s job over the past two seasons. Rhodes didn’t deny that.
“(Reed has) done more than we asked him to do,” he said.
Tillman’s distractions are gone, but this week promises to be hellish for the Eskimos. The organization is in flux, with 13 key players and nine defensive starters set for free agency this winter. The turmoil could still run past Tillman’s often empty office. Just this year, public relations man Dave Jamieson, community relations rep Brad Morgan and football operations manager Ryan Wagner have quit their jobs. Most recently, vice-president marketing and management, Duane Vienneau, quit this past week.
Almost lost in this firestorm of drama is Sunday’s playoff game. Rhodes has fired his GM and will send his team into the biggest media market in the country, which will no doubt be salivating over the juiciest story the league has seen since Tillman dealt Ray to Toronto.
All the while, Ray is in his still new home in Mississauga, focused and waiting.
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