Calgary Stampeders’ John Hufnagel brings a pivot(al) calm to the role of head coach
Architect of second Grey Cup finalist in five seasons has a long pedigree of developing star quarterbacks
TORONTO — It has been a fascinating week watching John Hufnagel field questions he often can’t quite make out.
The Calgary Stampeder head coach’s hearing impairment — which has worsened over the 20 years since he first heard the ringing that wasn’t there — has made the everyday mass interview in rooms with less than ideal acoustics an ongoing Grey Cup adventure, filled with mystified looks from the 61-year-old coach/GM, who’s had to appeal to CFL personnel to repeat the questions from close range so that he can also read their lips.
If Hufnagel has been frustrated by it, he has handled it all with grace and good humour, and a lot of patience. That, in itself, is a revelation for a man whose exterior can be more than a bit forbidding, even intimidating.
But in a way, the impairment, and the need for quick, loud questions — often eliciting quick, terse answers — fits.
He is not inclined to give soliloquies. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and now and then, in answering a distasteful question, he will conclude his response with a tight, on/off raising of the corners of his mouth, which in a less imposing person might be misconstrued as a smile.
Sunday, when his football team plays for its second Grey Cup in his fifth year as their architect and director, Hufnagel will be adding yet more evidence to a resume that his former boss and now rival GM, Toronto Argonauts’ Jim Barker, believes will one day earn him recognition as a Hall of Fame coach.
“He is the consummate pro,” said Barker, who was the Stampeders’ GM before Hufnagel’s return from the NFL in 2008, and then moved up to director of player personnel and VP of football operations.
“He’s exactly what you look for in a head coach, and having been a quarterback I think helps him maintain his evenness and composure. He knows exactly what he wants and he lets you know what he wants. He’s a man of few words, but he commands an incredible amount of respect.”
Part of the reason he does is his history as a coach of quarterbacks, in the NFL where he has had Peyton and Eli Manning, Tom Brady (winning the 2003 Super Bowl), Mark Brunell — and in Canada, where the list of passers he has influenced includes Doug Flutie, Jeff Garcia, Dave Dickenson (now his offensive co-ordinator), Damon Allen, Henry Burris and now the tandem of Drew Tate and Kevin Glenn.
Asked why he has always been reluctant to talk about the great quarterbacks he has coached, Hufnagel didn’t even let the questioner finish Friday.
“Let’s keep it that way,” he said. “I’ll talk about Drew Tate and Kevin Glenn and Bo Levi Mitchell and Brad Sinopoli. Take your pick.”
The reason for his reticence, if he would only say it, is probably that he doesn’t want to appear to be taking credit for the God-given talents of passers who probably would have been great with or without his help.
“There’s no doubt,” said Barker. “But the more someone is in control of their profession, the less they have to talk about it.”
With Glenn, who emasculated the B.C. Lions’ No. 1-ranked defence in last week’s Western final, Hufnagel can almost relive his own past. Each joined a team, at age 32, knowing the subordinate role for which he was signing up.
“Well, the original reason and purpose of the trade (with Hamilton, acquiring Glenn for Burris), I did want a quarterback with experience, and when we made the trade, Kevin fully understood what his role would be. He knew he was coming in to help with Drew’s progression,” Hufnagel said.
“I played in two-quarterback systems. My days in Winnipeg, I was Tom Clements’s backup. When Tom was healthy he played. When he needed some help, I played. When he got hurt, I played.”
It didn’t mean he didn’t want to be the starter. They won a Grey Cup together in 1984.
“I wanted to play, but it was my decision to go to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers under that situation,” said Hufnagel, who also shared the Saskatchewan job with Joe Barnes at one point in his career.
Glenn, who grew up in Detroit and actually watched some CFL football growing up, had never seen Hufnagel play, of course — he missed that by a generation — but he knew one thing about him when Calgary traded for him.
“That he coached a lot of great quarterbacks,” Glenn said. “I knew he had been around a lot of football, and when a person has had that kind of success, I mean, it’s like, he could tell you the sky’s purple and you’d believe him.
“You want to listen to him, want to ask questions, want to hear what he’s saying because it may be something you might not ever know if you weren’t in his presence.”
The hearing impairment doesn’t appear to be much of an issue in meetings. It hasn’t been with Glenn.
“Oh, no, because I know what his situation is,” the quarterback said. “But I think sometimes people misunderstand him because of it. Because you may say something to him and he doesn’t hear you and the way he says ‘What did you say?’ you might think he’s snapping at you, but it’s not that. It’s just he couldn’t hear you.”
In meetings, said the quarterback, “he’ll let you know if he can’t hear you. He’ll tell you to speak up. He’s not ashamed of it, and that’s good.”
Now and then it creates some discussions on the sidelines that may appear a little more heated than they are, although sometimes Hufnagel really is letting a player have it.
He said he had learned long ago, under Cal Murphy in Winnipeg, “the importance of getting the player’s attention immediately. The game’s too short. It’s 60 minutes, I’m not going to wait till the next morning to get that player’s attention.”
Hufnagel doesn’t exactly divulge much about his methods.
“I definitely told [Glenn] how I felt the position should be played. Whether that helped him or not, I don’t know,” he said.
Glenn was more forthcoming.
“Sometimes when he’s talking to you, you think he’s out there reliving some of the days he played,” Glenn said. “But he talks to you in quarterback language. He can put you in a place where, while he’s talking to you, you can actually see it happening.
“Having Danny Barrett at the beginning of my career in Saskatchewan and John Hufnagel here later on, it’s kind of like the best of both worlds. I came into the CFL with a guy who taught me a lot and I think had a lot to do with why I’m still in it today.
“And Huf, having him as coach has put me in the 100th Grey Cup.”
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