B.C. Lions’ defence enriched by ‘mad scientist’
Life is good for Rich Stubler, who seeks another Grey Cup and maybe another shot in Toronto
VANCOUVER — When Mike Benevides stood in the B.C. Lions’ room Friday morning at BC Place and presented a game ball to Rich Stubler, it had nothing to do with where he — and they — would like to be this time next week.
It had everything to do with where they’ve been for the past 20.
“It was based on his being the coordinator of the best B.C. defence ever,” the rookie head coach said. “And what’s written on the bottom of the ball is a thing he says often: ‘Life is good.’ He’s very much about people. That matters to me.
“He’s different from me. I have been called a detail-oriented dictator. I thought that difference in personality was good.”
Which is one of a dozen reasons Benevides leaped at the chance to get Stubler back as his defensive coordinator after the 63-year-old travelling man spent the 2011 season in Edmonton.
There are few curves the Canadian Football League could throw at Stubler that he hasn’t seen before, quite a few times.
He’s been on Grey Cup winning staffs in Hamilton (1986 under Al Bruno), Edmonton (1993, Ron Lancaster), B.C. (2000, Steve Buratto) and Toronto (2004, Pinball Clemons).
He waited 25 years to get a head coaching job in the CFL with Toronto in 2008, and within 10 games he was fired. The 4-6 record he left with got a lot worse under his replacement: Don Matthews, then the winningest coach in league history, went 0-8 to end the season before retiring for good.
So that’s one small thing next week represents for Stubler. Nothing remotely as important as the Lions’ aspiration to be the first team since the 1982 Edmonton Eskimos to repeat as Grey Cup champions, but a meaningful return, all the same, to the city where he succeeded and finally failed — a city that represented two of the nine separate stops he has made, with four clubs, in his CFL career.
A place to take care of some unfinished business?
“Not really. Not any more,” he said Friday afternoon. “You can only be angry for so long. I waited for a lot of years for a shot, and it didn’t work out. I can’t be worried about what happened yesterday.
“It’d be great to get back there — but we’ve got to win this one before we get to play that one.”
Sunday’s West Division Final against the Calgary Stampeders got a little more sharply defined with the certainty that Kevin Glenn will play quarterback for the Stamps, who lost Drew Tate to a broken right forearm. But no easier.
That said, the Lions had their best defensive season in history under Stubler, who’s been consistently successful since joining the Tiger-Cats in 1983.
Coming back to B.C. for the third time — he’s also had three stints in Edmonton, and two in Toronto — brought him back to a cast of characters, both on the coaching staff and the field of play, with whom he was very comfortable.
“You know, Benny and I had a great relationship, and he gave me a chance to get back in the league [in 2010],” Stubler said. “When I left [Toronto] in 2008, nobody would even talk to me. I got fired and I called people for jobs and they said, ‘No, we’ve got somebody.’
“Benny gave me the opportunity to come back here. And I really enjoyed it.
“I went to Edmonton last year and it was a transitional year there with Kavis [Reed] — and Kavis is like my son, and we did a yeoman’s job there.”
But when Wally Buono retired as Lions’ coach after last year’s Grey Cup and Benevides got the job, he was either going to retain his defensive coordinator portfolio as well, or hand it off. The only guy he was willing to hand it to was Rich Stubler.
“I had a tremendous amount of respect for him when I studied him and his defences, but when I got to work with him in 2010, I learned a little about what makes him tick, his demeanour, his personality,” Benevides said. “I have a huge admiration for veteran coaches, for guys who have put in the time, and here’s a coach who’s been in the game for 43 years.”
“I would describe the defence he runs as veteran-friendly,” said cornerback Dante Marsh. “You allow the players’ abilities to flourish in the system, instead of trying to put square pegs into round holes.”
“There’s veteran personalities, veteran skill sets where at this point in their careers they do some things better than others,” said Benevides. “And the defence can be massaged to highlight their skills at this point in time.
“This game is ultimately about the players, but it’s also about a coach enabling them, empowering them.”
Buono calls Stubler “very cerebral,” and Marsh referred to some of his game plans as “mad scientist.
“You gotta be able to think the game,” said Marsh. “We’ve got the guys who can think on the fly, quick, and they’re athletic. He’ll come in and say, ‘You guys run the meeting,’ and then he’ll leave. And we own it. And that’s why we play it so well. We’re not robots.”
So, Stubler trusts his players that much?
“Yeah, as he should,” said Marsh. “A lot of times there are plays made by guys that shouldn’t even be there, but we know the defence so well, one person can mess up, the other 11 can make it look like it never happened.”
That’s not to say Stubler is all touchy-feely. He can lose it now and then. And Benevides can lose it on his behalf.
“I’ve been described as an asshole,” Benevides admits. “But I’ve always said: I learned from the best.” By which, presumably, he means Buono.
“This is a performance-based business and you have to pull from people the best they have. It’s not a popularity contest.”
Stubler, though, is pretty popular. You don’t keep getting hired back to places you’ve been before unless they like you, and your work.
“My dad always told me if you can hold them to one point less than you score, then you win, and it doesn’t matter if it’s 50 or it’s two,” Stubler said. Of course, defensive coordinators whose teams give up 50 don’t last long.
His dad was an all-American at Santa Clara — “He made the cover of Collier’s magazine, got drafted in 1939,” said Stubler. “I’ve still got my dad’s contract from George Halas: $50 a game, but only $25 if he got hurt before halftime.”
Nicholas Stubler never did go to Chicago, though.
“He went with Jack Dempsey in the war, became a USO guy, came back and coached. Coached his whole life. He died right after I won my first Grey Cup (at BC Place).”
Rich Stubler has coached his whole adult life, too.
It’s funny how things have worked out. He’s won two Grey Cups played in Calgary and one in Ottawa. Damon Allen was the winning quarterback in all three of them, and was the backup on the Edmonton team the Ticats beat in 1986.
Maybe one more thing that went around will come around next week.
He had his shot in Toronto. He wouldn’t mind one more.
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