Barking up the right tree

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Jim Barker deserves to be named the CFL’s head coach of the year

The 13th Man
Jonathan Hamelin
Sports Editor

They were in command of two of the most dominant teams in the CFL during the regular season, led their respective teams to the Grey Cup yet again, and managed to forge a paternal bond with their players and staff all the while.

With Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Ken Miller and Montreal Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman being named two of the finalists for the CFL’s head coach of the year award, which are being announced Feb. 25 in Vancouver, one could assume it will be a two-horse race for the award.

But, with all due respect to two talented coaches, the award this year should go to the third and final candidate: Jim Barker.

Vouching for Barker to be recognized above all other coaches is certainly something I would have never imagined doing heading into the season. When Barker was selected to fill Toronto’s head coaching vacancy, I was stunned.

In fact, I wrote an article online titled “An open letter to Jim Barker”. In this letter, I criticized Barker’s early decision to name Cleo Lemon, a rather inexperienced commodity, as a starter over Dalton Bell, who had outplayed Lemon during the preseason. I went on to criticize the Argonauts for not hiring a proven candidate like Scott Milanovich. I felt the offensive genius that is Milanovich would help bolster Toronto’s on-life-reserve offence. I also thought the Argonauts were unwise getting rid of stellar rusher, and Toronto’s top offensive player from last season, Jamal Robertson.

So naturally, after I laid it all on the line in letter form, Barker proceeded to lead the Argonauts into the playoffs, Lemon played respectably for most of the season, and Cory Boyd emerged as a dominant running back for the Double Blue.

The fact that I, and many other critics, could be proven so wrong about Barker is reason enough that he should be named the coach of the year. Everyone knew there was a very good shot Miller and Milanovich would lead their team to the Grey Cup, but almost no one even gave Toronto a shot to make the playoffs. Barker, who had posted a 5-13 record during his last head coaching stint in the league, didn’t seem like the main to right the sinking ship.

The Argonauts finished 9-9 this season and earned a berth into the playoffs. This was very good for a team who was trying to rebuild from scratch yet again. Toronto had only won a total of six games in the previous two seasons. Then, the Argonauts strolled into Hamilton and knocked of the Tiger-Cats in the first round of the playoffs. The Double Blue was subsequently destroyed by Montreal in the East Final, but the team already had reason enough to celebrate.

Much of the team’s success this season can be attributed to Barker.

When he joined the Argonauts, one could sense that he knew things wouldn’t change overnight. It was clear that Barker was willing to be patient. After Toronto’s lacklustre Week 1 loss to the Calgary Stampeders, it appeared like the Argonauts were in for another long season. However, there was no evident panic from Barker. Then, Toronto stunned basically everyone by winning three straight, riding the legs of Boyd and a steady defence. In Week 7, the Argonauts beat the Alouettes (with Anthony Calvillo starting) 37-22. It was a huge statement game for Barker and the Argonauts. The team’s rapid pace would slow down in the second half of the season, but Barker’s patience had paid off – Toronto had made the playoffs in what was deemed a rebuilding year.

Barker’s patience was most evident in how he dealt with Lemon. After controversially being named the starter, Lemon was sour early in the season. Throughout the first several weeks, he rarely threw for over 200 yards and had more interceptions than touchdowns. But Barker remained adamant that Lemon was his starter. Barker realized Lemon was in his first season and might need time to develop. For a coach, especially a coach in his first season with a struggling team, it must be so tempting to change quarterbacks at the first sign of a struggle. Barker didn’t, and Lemon ended posting decent numbers for a young quarterback – 3,433 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, 19 interceptions and a 78.1 rating.

More importantly, by sticking with Lemon, Barker sent a message to his players that he had faith in them. Many people think of Miller or Trestman when discussing players’ coaches, but Barker’s players undoubtedly wanted to play for him. This respect Barker has gained will help the Argonauts keep players and wrangle other ones in.

Now, there is a chance that Toronto will revert back to their struggles next season. Maybe 2010 was nothing more than a Cinderella run. Perhaps Lemon is not the starting quarterback Toronto is looking for.

However, to not acknowledge Barker for a season that was simply magical would be wrong.

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