Milanovich feeling at home with Argos
Argos head coach Scott Milanovich during rookie training camp at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus in Mississauga, Ont., May 31, 2012. (MICHAEL PEAKE/QMI Agency)
“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” — American poet Maya Angelou
Professional football isn’t so much a profession as it is a lifestyle.
It rules the mind, it challenges the body, it dictates where home will be from one season to the next, it turns today’s foe into tomorrow’s companion, it can widen horizons and it can play heaven — or hell — with familial relations.
Scott Milanovich has seen, or experienced, pretty much all of them in the 16 years since graduating from the Maryland Terrapins and walking into training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent.
And the first-year Argonauts head coach has the decals on his suitcase and football resume to prove it: Tampa. Rheine, Germany. Cologne, Germany. Calgary. Los Angeles. Montreal. And now, Toronto. There is one constant: For the past nine or so years (he’s not sure how long), he and his wife, Jaime and their two children, Macall (10) and Maggie (8), have kept a family home in upper New York State.
“It’s where her family is from ... and it’s nice to have a place to go back to.”
Milanovich has grown up in the game. Butler, Penn., is a town of 15,000 in the football heartland of America that has produced the likes of Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas. His father, Gary, coached the high school team and Milanovich would sometimes watch game film with him. In the fine tradition of the Pennsylvania quarterback country, he would go from playing for Butler High to college and the pros.
“He is always about football. It is all he has ever been about,” said Toronto general manager, mentor and cheerleader Jim Barker. It is meant in the most complimentary terms.
While Milanovich’s football skills were limited, his passion for the game, his football IQ, his desire to be innovative are seemingly unlimited.
He has gone to the ends of the football world to hone that passion, to learn the game as others have played it, then to mould it into a form that is all his own. He used Europe as a training ground for his mistakes and a place where his family learned the trials and wonder of life away from familiar soil.
He found the true meaning of “team chemistry” in Los Angeles with an XFL team.
He took the innovative offensive ideas of Montreal Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman, read about the coaching philosophies of John Wooden.
“I took a lot from Marc. He prepared me to become a head coach,” Milanovich said, sitting in club headquarters at the University of Toronto Erindale campus, as he begins his first training camp as a head coach.
“But any coach takes things from a lot of people you’ve been with. I was lucky to be with Tony Dungy. I was in the run and shoot (at Maryland), where we’d get 400, 500 yards a game. I was with (current Toronto general manager) Jim Barker in the XFL where we won a championship. I think you take a bit from each guy ... you respect what those guys do, but I always had my own ideas, too.”
Time and place. They have combined to make him what the media has dubbed the CFL’s offensive guru. That knowledge will be tested to the extreme as he takes over an Argonauts team that has lingered in an offensive stupor. The 100th Grey Cup celebrations are destined for Toronto this year and much of the rest of the country wonders why the league would give the game to a franchise searching for relevancy in a city that has become a football vacuum.
Milanovich has to use his past to create a future for professional football in this city. Not only does he have to return the Argos to the win column, he has to build that team so it will reawaken a city’s interest.
“Home is where one starts from.” — T. S. Eliot
It didn’t take Milanovich long to figure out that if he was going to have a future in the game, it would not be as a player. He completed two of three passes in his 1996 rookie season with Tampa. That would be the end of his NFL career.
“I was always the third-string quarterback throughout my NFL career, so by my third or fourth year I knew I was getting close to the end if I didn’t move up and get some game experience. But Trent Dilfer was our starter and he never got hurt so you just didn’t get a chance to play.
“After I was cut by Tampa, I became a coach.”
Between 1999 and 2003, he would still dabble at quarterback in the Arena League, the XFL and the CFL. “I did play a bit, but the only reason I did that was to make a little money just to make ends meet until I could get a real coaching job and support the family.”
Hello, Dusseldorf, where he got his first real job as quarterback coach with the Rhein Fire. It was also baptism by fire. And culture shock.
“They speak GERMAN!” he says, laughing, “and my first instinct was ‘This is really going to be tough’. And we didn’t love it.”
But they lived — his wife got to see Paris and he got to golf at St. Andrews.
“Turned out to be a great experience. As we now look back on it, the experiences we had there, we now treasure. We got to see and do some amazing things.”
He also began to lay the foundation of what would become his offensive philosophy.
“From a coaching standpoint, it was a great place. I became a coordinator and I think I was only 30 years old! What I thought I knew, it turned out I didn’t know. But it was a place where I was able to make mistakes without any pressure from media. It was just a development league for the NFL. It wasn’t so much that Rhein had to win or we’d get fired.
“It was a place you could make mistakes without a whole lot of people watching.”
The same luxury won’t be accorded him with the Argonauts. Then, chances are, he won’t need that luxury.
“The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection.” — Thomas Paine
The year is 2003 and Michael Feterik has taken over team ownership of the Stampeders.
It is where people went to learn what not to do, although neither Barker (then the head coach), nor Milanovich (who hired on as his quarterback coach) knew that at the time.
“We drove to Calgary from New York, which is a long way with two young kids, and I don’t know if it was an omen, but when we pulled into Calgary, it was pouring rain ... it was miserable,” Milanovich said. “We weren’t very good; we had quarterback issues and there were circumstances behind the scenes that made things difficult.”
That’s being diplomatic.
Feterik, the owner, was insisting his son Kevin be the quarterback. The Stamps finished 5-13 — and it could have been worse.
In an interview when he was hired three years ago in Toronto, Barker recalled the experience with candour.
“That was the most dysfunctional situation I’ve ever been in,” Barker told me. “Our kicker (Mark McLoughlin) became the president. He got tired of being the president and wanted to come back and be the kicker. It was the biggest zoo ... a shemozzle that had no chance.
“It was a nightmare. At the end of the first year, I cut his son and he fired me two days before Christmas.”
On the plus side? Milanovich grins. “We got to see Banff and Lake Louise and we had a great staff. It was still fun even though we struggled ... and Jim helped me learn the game.”
Watching Kevin Feterik play quarterback also convinced Milanovich of one thing about the Canadian game: “I learned from my year in Calgary that if you don’t have a great quarterback, you are going to struggle.”
“A man’s homeland is wherever he prospers.” — Aristophanes
Hello, Los Angeles.
When the L.A. Xtreme won the 2000 XFL championship, it marked the resurrection of Tommy Maddox as a pro quarterback. But it was his backup Milanovich who left an impression on Barker (then the L.A. head coach), one that would eventually reunite the two in their crusade to save the Argonauts.
“It was about 9 o’clock one night and they were (watching film) and I was going home and he said, ‘Can we stay and figure this out?’ I walked out of there at 4 a.m.,” Barker said, grinning at the vignette. “I knew then that someday he’d become a great coach. He’s just a football guy. He studies the game. He’s young, but he has a presence about him and I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because he was a quarterback. There’s something about the position, those guys seem to have that presence. Scott has it.”
The XFL might have been a joke to some fans and owner Vince McMahon was more blarney than business. But it is also where Milanovich cemented his belief in the power of team chemistry.
“The year we won the championship in the XFL was the closest team I ever was part of,” Milanovich recalled. “We had great players and we just liked each other and it was just fun.
“The teams in Tampa were much like that. We had a really great defence and a sub-par offence. Our defence just continued to bail us out. They didn’t care if we had to win 10-7. A couple years in Montreal, we had very close teams. It almost makes me wonder if that’s the ultimate answer to winning championships; to have that closeness. There are teams that have won when they couldn’t stand each other, but I don’t think it can be done that way consistently.”
While winning remains the No. 1 goal, Milanovich says building camaraderie and a sense of team unity ranks No. 2 on his to-do list.
“Aside from winning, the thing that’s most important to me is that guys come together. It’s not fun when you have (cliques) here and sections there. Guys don’t have to love each other, but they have to respect each other. It certainly helps if your team can gel and bond and like each other and support each other.
“A big part of football is the ebb and flow of the game. And when the offence throws a pick and they run to the six-yard line. Now our defence is going to step up and say, ‘I’ve got your back. We’re going to stop them and make them kick a field goal.’
“If you can have that unity, it really helps. Where one team may feel, ‘Oh, man! Our offence screwed it up!’; What you want is your guys to think, ‘We’re going to fix this for you. We’re in this thing together.’ ”
“Analogies, it is true, decide nothing, but they can make one feel more at home.” — Sigmund Freud
Which is where Milanovich met some of his favourite people in 2007. Anthony Calvillo, Trestman and general manager Jim Popp — who originally hired him as quarterback coach — developed along with him an offensive philosophy that turned the Alouettes into an oft-unstoppable force.
“I was an offensive coordinator in Europe, so essentially it was a demotion. But it brought us closer to home.”
He took the job essentially for two other reasons: He already knew and trusted Popp and “They had a great quarterback.” But there were hints that Calvillo was on the decline and the Als’ offence struggled much like Toronto’s last year. The Als finished 2007 ranked seventh out of eight teams in offence, averaging just 20.1 points a game.
Coincidentally, Toronto’s offence was seventh out of eight teams in 2011 and averaged 22.1 points a game.
In 2008 in Montreal, with Milanovich moving up to assume the offensive coordinator duties, the Alouettes were the offensive class of the league. Montreal scored more points and gained more yards than any other team. They averaged 32.4 points a game, just shy of two converted touchdowns more than a year earlier.
The past four seasons have catapulted Calvillo from a good quarterback to one destined for the Hall of Fame.
“I can’t take credit for that. Anthony is just a good quarterback. The perception from the outside was that his skills were diminishing. But they weren’t. The year before I came there, they lost in the Grey Cup, but they still got there.”
It was also in 2007 that Calvillo had to deal with his wife’s cancer scare. “I can’t speak for him. I didn’t know him that well the first year. But I felt a change in him when his wife beat cancer and he came back. He was always a great pro. But he had changed his diet. Marc (Trestman) came in and his system helped him. We made a change in his drop that helped his mechanics. But if you got someone open and you told him where to throw it, he was going to hit that guy. I think it was a combination of a lot of things that came together at one time.”
Two Grey Cups later, football once again flourishes in Montreal where the stands are packed and it is in part due to Milanovich.
Now in Toronto, he joins another veteran quarterback Ricky Ray. The symmetry is too irresistible for football pundits, who already are drawing analogies between what happened in Montreal, and what could happen in Toronto.
“I have no doubt he’ll thrive in this system. One of the big challenges we have is to figure out in a short time how this system fits Ricky. How we need to adjust it so that he feels comfortable — the same way that we did with Anthony,” Milanovich said.
“It’s like saying, ‘Okay, we have all these plays Anthony, or in this case Ricky, so which ones feel good to you? Which don’t? When its crunch time, what do you like here.’
“Unfortunately, some of that takes time. You’re not going to know that, you learn as you go. You plan and you hope that while you’re finding that out you’re still good enough with defence and special teams — and that you score enough points — to win some games until you figure it out and you’ve got it rolling.”
“My home is not a place, it’s people.” — Lois McMaster Bujold
So, where to begin? Milanovich has an all-star quarterback, but no left tackle to protect his backside.
There is an all-star tailback in Cory Boyd, but the lead blockers include an offensive line filled with question marks while the receiving corps consists of The Great Unknown.
The Argos haven’t had a go-to receiver since Bart Andrus traded Arland Bruce, and with the departure in the off-season of Kevin Eiben and Rob Murphy, this is a team with some leadership issues.
Neither Barker nor Milanovich believe the offensive line is the Achilles’ Heel that those outside the organization are predicting.
“Obviously, there’s a window at left tackle that has to be filled. But I believe we have guys who can play at a high level in our system, so I’m not overly concerned. We’re not going to leave Ricky Ray’s blind side unprotected. It’s just not going to happen,” Milanovich said.
“Protection is our No. 1 focus, but it’s not something that is keeping me up at night. It’s our job as coaches to find a way to solve this; move the pocket, get the ball out quick, or put an extra guy over there. There are ways to do this.”
The CFL is a quarterback league, which explains why the Argos have been sucking the league’s tailpipe much of the past decade.
“It all starts with the quarterback. People can say whatever they want. And there’s other ways to win games. We have a great tailback in Boyd. He’s going to be a huge part of our offence and get more touches than anyone. But if Ricky’s not moving the sticks, it will affect Boyd. They will have more guys in the box and it will be hard to run the football. That’s why I say it all starts with the quarterback. He doesn’t have to throw it 50 times for 500 yards, but he’s got to be efficient with the football and move the sticks.”
Milanovich believes his offensive philosophy is misunderstood. It is often said that while the general principle in the CFL is to stretch the field and spread the defence, Milanovich’s offence condenses the field.
“I’ve heard that and you can argue it. I don’t agree. If you look at the presnap formation, that’s true ... but from those tight (formations) we can shoot guys up field ... it makes every receiver a viable receiver because now he’s not so far out there that you’re rarely going to throw him the ball.
“We do tighten our formations, but when we shoot a receiver out and he catches the ball, now he has all that space out there to go try to make somebody miss.”
The other benefit of the system Milanovich and Trestman perfected in Montreal is that it is quarterback-friendly.
“It’s the best one I’ve ever been in. It’s the easiest one on a quarterback even though initially it’s difficult from a mental standpoint. Once a quarterback understands his reads, they stay the same. A lot of offences this week, it’s this; next week, it’s that. That can become difficult for a quarterback. This one, you have a read ... the formations may change .... but for Ricky (the reads) are to here, to here, to here. So you can really get into a groove getting from one receiver to another. You’re not standing back there holding it and getting hit in the mouth.
“Physically, once a quarterback learns it, to perform in this system becomes second nature. Even though it looks different to a defence, it’s the same to a quarterback ... we may change a formation, but for Ricky, where he’s going with the ball is going to stay the same.”
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Actions breed confidence and courage.” — Dale Carnegie
The problem with the Argonauts is not only that they haven’t been able to win. It is that they lose ugly.
When they play, all through the house not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse. And while it is Milanovich’s job to win — not necessarily to be entertaining while doing it — his teams tend to accentuate the fun.
“I tend to be aggressive and that’s what people want to see anyway. I’m fortunate in that what I want to see is what a lot of other people like to see.
“So I don’t have to think about whether it’s going to be entertaining ... I always liked as a player to be aggressive and go for the win. I think players enjoy it. It’s fun ... they want to go out and make plays.”
And so the Argonauts embark on a quest to become relevant; perhaps to believe that for the first time since 2004 they can — in its 100th anniversary — become a player for the Grey Cup.
To climb that summit will require a thousand baby steps.
So Milanovich will talk about the journey, but not so much the destination.
“We don’t talk in these offices or with the players about the Grey Cup. We have a goal, but once you realize that, I think it’s counter-productive to focus on that because now you’re worried about the end product and not concentrating on the day-to-day.
“Our basic philosophy is: Attention to detail, every walk-through, every practice ... take care of the little things.”
Where that leaves him, and the Argos, on Grey Cup Sunday, even Milanovich can’t predict. Wherever it is, chances are he’ll find a way to make himself at home. Always has.