As part of the annual CFL Congress, the Coach of the Year award is being presented today out in Vancouver. Candidates include Jim Barker of the Toronto Argonauts (pictured above), Ken Miller of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Marc Trestman of the Montreal Alouettes. Nominees were selected by members of the Football Reporters of Canada, and the winner receives the Annis Stukus Trophy (named after the legendary quarterback, coach and general manager). Trestman took home the award last year, but each of the three has a good case for it this time.
In many sports, the Coach of the Year award's pretty simple to predict. It's generally given to whichever coach oversaw the biggest turnaround. This works quite well sometimes, but not all turnarounds are equal; some are short-lived and owe more to scheduling quirks, unsustainable performances from a couple of players or suddenly weakened conferences or divisions. If you simply hand out the award to the coach whose team's record improved the most, you wind up with some choices that look rather interesting in retrospect, such as former Raptors coach Sam Mitchell in the NBA in 2007 or Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis in the NFL in 2009. Both of their teams fell apart shortly thereafter, leading to Mitchell's firing and Lewis barely hanging on to his job.
By the logic of rewarding the most improved performance, it would seem likely that Barker would take home this year's trophy. After all, he oversaw a dramatic turnaround that saw the Argonauts rise from 3-15 to 9-9 with a playoff victory. However, the CFL's award is much tougher to predict in advance. Especially in recent years, it's tended to reward coaches of successful teams; the last four awards have all gone to the coach of the Grey Cup champion. However, at other times, it's gone to those who have presided over dramatic turnarounds, such as Tom Higgins in Calgary. By and large, I think the award's generally gone to the right person; there are always plenty of impressive coaching performances in the CFL, but the voters have usually done a pretty good job of trying to separate coaching performance from team performance.
This year's award can't have been a terribly easy decision, however. All three candidates have strong cases for the award. Trestman presided over the first back-to-back Grey Cup championship team since the legendary Don Matthews did that with the Argonauts in 1996 and 1997, and that's a pretty impressive coaching performance by any metric. Trestman's Alouettes have had a target on their backs for several years thanks to their continued success, but they always manage to find a way to keep winning; a lot of that's on the coach, and particularly on the way he's designed schemes that maximize his players' skills. Meanwhile, Miller has a compelling case of his own; he led the Riders to back-to-back Grey Cup appearances, and neither was particularly preordained. His run as head coach might be most notable for the leadership he showed and the performances he coaxed out of his team.
Still, I think Barker's going to be the pick here, and I think that's the right choice. Trestman and Miller made the most out of the talent assembled in Montreal and Saskatchewan, but that talent was solid enough that even lesser coaching performances might have been enough to carry those teams a long way. By contrast, the Argonauts were widely predicted to continue their basement-dwelling ways this season. Instead, they managed to make it all the way to the East Final despite having arguably the worst starting quarterback in the league. The Boatmen have talent on their roster, but it's hard to see them finding the success they did without Barker's excellent leadership and game management. The Argonauts played to their roster's strengths perfectly, winning with a dominant ground game, a solid defence and terrific work on special teams. Rewarding the biggest turnaround isn't always the way to go, but in this case, I think Barker deserves the award; his coaching made a huge difference for Toronto, and that should be acknowledged.