The Annis Stukus Award for CFL coach of the year is always notable, as it's the CFL's lone major season-long award that's handed out well after the season. Nominees Mike Benevides (B.C.), John Hufnagel (Calgary) and Scott Milanovich (Toronto) were announced Wednesday, and all are deserving candidates. It will be interesting to see who picks up the prize at the award luncheon Feb. 28 in Regina, but all of these coaches deserve recognition for what they pulled off in 2012.
Benevides' instant success with the Lions was rather remarkable. Many thought there might be a rough early transition period after Wally Buono gave up his coaching role to focus on serving as general manager, but that didn't happen; the Lions won their first two games, were 3-2 after five (much better than the 0-5 start they got off to in 2011) and put up a league-best 13-5 record on the year. They allowed a league-low 354 points (no one else conceded less than 400) and put up a respectable 479 points (third-best in the CFL). B.C. eventually fell to Calgary in a close West Final, but had plenty of chances to win that. Yes, this was a talented team with high expectations, but it's easy to underachieve in this league, especially after a coaching change; the Lions didn't, and Benevides should be credited for that. All in all, it was a great first year for Benevides, and that probably speaks to the value of his long experience with Buono and B.C.; he served as the Lions' special teams coordinator and linebackers coach from 2003-07, then as their defensive coordinator and linebackers' coach from 2008-2011). His performance so far definitely suggests he's a solid successor to Buono as B.C.'s head coach.
What Hufnagel accomplished this year might be even more surprising. The Stampeders weren't a bad team in 2011, as they went 11-7, but they finished third in the West thanks to tiebreakers and lost to Edmonton in the first round of the playoffs. 2012 set up like a transition year for them, with changes at quarterback (Henry Burris to Drew Tate) and running back (Joffrey Reynolds to Jon Cornish) taking effect for a full year, but it proved to be anything but. What was most remarkable was how the Stampeders survived Tate's early-season injury (and his late-season injury) thanks to solid performances from Kevin Glenn, who at one time looked like a very curious addition. They went 12-6 on the year, upset B.C. in the West Final and made it to the Grey Cup game. That's an impressive showing for any team, but it's particularly notable for one that was without its top quarterback for most of the season.
Still, Milanovich might have the best claim to this award. Yes, his team went 9-9 in the regular season, worst amongst the coaching contenders here, but that was the largest year-over-year regular-season improvement of any of these teams (B.C. gained two wins from 2011 to 2012, Calgary gained one, Toronto picked up three). Milanovich's Argonauts then went on an incredible playoff run and claimed a home Grey Cup, not bad for a rookie head coach. There were some early struggles getting the Argos (and new quarterback Ricky Ray in particular) acclimatized to Milanovich's brand of offence, but once this team got on the same page, they clicked impressively. They put up 445 points on the season, the most of any Argos' team since 2005, and they came through when it counted, winning their two final regular-season games to lock up a playoff berth, then knocking off Edmonton, Montreal and Calgary in the postseason to lift the Grey Cup.
Milanovich is likely the favourite here thanks to both his team's year-over-year improvement and its postseason performance, but that brings into light the curiousity of this award; unlike most leagues' coach of the year trophies, voting (by select members of the Football Reporters of Canada) is conducted after the playoffs wrap up. From this corner, that's generally a positive; it allows voters to consider the entirety of the playoffs when making their selection, and it also puts more focus on the award, as it's not jammed into the already-packed awards night during Grey Cup week. It does mean that the results are different than they might be if the winner was announced before the Grey Cup game, though; Benevides and Hufnagel would have stronger arguments in that case. Still, there have been some pretty good selections over the last few years, with Marc Trestman's first Grey Cup championship rewarded in 2009, Jim Barker's turnaround of the Argonauts honoured in 2010 and Wally Buono's home Grey Cup with the Lions recognized in 2011. All three candidates here are deserving, but the bet is that Milanovich will likely take home the trophy, capping off what was an incredible year for him and the Argonauts.