When you're changing head coaches after just five games, and after a win to boot, something clearly hasn't gone according to plan. The Montreal Alouettes' decision Thursday to pull the plug on rookie head coach Dan Hawkins is a highly unusual one, and one that's going to spark a lot of debate over the next few weeks. While the team wasn't off to a great start, going just 2-3 to begin this season and struggling offensively, they seemed to be making some progress with last Thursday's 32-27 win over Edmonton. Now, with Hawkins out and general manager Jim Popp again returning to the sidelines (as he did after coaching changes in 2001 and 2006), they're hitting the reset button. The key question is why they'd decide to make a change now.
Was there behind-the-scenes drama in Montreal? That would make some sense given the timing of the move. If it was purely about what the Alouettes were doing on the field, it would have been more logical to either make a change sooner (perhaps after the offence hit a particularly low point in a 22-14 Week Three loss to Calgary, or after the team fell to 1-3 with another loss to the Stampeders the following week (after which The Montreal Gazette's Herb Zurkowsky wrote that "the rope around Hawkins’s neck is getting tighter"), or later (after giving Hawkins and company more time to attempt to turn things around). Instead, firing a coach a full seven days after a game (and one his team won) suggests there's something else going on here. Yes, Montreal's heading into a bye (they don't play until next Thursday, August 8), so a coaching change now allows them time to figure out what they're changing before their next game, but if this was merely about Hawkins' poor start, he should have been axed either after one of those losses or soon after this past week's win (if that was determined not to show enough progress). A firing a week later suggests there's more to this than just how the team's performed in games.
It's possible there were conflicting visions between Hawkins and Popp, but Popp was the guy who made the unconventional decision to hire Hawkins in the first place, a guy who had found some NCAA success (and some notable failure at that level too) but had never worked in the CFL (joining a short list there) and had spent the last few years out of the coaching game entirely as a television commentator for ESPN. Thus, Popp clearly saw something he liked in Hawkins, and he must have thought the two of them could work together comfortably. It's not out of the question that their relationship could have changed, perhaps with Hawkins proving resistant to Popp's ideas once he got the job or unable to adapt to the CFL's differences, but it would be curious if that was all that happened here, especially considering that Popp and owner Robert Wetenhall gave him a three-year contract.
Keep in mind that Popp had seen the value of patience before, too: after all, Marc Trestman (another coach with no CFL experience) started 2-3 in 2008, and he went on to an incredible run that saw the Alouettes appear in three Grey Cups in five years, winning two. Of course, the expectations were higher this year, considering that Montreal was only an Argo Bounce away from a Grey Cup appearance last year. Hawkins entered a difficult situation, as most coaching changes are made when a team's struggling: the Alouettes weren't in trouble, they just lost their coach to the NFL. Still, even with a talented team, it was expected that it would take time for Hawkins to adjust to the CFL, so it seems highly unlikely that Popp would pull the trigger here merely because of a slow start.
What seems much more likely is that Hawkins had lost the Alouettes' players on some level. It's highly improbable this move was made without consulting at least quarterback Anthony Calvillo, and likely some of the team's other veterans. Calvillo's seen a lot over his 20 years in the CFL, and although he seemed relatively enthusiastic about the team's new offensive concepts before the season started, his comments during the year have shown he was frustrated with the team's offensive struggles. Keep in mind that Hawkins wasn't the only CFL rookie on the Alouettes' coaching staff: his lengthy list of assistants featured several guys with no time up north, including offensive coordinator Mike Miller and special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski. That likely added to the team's struggles early on this year, and perhaps the players decided that things weren't going to get better.
That doesn't mean it was a direct mutiny, as it would be hard to see Calvillo leading an out-and-out revolt, but it's quite possible Popp took the temperature of the locker room's veterans this week and decided he didn't like the way things were going. That also would be the most justifiable reason to make this decision at this point in time: on-field results under Hawkins were showing some progress, but if his relationship with the players was deteriorating, it's understandable that Popp would want to stem that before it turned into a full-blown crisis. Whatever the rationale was, it's clear there's going to be a lot still to come on this front...