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O’Leary: Hufnagel’s coaching tree reaches across the league

The strategy sounds simple enough: Keep it about football, ignore any and all distractions and above all else, find ways to win. For the last decade, that’s how the Calgary Stampeders have operated.

It’s the motto that every professional sports organization strives for but as we see season after season, regardless of the sport, only a select few can meet and stay at that standard.

“It’s easier said than done,” BC Lions’ head coach Rick Campbell said when discussing the Stampeders, an organization he was a part of for three seasons (2010, 2012 and 2013).

“You’ve got to get some really quality people and hope they stay around. You can name the teams that have had the same head coach for a while and they’ve had success, just like here in BC with the Lions. They had a lot more success than they haven’t and Wally (Buono) was here for a long time. If it’s too turbulent and there’s too much stuff going on, that makes it hard, for sure.”

As voters make their decisions on a coach for the All-Decade Team presented by LeoVegas, it’s clear that the Stamps were the team to beat just about every season of the last 10. John Hufnagel joined the organization in 2007 as head coach GM and shifted his attention solely to the GM role after the 2015 season, handing the coaching reins over to Dave Dickenson, who has made it a seamless and successful transition.


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Winning has become second nature to the Calgary Stampeders over the last decade and that stems from the culture that John Hufnagel and Dave Dickenson have built (Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

In that span, the Stamps finished first in the West Division six times and posted a 132-46-2 record. They’ve played in five Grey Cups and won twice and they’ve had four Most Outstanding Player winners in that span (Henry Burris and Jon Cornish, with Bo Levi Mitchell winning twice).

There’s a standard in Calgary that started with Hufnagel, who has built up what has come to be the present-day model franchise for on-field success in the CFL.

Campbell was a part of Hufnagel’s 2010 staff, coming in as the running backs coach. He knew he wanted to be a head coach himself and spending time around Hufnagel helped provide the final steps he needed in that journey. Campbell spent the 2011 season in Edmonton then spent two more years in Calgary as Hufnagel’s defensive coordinator before becoming the Ottawa REDBLACKS’ head coach in 2014.

“Personally I got to learn a lot, not only about football strategy but just about running a football team and the whole structure of it,” Campbell said. “I appreciated that the focus was always on finding ways to win. I mean that as a compliment, in that there weren’t a lot of distractions, there wasn’t a lot of drama. It was just about winning football games.

“The other thing I learned about Calgary, which is still true for them and why they continue to do well is that they’ve done a really good job of having continuity. They lose some players and lose some coaches once in a while to other teams, but they keep a core group of people there and I think that makes a big difference for them.”

Many coaches, like Chris Jones, that have worked under John Hufnagel and Dave Dickenson have had the luxury of being able to wait for the perfect opportunity to present itself before leaving Calgary (Arthur Ward/CFL.ca)

As the last decade progressed, a pattern began to emerge with those coaches that did leave the Stamps. Just looking at some of the members of that 2010 staff, you saw it with Campbell, with Chris Jones, with Corey Chamblin and with Dickenson. There was chatter about them becoming head coaches well before they took that role on for the first time in their careers. Working in Calgary afforded them the luxury to stay with a winning program and pick the places they wanted to move to. Each of them did that, moving up rather than laterally.

“It’s a really good work environment and you know that you have a chance to win,” Campbell said.

“There were very few things I would have left Calgary for in the CFL. My attitude when I was the defensive coordinator in Calgary is that I had the best job in the CFL. I got to work at a place where I could do my job and have a chance to win. It was going to take a really special circumstance to leave, which, in that situation obviously I’m glad I was able to go to Ottawa and be a part of that. No regrets on that front.

“There’s also a thing, the longer you’re around football and pro sports is that if you have a good thing going, it’s good to ride that wave as long as you can. I think that people, the longer you’re in it, they understand that as to…don’t go chase, $5,000 more — not that money doesn’t matter — but make sure you don’t run for the greener grass, when the grass isn’t that much greener.

“So that’s why I think you see guys hang around. It’s also pretty stable. That’s the other thing in pro sports, is that some teams are very unstable. There’s a lot of change and fluctuation going on. I think there’s a benefit of knowing that there’s going to be a certain level of stability where you can show up to the office every day and do your job and work hard and go from there.”

When Campbell’s time was up in Calgary, he took a lot of those lessons from Hufnagel and aimed to implement a similar culture in Ottawa. The season was disrupted for him before he could really get off the ground with the Lions, but he’s done what he can in challenging circumstances to do the same in BC.

“When I went to Ottawa, Calgary was a big influence on me,” he said.

“I knew the importance of people. I knew the importance of continuity and the importance of keeping the focus on surrounding yourself with as good of people as you can and then keeping everybody pulling in the same direction. That definitely was a huge influence on going to Ottawa and starting a team from brand new from nothing. That was a huge influence and focus for me.”

Ryan Dinwiddie is the most recent Calgary coach to make the leap to a head coaching role, joining the Argos in December, 2019 (Chris Tanouye/CFL.ca)

When you stay in one spot for a long time and build a model program, your coaching tree will be a rich one. Wally Buono did the same in his time in Calgary and carried that on in BC. While the 2020 season didn’t get off the ground, coaching staffs were put in place and you can see the branches of Hufnagel’s tree stretch across the league. There’s Campbell in BC, Dave Dickenson in Calgary and Craig Dickenson — who was Hufnagel’s special teams coordinator in Calgary in 2008 and 2009 — in Saskatchewan. Ryan Dinwiddie was hired in Toronto after spending the last four years as Calgary’s quarterbacks’ coach.

“There was always a really good focus on doing your job and putting people in a position where they could succeed and letting them do their thing and I think that’s paid off,” Campbell said of the Stampeders.

It’s benefitted Calgary and the trickle down effect from that has helped the league as a whole.

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