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Looking to spoil the party

Ex-Riders boss Austin biggest reason Ticats could pull upset Sunday

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Hamilton head coach Kent Austin (centre) directs his coaching staff during a frosty team practice in Regina on Wednesday.

TODD KOROL / REUTERS Enlarge Image

Hamilton head coach Kent Austin (centre) directs his coaching staff during a frosty team practice in Regina on Wednesday.

REGINA -- Twice Kent Austin has delivered the most cherished of prizes to the people in this province but on Sunday he'll be the villain doing his best to leave Saskatchewan in a flat puddle of tears rather than a river of bubbling champagne.

Around here, I've been told these last few days, it goes Ron Lancaster and George Reed and then a short list of secondary icons of which Austin is near the top.

His image stretches five stories on an exterior wall of Mosaic Stadium and there's a parking lot named after him, too.

The Grey Cup-winning quarterback in 1989 and winning coach in 2007, Austin is no longer one of the Riders and is instead the head coach and GM of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. There will be no fourth title for the Riders if Austin has his way.

"My family has been talking about that this week. The different twists in the storylines. We feel pretty honoured to be in the game and have worked hard to get here," said Austin. "I understand the ties. Generally speaking, anytime you're in it, it's hard to get here and every Grey Cup is special. Having said that, it's best that we are facing Saskatchewan. If I am to be in this game, I want the opposition to be Saskatchewan. If we're not going to win it, which we very much hope we do, it'll be good to have Saskatchewan do it."

The Riders are favoured by 51/2 points and most observers are picking the West champions. But Austin is the wild card. He's taken the Tiger-Cats from worst to first in the East in one season and has his team believing they can win. More importantly, Austin is among the best in the CFL at scheming and then adjusting during a game.

Corey Chamblin has done a fine job with the Riders but the edge under the headset goes to Austin. Austin's teammate from 1989, Glen Suitor, said his quarterback was an extra coach on the field during his playing days because of his deep understanding of the game.

Suitor said the memories Austin has made in Regina won't get in his way Sunday.

"Kent is top of the list. No one will ever bump Ronnie (Lancaster) and George (Reed) off the marquee. They'll forever be there as the guys that paved the way in this down but Kent Austin, being involved in two of the three championships, that alone puts him in his own separate category," said Suitor, now a TSN analyst.

"I don't want to call Kent a genius because I don't how many there are on the planet, but he is certainly one of the best if not the best in our game at putting together a playbook and a game plan. His people skills, he has a way of getting the best out of a person in the most positive and constructive way. It's hard love but he shapes it in a way that isn't degrading. You know he cares. Players love that. I'm not surprised at the success he's had. When they hired him in Hamilton, I said they'd found their Don Matthews or Wally Buono and would be set up for a long run of success."

Austin's history in Regina has the pain that often come along with days of wine and roses. During his playing days he left Regina in a huff, demanding more money and then a trade. When he returned as a coach, some had not forgiven him. But a Grey Cup in his first season at the helm salved those wounds.

"When I hired Eric Tillman to be our GM he told me if he decided to make a coaching change he would be bringing in Kent," recalled Riders CEO Jim Hopson. "I told him it would be his call but it wouldn't be entirely smooth. People here felt betrayed after he brought them a Grey Cup as their quarterback and then left because of money."

Hopson said Austin's ability, drive and immediate success turned him back into a favourite son.

"There were hard feelings. It started to turn around at his first press conference when his wife Shelly stood up and said, 'Don't blame Kent, I'm the reason we left.' It was magical after that," said Hopson.

"He told the team on the first day of training camp and I was in the room to hear it, 'If you don't believe we're going to win the Grey Cup this year you might as well leave right now because that's what we're here to do.' He's a big part of our history. His likeness is on our stadium for a reason. Put it this way, someone asked me this week if we would be taking him off the stadium. I told them you wouldn't consider taking down Wayne Gretzky's statue in Edmonton. End of story."

Austin left Regina again, this time to serve as the offensive co-ordinator at Ole Miss. He then went on to become the head coach at Cornell University and now he's back, wearing the black and yellow of the Tiger-Cats.

Hopson knows just how effective a coach Austin is and, maybe because of that, isn't willing to be as gracious as his old coach. Austin was comfortable in saying he'd like the Riders to win if it can't be him. Hopson, maybe because of the threat Austin represents could not say the same.

"No. Maybe I should be more politically correct and say I'd like Kent to win if it can't be us," said Hopson. "But I can't say that. We want to win. Simple as that."

To say this is the story of one man against an entire province might be a bit of a stretch.

But that's exactly how it will play out Sunday if Austin can get his way.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 21, 2013 D4

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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