Jim Barker says he always had a plan for the Toronto Argonauts, even though it may have seemed hard to believe at times.
The general manager sat in the middle of a Toronto steakhouse Wednesday, as his players enjoyed a Grey Cup breakfast and mingled with media, talking about how they went from a squad that missed last year's CFL playoffs to one now just days away from playing for the title.
Barker came to the Argos as head coach in 2010, knowing the job would require some housecleaning and a change in team culture. He did some heavy lifting – winning CFL coach of the year in 2010, and adding the GM duties to his workload prior to the 2011 season.
He handed over the coaching job to Scott Milanovich before the 2012 campaign. It's a move, Barker says, he had envisioned all along.
Now working with men he calls two of his best friends (Milanovich and defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones), Barker finally has his "dream team," and says it's all unrolling per the blueprint.
Barker has worked in the U.S. NCAA, CFL and XFL, and is a three-time Grey Cup champ as a coach and executive. The 56-year-old from Pasadena, Calif., has worked with many different coaches and players over the years, but Milanovich stood out, specifically after a memorable conversation at a mini-camp in 2000, when Barker was offensive co-ordinator of the XFL's Los Angeles Xtreme and Milanovich was his backup quarterback.
"He and starter Tommy Maddox asked me for a few minutes to go over some protection questions, and we just talked until 3 a.m.," Barker recalled. "I said, 'You two both have a chance to be incredible head coaches.' It was just a great conversation. Scott and I stayed very close, and I wanted to make sure I helped him become a head coach."
Barker became friends with Jones when they worked for the Montreal Alouettes together in 2002. He said he tried to get Jones to come with him to the Calgary Stampeders when he was hired as head coach in 2003, but Jones couldn't get out of his contract with the Als.
Barker was fired after a 5-13 season, but rejoined the Stamps as GM in 2005, and finally got Jones then. Eventually, Milanovich joined up as well. Jones and Milanovich were roommates, drawing up plays late into the nights, improving as coaches.
"When I was hired as head coach in Toronto, I was trying to help Scott get the job, and when that didn't work out, I got the job. But I never wanted to coach long-term," Barker said. "It worked out for the best, because I went through the crap that needed to be gone through. I wouldn't have stepped down if I couldn't get gotten Scott as coach."
When Milanovich came in, the two went hard after a quarterback, and as Barker puts it "we were not going to be denied." If they didn't get Ricky Ray in a trade with the Edmonton Eskimos (which they did), they were going to chase Henry Burris (then with the Stampeders).
"Together, Scott and I pored over film of Ricky, Henry, all veteran quarterbacks, but what stuck out for us was seeing Ricky on film getting hammered over and over, then standing up and throwing right on the money," Barker said. "Scott said 'This guy, in this offence would be unstoppable once he learns it.' It took him three-quarters of the year to learn it, but now he's the franchise-turner."
Last Sunday, as Barker watched the Argos defeat the Alouettes in the East Division final, he was reminded of why he believed it was time for Milanovich to take over.
"I was a coach who wore my emotions on my sleeve – I was up and down, and in that East final, that would have killed us," Barker said. "Scott is a former quarterback and stayed so level when we fumbled. We didn't get a first down on that third-down try, we didn't get in on first-and-goal, and Scott stayed so even, so focused on the next play. I don't have that ability, but Scott does. He's better for this team."
Barker won't say in certain terms whether he will remain in Toronto long-term: "I'm on contract and my best friends are here.
"We'll compete to win Grey Cups every year. I have no doubt in my mind that this team, for years forward, will be one of the teams to beat."