For a team with a nasty habit of firing head coaches, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats caught a lot of people off-guard Tuesday, when they announced George Cortez had gone the way of so many of his predecessors.
Like Greg Marshall, Ron Lancaster, Charlie Taaffe and Marcel Bellefeuille, Cortez was shown the door in unceremonious fashion after failing to deliver a winning season and a shot at the Grey Cup. Unlike the others, the 61-year-old Cortez was terminated after just one season – with three years remaining on a contract that also made him the team's director of football operations and paid him $400,000 annually.
In that one season, Cortez served as offensive co-ordinator and produced the highest-scoring offence in the CFL. He also led the Ticats to last place in the East Division with a 6-12 record and one win on the road.
Along the way, he aggravated some with his intense nature and was only too happy to let defensive co-ordinator Casey Creehan jump to the rival Winnipeg Blue Bombers (in the same role).
When Creehan left Nov. 29, it was thought the Ticats were done axing coaches. Few observers suspected Cortez's job was in danger, otherwise he would have been chopped soon after Hamilton lost its final game of the 2012 regular season.
But during a recent postseason review, management didn't approve of what happened on the field and decided Cortez wasn't the one who could turn things around. The shared reaction of Ticats quarterback Henry Burris and running back Avon Cobourne was an expressive, "Wow."
"We had a very formal year-end process where [Ticats owner] Bob [Young] and I sat down and talked about all the companies we run and we came up with the difficult decision [to fire Cortez]," team president Scott Mitchell explained. "George was surprised, but not surprising to me was that his reaction was unbelievably classy. He wanted to know if he could do anything. I'm sure he's going to be well-received by a bunch of people [interested in hiring him]."
Cortez met with the media Tuesday, and admitted he had no idea he was about to be dismissed. "I probably was going down to interview somebody tomorrow for a job [as defensive co-ordinator]," he said. "We didn't win enough games. Ultimately, that's what you're judged on. … Nothing surprises me any more in coaching."
The Ticats also announced Bob O'Billovich had moved from the general manager's post to being a consultant to the president and the football operations staff. Mitchell said the organization will hire "a lead executive to run the team, then hire a head coach."
Mitchell acknowledged he'd already received messages and texts from people interested in a job.
Just who will become Hamilton's sixth head coach in nine years had the CFL alive in speculation. On the GM side, personnel director Joe Womack and even head U.S. scout Danny McManus are in-house possibilities. (The Edmonton Eskimos named former scout Ed Hervey as their new GM last Monday.)
As for coaching candidates, there are some who are presently out of work (Paul LaPolice, Greg Marshall) and others employed elsewhere in the league. Calgary Stampeders offensive co-ordinator Dave Dickenson, who played under Cortez, drew immediate attention, but later confirmed he is not interested in applying for any head coaching job this off-season.
The man who is certain to generate speculation, because he always does whenever a coaching position opens, is Kent Austin. The former Grey Cup-winning quarterback and coach is presently the head coach at Cornell University.
"We're under no timeline," Mitchell said when asked when the Ticats wanted a GM and head coach in place. "Hamilton's gone from a place where people didn't want to be, to a place where everybody wants to be. We're going to be talking to good people."