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4x CFL Grey Cup Champion GM & Coach Jim Barker On Building A Championship Team

Jim Barker | Offensive/Special Teams Assistant and Personnel Consultant | Hamilton Tiger-Cats

His ability to critically think through issues and then deal with individuals throughout the organization in an honest and sincere manner were lessons I was very fortunate to learn.

Jim Barker

Offensive/Special Teams Assistant and Personnel Consultant

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

× The interview with Jim Barker was conducted via a typed conversation. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.

What motivated you to start coaching football at the collegiate level?

In high school, I began coaching basketball, umpiring and coaching baseball while still playing football. Following a knee injury, I got an opportunity to coach in a high-level Pop Warner-type program (12-13 yrs old) with some really good coaches during my first couple of years of college. I was majoring in Business with the thought of going to Major League Umpire School upon graduation when I realized I loved coaching football.

So, I changed my major to Physical Education and actually coached a high school team and a youth team during my last two years of college. Following graduation, I walked into the coach’s office at Occidental College in Southern California and volunteered my services.  He named me the Offensive Line Coach, paid me $500, and my career was off and running!

Following my first season at Occidental, the Head Coach left for UOP and the AD asked me to be the interim Head Coach until a new coach could be hired. So at 22, I was in charge of all the recruiting and off-season duties during the search for a new Head Coach and actually allowed to be involved in the interviews. When the new coach was hired, there was a miscommunication about my role during his interview, so I left to go be a Graduate Assistant at San Francisco State.

At State, I wasn’t a normal “GA”, I was named the Offensive Coordinator in my second year and was working under Vic Rowen, a legend in the coaching profession. I spent the next 15 years coaching at every level of the NCAA – Div I, IAA, II and III. 

How did you land the opportunity to start coaching professional football?

In 1994, a friend I had met at the Offense-Defense Football camps asked me to go to Saskatchewan as a guest coach. I spent training camp with the Riders and was fascinated with the Canadian game. Two years later, a friend I had coached with at the University of Nevada interviewed me to be the Offensive Coordinator in Montreal.  He could only hire two coaches on offence back in those days and the other guy he wanted to hire was only a QB/WR coach. Hence, he asked me to go back to coaching the Offensive Line which I hadn’t done since my first year at Occidental. I accepted that job in 1996 and the CFL became my new future.

That year we lost to Toronto in the Eastern Finals and they folded the Alouettes the day after the season.  I was in Canada with two girls in school and no job – and a work permit that ONLY allowed me to coach football. I was fortunate to be offered a job as co-OC/OL coach with the Toronto Argonauts by Don Matthews.  He left for Edmonton two years later and I was named the Head Coach in Toronto – the youngest Head Coach in the CFL.

We went 9-9 in 1999 and lost to the eventual Grey Cup Champs (Hamilton’s last Grey Cup win), but the Argos were sold and the new owners had their own coach so I was again looking for work.  I was hired as the Offensive Coordinator of the LA Xtreme in the XFL and during that leagues’ only full year of existence we won the Championship in the infamous ‘Million Dollar Game’!  One million dollars – winner take all!

How did your return to the CFL from the XFL compare to your first tenure in Canada?

So I was out of a coaching job in 2002 and was offered the Offensive Coordinator job back in Montreal with Don Matthews again.Following a Grey Cup win and Anthony Calvillo winning his first MVP award I was named the Head Coach of the Calgary Stampeders, succeeding Wally Buono. He had just left for BC due to a conflict from the change in management. After the owner bought the team, the next year had some of the most amazing stories ever created in pro football. Needless to say, I was let go after the end of that season before the next year. 

Following a year off of football, I was approached by John Forzani and Ted Hellard who had just bought the Stampeders and asked if I would be the GM of the new Stampeder team they were re-making. I had never done it before but gladly took the job and took a hiatus from coaching!

I immersed myself in the job and had no scouts – I needed to learn everything about what a GM has to do. It was exciting and after three years of making the playoffs but not getting to the Grey Cup, we were fortunate to bring in John Hufnagel as the Head Coach. He wanted the title of GM also, so I became Sr. Vice President of the club. That year we won the Grey Cup and the Stampeders were officially back.

In 2010, I was approached by the Toronto Argonauts who were coming off two last-place finishes and invited to be the Head Coach and General Manager. Adam Rita had one more year on his contract so I agreed to be the Head Coach in 2010 and then do both in 2011.

After being named the CFL Coach of the Year in 2010, 2011 was very difficult and I felt both jobs needed undivided attention and following the 2011 season, I stepped down as Coach and hired a former player and coach of mine named Scott Milanovich. In 2012, Toronto hosted the 100th Grey Cup and we were fortunate enough to win that Cup.

What were the most important lessons you learned in your first years coaching pro football and who was the biggest influence on your coaching career in the CFL?

I very quickly learned the player-coach relationships enjoyed at the collegiate level were much different at the professional level.

Players, coaches and managers are chattel and decisions are always made for “business” reasons and rarely for personal reasons. Half the players on a team at the beginning of training camp will not be there for the season beginning.

Professional sports are a difficult and often brutal business. It is a very cut-throat world and views and understanding of loyalty truly are challenged on a daily basis. I have met many great people along the way and feel blessed to have been around people that have taught me so much about life and business.

There are two men that had a huge influence on my coaching career:

  1. Vic Rowen, the former Head Coach at San Francisco State was very quirky but taught me the nuances of the coaching profession. He exposed me to terminology and schematics that have lasted throughout my career.
  2. At the professional level, Don Matthews taught me what coaching pro football was all about. Also a very unique individual, Don had a special way of motivating pro athletes and coaches to be their best. I was very fortunate to have coached with both of these men.

In management, the most influential individual in my career was Ted Hellard, one of the former owners of the Calgary Stampeders.

He had never been involved in pro sports and I had never been involved in the business. He taught me the nuances of negotiation, budgeting and business management that were critical in my development as a front office manager. His ability to critically think through issues and then deal with individuals throughout the organization in an honest and sincere manner was lessons I was very fortunate to learn.

You were the OC of the only XFL championship team to date. What was the experience like coaching in a unique league and where do you see it benefiting the game today?

The XFL was an exciting experience and provided some interesting lessons about professional sports. For the coaches, it was a solid football experience. Al Luginbill was our Head Coach and really understood personnel at a different level from most Head Coaches. He was able to keep us focused on nothing but the football and schematics and I must say it was the most enjoyable year of my coaching career. We had a fantastic coaching staff and going to work every day was truly enjoyable.

The football in the league started rough but became much stronger as the season wore on. I think Mr. McMahon wasn’t sure how much like wrestling he wanted the XFL to be, but as the season wore on realized football players wouldn’t become involved in the type of storylines he manufactured in wrestling.  Most of the players in the XFL wanted to get to the NFL and didn’t want the crazy storylines following them. But for us on the LA staff, it was all football all the time and we were sheltered from all of that so I don’t really know.

The XFL today could provide opportunities for many people to continue their dream of playing, coaching, scouting and managing professional football, but revenue streams need to be carefully examined.  The fact is, getting people to watch and show up as their lone revenue stream is a difficult road to go down. 

The new ownership group seems interested in investigating other creative revenue possibilities and if they do that they will have a chance.  Running a professional football league is a pricy venture and the ownership group needs to spend wisely and be willing to invest heavily to get it off the ground.  They need a clear vision of what they want to be.   

You have won the Grey Cup twice as a coach and twice as a part of the front office personnel. What are the biggest advantages/challenges to winning a Grey Cup in both positions?

The challenges are similar – keep your key players healthy and get hot at the end of the year.

As a coach, preparations in the playoffs are similar, but the most important thing is doing what is needed to keep your key players healthy and sharp.  In the front office, the main thing is understanding the dynamics of your team and what it may need. A great example was the 2012 team, which was talented but very young, especially on defence. Adding Adriano Belli at the end of the season was a key addition that brought veteran leadership and looseness to the locker room that helped put us over the top.

In 2016, we lost Ricky Ray just before Labour Day for the year and as a group believed Drew Willy was the one guy we might be able to get that would give us a chance to win it all at home. We paid a lot to acquire him and it didn’t pan out as well. The front office needs to understand the coaching staff and ideally make decisions in a collaborative manner. Front office acquires personnel – coaches put that personnel in the best position to be successful. It is a difficult relationship to nurture, but vital to the success of an organization.

Of the four Grey Cup wins you have been a part of, which one was the most memorable?

While all four Grey Cups were special, as was the Million Dollar game in the XFL, the 2012 100th Grey Cup was without a doubt the most memorable. During that period of time it was actually “cool” to be an Argo fan in Toronto – there was a buzz in the city that hadn’t happened since the early 90’s.

When I got hired by the Argos in 2010, then Commissioner Marc Cohon called me personally and emphasized how important it was for Toronto to be competitive for the health of the league. There was a sense of pride in getting to that game in our third year.  Also, we were playing Calgary, and many of those players were players that we had put together to win the 2008 Grey Cup. We were pretty large underdogs and the noise in the Rogers Centre that day was like never before. It was undoubtedly my top professional memory.

Matias Bueno Matias's Final Thoughts

Jim Barker has been a household name around the CFL for many years, and I have been following the work he’s done in the league for over a decade. Now being in a new role as an Offensive/Special Teams Assistant and Personnel Consultant with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, he will be able to use his plethora of experience to bring a Grey Cup to the Hammer for the first time in over 20 years. It was an absolute pleasure to interview Jim and the great teams he has been apart of made for fascinating insight. Jim was able to find success as a coach and administrator from having a strong group of people around him. Having the fortune of working with Canadian Football Hall of Fame Head Coach Don Matthews and John Hufnagel resulted in three of his four Grey Cup victories. The ways that he learned to be an effective leader in the world of pro football were reciprocated in his fourth Grey Cup victory when his former quarterback Scott Milanovich was the Head Coach.

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