Working his magic


Tillman will help the Eskimos win a Grey Cup soon

Colin Buchinski

One of the most controversial issues in Canadian sports last year was the story of Eric Tillman.  Near the end of the 2006 CFL season, Tillman was hired as general manager of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. As new GM, Tillman quickly turned things around by hiring former Riders quarterback Kent Austin as head coach and making several other key acquisitions, leading the Riders to their first Grey Cup victory since 1989.

Tillman had great expectations of his players in Saskatchewan. He demanded a high level of professionalism both on and off the field. He was also a GM who was not afraid to make changes and did what he needed to do to improve the level of play on field. As a result of this, the Roughriders became one of the league’s elite franchises.

Under the direction of Tillman, the Riders boasted an impressive 34-19-1 record. The team hosted three home playoff games, won two West championships and a Grey Cup. Tillman, Austin, and company brought football excitement back to our province. Everywhere you look, someone is talking about the Riders, flags are flying proudly and merchandise sales are now at an all-time high.

In 2009, Tillman was charged with the sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl. He was placed on administrative leave for the entire season, which saw his Riders go all the way to the Grey Cup and lose in a heartbreaker. Tillman maintained his innocence until January 2010, when he plead guilty to the charge and received an absolute discharge. This means he does not have a criminal conviction, but is still considered guilty of the offence.

The trial of Tillman sparked controversy all across Saskatchewan. Should the Riders keep him or should they let him go? The province was torn. On one hand, he had been one of the most successful Rider GMs in many years. The teams on-field performance would perhaps suffer without his leadership. On the other hand, would it really be acceptable to have this man as your GM based on what had occurred? The province was split and, according to Tillman, the board did not universally support him. This ultimately led to his resignation. The Riders lost a great GM who loved the team, the fans, and the province.

At the beginning of the 2010 season, Tillman was replaced with former Winnipeg Blue Bomber GM, Brendan Taman. Under his direction, the Riders have been very average.

As of late, run defence has been woeful and the offence, one which many people thought would be a powerhouse at the beginning of the year, has been almost non-existent. With Fantuz, Bagg, Dressler, Clermont, and Getzlaf at receiver, they should be tearing this league apart. Such has not been the case.

The special teams play has been another story. The Riders have given up multiple punt return touchdowns, had multiple kicks blocked and failed to accumulate many yards on the return at all.

Even with all of these glaring problems, Taman and his coaching staff are very reluctant to make changes. Jim Daley is still here and not many impactful roster moves have been made.

When it came to making midseason, sometimes controversial changes, Tillman was not shy at all. He’s a guy who is able to make hard decisions. When he sees a weakness, he attacks it. In my opinion, this is Tillman’s philosophy: if you can make a move to improve your football team, you do it, immediately. This is why Tillman has won three Grey Cups and he’s not about to stop anytime soon.

In September 2010, Tillman signed on with the Edmonton Eskimos. It was a move the Eskimos were widely criticized for. It’s no secret that Tillman was the best man for the job. Even with all the baggage, Tillman could turn the team around and return them to their former glory. At the time of the hiring, the Eskimos held a 2-8-0 record and their post-season hopes looked very slim. The team is now 7-10-0 and poised to make the playoffs, where they would travel to Saskatchewan to face the Riders in the West semifinal.

Tillman has the ability to completely change an organization’s outlook and attitude. He always holds all his staff and players accountable and demands greatness. When Tillman first came to Edmonton, he made it known that the team’s prior record was of no importance and it was a new season for the team. The team bought into this very fast. The Eskimos displayed a whole new level of effort and are seeing great success as a result. In Edmonton, Tillman quickly made various changes, leading the team to a 5-2-0 record. These changes were very apparent two weeks ago as the Eskimos walked over the Saskatchewan Roughriders 39-24.

Tillman and the Eskimos signed import wide receiver and former Rider Derrick Armstrong. In his first game, against the Riders, he had three catches and a touchdown.

Tillman also added running back Daniel Porter. Since this acquisition, the Eskimos’ running game has turned into an absolute bulldozer. Porter rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown against the Riders.

Another addition was former Rider kick returner Jason Armstead, a player who also had legal troubles in the off-season.

If Tillman was given a second chance, I’m sure he felt Armstead also deserved one. Armstead made the most of it by making an impact in his first game, returning a punt for a touchdown against the Riders. It was a nightmare for Rider fans.

This week, Tillman also added former Rider quarterback and 2007 Grey Cup champion Kerry Joseph. He was a necessary acquisition as Ricky Ray is out for the year with an upper body injury.

Another notable signing was defensive end Mike Stadnyk, a Regina native who also spent a year with the Riders.

This week, 5 p.m. at Mosaic Stadium, the Eskimos come to Regina to face the Riders in the final game of the regular season. It will be very interesting to see the reception Tillman sees. Despite what happened, I think Tillman will be received very positively this week.

The game has major implications for Tillman’s Eskimos. If they win the game, they will make the playoffs and face the Riders again on Nov. 14 at Mosaic Stadium. Rider fans are very weary of playing Tillman and the Eskimos in the playoffs. The Eskimos could very well make some noise in this year’s playoffs, and Rider fans know that.

Tillman and the Eskimos are turning things around and it will surely create an intense rivalry with the Riders. The Eskimos will be back in the Grey Cup in the next three years. You can book it. Tillman will add a fourth Grey Cup ring to his hands and only time will tell if the Riders made the right or wrong decision in letting him go.

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