Layson: A look at Guelph's coaching prospects

Greg Layson of Streaming Sports Network Canada takes a look at some possible candidates to replace football coach Kyle Walters at Guelph.

It'd be interesting to know whether Kyle Walters' feet grew during the last four years, because he certainly left some big shoes to fill when he suddenly left the Guelph Gryphons on Friday.

Walters stepped down in order to become special teams coach for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

In three years at Guelph, he turned the perennial pretenders into annual contenders — despite that misleading 3-5 record in 2009. The Gryphons lost on last-second field goals against both Queen's and Western.

Walters leaves with 13-18-1 regular season record and three straight playoff appearances from 2007-09.

In '07, he led the Gryphons to the Yates Cup and his team hosted the 100th Yates Cup. It was Guelph's first Yates appearance since 1996.

Walters turned Guelph into a mid-major school: not quite a Western, but no longer a Windsor. Not even close.

Now, it's up to Guelph athletic director Tom Kendall to find a replacement to finish the push into the OUA's upper echelon.

We present to you five potential replacements.

  • Billy Brown is the easiest, most obvious and perhaps most importantly for cash-strapped Guelph the cheapest choice going.

    He's a lifelong Gryphon.

    Brown played for the team from 1994-98, inclusive. He was named 1994 Gryphon rookie of the year and a '96 OUAA All-Star. He also was a member of the 1996 Yates Cup championship team and the 1998 Gryphon defensive player of the year.

    According to his bio on the Gryphons' website, Brown is pursuing "his lifelong dream of coaching full-time," so there is little doubt he'll apply for the job.

    After all, Brown's been coaching the team in some capacity for decade now. Loyalty and rank alone dictate Brown gets at the very least an interview. Although, that said, a wise man once said "Loyalty will only get you fired." So, we shall see.

    Last fall was Brown's second as defensive coordinator. But that's not necessarily a selling point. Walters, who designed the defence while Jason Kana coordinated the offence in 2007, handed Brown the country's No. 1 rush defence to begin 2008 and it promptly fell to 15th. Keep in mind Guelph lost sackmaster Chris Hladich and heart-and-soul linebacker Chris Decker to graduation after the 2007 season. However, last year the rush defence dropped three more spots to finish 18th in the country.

    Brown's an intense, emotional coordinator. He's a player's coach. And he's a heck of a recruiter — maybe because he's such talker, a real personality to which anyone can gravitate.

    The question now is whether he's head coach material.

  • Could Pat Tracey's football career come full circle?

    Like Brown, the current Queen's defensive coordinator played and coached for the Gryphons.

    He came to Guelph from Belleville Centennial in 1981 and quickly became one of the best defensive backs in school history. He joined the Guelph coaching staff after graduation and immediately became then-coach Dan McNally's "right-hand man" and one of the best recruiters in the OUA.

    Tracey left the Gryphons to join the Queen's Golden Gaels in 2000.

    According to an article published in the Guelph Mercury during the 2002 season, "McNally, had very little recruiting success since right-hand man Pat Tracey left to be an assistant coach at Queen's a few years ago."

    Tracey originally applied to be Queen's coach but was passed over for Pat Sheahan, who had more experience in the role. Tracey jumped at the chance to move himself, his wife and two girls closer to their original Belleville home when Queen's offensive co-ordinator Steve Yovetich left to pursue a business career in Ottawa. Tracey applied and beat out 13 other applicants for the job.

    The duo won the Vanier Cup last fall; the school's first since 1992.

    At Guelph, Tracey played for a Yates Cup and Vanier Cup winner in 1984 and coached the team to two other Yates Cup victories (1992, 1996).

    Tracey also served as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' special teams coordinator under CFL legend Ron Lancaster in 1998. The team went to the Grey Cup.

    He's a winner. Period.

    Tracey clearly knows what it takes to build a program — he's help do so in tangible ways at two schools. Recruiting continues to be a more — if not the most — important job for a coach, especially when doing so against the likes of Western and Queen's. And Tracey can sell a program, a job made easier with a program on the uptick.

    And athletic director Tom Kendall is frequently bemoaning the "comfort zone" from which his coaches' recruit.

    Walters, however, was different. He tapped into the Niagara penninsula like no one else.

    There is no doubt Tracey is a formidable candidate for the job. The question now is whether Tracey wants to head back (to his adopted) home.

    He had the chance but turned it down before Walters was ultimately hired, but that was four years ago.

  • Mike O'Shea. There. We did it. We threw out the big (unproven, under-qualified) name. But, isn't that what speculators are supposed to do?

    O'Shea is a legend at Guelph, setting a school record for sacks, winning a Yates Cup, making all-Canadian and playing in the East-West Shrine Game. He spent 16 seasons in the CFL, was twice named its top Canadian and ranks second overall in tackles in league history, just 90 behind all-time leader Willie Pless (1,241).

    All that a coach does not make.

    Although O'Shea in February signed a contract to become the Argos special teams coach, he has zero coaching experience. Perhaps most importantly, he has no recruiting experience.

    Guelph's in need of a quarterback. Justin Dunk graduated. Nick Fitzgibbon has a year left, so the team will need a new tailback sooner rather than later. And there are holes in the secondary.

    This team needs someone to sell it to play-now recruits.

    A great player, indeed. But coach? That's anyone's guess. And the guess isn't always an educated one in cases such as this, just ask the Calgary Stampeders (Matt Dunigan), New York Knicks (Isiah Thomas), L.A. Lakers (Magic Johnson) and Phoenix Coyotes (Wayne Gretzky).

    Guelph is probably better off to let the Argos groom O'Shea.

  • Would Mickey Donovan want to leave the OUA football mecca that is London, Ontario? Maybe. If he really wants to be a head coach one day.

    There's little if any chance Greg Marshall leaves Western any time soon, so will Donovan say goodbye first? His name was bandied about as the next Windsor Lancers coach should that sinking ship ever throw coach Mike Morencie overboard.

    With a year remaining on his contract, Morencie was retained by the Lancers, freeing up Donovan.

    If it carries any weight, and it does for a lot of Canadian football folks (just ask CFL brass), Donovan is an American. He played linebacker at both the University of Maine and at Concordia University. He was named a two-time all-Canadian and national defensive player of the year.

    It's clear he has the knowledge and experience from both sides of the border. Before landing in London, Donovan coached with NewHampshire State (Division 1-AA). Keep in mind, however, Walters ran the offence, so if the current assistants are kept on board — which, by the way, is no guarantee when a new coach his hired — Kendall may opt for an offensive mind.

    Donovan owes a lot to Marshall so loyalty may be an issue. When Marshall was coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, he invited Donovan to try out. Donovan suffered a knee injury but Marshall was so impressed he convinced Hamilton management to keep Donovan on the team.

    Donovan's only been with the Mustangs for three years, so there is the question of experience. But, like he did as a player, Donovan's impressed Marshall. Donovan started as a linebackers coach and is now responsible for the special teams, another area in which Walters excelled at Guelph.

    Donovan's also Western's recruiting coordinator. His prize recruits include Gryphon killers such as current San Diego Chargers defensive end Vaughn Martin and present-day Mustangs linebacker John Surla.

  • Timing is everything, right? It's likely little more than coincidence and happenstance but John Stevens left his post as Calgary Dinos coordinator the same day Walters stepped down in Guelph.

    Stevens and Kendall do have a brief two-year history together at St. Francis Xavier. Stevens coached the X-Men while Kendall was the school's athletic director during the 2001-02 seasons. Little is known about the pair's working relationship.

    Kendall had this to say when Stevens resigned May 3, 2002: "John is an excellent teacher and has a work ethic that is second to none."

    Steven has the coaching chops. He spent a total of 17 seasons at X, delivered a Vanier Cup appearance in 1996 (losing to powerhouse Saskatchewan), and was AUS coach of the year twice and CIAU coach of the year once.
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  1. funny this is the third different forum on this topic I have seen on various sites, and one name continues to never come up that should be an obvious choice as he has a far more proven track record than ANY (other than Tracey) of the above candidates and is very close by: Laurier Defensive Coordinator Ron Vanmoerkerke. Every year Laurier has a top defense and yet every year he never gets mentioned for jobs.

  2. Yep - makes sense. With Jeffries seemingly cemented in the HC position at WLU, this would be a chance for VanMoerkerke to get his own gig.
    His defences speak for themselves - look at the representation at the CFL E-Camp - and I think the Gryphs might consider shaking up their defensive coaching after last year`s struggles.

    If Van Moerkerke was interested in the job, he`d probably have to have an offensive guy in mind to come with him as OC - Walters called the plays last year in Guelph. Maybe another WLU guy comes over?

  3. I'm afraid you have your facts wrong about John Stevens and the 2002 St. FX season. If you check the record book you'll see that was current Waterloo boss Dennis Macphee's 1st year guiding the X-Men.

  4. @ Anon 12:06

    You might be right. I think Stevens left in April 2002, not April 2003 as I thought. I'm on it. And I'll adjust accordingly.