On a typical morning, Dan Hawkins grabs his backpack, bids adieu to his wife, Misti, and leaves their condo in history-drenched Old Montreal. The former University of Colorado coach heads to a nearby Metro station and jumps on a subway train. Eventually, he disembarks near the offices of the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes in Olympic Stadium.
Hawkins, 52, is back in the game as the coach of the Alouettes, who are 1-1 after falling 19-11 to Winnipeg in their home opener Thursday at Percival Molson Stadium. In February, Hawkins signed a three-year contract to succeed Marc Trestman, now the coach of the Chicago Bears.
Yes, the CFL has a considerably smaller fan base than the NHL, but it stretches from coast to coast and still is a big deal north of the border. Salaries, including for coaches, usually are modest and franchise financial struggles are as much a part of the league's history as the 55-yard line, yet the pressures can seem very much NFL-like. All of which means that with the season now in full swing after the disappointing home opener for the Alouettes, the time might be over when Hawkins can ride the subway in peace.
In a telephone interview last week, Hawkins said he was enjoying the transition to the game of "import" player limits, 42-man rosters, 12 men per side, forward motion at the snap, a longer and wider field, three downs and a single point awarded when a ball isn't returned out of the 20-yard end zone.
"It's kind of fun with your mind going 100 miles an hour because the pace is faster," Hawkins said. "You only have a 20-second clock and you have to get moving. By the time you've punted, after one down it's 'punt return ready,' everything is moving quickly. So there's a number of those nuances. Is it blocking and tackling? Yes, it is, but it's learning the other things too."
"I missed the competition"
After his firing at Colorado during the 2010 season — the Buffs were 19-39 under him — Hawkins worked for ESPN. Montreal general manager Jim Popp, a longtime acquaintance of Hawkins, invited him to observe and work with Trestman and his staff as an offseason guest coach in early 2012, as part of his sabbatical experience. When Trestman left, Popp asked Hawkins if he was interested in giving the CFL a try.
The spotlight put on a head coach is part of the dynamic that Hawkins wanted to be a part of again.
"I missed the competition," Hawkins said. "I missed the strategizing. I missed going out there and letting it out on game day and all the highs and lows of that. I missed the locker room and the association with the players and the camaraderie.
"This job here offered other things. You're in a foreign country, you're in a French-speaking province. It's an out-of-box experience. Every day you're learning something and going 'Wow.' That's fun. That's growth."
Hawkins inherited one of the CFL's top veteran quarterbacks, former Utah State Aggie Anthony Calvillo. "He's amazing," Hawkins said. "He's a really great person, first class, first rate, just very professional in everything he does. Plus, he can really sling it."
After the Thursday loss to Winnipeg, though, Calvillo let some frustration show. Standing at his locker, he said to reporters: "Overall, it was a disgusting performance on offense, period. From players, coaching staff, everything. It was disgusting."
Calvillo threw for only 135 yards, was sacked seven times and looked like a 40-year-old quarterback hearing footsteps in the pocket. The protection problems helped prevent the Alouettes from throwing the ball deep much, especially glaring in the wide-open CFL. That came a week after the Alouettes beat the Blue Bombers 38-33 in the season opener at Winnipeg.
In his postgame news conference, Hawkins said the offensive struggles involved "a little bit of everything. It all starts with me. I have to get them better prepared."
Hawkins' offensive coordinator, Mike Miller, came to the Alouettes from the Arizona Cardinals, where he was the coordinator the past two seasons and also had no CFL experience. That's raised some eyebrows too, but several other Hawkins assistants are CFL veterans, and it's generally conceded coaches new to the Canadian game need to be cut some slack in the transition, as was Trestman. The question, of course, is: For how long?
"A great experience" at CU
As a head coach, Hawkins' teams were 40-11-1 at Willamette in Salem, Ore., and 53-11 at Boise State. Despite revisionist history tossed out since, he was regarded — yes, even within the inner sanctum of the college game — as a hot commodity when he took the Colorado job. Does he need to rebuild his coaching image?
"I never really worried too much about that," he said. "No. That's not an issue."
He said he went to Montreal with an open mind.
"Hey, if it ended up being 15 or 20 years here, great," he said. "I've learned it's pretty hard to predict all of the things that can happen. It's a great opportunity. Mr. (Bob) Wetenhall is a great owner and a great guy. He's about winning football games and making an impact in the community and taking care of the football players. Jim Popp is the most successful GM in the history of this league."
Hawkins declined to go into detail about his Colorado tenure.
"It was a great experience," he said. "I met a lot of impressive people, impactful people, and my life is better because of it."
He said that while he had a lot of opinions about what happened at CU, he isn't bitter. "I'm not that kind of guy," he said. But he also said he wasn't ready to get everything off his chest.
"Oh, yeah, I could write a book," he said. "Maybe that will be edited after I'm in the ground, I don't know. I learned a lot, I really did. You have to own it as a person. You take a lot of notes and you make yourself better."
And the book's title?
" 'Lessons Learned,' " he said.
Terry Frei: 303-954-1895, email@example.com or twitter.com/TFOlympicAffair
About the Montreal Alouettes
They were 11-7 in the 2012 regular season under coach Marc Trestman and lost to Toronto in the Eastern Conference championship game. They won the CFL championship under Trestman in 2009 and 2010.
They were 0-2 in exhibition play, are 1-1 in the regular season, and next face the Calgary Stampeders in Montreal on Friday night. No East Division team is undefeated, so the Alouettes still are tied for first place. After the 19-11 loss to Winnipeg on Thursday — the Canadian national TV feed also was shown on ESPN2 — Montreal coach Dan Hawkins said: "You have to battle through adversity. How you handle that determines a lot who you are as a person and as a coach and as a player. Then (it's) how you handle the frustration. Can you turn that into improvement. These guys are seasoned veterans. They will."
They conclude the regular season Nov. 1 at Toronto. The CFL championship game, the Grey Cup, will be played Nov. 24 in Regina, Saskatchewan.
They own the CFL rights to Tim Tebow. GM Jim Popp's position in the offseason was that it was a waste of time to contact Tebow's representatives until he expressed an interest in coming to the CFL, so nothing developed before the former Broncos and Jets QB signed with New England.
Hawkins and all other CFL coaches work with 42-man maximum rosters and limits on the number of U.S. players. Of those 42 players, three are designated quarterbacks and are outside of the "import" and "nonimport" system. Of the remaining 39 players, a maximum of 19 can be "imports." At least seven of the 24 starters must be "non- imports." All four additional players on a practice squad must be "nonimports."
Terry Frei, The Denver Post