TORONTO (Jan. 24) — I had a swirl of mixed emotion this morning when the Toronto Argonauts announced the firing of long–time general manager Jim Barker. Part of me was upset for one of the genuinely nicest people I came across during my 23 years at The FAN–590 (now Sportsnet–590), Canada’s first all–sports radio station. Jim is a salt–of–the–earth man that earned his way to the top of the Argonaut organization.
This move, however, is warranted for arguably the worst trade in modern Canadian Football League history.
Having imprudently allowed young, in–their–prime quarterbacks Zach Collaros and Trevor Harris to escape freely to Hamilton and Ottawa — both East Division rivals — Barker compensated with a firing offense. On Sep. 11 of this past season, he traded the Argos’ best defensive performer (cornerback T.J. Heath) and the club’s first–round draft choice (which would become No. 1 overall) to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for middling quarterback Drew Willy. To deploy a local hockey comparison, this was akin to the Maple Leafs, last season, trading Morgan Rielly and the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft (Auston Matthews) to the Buffalo Sabres for a back–up goalie. Homicide detectives would have spent days lifting forensic evidence at 60 Bay St.
WHILE A VERY GOOD MAN, JIM BARKER LOST HIS TOUCH AS GM OF THE TORONTO ARGONAUTS.
Though the Argos were already spiraling toward the CFL cellar, this deal assured that Winnipeg would choose first in the 2017 draft of Canadian–born players — to be held in May. Barker also included the Argos’ third–round pick in 2018. Had the Blue Bombers asked for concession rights at BMO Field, who knows what may have happened? It was a stunning move by a man with a sharp recruiting eye (he brought Collaros and Harris to Toronto); an assistant coach with the Argos during the Doug Flutie era (Grey Cup titles in 1996 and 1997) and GM of the 2012 CFL champion that sold out Rogers Centre for the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup game. Barker needs no introduction to gridiron talent or the vagaries of four–down football. How he could have been so thoroughly fleeced by the Blue Bombers will long remain a mystery.
Some may contend that Barker had to move drastically with veteran quarterback Ricky Ray hobbled through much of last season. Parenthetically, Barker deserves immense praise for acquiring Ray from Edmonton and building the 2012 Grey Cup team around the future hall–of–fame pivot. The counter–argument is that one of Collaros or Harris should have been available to step in last season. And that either of them could have been similarly maimed while playing behind a terrible offensive line. As it turned out, the Argos were full value for their last–place record of 5–13. Barker deserved to pay the price.
There may, however, be a grand opportunity for the Double Blue.
John Hufnagel has presided over a perennial powerhouse in Calgary since joining the Stampeders as head coach in December 2007. His sideline record of 102–41–1 between 2008 and 2015 is one of the best in CFL annals and Calgary made it to the Grey Cup three times; winning in 2008 and 2014. Hufnagel was president and GM of the 2016 Stampeders, who finished with a CFL–best 15–2–1 mark but were upset by Ottawa in the Grey Cup at BMO Field — a remarkable game that went to overtime. The five–year contract extension Hufnagel signed with Calgary prior to the 2012 season has expired. The Argos should move heaven and earth to strap him into their general manager’s chair. Though an expensive hire, he would bring instant credibility to a club that embarrassed itself last year in a new stadium. It would show football fans that the Argonauts are dead–serious about crafting a winner… and fighting for regional turf with the Tiger–Cats.
Whether or not Hufnagel would welcome such a challenge at 65 years of age isn’t known. But, money and opportunity form a tantalizing mixture. The Argos should fully explore this possibility.
WOULD THE MAN KNOWN AS “HUFF” BRING HIS ACT TO TORONTO? IT’S SURE WORTH FINDING OUT.