TORONTO (Dec. 11) — It’s a venerable, timeworn bromide that rings as accurately today as whenever it first appeared: “You reap what you sow.” As such, the Toronto Argonauts of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment era have fully warranted the lowest attendance figures in the modern history of the Canadian Football League. Even if those standing by the club through thick and thin were unaware of the discord that prevailed behind the scenes.
Trust me when I tell you it hurts to write this blog. If you pay even remote attention to this corner, you’ll know that the Argos are the only Toronto sports team to which I’ve retained an emotional investment. When my 25–year–old son, Shane, asked me to get season tickets so we could attend home games at BMO Field as my father and I did in the 1970’s at old CNE Stadium, I couldn’t rush to my computer quickly enough. Within 20 minutes, we had two seats in Sec. 225, Row 9. And, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment with Shane at the football yard — even if commuting from Thornhill to the Canadian National Exhibition was the epitome of Toronto traffic hell. Moreover, the Argonauts are owned and operated by three of the nicest and most–widely respected individuals I’ve met in my career following sports: Larry Tanenbaum, Dale Lastman and Mike (Pinball) Clemons. Why they allowed a person of such moral ambivalence as John Murphy to run roughshod over the club’s inner sanctum is an abiding mystery.
What simmered as loud, back–room speculation throughout the season erupted into full and appalling bloom in the moments after the Argos were defeated, last Sunday, by the Hamilton Tiger–Cats in the CFL Eastern final. Murphy, as per a widely circulated video, not only became involved with disrespectful (possibly inebriated) Hamilton fans in the area of the Toronto dressing room, but he appeared to direct a homophobic slur toward the group. Though I’ve never met the man, I’m told by a person I trust with the Argos that Murphy falling on his sword was inevitable. “He’s the most–polarizing figure I’ve dealt with in my years around the team,” said the individual, who chose (for obvious reasons) to not be identified. “If being suspended by the CFL leads to his departure from the organization — which many of us are praying for — it’ll be the best thing for the Argonauts in a long time.”*
*Murphy was officially fired by the club early this afternoon.
Murphy came to the Argos with defined CFL credentials, having spent more than a decade in Calgary, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan. Prior to arriving in Toronto, Murphy, as vice–president of football operations, handled all player–personnel decisions with the Roughriders. Evidently, he knows the game. From what I’m told, he also knows how to alienate and discredit those employed beneath him. Which is never advisable, particularly in today’s cancel culture society. If enacting the role of miscreant behind the scenes, the potential for working again, once exposed, is rather minimal. “And, thank goodness for that,” added my Argo friend. “Look, I don’t want to pile on. But, I can tell you that John was disliked by almost everyone in the organization. He had no people skills at all.”
None of this, sadly, will matter until MLSE either unloads the football club to a person (or group) that still cares… or elects to operate the Argos with the same passion and élan as it does the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC. Which means authorizing such a dedicated football man as Clemons to be more than just a public figurehead. Alongside the late Johnny Bower as the most–beloved figure in Toronto sports history, the Pinball should be entrusted with finding a respected, credentialed CFL veteran to oversee the operation. A manager that values the people working in his employ. Enough with Bill Manning of Toronto FC babysitting the Argos. It’s a joke…. and it foments an environment that allows for a suspect individual to poison the entire staff. As Murphy evidently did.
On the field, the effects were felt by the Argos continuing to bumble and mishandle the quarterback position unlike any team in recent CFL annals. The TSN image, below, should serve as an epitaph for Toronto football management of the past decade, before and during Murphy’s tenure with the club. Not once, but twice, did the Argonauts own Zach Collaros, named the league’s most–outstanding player on Friday night and favored to lead the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to a second consecutive Grey Cup victory, against hometown Hamilton, on Sunday.
Front–office ineptitude here in Toronto has furnished the CFL with starting pivots that are infinitely more capable than incumbent McLeod Bethel–Thompson, who couldn’t generate a point in the failed effort against the Tiger–Cats last weekend. Head coach Ryan Dinwiddie and offensive coordinator Jarious Jackson either have no imagination or they “dumbed down” the attack to accommodate Bethel–Thompson. Trust me: If my son and I can call the offensive plays in the red zone from our season seats, the rival defensive coordinator will also wager a good guess. Never have I seen an Argo team so utterly predictable when threatening to score. Nine times out of ten, the call was an off–tackle running play up the middle. Almost always, it was thwarted. Occasionally, the coaches allowed back–up quarterback Antonio Pipkin to fake a sneak up the middle and roll to his left. Which surprised the defense and worked. No–such innovation was evident during the playoff loss to Hamilton. Along with Collaros in Winnipeg, the Argos are responsible for Cody Fajardo leading the Saskatchewan attack and Trevor Harris guiding the Montreal Alouettes. Don’t be surprised, next season, if Nick Arbuckle evolves into a solid No. 1 in Edmonton.
All of last off–season, the Argos — after acquiring Arbuckle from Calgary — promoted him as the quarterback to finally emerge from the post–Ricky Ray era. And, he looked darn good to these eyes in the home opener when leading the club to victory over Winnipeg, the only meaningful loss incurred by the Blue Bombers this season (the other two happened long after the club clinched first place in the West). Not long afterward, Arbuckle sustained a groin injury and was never again heard from until traded, Oct. 26, to the Elks. Imagine another football city in which the starting passer, pumped to high–heaven before the season, is injured and not spoken about. Bethel–Thompson became the “undisputed” No. 1 quarterback while the club provided no updates on the previous “undisputed” No. 1 quarterback. Why was Arbuckle ultimately dealt? It’s easy: he cost too much. The Argos couldn’t afford to pay both pivots and it’s almost certain that no CFL rival was pining for Bethel–Thompson. So, management did the Argo thing and unloaded the better man. Which, as evidenced, has been habitual in the past decade.
If the Argos are to ever–again matter in the seats at BMO Field as they do anonymously via ratings on TSN, there has to be minimal proof of sound management. An air of stability needs to waft amid the people who might consider buying a ticket to watch the team live. Those already invested are the loudest and most–ardent sports fans in the city. Eight–thousand fans at BMO field sounds like 18,000. They love the team and the game. And, they deserve much more than the behind–the–scenes crap that threatened to destroy the franchise.
Yes, John Murphy falling on his sword was inevitable.
Now, MLSE needs to capitalize on the gift and show football fans it cares about the Double Blue.
SATURDAY NOTES… Wonder what the over–under is on Petr Mrazek enduring for the Maple Leafs with the groin injury that cost him all but two starts so far this season? Mrazek arrived as a free agent with a long injury ledger. Can he put together a string of healthy starts to prevent Jack Campbell from running on fumes once the playoffs begin? We’ll start to find out tonight, against Chicago, at Scotiabank Arena… there were times in my life when the Blackhawks playing here in town on a Saturday night generated untold excitement. Such as with Bobby Hull in his glorious prime during the mid–to–late 1960’s; when Denis Savard, Al Secord, Doug Wilson et al often annihilated the lousy Toronto clubs of the 1980s. And, on the few occasions in which Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith played here during their three–time Stanley Cup run between 2010 and 2015. There’s a noticeable absence of buzz tonight with the Hawks situated 26th in the overall standings and just two points clear of the expansion Seattle Kraken… there continues to be an intrinsic Maple Leafs connection with the front office of the Vancouver Canucks. Recently fired was general manager Jim Benning, Toronto’s first–round draft pick (sixth overall) in 1981 who appeared in 364 games on defense with the club. And, coach Travis Green, an effective face–off man and penalty killer with the Pat Quinn Leafs from 2001–03. Hired this week was coach Bruce Boudreau and hockey operations director Jim Rutherford, who were teammates on the Leafs in the forgettable 1980–81 season. Boudreau appeared in 39 games at center, amassing 24 points. Rutherford came over in a trade with Detroit (for forward Mark Kirton) and saw action in 18 games. He had no chance of being better than 4–10–2 with that horrible club, accruing a 5.12 goals–against average. Don’t be surprised if Rutherford stabilizes the careening Canucks, even at 72 years of age (as if that matters)… I wrote in my previous blog that it’s time for the National Hockey League to return to Quebec City, not realizing that commissioner Gary Bettman plans on meeting with provincial authorities in January (as reported by TSN). Of course, that, alone, doesn’t guarantee anything for Quebec, but neither is Bettman known for making casual acquaintance with political figures in Canada. It’s something to keep an eye on… should be a rousing affair at Tim Hortons Field tomorrow as the Tiger–Cats play for the Grey Cup at home for the first time since 1972 (when they defeated Saskatchewan). But, I’m going with the “visitors” — Winnipeg 31, Hamilton 24… no less–rousing, for NFL fans in this region, will be the Buffalo Bills facing Tom Brady, yet again, as they visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a 4:25 p.m. Eastern kick–off tomorrow. The Bills were outfoxed last Monday night by Brady’s former coach in New England, Bill Belichick. Can they upend the GOAT this week? Should be fun to watch, while flipping back and forth between the Grey Cup telecast.