Montreal Alouettes situation clearing up for head coach Khari Jones

Montreal Alouettes head coach Khari Jones shouts from the sidelines during first half CFL football game action against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. (Peter Power/CP)

Slowly but surely, Khari Jones’ muddled work life is coming more into focus.

After guiding the Montreal Alouettes to their first playoff appearance since 2014, Jones signed a three-year extension to remain as head coach, offensive co-ordinator and quarterback coach. On Monday, Ontario businessmen Sid Spiegel and Gary Stern were unveiled as co-owners of the franchise which had been operated by the CFL since May.

And shortly after taking the reins, Stern acknowledged the new ownership’s top priority is hiring a president and GM, something Stern hoped would be done by week’s end.

“I’m very excited about that,” Jones said this week from the CFL winter meetings in Collingwood, Ont. “Gary already has some plans in place, which is great.

“So now it’s just about getting all these pieces set so we can get together, put our heads together and find the best way to win football games next year. We’ve got two men who are passionate about the CFL, game of football and Montreal Alouettes. I think we’re in good hands.”

Jones, 48, became Montreal’s head coach less than week before the start of the 2019 campaign when Mike Sherman was fired. Despite that, the Alouettes (10-8) exceeded all expectations under Jones, finishing second in the East Division and posting their first winning season since 2012.

Yet without new ownership and a full-time GM, Jones and football operations director Eric Deslauriers have spearheaded Montreal’s off-season preparations. That includes re-evaluating the Alouettes’ final roster, prioritizing their pending free agents and anticipating which players might be worth pursuing once CFL free agency begins Feb. 11.

But Jones — the CFL’s outstanding player in 2001 while a quarterback with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers — said there’ve been no anxious moments while the ownership issue was resolved.

“You just move forward,” he said. “There are things that still must be done so Eric and I have been working hard doing the job that needs to be done.

“Now with these pieces in place it should make it that much easier.”

It’s uncommon for a CFL team to hire a coach before naming a GM but it’s a practice that’s becoming more prevalent in the NFL. In 2017, the Buffalo Bills named former Carolina defensive co-ordinator Sean McDermott as their head coach before hiring Panthers assistant GM Brandon Beane — someone McDermott was very familiar with — as their general manager.

Some head coaches south of the border wield more power than their general managers.

New England’s Bill Belichick, who has guided the Patriots to six Super Bowls, is said to have final say on football matters. And in June, Houston Texans GM Brian Gaine was fired after reportedly losing a power struggle with head coach Bill O’Brien.

Jones said he learned many valuable lessons last season, the most important being the value of communication.

“I felt I was pretty good in that respect but there were times where maybe I held my tongue a place or two where I should’ve probably said something,” Jones said. “I’ll definitely take that with me and not hold my tongue as far as if I feel like something needs to be said.

“You say it then figure it out after that and usually it works out well. That was always a big lesson but overall it (being a head coach) was just a great experience.”

Montreal’s next GM won’t have time to settle into the position. The Alouettes have 27 pending free agents, including receiver Eugene Lewis (72 catches, 1,133 yards, five TDs), Canadian offensive linemen Kristian Matte and Landon Rice, defensive lineman Woody Baron and defensive back Patrick Levels.

And defensive lineman John Bowman, who was an East Division all-star at age 37, is pondering retirement. Montreal won’t have rushing leader William Stanback (1,048 yards) next season as he recently signed with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders.

“I’m really happy for him,” Jones said. “You only have a short time to maximize your earning potential in football and being able to jump exponentially is a pretty big thing for a player and his family.

“The good thing is there’s always guys who want to play and there’s always a new batch of guys out there so it’s up to us to find these guys and give them the opportunity to show what they can do.”

Montreal certainly won’t have the element of surprise in 2020 but that’s fine with Jones.

“The main thing now is just learning from what we did last year,” Jones said. “It (2019) will always be a special year in my heart with the group we had but we know now there’s much more to do.

“Teams know you a little bit more now and what excites is how do we respond and get better? That’s a fun challenge.”

Especially with the lessons Alouettes players would’ve learned last year.

“Guys saw we could compete with everybody, we can win close football games, we had a lot of fight and drive,” Jones said. “I think that goes a long way.

“We’re going into this season knowing, ‘Hey, we don’t have to wonder. We know we can do it now.’ It’s just about putting the work in that’s necessary to make it happen. It will be a lot more work but I believe guys, once training camp comes, will be prepared.”

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