Clifford Starke wants to return the Montreal Alouettes to their former glory.
Starke grew up in Montreal attending Alouettes games at a sold-out Molson Stadium seated with then club president Larry Smith, best friend Brad Smith and Smith’s grandmother. At the time, the franchise was one of the CFL’s best, finishing atop the East Division nine times between 1999-2012 and reaching the Grey Cup on eight occasions, winning three.
But Montreal hasn’t been to the Grey Cup since winning it in 2010 and has posted a record of .500 or better in just three seasons since. The Alouettes haven’t reached the playoffs since 2014 and are 21-51 over that span.
Starke, 35, is looking to rebuild the franchise. On Thursday, the chairman of Hampstead Private Capital issued a statement outlining his intent to purchase the Alouettes.
"Some of my best moments were watching the Alouettes as well as my relationship with Brad and Larry Smith," Starke said in a telephone interview during a business trip in Australia. "I think it would be a great opportunity, I really do.
"For me, it would be a fun turnaround project, bring some pride back into the organization and hopefully win some championships."
And as a testament to Starke’s seriousness, he said he and his partners could assume ownership of the Alouettes as early as this season. The 2019 campaign is scheduled to kick off June 13.
"The communication has started with the CFL," Starke said. "There’s a serious intent to purchase the team as fast as possible.
"My group and I have a history of moving quite quickly. We certainly have the bodies to rip through financials and see what’s happening. I want to own the team for 25 years. It’s like, we’re here, we want to stay, we want to win championships. What we want to do is bring the community back into it."
Starke said he became interested in purchasing the Alouettes last July after the club obtained Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel in a blockbuster deal with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Manziel made just eight starts with Montreal, completing 106-of-165 passes for 1,290 yards with five TDs and seven interceptions, before the club was ordered by the CFL in February to release him for violating his agreement with the league.
"I felt he was going to be a Doug Flutie-type player and the organization was going to start turning around and winning games," Clifford said. "We reached out to the Wetenhalls to see what was happening but nothing really happened.
"I can’t say enough about the Wetenhalls, the career they’ve had and what they’ve done for the Alouettes franchise. We’re going to respect the process and I think in the coming weeks we’ll know what that is and what that entails."
While the Alouettes were very successful on the field from 1999-2012, the franchise was also very prominent in the community during the elder Smith’s tenure as club president. It’s a model Starke would like to emulate if he purchases the club.
"When I grew up with Larry Smith, it really started at the grassroots," he said. "The reason why it was popular was the young kid at five, six or 10 went to his father and wanted to watch (Hall of Fame running back) Mike Pringle play because Mike Pringle was probably at his practice weeks before.
"What we want to do is go back and rebuild from the grassroots and start getting into the community, building the fanbase up. Looking back, if you could go to an Alouettes game or Montreal Canadiens game, I can tell you many people chose the Alouettes because they were winning championships and it was so exciting. You couldn’t get a ticket (at Molson Stadium)."
As the Alouettes owner, Starke said he’d be front and centre. But he’d also ensure he’s surrounded by quality people who’d be left alone to do their jobs.
"I’d be at every game … I’d be very involved," he said. "But I’m not a GM, I’m not a CEO.
"My whole philosophy in business is, ‘Don’t get into other peoples’ box." Understand the roles certain people play and give them what they need to be successful. I’m a tier 1 player in business and tier 1 people will be around me, that’s the only way organizations are successful, not an owner making GM decisions. That just doesn’t work."
Starke isn’t a betting man by nature but said he’s anything but a longshot to purchase the franchise.
"Honestly, everything in my life happens for a reason," he said. "I’m not the smartest guy in the world but luck, timing and hard work have treated me extremely well.
"If this opportunity is meant to be, which it feels like it is, it’s just going to happen naturally. But I’d say the odds are looking pretty good."