TORONTO — Barely a year after the Toronto Argonauts‘ defence clinched them a thrilling Grey Cup victory, the team has brought back the defensive specialist responsible.
Corey Chamblin was named head coach of the Argos on Monday, returning to the team he helped guide to a Grey Cup victory in 2017 as defensive co-ordinator.
"When Jim (Popp, Argos general manager) reached out to me, I had been here before, and there were some mixed feelings because I do value the leadership that had been here before me," Chamblin said. "But like everything else in this business, transition happens, and it’s a new opportunity, a new season and it’s time for us to move forward."
Toronto’s defence had six East Division all-stars and was tied for the league in sacks (50) when Chamblin was defensive co-ordinator. And on that memorable Grey Cup evening in Ottawa, Cassius Vaughn ran back a fumble recovery 110 yards for a touchdown at a snowy TD Place stadium, then Matt Black intercepted Bo Levi Mitchell in the end zone with eight seconds remaining in Toronto’s stunning 27-24 win over Calgary.
But it’s been downhill ever since, ultimately costing head coach Marc Trestman his job. And now, the 41-year-old Chamblin, who will also be the team’s defensive co-ordinator, is tasked with turning around a team that lost nine of their last 10 games while going 4-14 this past season, and were held winless on the road (0-9).
Black, a nine-year Argos veteran, believes Chamblin is the right man for the job.
"If I had the decision to make, I would have made the exact same choice," said the defensive back. "The guys who were here in 2017 really enjoyed Cham’s leadership style, he’s a very serious and focused coach, but you have a lot of fun in his system. But when it’s time to work, everybody buckles down and is on the same page. And to be in that environment, it’s contagious.
"The thing with Cham is he’s well-liked in the room, well-respected, he has a rapport with a lot of players," added Black, who said he figured Chamblin had got the job when he saw him sitting courtside at a recent Toronto Raptors game. "I’m really happy for him, excited for him, he earned this opportunity, he deserved it, and I think the franchise is in good hands under his leadership."
Chamblin, a 41-year-old from Birmingham, Ala., was head coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders between 2012-15, guiding the Riders to a Grey Cup in 2013 and earning CFL coach of the year.
He spent this past season at the University of Arkansas as a quality control and defensive backs coach.
The Argos interviewed six candidates for the job, Popp said. Chamblin was first in line because he wasn’t tied to a CFL team, so the club could begin the interview process immediately.
Chamblin said a "perfect storm" led him back to Toronto.
"Each season has been something different that I’ve been able to learn … all those things were positive for me to get to this day now to where now I’m the head coach and the defensive co-ordinator of the Toronto Argonauts," he said. "It’s just about growth and learning how to build a better boat, going through each situation, learning from those successes, learn from those things that were not as successful, and finding a way to have as much success as we can on a day to day basis."
Popp, who welcomed Chamblin as the 44th head coach in team history on Monday with a firm handshake, said they’ll collaborate on personnel decisions.
"Working with the head coach, you always collaborate," Popp said. "The bottom line is to try to give the coach the players he wants to play with every week."
"Jim and I have had conversations about that," Chamblin agreed. "I’m a hands-on coach. It’s just a matter of whether it’s one hand or two hands. What I mean by that is Jim is a phenomenal talent evaluator, every team he has been on has been stacked with talent, so that’s something I don’t have to worry about."
One of their biggest personnel decisions will be the team’s starting quarterback. McLeod Bethel-Thompson and James Franklin split time under centre after Ricky Ray’s season — and career as an Argo — ended with neck injury in late June.
"We have two young guys on the roster right now and those guys have shown some things where they can be elite in some games, and then there’s been some other games where they have not. And I think they would agree with that," Chamblin said. "So for me to sit and name a starter today, I can’t do that, and I think that’s fair to them and fair to the organization and fair to the players around them that we’re going to start from Ground 1 and we’re going to earn everything that we have."
There could be a number of star quarterbacks including Mike Reilly, Trevor Harris and Bo Levi Mitchell available when free agency opens on Feb. 12.
Chamblin has to hire his coaching staff as well.
"It’s a blank slate there," Chamblin said. "In the next couple of days with a couple of hires in this league there’s going to be some different pieces moving around, and it’s going to be the best fit to get the guys to where they need to be on game day."
Chamblin was a defensive co-ordinator in 2011 with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats after spending three seasons as a defensive backs coach with the Calgary Stampeders. He also held defensive backs coaching positions in Winnipeg (2007) and with Frankfurt of NFL Europe (2006).
As a player, Chamblin spent time between 1999 and 2004 with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars, Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts and the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe.