EDMONTON — It will surprise nobody who knows Tom Higgins that the man is happy.
Gleeful, after all, is his default state.
But on a particularly glorious Thursday afternoon in May, there was even more reason for the Ned Flanders spring in his step and massive smile on a friendly face that never seems to age.
He’s back, however temporarily, on a Canadian Football League field as a guest coach with the Edmonton Eskimos, one of the three CFL teams that have employed him more or less full-time since 1985.
“It has been an absolute treat,” he said.
The only thing that could make Higgins happier, and this is also no shocker, would be another full-time CFL job. And he would like everyone to know that he’s open to pretty much anything.
“The thing people are thinking is, ‘well, you have to be a head coach or GM.’ That’s absolutely false,” he said. “I’m a football coach. I don’t mind being a position coach. I don’t mind coaching special teams or linebackers or defensive line. If people know that, maybe some point in time (it happens), because age doesn’t matter to me. It’s irrelevant.
“In fact, I told my wife, if I ever get back in as a position coach, I’ll keep getting younger and younger, because the pressure is on the nine head coaches and general managers.”
The 63-year-old New Jersey native is a football lifer born of good gridiron stock. His father, Tom Sr., spent three seasons with Philadelphia and Chicago in the National Football League, then became a standout high school coach. Junior was an All-American linebacker but went undrafted by the NFL, looked north, and thus began his decades-long love affair with Canada and the CFL.
“American by birth, Canadian by choice,” he said with a smile.
He eventually sandwiched a year with the Buffalo Bills between brief stints with Calgary in 1976 and Saskatchewan in 1980. After retirement, his first coaching job came with the University of Calgary in 1982.
In the 36 years hence, he has coached defensive and offensive lines, been a defensive and offensive co-ordinator, assistant head coach, assistant GM, head coach, GM and combined the two as head coach/GM in Edmonton.
That’s when he had Jason Maas as one of his quarterbacks. Maas, now in his third year as head coach with the Eskimos, invited Higgins to camp.
“No way I could pass it up,” said Higgins. “I think the way that I can help him is, I’ve made so many mistakes as a GM and head coach, I can give him a pair of eyes.”
That’s trademark Higgins self-deprecation. It’s a humbling game, and as much as he likes to talk about his accomplishments — they include two Grey Cup wins, one as an assistant, two nods as coach of the year and a career head coaching record of 81-62-1 — he isn’t afraid to revisit his failures and pratfalls.
After putting in six productive years as the CFL director of officiating, he returned to the sidelines as head coach of the Montreal Alouettes in 2014. They went 9-9, then stumbled to 3-5 midway through 2015. Higgins was fired over the phone, on the team bus, after a win in Vancouver.
“That was No. 10. I was pretty proud of myself to get to double digits,” he said. “Six times cut as a professional athlete and four times fired from other jobs.”
He went back home to Calgary, joined the U of C as a consultant, then as defensive co-ordinator. He took last year off from coaching, though he does run summer camps, leadership workshops, coaching clinics and combines through his Calgary-based company, Canadian Football Academy.
And he is always on the lookout for the next CFL role.
“Believe it or not, I actually interviewed for the head coaching job of the Montreal Alouettes,” he said. “Obviously, I know Kavis Reed. I brought Kavis into the Edmonton Eskimo organization. He was out of a job, I was looking for a special teams coach, I brought him on over. He leapfrogged into the (Montreal) GM job. I was fired there. Funny how things work, but that’s professional sport.”
He said the 2.5-hour interview went extremely well.
“But what a huge risk it might have been to bring me back,” he admitted. “Were there other influences? Absolutely. Other choices? Absolutely.”
Reed went with Mike Sherman, the former Green Bay Packers bench boss last seen coaching an American high school team.
Higgins also had one interview for the GM/head coaching job that Chris Jones got in Saskatchewan. He’s still optimistic that something will come around and he’ll be working again in the league that he loves so deeply.
“It has allowed me the opportunity to stay in Canada, to do something I am passionate about,” he said of the CFL. “Our family grew up understanding football and football is our world, our family’s world.
“So there is no (retirement) date. I’m going to continue to be involved in football for the remainder of my life.”
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