May 18, 2017

Higgins part of super staff in ’92

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Stampeders’ 1992 Grey Cup championship, so we’re looking back at the squad that snapped the Stamps’ 21-year title drought and the cast of characters responsible for the conquest.

This week, we speak with Tom Higgins, who was assistant head coach of that championship squad.

Tom Higgins
Assistant head coach
In 1992:
38 years old, in eighth season on the Stamps’ coaching staff

Tom Higgins showed great survival skills as a member of the Calgary Stampeders coaching staff.

He was hired in 1985 by Stamps head coach Steve Buratto, who was fired just five games into the season. Higgins stayed on as player personnel director Bid Riley handled head-coaching duties for the remainder of the season.

Higgins remained on the scene when Bob Vespaziani took over in 1986 and was retained after another mid-season coaching chance in 1987 when Lary Kuharich replaced Vespaziani after eight games.

Kuharich was gone after the 1989 season which gave Higgins the chance to work under yet another head coach, Wally Buono.

“It’s interesting that I was to be able to survive that many head coaches,” quips Higgins. “But I think it was because I was young and I knew where the executive washroom was.”

In reality, Higgins had all the necessary credentials for the job.

As a player, he was a starter on North Carolina State’s defensive line before converting to linebacker during a professional career that included three seasons with the Stamps and one season with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

As a coach, he’d served for three years on Peter Connellan’s University of Calgary Dinosaurs squad including a Vanier Cup-championship season in 1983 before getting the call from the Stamps.

He was even a candidate to become Calgary’s head coach in 1990, with the job instead going to fellow Stamps assistant Buono.

“Wally then let me be his assistant head coach,” says Higgins, “which was really nice.”

Particularly since the Stamps were building to something important at that time after struggling through the entire 1980s without a playoff win.

Remarkably, Buono’s 1992 coaching staff featured four assistants – Higgins, John Hufnagel, Don Sutherin and George Cortez – who went on to lead their own teams.

“Just getting to that point was miraculous,” says Higgins, “because it was a nine-year span that I had with the Stampeders the first go-around and you’re thinking nine years is a long time but what happens is when you start to put that kind of consistency together, that’s when you have success.”

Calgary won two playoff games in 1991 – including a memorable victory in the West final at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium – but fell short in the Grey Cup.

The following off-season, the final piece of the puzzle settled into place.

“There’s an old joke that people still laugh at,” says Higgins. “A head coach needs a loving wife, a loyal dog and a great quarterback, but not necessarily in that order.”

Cue Doug Flutie for his entrance.

“What it comes down to,” says Higgins, “is that we had the foundation of a pretty good football team but Doug Flutie took it over the top. Our offensive line the year prior to Doug coming here was ranked somewhere in the middle as far sacks against and anything that you do to judge an offensive line. Well, all of a sudden the offensive line became the best in the CFL by whatever standards and it was because nobody could touch slippery Flutie. He’s just special.”

The Flutie wizardry was paired with Stamps domination in the trenches.

“You have to have a great offensive line and you have to have to a great defensive line,” says Higgins, “and I really do believe that the success of any organization comes down to having those two factors because you’ve got to run the ball and you’ve got to be able to protect your quarterback. Conversely, you have to be able to get after it (on defence) so to have the talent that we had on the defensive line, to me, is absolutely amazing.

“We had four Canadian defensive linemen (Stu Laird, Kent Warnock, Srecko Zizakovic and Harald Hasselbach) and we actually started three and that’s unheard of today. Then we had (Americans) Tim Cofield and Will Johnson who were our defensive ends.”

After squeezing out a win over the Esks in the 1992 West final at McMahon Stadium, the Stamps thumped Winnipeg in the 1992 championship game at Toronto’s SkyDome.

“It was unfinished business,” notes Higgins. “It was a business-like approach to the athletes going into Toronto and making sure that they didn’t squander away their greatest opportunity to have fond memories.”

After 1993, Higgins moved north to Edmonton, first as a member of the front office and then as the head coach starting in 2001. In his third season on the Esks’ sidelines, he led the team to a Grey Cup title.

Higgins returned to Calgary in 2005 and in his first season as the Red and White’s head coach he led a squad that had won just four games the season before to an 11-7 mark. After three years, he was replaced by Hufnagel and went on to serve as the CFL’s director of officiating for six seasons and in 2014 was hired to coach the Montreal Alouettes.