Inside the CFL: Anthony Calvillo's coaching journey has led him back to Grey Cup

Appearance in CFL’s title game used to be routine for Alouettes quarterbacking legend.

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With eight trips over an 11-year period beginning in 2000, there was a time when the Alouettes reaching the Grey Cup game was almost an annual tradition. Even in the modest nine-team CFL, it was a record to be envied.

“We took it for granted that we were going,” Anthony Calvillo told the Montreal Gazette by telephone this week from Hamilton. “When you get away from it for a while, you realize it’s hard work trying to get back. Deep in my heart, I never thought it would take (another) 13 years — whether I was playing or coaching.

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“When I was playing, and we were in so many of them, the expectations were that we’d have a chance to compete, year in and out.”

As the starting quarterback of those Montreal teams for the majority of his 20-year career, Calvillo was the face of the franchise; the lightning-rod — both good and bad — during the week of the championship game. There were endless interviews and appearances required. Given the position he played, it became a bit of a love/hate relationship between him, the media and fans.

Calvillo was a hero when the Als triumphed. But too often he was forced to take the brunt of criticism when the team lost, which it did in five of those games.

“You always want to win more, whether the record’s associated with the quarterback or not,” he said. “The reality is (the record) was 3-5. I’m proud of every single thing we were able to accomplish. It wasn’t easy. You wish you could have won more, but I go to sleep easily every night with the record we had.”

The Als have returned to the Grey Cup for the first time since 2010, when they defeated Saskatchewan for a second consecutive title. Montreal plays Winnipeg Sunday (6 p.m.) at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton. For Calvillo, who remains the face of the franchise a decade after his retirement — the adulation still obvious — the 13-year wait is finally over.

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If every Als player and coach has a story to tell this week, perhaps Calvillo’s tale is the most compelling.

Now the quarterbacks coach and offensive co-ordinator, although head coach Jason Maas is the play-caller during games, the off-field transition hasn’t always gone smoothly.

Concussed during a 2013 game at Regina and forced to retire following the season, Calvillo made a quick transition into coaching, becoming the Als’ receivers coach in 2015 — the first of four consecutive non-playoff years. He was promoted to QB coach in August, following the firing of head coach Tom Higgins. Then Calvillo was named offensive co-ordinator, along with Ryan Dinwiddie, after Turk Schonert was fired.

It was too much, too soon on a struggling franchise.

Calvillo was a superstar on the field, passing for 79,816 career yards and 455 touchdowns. He was the league’s outstanding player three times and the Cup’s most valuable player once. But he had to hone his coaching skills and, like playing quarterback, that took time. Not once did Calvillo complain under this tremendous burden; ever the loyal soldier to the organization.

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If Calvillo didn’t necessarily crack, he eventually had to sever ties with the Als, spending 2018 with the Toronto Argonauts as QB coach under Marc Trestman and general manager Jim Popp, before returning to Montreal in ’19, but at the university level with the Carabins under Danny Maciocia, now the Als’ GM.

Like most great players, it was difficult for Calvillo coming to terms with quarterbacks who didn’t possess the same talent.

“When I first started, I didn’t have a lot of patience,” said Calvillo, 51, who lives in St-Laurent and became a Canadian citizen two years ago. “I’ve improved my communication skills. We’re basically teachers. I have to share my knowledge and not get frustrated.”

When something wasn’t clear and players asked questions, Calvillo used to take umbrage, believing he was being challenged as a coach. In time, they stopped asking, fearful of his response. That now has finally changed.

“Why am I getting mad at them?” said Calvillo, who returned to the Als last season. “They’re trying to make sure it’s clear for them.”

If Calvillo didn’t necessarily go out on the town during Grey Cup week when he played, there’s no time to enjoy the festivities this week as a coach. He arises at 4 a.m. and is on the first shuttle to the stadium 30 minutes later to begin meetings and film review. During the season he’s in bed no later than 9 p.m., but that has been extended by an hour or two this week, given the magnitude of the game.

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If his coaching career doesn’t reach the status Calvillo enjoyed on the field, he’ll remain unflappable, content in his own skin throughout the journey. It’s more important to him the Als enjoy success. The rest, he said, will take care of itself.

“I’m in no rush,” Calvillo said. “I’ve feel I’ve grown and will continue to improve. We’ll see where it goes. I have no agent looking for head coaching jobs. Keep building great seasons and the rest will take care of itself.”

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