Eric Tillman: Spectator Q and A with new Tiger-Cats general manager

Sports Apr 01, 2016 by Drew Edwards The Hamilton Spectator

One of Kent Austin's first moves after being hired as vice-president of football operations of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in December of 2012 was to hire Eric Tillman as a consultant. Given Austin's lack of experience — he'd never been a CFL general manager before — the move made a lot of sense, given Tillman's long history in the league: he's won Grey Cups with B.C., Toronto and Saskatchewan, and served as the GM of the Ottawa Renegades and the Edmonton Eskimos. The two men have been friends for three decades and enjoy a unique working relationship, one that entered a new phase when Tillman was promoted to general manager of the Ticats earlier this month.

Tillman talked with The Spectator's Drew Edwards about his life in football, his bond with Austin and the Ticats' roster needs.

Drew Edwards: How did Eric Tillman get into football?

Eric Tillman: It's amazing where life takes you. Growing up in Mississippi, going to school at Ole Miss, I loved athletics but it certainly wasn't the path I had carved out. I was incredibly fortunate that coming out of university, the first opportunity I got was an entry-level position in the NFL with the Houston Oilers. I thought it was going to be a two- or three-year opportunity but I got into the stream, things developed and here we are, almost 40 years later.

DE: How did you end up in the CFL?

ET: Everyone can look back in their life and see forks in the road where other people had an impact, where a person's support or interest or opportunity really changed your life for the better, and in my case that was a guy named Joe Galat. He was an assistant coach when I started in Houston and he had come from the CFL and went back to Montreal as the head coach. The staff he put together — and we're talking about the early '80s — it included Wally Buono, George Cortez and Dave Ritchie, all getting their first opportunities to coach in the CFL. And he opened the door for me to come to Canada. Not only am I very grateful to Joe Galat, I think a lot of others are, too.

DE: Does meeting Kent Austin when he was a senior at Ole Miss and you were running the Senior Bowl qualify as one of those life-changing moments, for him or for you?

ET: I think for both of us (laughs). That is one of the ultimate examples of how when you look back at life, it's amazing that people you cross paths with can have such a significant impact. It was January of 1986 that I invited Kent to play in the Senior Bowl. He'd suffered a knee injury and couldn't play but he came down and stayed the entire week, and us both being Ole Miss guys, we developed a good relationship. I introduced him to Dan Rambo, who was then the assistant general manager with Saskatchewan, and Dan and I talked about how Kent might be a terrific player in the CFL. Then you look at all the other times our paths have crossed: trading for him when I was in B.C., to giving him his first coaching opportunity in Ottawa to his first head coaching job in Saskatchewan, and then for him opening the door for me in Hamilton. It's certainly a very unique relationship.

DE: What's your personal relationship and dynamic with Austin like?

ET: We are polar opposites, which is probably a very good balancing act for both of us (laughs). When I look back on my career, he's certainly played a huge role in much of the success that we've enjoyed and I hope that I've been helpful to him in some ways. There's a trust — and you can't overemphasize that word — there's a mutual respect. We have a strong enough relationship that I can disagree and tell him why because he knows that I care about him and I care about the club and that I understand that there's one decision-maker when it comes to football, and that's him.

DE: Is this situation — being named general manager but with Austin retaining control of football operations — is that unusual for you and does it pose challenges?

ET: No, because of the relationship we have. When I was a consultant, when I was director of U.S. scouting, we had the same kind of dialogue. At the end of the day, all you care about is winning. That's our collective goal, to win a championship for the fans in Hamilton. One of the refreshing things about this organization is that we have good, smart, team-oriented people and it's not about titles or who has the final say. It's about working together collectively for the betterment of the club.

DE: You've won three Grey Cups as a general manager. Is there one that stands out above the others?

ET: I've been blessed with some great opportunities and success is a collective effort, but they've all been fun. It's kind of like your children; each one brings a special joy. In B.C., in 1994, we were the first team to play against a Baltimore team made up of all American players and the whole country was behind us, so that was incredibly special. In Toronto (in 1997), we had one of the greatest teams in CFL history and that's something that has special meaning. And, quite frankly, there's nothing like winning a championship in Saskatchewan. Each is special in a different way.

DE: You've found some excellent players during your time in the CFL. Do you have a specific philosophy or methodology?

ET: The most important thing from a personnel stand point is to understand what your coaches need and want from a schematic standpoint. It's not just about finding players, it's about finding players that fit the schemes on both sides of the ball and in the locker-room. One of the great things about the Hamilton situation is that there's such clarity in terms of what our coaches want. I've also done this a long time and have a ton of contacts.

DE: Is there a particular need this team needs to address this off-season?

ET: You can always improve, and Kent would be the first one to tell you that there are areas where we can get stronger, where we want more depth, where we want more flexibility. In a league that's driven by Canadian content, you want to have as much ratio flexibility as you can. What we've tried to do is to give our coaches depth and ratio flexibility while also giving us salary cap flexibility in the decision-making. We have a good football team, but competition is always a good thing and that's not going to change. Our mindset is always going to be to bring in good football players, to create strong competition. If the coaches have difficult decisions to make, that's a good thing.

DE: I'm only going to ask one direct player personnel question. Who is going to kick for this team next season?

ET: At this point, we don't have that answer. We have discussed different scenarios and we understand that this is an area that's going to be critically important and watched very closely in training camp. Justin Medlock was a special player but there is always a changing of the guard. When I was in Ottawa, we brought in Lawrence Tynes and he had never kicked in the league. He kicked 85 to 90 per cent for a couple of years before he left for the NFL. In Edmonton, we brought in Swayze Waters and he's had a great career. At some point, in a salary cap league, the reality of the business forces you to go young. It's not always what you'd prefer but it's the reality. Kent's a guy that has extreme confidence in himself and his coaching and his coaching staff. At positions where we need to go young, he feels players will emerge, and hopefully that will be the case in our kicking game.

DE: One of the first moves Austin made after you joined the Ticats was to trade Nathan Kanya and Carson Rockhill to Edmonton for Simoni Lawrence, Jeremiah Masoli and Greg Wojt. In retrospect, that trade is incredibly lopsided and you would have known all three from your time with the Eskimos.

ET: Yes, all three of those players were guys I knew well from Edmonton, and Kent and I discussed them at length prior to the trade. But, let's give credit where credit is due: Kent negotiated that deal with Ed. He simply sought my advice in advance, which is what he does on a regular basis with several of us. He's very smart in that way and in many other ways, too. He listens to everyone on our staff before making decisions, but, ultimately, he is the decision-maker.

DE: You're 58 now and you've done a lot of different things in CFL. What's left for you to do?

ET: As you get older, you look back and reflect on how fortunate you've been along the way. You think about the mistakes you've made, too, and you look for the opportunities you still have to be helpful to others. We have some terrific young guys in our organization like Shawn Burke and Drew Allemang, and if I can help with their growth and development — even in a small way — that would be very rewarding. Each of them has so much ability. The truth is we have an organization full of talented, team-oriented individuals — on the football side and on the business side, too. Collectively, we all have one goal — winning the Grey Cup. It wouldn't get much better than seeing Bob Young, Scott Mitchell, Kent Austin and Angelo Mosca riding in a Grey Cup parade. Our fans have waited a long time and they deserve to savour a moment like that.

dedwards@thespec.com

905-526-2481 | @scratchingpost

Eric Tillman: Spectator Q and A with new Tiger-Cats general manager

Sports Apr 01, 2016 by Drew Edwards The Hamilton Spectator

One of Kent Austin's first moves after being hired as vice-president of football operations of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in December of 2012 was to hire Eric Tillman as a consultant. Given Austin's lack of experience — he'd never been a CFL general manager before — the move made a lot of sense, given Tillman's long history in the league: he's won Grey Cups with B.C., Toronto and Saskatchewan, and served as the GM of the Ottawa Renegades and the Edmonton Eskimos. The two men have been friends for three decades and enjoy a unique working relationship, one that entered a new phase when Tillman was promoted to general manager of the Ticats earlier this month.

Tillman talked with The Spectator's Drew Edwards about his life in football, his bond with Austin and the Ticats' roster needs.

Drew Edwards: How did Eric Tillman get into football?

Eric Tillman: It's amazing where life takes you. Growing up in Mississippi, going to school at Ole Miss, I loved athletics but it certainly wasn't the path I had carved out. I was incredibly fortunate that coming out of university, the first opportunity I got was an entry-level position in the NFL with the Houston Oilers. I thought it was going to be a two- or three-year opportunity but I got into the stream, things developed and here we are, almost 40 years later.

DE: How did you end up in the CFL?

ET: Everyone can look back in their life and see forks in the road where other people had an impact, where a person's support or interest or opportunity really changed your life for the better, and in my case that was a guy named Joe Galat. He was an assistant coach when I started in Houston and he had come from the CFL and went back to Montreal as the head coach. The staff he put together — and we're talking about the early '80s — it included Wally Buono, George Cortez and Dave Ritchie, all getting their first opportunities to coach in the CFL. And he opened the door for me to come to Canada. Not only am I very grateful to Joe Galat, I think a lot of others are, too.

DE: Does meeting Kent Austin when he was a senior at Ole Miss and you were running the Senior Bowl qualify as one of those life-changing moments, for him or for you?

ET: I think for both of us (laughs). That is one of the ultimate examples of how when you look back at life, it's amazing that people you cross paths with can have such a significant impact. It was January of 1986 that I invited Kent to play in the Senior Bowl. He'd suffered a knee injury and couldn't play but he came down and stayed the entire week, and us both being Ole Miss guys, we developed a good relationship. I introduced him to Dan Rambo, who was then the assistant general manager with Saskatchewan, and Dan and I talked about how Kent might be a terrific player in the CFL. Then you look at all the other times our paths have crossed: trading for him when I was in B.C., to giving him his first coaching opportunity in Ottawa to his first head coaching job in Saskatchewan, and then for him opening the door for me in Hamilton. It's certainly a very unique relationship.

DE: What's your personal relationship and dynamic with Austin like?

ET: We are polar opposites, which is probably a very good balancing act for both of us (laughs). When I look back on my career, he's certainly played a huge role in much of the success that we've enjoyed and I hope that I've been helpful to him in some ways. There's a trust — and you can't overemphasize that word — there's a mutual respect. We have a strong enough relationship that I can disagree and tell him why because he knows that I care about him and I care about the club and that I understand that there's one decision-maker when it comes to football, and that's him.

DE: Is this situation — being named general manager but with Austin retaining control of football operations — is that unusual for you and does it pose challenges?

ET: No, because of the relationship we have. When I was a consultant, when I was director of U.S. scouting, we had the same kind of dialogue. At the end of the day, all you care about is winning. That's our collective goal, to win a championship for the fans in Hamilton. One of the refreshing things about this organization is that we have good, smart, team-oriented people and it's not about titles or who has the final say. It's about working together collectively for the betterment of the club.

DE: You've won three Grey Cups as a general manager. Is there one that stands out above the others?

ET: I've been blessed with some great opportunities and success is a collective effort, but they've all been fun. It's kind of like your children; each one brings a special joy. In B.C., in 1994, we were the first team to play against a Baltimore team made up of all American players and the whole country was behind us, so that was incredibly special. In Toronto (in 1997), we had one of the greatest teams in CFL history and that's something that has special meaning. And, quite frankly, there's nothing like winning a championship in Saskatchewan. Each is special in a different way.

DE: You've found some excellent players during your time in the CFL. Do you have a specific philosophy or methodology?

ET: The most important thing from a personnel stand point is to understand what your coaches need and want from a schematic standpoint. It's not just about finding players, it's about finding players that fit the schemes on both sides of the ball and in the locker-room. One of the great things about the Hamilton situation is that there's such clarity in terms of what our coaches want. I've also done this a long time and have a ton of contacts.

DE: Is there a particular need this team needs to address this off-season?

ET: You can always improve, and Kent would be the first one to tell you that there are areas where we can get stronger, where we want more depth, where we want more flexibility. In a league that's driven by Canadian content, you want to have as much ratio flexibility as you can. What we've tried to do is to give our coaches depth and ratio flexibility while also giving us salary cap flexibility in the decision-making. We have a good football team, but competition is always a good thing and that's not going to change. Our mindset is always going to be to bring in good football players, to create strong competition. If the coaches have difficult decisions to make, that's a good thing.

DE: I'm only going to ask one direct player personnel question. Who is going to kick for this team next season?

ET: At this point, we don't have that answer. We have discussed different scenarios and we understand that this is an area that's going to be critically important and watched very closely in training camp. Justin Medlock was a special player but there is always a changing of the guard. When I was in Ottawa, we brought in Lawrence Tynes and he had never kicked in the league. He kicked 85 to 90 per cent for a couple of years before he left for the NFL. In Edmonton, we brought in Swayze Waters and he's had a great career. At some point, in a salary cap league, the reality of the business forces you to go young. It's not always what you'd prefer but it's the reality. Kent's a guy that has extreme confidence in himself and his coaching and his coaching staff. At positions where we need to go young, he feels players will emerge, and hopefully that will be the case in our kicking game.

DE: One of the first moves Austin made after you joined the Ticats was to trade Nathan Kanya and Carson Rockhill to Edmonton for Simoni Lawrence, Jeremiah Masoli and Greg Wojt. In retrospect, that trade is incredibly lopsided and you would have known all three from your time with the Eskimos.

ET: Yes, all three of those players were guys I knew well from Edmonton, and Kent and I discussed them at length prior to the trade. But, let's give credit where credit is due: Kent negotiated that deal with Ed. He simply sought my advice in advance, which is what he does on a regular basis with several of us. He's very smart in that way and in many other ways, too. He listens to everyone on our staff before making decisions, but, ultimately, he is the decision-maker.

DE: You're 58 now and you've done a lot of different things in CFL. What's left for you to do?

ET: As you get older, you look back and reflect on how fortunate you've been along the way. You think about the mistakes you've made, too, and you look for the opportunities you still have to be helpful to others. We have some terrific young guys in our organization like Shawn Burke and Drew Allemang, and if I can help with their growth and development — even in a small way — that would be very rewarding. Each of them has so much ability. The truth is we have an organization full of talented, team-oriented individuals — on the football side and on the business side, too. Collectively, we all have one goal — winning the Grey Cup. It wouldn't get much better than seeing Bob Young, Scott Mitchell, Kent Austin and Angelo Mosca riding in a Grey Cup parade. Our fans have waited a long time and they deserve to savour a moment like that.

dedwards@thespec.com

905-526-2481 | @scratchingpost

Eric Tillman: Spectator Q and A with new Tiger-Cats general manager

Sports Apr 01, 2016 by Drew Edwards The Hamilton Spectator

One of Kent Austin's first moves after being hired as vice-president of football operations of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in December of 2012 was to hire Eric Tillman as a consultant. Given Austin's lack of experience — he'd never been a CFL general manager before — the move made a lot of sense, given Tillman's long history in the league: he's won Grey Cups with B.C., Toronto and Saskatchewan, and served as the GM of the Ottawa Renegades and the Edmonton Eskimos. The two men have been friends for three decades and enjoy a unique working relationship, one that entered a new phase when Tillman was promoted to general manager of the Ticats earlier this month.

Tillman talked with The Spectator's Drew Edwards about his life in football, his bond with Austin and the Ticats' roster needs.

Drew Edwards: How did Eric Tillman get into football?

Eric Tillman: It's amazing where life takes you. Growing up in Mississippi, going to school at Ole Miss, I loved athletics but it certainly wasn't the path I had carved out. I was incredibly fortunate that coming out of university, the first opportunity I got was an entry-level position in the NFL with the Houston Oilers. I thought it was going to be a two- or three-year opportunity but I got into the stream, things developed and here we are, almost 40 years later.

DE: How did you end up in the CFL?

ET: Everyone can look back in their life and see forks in the road where other people had an impact, where a person's support or interest or opportunity really changed your life for the better, and in my case that was a guy named Joe Galat. He was an assistant coach when I started in Houston and he had come from the CFL and went back to Montreal as the head coach. The staff he put together — and we're talking about the early '80s — it included Wally Buono, George Cortez and Dave Ritchie, all getting their first opportunities to coach in the CFL. And he opened the door for me to come to Canada. Not only am I very grateful to Joe Galat, I think a lot of others are, too.

DE: Does meeting Kent Austin when he was a senior at Ole Miss and you were running the Senior Bowl qualify as one of those life-changing moments, for him or for you?

ET: I think for both of us (laughs). That is one of the ultimate examples of how when you look back at life, it's amazing that people you cross paths with can have such a significant impact. It was January of 1986 that I invited Kent to play in the Senior Bowl. He'd suffered a knee injury and couldn't play but he came down and stayed the entire week, and us both being Ole Miss guys, we developed a good relationship. I introduced him to Dan Rambo, who was then the assistant general manager with Saskatchewan, and Dan and I talked about how Kent might be a terrific player in the CFL. Then you look at all the other times our paths have crossed: trading for him when I was in B.C., to giving him his first coaching opportunity in Ottawa to his first head coaching job in Saskatchewan, and then for him opening the door for me in Hamilton. It's certainly a very unique relationship.

DE: What's your personal relationship and dynamic with Austin like?

ET: We are polar opposites, which is probably a very good balancing act for both of us (laughs). When I look back on my career, he's certainly played a huge role in much of the success that we've enjoyed and I hope that I've been helpful to him in some ways. There's a trust — and you can't overemphasize that word — there's a mutual respect. We have a strong enough relationship that I can disagree and tell him why because he knows that I care about him and I care about the club and that I understand that there's one decision-maker when it comes to football, and that's him.

DE: Is this situation — being named general manager but with Austin retaining control of football operations — is that unusual for you and does it pose challenges?

ET: No, because of the relationship we have. When I was a consultant, when I was director of U.S. scouting, we had the same kind of dialogue. At the end of the day, all you care about is winning. That's our collective goal, to win a championship for the fans in Hamilton. One of the refreshing things about this organization is that we have good, smart, team-oriented people and it's not about titles or who has the final say. It's about working together collectively for the betterment of the club.

DE: You've won three Grey Cups as a general manager. Is there one that stands out above the others?

ET: I've been blessed with some great opportunities and success is a collective effort, but they've all been fun. It's kind of like your children; each one brings a special joy. In B.C., in 1994, we were the first team to play against a Baltimore team made up of all American players and the whole country was behind us, so that was incredibly special. In Toronto (in 1997), we had one of the greatest teams in CFL history and that's something that has special meaning. And, quite frankly, there's nothing like winning a championship in Saskatchewan. Each is special in a different way.

DE: You've found some excellent players during your time in the CFL. Do you have a specific philosophy or methodology?

ET: The most important thing from a personnel stand point is to understand what your coaches need and want from a schematic standpoint. It's not just about finding players, it's about finding players that fit the schemes on both sides of the ball and in the locker-room. One of the great things about the Hamilton situation is that there's such clarity in terms of what our coaches want. I've also done this a long time and have a ton of contacts.

DE: Is there a particular need this team needs to address this off-season?

ET: You can always improve, and Kent would be the first one to tell you that there are areas where we can get stronger, where we want more depth, where we want more flexibility. In a league that's driven by Canadian content, you want to have as much ratio flexibility as you can. What we've tried to do is to give our coaches depth and ratio flexibility while also giving us salary cap flexibility in the decision-making. We have a good football team, but competition is always a good thing and that's not going to change. Our mindset is always going to be to bring in good football players, to create strong competition. If the coaches have difficult decisions to make, that's a good thing.

DE: I'm only going to ask one direct player personnel question. Who is going to kick for this team next season?

ET: At this point, we don't have that answer. We have discussed different scenarios and we understand that this is an area that's going to be critically important and watched very closely in training camp. Justin Medlock was a special player but there is always a changing of the guard. When I was in Ottawa, we brought in Lawrence Tynes and he had never kicked in the league. He kicked 85 to 90 per cent for a couple of years before he left for the NFL. In Edmonton, we brought in Swayze Waters and he's had a great career. At some point, in a salary cap league, the reality of the business forces you to go young. It's not always what you'd prefer but it's the reality. Kent's a guy that has extreme confidence in himself and his coaching and his coaching staff. At positions where we need to go young, he feels players will emerge, and hopefully that will be the case in our kicking game.

DE: One of the first moves Austin made after you joined the Ticats was to trade Nathan Kanya and Carson Rockhill to Edmonton for Simoni Lawrence, Jeremiah Masoli and Greg Wojt. In retrospect, that trade is incredibly lopsided and you would have known all three from your time with the Eskimos.

ET: Yes, all three of those players were guys I knew well from Edmonton, and Kent and I discussed them at length prior to the trade. But, let's give credit where credit is due: Kent negotiated that deal with Ed. He simply sought my advice in advance, which is what he does on a regular basis with several of us. He's very smart in that way and in many other ways, too. He listens to everyone on our staff before making decisions, but, ultimately, he is the decision-maker.

DE: You're 58 now and you've done a lot of different things in CFL. What's left for you to do?

ET: As you get older, you look back and reflect on how fortunate you've been along the way. You think about the mistakes you've made, too, and you look for the opportunities you still have to be helpful to others. We have some terrific young guys in our organization like Shawn Burke and Drew Allemang, and if I can help with their growth and development — even in a small way — that would be very rewarding. Each of them has so much ability. The truth is we have an organization full of talented, team-oriented individuals — on the football side and on the business side, too. Collectively, we all have one goal — winning the Grey Cup. It wouldn't get much better than seeing Bob Young, Scott Mitchell, Kent Austin and Angelo Mosca riding in a Grey Cup parade. Our fans have waited a long time and they deserve to savour a moment like that.

dedwards@thespec.com

905-526-2481 | @scratchingpost