Rob Vanstone: Craig Reynolds deserves credit for steering Saskatchewan Roughriders through pandemic period

Craig Reynolds has faced various forms of adversity in six years as the Riders' president-CEO, but nothing quite like the pandemic period.

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The task of succeeding Jim Hopson as the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ president-CEO was tantamount to being asked to sing immediately after Frank Sinatra.

It was a no-win proposition.

And, sure enough, there weren’t any victories for the longest time.

The Roughriders lost their first nine games during Year 1 of Craig Reynolds’ tenure as the community-owned CFL team’s highest-ranking employee.

Having seen enough, Reynolds decided at the midpoint of the 2015 CFL season to fire head coach Corey Chamblin and general manager Brendan Taman — architects of a team that in 2013 had celebrated a home-field Grey Cup victory.

That was the fourth championship team in franchise history, and the second under Hopson.

Hopson’s 10-year reign, which coincided with the most prosperous period the Roughriders have ever enjoyed, was recognized in 2019 when he was enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

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By then, Reynolds had established that he, too, was worthy of occupying the president-CEO’s chair. But it wasn’t the easiest road.

The 2015 Roughriders posted a glittering 3-15 record.

Reynolds responded by wooing Chris Jones away from Edmonton, which he had coached to the 2015 Grey Cup title, at a cost of $500,000-plus per annum.

The bold move contributed to an inflationary environment across the league. Before too long, the CFL had introduced a football-operations salary cap.

Although Jones greatly improved the Roughriders during his three-year stay, there were accompanying headaches — such as recurring fines issued by the league, the recruitment of players of questionable character, and the poorly handled departures of four popular players (Darian Durant, Weston Dressler, John Chick and Rob Bagg).

The backlash often reverberated in the president-CEO’s office.

And then Jones left, unexpectedly, to join the Cleveland Browns’ coaching staff in January of 2019. Only a week earlier, the Roughriders had announced that Jones had signed a contract extension.

By that time, most CFL teams had locked down their football-operations staffs, and Reynolds was suddenly at the helm of a team that needed to replace a head coach, a defensive co-ordinator, a general manager AND a vice-president of football operations. Jones, you see, had occupied all four of those key positions.

Circumstances were not conducive to a far-reaching search for replacements, but the timing proved to be fortuitous.

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Reynolds soon announced the in-house promotion of Jeremy O’Day, who was named the GM and vice-president of football operations. O’Day proceeded to expand the portfolio of special-teams co-ordinator Craig Dickenson, handing him the head-coaching reins. Dickenson then elevated Jason Shivers, the defensive backs coach for his first three seasons in Riderville, to defensive co-ordinator.

In a move that garnered considerably less publicity, O’Day signed a free-agent quarterback named Cody Fajardo.

O’Day, Dickenson, Shivers and Fajardo all contributed to a rare first-place finish in 2019.

Saskatchewan’s 13-5 record was a far cry from the sickly slate that had compelled Reynolds to clean house just four years earlier.

But even then, a whopper of a headache was around the corner.

Hello there, COVID-19.

The pandemic wiped out the 2020 CFL season, leading to fears — expressed by Reynolds — that the Roughriders could incur a $10-million loss for the 2020-21 fiscal year and be forced to dip into their $7.6-million contingency fund.

It was arguably the darkest period, from a financial perspective, since the establishment of the former Regina Rugby Club.

Over 100-plus years, the Roughriders have dealt with intermittent financial crises.

Various stewards of the team — everyone from Bob Kramer to Clair Warner to Ken Preston to Gord Staseson to Tom Shepherd to Bill Baker to Phil Kershaw to John Lipp to Alan Ford to Fred Wagman — made exceptional contributions to the Roughriders’ continued existence during years in which money was tight.

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Add Reynolds to the list.

The anticipated deficit for 2020-21 is expected to be in the vicinity of $7 million — a substantial hit, to be certain, but not the eight-figure monster that was initially projected.

Desperate times have dictated difficult decisions, such as a 30-per-cent reduction in staff and across-the-board salary rollbacks.

The climate calls for quiet, competent, calming leadership — precisely what Reynolds has crucially delivered during the past 15 months.

Now there is the very real possibly of a resumption of play, perhaps as early as August.

And when that time arrives, Craig Reynolds — a man predisposed to modesty and self-deprecation, but certainly not self-promotion — should be the first to take a well-deserved bow.

rvanstone@postmedia.com

twitter.com/robvanstone

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