Editor’s Note: Arash Madani is a reporter and commentator for Rogers Sportsnet. He is a columnist for 3DownNation.
The ousting of the only general manager the Alouettes have had since their return to Montreal certainly shows there’s been a changing of the guard with the franchise.
And it has nothing to do with Jim Popp.
Dismissing Popp signalled the end of Bob Wetenhall having an iron grip on the running of the organization. While he remains the owner, it’s now clear his son, Andrew, fully has the power and is running affairs for an organization that had been a two-man show for the better part of the past 20 years.
Those who have been around the organization know how Bob Wetenhall has operated, and it’s centered on fierce loyalty to his guys. Which is how and why Anthony Calvillo was elevated to offensive coordinator as quickly as he was; how and why Popp was retained, even after each of his head coaching stints became one disaster after another.
It was about three years ago when Andrew Wetenhall, an investment banker, took more of a role with the Alouettes, becoming the franchise’s lead governor – essentially making ownership decisions at the league level. And thus began the gradual decline of Popp’s reign near the top of the team’s hierarchy.
Many believe Andrew had grown more and more weary of Popp at the helm of football operations – the first salvo fired in the winter of 2014 when Tom Higgins was hired as Alouettes head coach behind Popp’s back. But over the years, the elder Wetenhall was always there to defend and protect Popp, even as the Alouettes have now amassed the longest drought for a Grey Cup appearance in the CFL.
You keep hearing Popp is a great GM, but not a good coach, right? Well, his teams have won only one playoff game since Marc Trestman left the franchise at the end of the 2012 season.
By September of this year, it was clear that Popp’s power and influence had vanished. The team was a disaster, again, on the field. Montreal’s salary cap situation? About the same. In part, what made the Alouettes so good in the early 2000s was their ability to draft, and retain, better than any other franchise. But over the past five seasons, Popp’s drafts have been a catastrophe.
The Alouettes have hit big on only two first round picks that are still with the club: Philippe Gagnon in 2016 and fellow offensive lineman Jacob Ruby the year prior. Beyond that, their depth picks in drafts have been horrible. Only two others of significance are on the roster: Jeff Finley, a third round selection in 2014, who is a rotational defensive lineman. Ryan White, taken with the team’s last pick (44th) in 2012, was plucked from Bishop’s.
On top of that, Montreal dealt its first round pick in 2012 for kicker Sean Whyte, who they eventually cut for import Boris Bede, who was awful this year and lost his job. And 2017’s first rounder, the No. 3 overall pick, belongs to the BC Lions in the Vernon Adams Jr. trade.
Enter Andrew Wetenhall. He was the one who individually took aside almost every assistant coach and coordinator prior to Montreal’s last home game to offer some kind of re-assuring voice as to what lies ahead. Weeks prior, though, is where he really showed his influence.
Remember when Popp “stepped aside” as head coach before the team’s bye week in September? Nobody had picked Jacques Chapdelaine in the pool to be interim head coach. While Kavis Reed was doing his best to angle for the gig politically, Wetenhall went to Chapdelaine and gave him the keys to a rental. The message became clear: if Chapdelaine didn’t write things off, the car was his.
And it will be in 2017. It will be shocking if Chapdelaine does not have the interim title lifted and be named head coach of the team – regardless of who the general manager is. Not that it will be a surprise who the Wetenhall’s are targeting to succeed Popp as the boss of football operations. While nobody will likely acknowledge it publicly, you have to believe the Wetenhall’s approached Danny Maciocia this autumn about becoming the next Alouettes general manager. Andrew Wetenhall may be ruthless, but he is crafty and calculated, and Popp’s demise would not come without the framework of a succession plan in place.
Where the process goes now becomes interesting. Montreal will conduct some kind of “search,” likely interviewing former Als scout Brock Sunderland, presently the RedBlacks assistant general manager. They may reach out to someone with GM experience like Brendan Taman, the architect of Saskatchewan’s 2013 Grey Cup title team. And, out of respect for what he did for the Alouettes, they’ll probably have a chat with Marc Trestman – who has long maintained he wants nothing to do with personnel in the CFL.
This is a huge hire for the Alouettes. The franchise has sold out only one game since renovating Molson Stadium six years ago. They’ve become more and more irrelevant in the marketplace, their spot as the city’s No. 2 franchise usurped by the Montreal Impact soccer club. Going to a game atop the mountain was the hottest ticket not long ago, but now with the team in such disarray, the fan base has dwindled.
What Maciocia brings besides football is notoriety and business acumen. A Carabins football fundraising event brought 500 powerbrokers in the city under one roof for the function. The locker room just had a million dollar facelift. Maciocia is the son of a politician. He knows how to open doors in the places that are required.
And so, in the end, it will come back to Maciocia, and the question becomes just how much security – with salary and term – both Wetenhall’s are prepared to provide. Maciocia two years ago won a Vanier Cup with the Montreal Carabins. He has a rich deal to be the head coach at the university level, and effectively a lifetime contract as a staff employee at the school, which like most post-secondary institutions means his three daughters can enrol in their studies there tuition-free. It would take significant commas, and zeroes, on the paycheque to have Maciocia leave campus. It would take a long commitment, with assurances of patience from ownership, to turn around a dysfunctional Alouettes roster, absent of enough Canadian talent because of inept drafting. When push comes to shove with Maciocia, who will likely want a five-year contract, it will be Andrew Wetenhall in the middle of it all.
The winds of change have blown through Montreal. Popp has become a footnote, albeit a significant one, in Alouettes history. But if you didn’t know it before, it’s clear now: the franchise’s direction, from top to bottom, is being guided by a new sheriff in town. And that just happens to be a second generation Wetenhall at the controls.
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