TORONTO –Jim Popp has a trophy to go with his four Grey Cup championship rings.
The Montreal Alouettes general manager was named executive of the year Monday at the Sports Media Canada award luncheon.
Also honoured were TSN’s James Duthie (excellence in sports broadcasting), Vancouver Sun columnist Cam Cole (excellence in sports writing), Shaun Best of Reuters (posthumously, excellence in sports photography), Dave Van Horne and Jacques Doucet (career achievement) and recently retired CTV news anchor Lloyd Robertson (President’s Trophy).
“To have peers look at you in that light is extremely humbling,” Popp said. “I have a lot of people to thank and a lot of support people who give me the chance to shine.”
“The players and coaches on the field make it happen and those winning traditions from a body of work really come to light when you get an award like this.”
The 46-year-old native of Elkin, N.C., has served as Montreal’s general manager since the club relocated to Quebec from Baltimore in 1996. He has established himself as one of the CFL’s most successful GMs as the Alouettes have appeared in eight Grey Cup games since 2000, winning three, including the last two straight.
And Montreal is in contention for another championship, currently tied with Winnipeg and Calgary for the CFL’s best record at 8-5.
Popp began his CFL career as a receivers coach and player-personnel director with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1992. Two years later he became the GM and player-personnel director of the Baltimore Stallions, who after losing the ‘94 Grey Cup became the first and only US based team to win the league championship in 1995.
“It never gets old, it’s a new challenge every day,” Popp said. “We’re always working two years ahead trying to figure out what’s next for our club, who do we need to have ready to step in for the guy you have to replace, either through retirement or change.”
And it was Don Matthews, the legendary former CFL head coach, who taught Popp in Saskatchewan there’s no shortage of tough decisions to make in football.
“He (Matthews) told me, ‘We’re not going to be popular people but we have to do this, we have to make changes to our club and we’re going to cut two of the most popular players on the Saskatchewan Roughriders team in (tailback) Lucius Floyd and (defensive back) Richie Hall,” Popp said.
“We did it and caught a lot of crap and it wasn’t like they couldn’t play anymore, it was just we felt we needed a change in that we were using a different offence and defence.”
“We brought in a guy named Mike Saunders (to play tailback) and in his first CFL game he had over 200 yards receiving and was an instant hero. What I realized was when you make those difficult decisions and you win and new stars are born, people will forget the old and if you don’t win, people like to throw it in your face but it’s part of the business and you have to do it.”
Another part of the business, too, is developing a keen eye for talent, be it in the college ranks or on another team’s scrap heap. And there’s no better example of the latter than Alouettes’ quarterback Anthony Calvillo, who Popp signed as a free agent after Calvillo was cut by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Calvillo tutored under Hall of Famer Tracy Ham for two seasons before becoming the Alouettes’ starter in 2000. Since then, he has guided Montreal to eight Grey Cup appearances, been named a league all-star four times and its outstanding player on three occasions.
And the 39-year-old Calvillo is showing no signs of slowing down. Calvillo is leading the CFL in passing with 3,963 yards and has 28 touchdown strikes against just four interceptions.
On Monday, Calvillo will need just 258 yards passing against the Toronto Argonauts to surpass Damon Allen (72,153 yards) as the leading passer in pro football history.
“I always had high hopes for Anthony but he’s done the work,” Popp said. “It’s not me, it’s not the coach, it’s not the owner. We’ve stood behind him and said, ‘Hey, you can do this,’ but he’s the one who’s proven to everybody he can and is the one who deserves the credit.”
“Anthony is a student of the game, he’s taken it to another level and has accepted every coach and every different offensive co-ordinator he’s ever had. He studies tremendously and if you don’t have that at that position you’re not going to have a chance to win every week.”
The biggest question surrounding Calvillo these days is just how much longer does he continue playing? But when the day comes Calvillo decides to retire, the Alouettes would appear to have his heir apparent in Adrian McPherson, the four-year veteran who has performed well whenever spotting Calvillo.
“I think Anthony will play so long as he feels competitive and healthy,” Popp said. “I know he was planning on playing more than this season leading into this one.”
“When it comes time that Anthony says, ‘That’s it, I’m finished,’ it will be competition again and we’ll try to bring in as much competition as possible when that day comes.”
It’s a blueprint that certainly worked well this year for Montreal, which entered training camp with a hole at tailback after Avon Cobourne’s off-season departure to Hamilton. But the Alouettes’ offence hasn’t skipped a beat with Brandon Whitaker, a fourth-year player from Baylor who has a league-high 981 yards rushing in his first season as a starter.
“That’s a perfect example,” Popp said. “At one point we weren’t sure if he’d be able to do what he did at Baylor after sitting out for so long… we brought in fierce competition for him and wondered coming out of camp what choice to make because there was a lot of good but he’s showing we made the right choice.”