Hill­tops aim­ing for four in a row

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - FRONT PAGE - KEVIN MITCHELL

There’s an old blue door, a hum­ble of­fice, and a foot­ball coach with a ridicu­lous record.

Tom Sargeant — one of the most pro­lific am­a­teur foot­ball coaches Canada has pro­duced — sits at a bat­tered wood desk. It’s al­ways been his desk, ever since the Saska­toon Hill­tops made him their head coach 20 years ago. The var­nish has van­ished in many spots; there’s cir­cu­lar stains where cups have been set.

“The di­rec­tors are real mad, be­cause I’m tak­ing this desk over with me,” says Sargeant, who will move into pala­tial sur­round­ings next sea­son after the team’s new club­house is com­pleted. “They’re not happy about that; they’ve got all the fancy (fur­nish­ings). But I’ll take some of the old stuff with me.”

Sargeant will try to win a fourth straight Cana­dian ti­tle on Satur­day in Wind­sor, Ont. when the Hill­tops visit the AKO Frat­men in their Cana­dian Ju­nior Foot­ball League ti­tle match.

You ask Sargeant if he knows his ca­reer win-loss record, be­cause it’s a doozy. He doesn’t.

So here you go: In 20 sea­sons, Sargeant’s Hill­tops have lost just 21 Prairie Foot­ball Con­fer­ence reg­u­lar-sea­son games. They’ve never lost more than two in a sin­gle reg­u­lar sea­son. His over­all record, in­clud­ing play­offs, is 18630-2.

He hears that, and he winces. “You tell me about all those losses I’ve had, and that’s what makes you re­al­ize there’s times I could have done a better job,” Sargeant says. “That’s what keeps you up at night.”

Sargeant, who in his civil­ian life is a high school prin­ci­pal at Wal­ter Mur­ray Col­le­giate, is loud and de­mand­ing. His boom­ing voice thun­ders across the foot­ball field, into the park­ing lot, onto the street.

Some­times, his brain moves faster than his mouth. Former Star Phoenix sports­writer Cory Wolfe en­joyed com­pil­ing Sargeant’s mis-speaks.

“Speed is not one of their quick­nesses,” he once told re­porters.

“We’ve got them be­hind the eight-bar­rel,” he said on an­other oc­ca­sion.

While giv­ing a pep talk be­fore a cer­tain big game, he in­ad­ver­tently re­versed the first and third words, blurt­ing as his clos­ing line, “Cham­pi­onships win de­fences!”

“One of my prob­lems,” Sargeant once told Wolfe, “is that I get too ex­cited and I talk a lit­tle too fast. My synapses don’t click the way they should and I re­verse the or­der.”

But on the field, he’s pre­cise, with sky-high ex­pec­ta­tions, and he’s built a jug­ger­naut.

“If you’re not win­ning, (Sargeant’s) not happy,” ex Hill­top Ben Hod­son once said. “If you’re not win­ning the way he wants to win, then you’re still not win­ning. He ex­pects per­fec­tion, and we try all year to play that per­fect game.”

There was a time when kids com­ing out of high school could play five years of ju­nior foot­ball, then five more years of univer­sity.

Cana­dian col­leges tight­ened their el­i­gi­bil­ity rules sev­eral years ago, and now a player’s el­i­gi­bil­ity clock starts tick­ing once he moves into his third sea­son of ju­nior. It’s prompted many play­ers to leave their ju­nior teams early, but Sargeant con­tin­ues to ex­pect that his play­ers will stick around, long-term.

The Hill­tops of­fer schol­ar­ship money to play­ers in their fourth and fifth sea­sons. Last year, Sargeant says they doled out ap­prox­i­mately $55,000. It’s im­por­tant to re­ward your vet­er­ans, he notes.

“We don’t pay some hot­shot out of high school the most; I’ll pay my fourth and fifth-years the most,” Sargeant says.

“I grad­u­ate 10 fifth-year play­ers this year, and 70 per cent of our kids go to univer­sity. I think that’s what peo­ple fail to un­der­stand. I re­mem­ber, there was a player who had a real good year for us, and we wanted him to come back — he put the time and en­ergy in, but he de­cided to go to an­other pro­gram. And the guy who stepped up for him be­came an all-Cana­dian. You quickly re­al­ize that if you don’t want to be part of us, then we don’t want you. It’s a 100 per cent com­mit­ment. The prob­lem I find with some of these (Cana­dian univer­sity) coaches is they start re­cruit­ing kids right now, dur­ing our sea­son. We need to keep them locked in, and fo­cused.”

When the Univer­sity of Saskatchewan Huskies’ head­coach­ing job opened up this past off-sea­son, Sargeant ad­mits he thought about it for a bit. The idea car­ried in­trigue.

“But re­ally, at the end of the day, it re­ally wasn’t that close,” he says. “Some­times money’s a part of things, too, but what I’m do­ing right now is pretty good. I get to drive a truck be­cause of them. I get to look after my coaches. And I’ve got a great pen­sion in ed­u­ca­tion. So I never left home. They kicked a few tires, I lis­tened, but at the end of the day, I knew where my heart was. If you ask my wife and kids, it’s a pretty sim­ple sce­nario. They’re true Hill­tops.”

So Sargeant, who first joined the team as an aspir­ing tight end in 1983 and later be­came an al­ls­tar, con­tin­ues the chase.

Other coaches, in other leagues, have higher pro­files and big­ger bud­gets, with larger pools of tal­ent to choose from. But Sargeant chugs away in Saska­toon, with his brain “rac­ing 24/7,” as he puts it.

After his Hill­tops thrashed the Van­cou­ver Is­land Raiders 48-0 in their na­tional semi­fi­nal a few weeks ago, Sargeant gave his team a cou­ple days off, but he’d find him­self awake in the dark at 4 a.m., think­ing about foot­ball, about the next chal­lenge.

The Hill­tops have never won four Cana­dian Bowls in a row. Sargeant-coached teams have won three straight na­tional ti­tles three dif­fer­ent times, but the fourth eludes them.

So he sits at that desk, and pores over sce­nar­ios in the dark of night, and booms his voice across the prac­tice field. He wants that fourth straight cham­pi­onship. Wants it badly.

“I think a kid should come to this pro­gram if win­ning’s im­por­tant to them,” he says. “That’s one thing that’s here, that’s dif­fer­ent than any­where else. I think the only pro­gram that com­pares to us would be Laval, out east. And they’re a way dif­fer­ent model than us. We’re a peer model. We don’t need lot of blue-chips to have great suc­cess, and that’s a credit to my coach­ing staff. Over time, they’ll get these guys right, they’ll de­velop them proper, and by the fourth or fifth year, they’ll be darned good foot­ball play­ers.”

And, as it turns out, their fin­gers will be loaded down with some darned good cham­pi­onship rings.

We’re a peer model. We don’t need lot of blue-chips to have great suc­cess, and that’s a credit to my coach­ing staff.

Saska­toon Hill­tops head coach Tom Sargeant’s over­all record sits at 186-30-2. On the field he is pre­cise, with sky-high ex­pec­ta­tions, and he has built a jug­ger­naut.

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