Hilltops aiming for four in a row
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.