Hearing aids helped Stamps boss make noise as trendsetting coach

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Photograph by: Herald Archive, Getty Images, Calgary HeraldHigh-tech devices put an end to awkward sideline exchanges with referees, improved
communication with coaches and players

By Vicki Hall, Calgary Herald August 8, 2010

The ear-splitting sounds of AC/DC pipe through the loud speakers at McMahon Stadium as the Calgary Stampeders prepare to meet the B.C. Lions Saturday in the madness that is Empire Field.

Only John Hufnagel escapes the pounding assault on the senses.

“I just took out my hearing aids,” says the head coach and general manager. “Can’t hear a thing.”

As an NFL and CFL quarterback, Hufnagel learned to tune out the background noise in enemy territory. As an NFL and CFL coach, he drew up his own personal game plan for a world that became increasingly muffled. Keep conversations — especially those in loud places — short and to the point. Conduct media interviews in general terms in case of failure to properly hear the question. Whenever possible, read lips.

“I’m not sensitive about my loss of hearing or wearing hearing aids,” he says. “I’m just sensitive about looking like a goof.”

Among his peers, Hufnagel is regarded as the exact opposite of a goof. He would, of course, turn redder than a Stampeders jersey at the mere mention of the word genius.

But the statistics back up that tag through his first two seasons at the helm in Calgary.

Twenty-three wins in the regular season. Four playoff games. One Grey Cup championship.

A few months back, several CFL pundits — including the esteemed Milt Stegall — picked the Stampeders to finish last in the West. With a rebuilt offensive line and a re-tooled receiving corps, how could they compete?

Heading into Week 6, Hufnagel and the Stamps owned a healthy 4-1 record and a share of top spot in the West.

“When I first came in the league, I had this opinion that he was a trendsetter,” says assistant coach and retired quarterback Dave Dickenson. “He was very creative offensively, and he was coming up with new ideas.

“I don’t think anything has changed now I’m working with him as a coach.”

As a member of the coaching staff, Dickenson gets an up-close look at a CFL legend at work. And in spite of his sometimes gruff exterior, Hufnagel turns out to be much like the rest of us.

Human frailties and all.

The year is 1992. Hufnagel is working as the offensive co-ordinator for the Stampeders under Wally Buono.

Huddled in an office on the south side of McMahon Stadium, Hufnagel detects ringing in one of his ears.

“Do you hear something?” he asks offensive line coach Tony Marciano.

“No,” Marciano says. “Oh.”

Hufnagel might have been the last one to realize something was amiss.

“We knew about it then,” Buono says. “It wasn’t something we made any issue about. John had a bit of a hearing thing.

“I would yell at him, and he wouldn’t acknowledge me.”

Four years later, Hufnagel is itching for a new challenge. He has already groomed Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia for greatness. Time to move onto something new. So he takes the game inside and assumes the head-coaching role for the expansion New Jersey Red Dogs, of the Arena Football League.

Before leaving Calgary, Hufnagel has his hearing checked. The results show his left ear is “pretty bad.”

Still, he perseveres through the sometimes-uncomfortable silence.

The year is 1999. Hufnagel has graduated to the NFL as the quarterback coach for the expansion Cleveland Brown.

He walks into a meeting room and sits at one end of the board table.

Head coach Chris Palmer sits at the other.

“And I can’t hear what he’s saying,” Hufnagel remembers.

Unable to understand orders from the boss, Hufnagel finally reaches out for help. He finds it at the Cleveland Clinic, “It’s a pretty well renowned medical centre,” Hufnagel says. “I forget the doctor’s name, but he worked on a lot of famous people. One was the Shah or something. A Mideast biggie.”

The doctor puts the coach in a soundproof booth and conducts his tests.

“Your right ear is your better ear,” the doctor says.

“Yeah it is.”

“And that one is horrible.”

Hufnagel agrees to get hearing aids. The world becomes slightly less muffled as a result.

From Cleveland, Hufnagel moves to Indianapolis to work with Peyton Manning as the quarterback coach. A year later, he drops down to Jacksonville to manage the quarterbacks for head coach Tom Coughlin.

In 2003, he wins a Super Bowl as the quarterback coach for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

From Foxborough he graduates to offensive co-ordinator with the New York Giants where he guides the likes of Tiki Barber, Jeremy Shockey, Plaxico Burress and Eli Manning.

In 2006, he is sacked. Such is life in the bigs.

A year later, he emerges in Calgary as general manager, head coach and man in charge of his old team, the Stampeders. Why make a move many would perceive as backwards?

“I spent 20 years here previous,” he says. “My children grew up here. I know people. I’m very comfortable with the ownership group.”

That group includes former Stampeders John Forzani and Dave Sapunjis, former CFL commissioner Doug Mitchell and businessman Ted Hellard.

“Some of them I played with,” Hufnagel says. “Some I golfed with. Some I drank some beer with.

“It’s a nice situation.”

Intense. That’s the only word to describe the man they call Huff in action on the Stampeder bench.

He huffs. He puffs. He shakes his head. Grimaces. Rips his headset off and explodes.

Only one problem . . .

“With my old hearing aids, they would go off automatically any time I put my headphones on,” he says. “They’re computerized. So when I take the headset off they don’t kick in for another five seconds. When I have to talk to a coach or talk to a ref, there’s a five-second delay.

“And they don’t know my problem.”

Finally, an explanation for all those exchanges on the sidelines.

Thankfully, he hopped in the car and drove five minutes to The Hearing Loss Clinic at North Hill Centre. They outfitted him with the latest in hearing aid technology.

The five seconds of silence are gone — although hearing aids are called aids for a reason. They help the patient pick up sound but don’t cure the problem altogether.

“It must be a bit difficult for John,” Buono says. “Football is all about communication. With all the things going on in a game — the noise, the crowd — it must be a bit difficult.”

Intimidating. The word comes up again and again among media types when it comes to describing Hufnagel.

With good reason. His interactions with reporters are often stilted. Awkward. Some times even brusque.

Long, rambling questions drive him crazy, because they’re so tough to follow.

“Without hearing aids, I couldn’t coach,” he says. “I’m that deaf, if that’s the right word.

“I don’t think I would be clinically deaf, but I would probably be pretty close.”

For that reason, Hufnagel comes across as a quiet sort out in public.

“It really has made me a wallflower,” he says. “When I get into a crowd, I struggle. Not as much as I used to, and that’s something I maybe need to have more confidence in.”

John Hufnagel lacking confidence? Hard to believe it’s possible, but . . . “Because of my past experience, I try to stay away,” Hufnagel says. “I make sure I don’t put myself in that position.

“You can only say, ‘Excuse me, I’m sorry. Can you say that again?’ so many times.”

Hearing loss isn’t the only explanation for Hufnagel’s reserved manner. He’s a deep thinker who pauses and reviews his words before they leave his mouth.

He likes to stay two steps ahead in any situation — on or off the field.

“When he studies film, he has a bit better of an understanding on how teams try to defend us,” Dickenson says. “I have more of a creative mind. I just come up with stuff.

“But he’s like, ‘Let’s figure out how they’re going to defend us and then start coming up with stuff.’ ”

Around Stamps headquarters, Hufnagel is the undisputed boss. The players know it. So do the coaches and the staff.

Much like Buono at the B.C. Lions training facility in Surrey.

“Huff is very honest,” Dickenson says. “He’s not going to sugar-coat things. He’s just going to tell it like it is.

“Sometimes you’re not going to like it. But I think you can always trust him. I know I feel that way.”

Telling it like it is. That’s a page right out of the unofficial Wally Buono coaching doctrine.

“That’s one thing I learned very early on with Wally,” Hufnagel says. “Wally was a very frank, truthful coach, and that’s why the players respected him.

“I’m hoping the players have that kind of respect for the program we have here.”

Away from the field, Peni Hufnagel had some initial reservations about the move to Calgary from Jacksonville.

“It just took her so far away from her children and her mother,” Hufnagel says of his wife. “She obviously has a right to have her own feelings, but she’s as tied now to this city as I am.

“The trade-off was that I can’t say anything when she gets on an airplane and goes back east.”

John and Peni have three adult children: daughters Neely and Lindsey and son Cole. All three live smack in the middle of the action in New York City.

Cole works in the personnel department for the New York Jets. Lindsay is a fashion designer. She owns and runs a company called Horse and Nail. Neely recently moved from Florida to Manhattan to help her sister out in marketing.

“Lindsey makes these handbags,” Hufnagel says. “The shoulder straps are horsebits and things like that. They live right down in the village there.

“They just like the area. And me, well, how do you think I like that area? I’m here. That’s why I like Calgary so much.”

But will he continue to like it? That’s the burning question.

Hufnagel clearly has a dazzling resume. He turns 59 in September, so he’s definitely young enough to take another run at the NFL.

“I would say it’s highly, highly unlikely,” he says. “I’m very, very comfortable with my job here.”

Strangely enough, Hufnagel has the second longest tenure of any CFL coach with a start date of Dec. 3, 2007. But he realizes the job won’t last forever.

“I know one of these days, they’re going to have enough of me,” he says. “I just hope that doesn’t destroy friendships, because there’s a lot of that there.”

Rest assured, the feeling is mutual. And no matter what, he’ll always have a fan on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.

“John is John,” Buono says. “He’s not one of those guys who is a socialite. He likes the simple things. Fishing and that kind of stuff. He’s a guy I have a lot of respect for as a person. And he’s a winner.”

vhall@theherald.canwest.com

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