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August 14, 2020

O’Leary: Craig Dickenson takes a page from schoolbooks to playbooks

Talk with enough successful coaches and it emerges eventually, even if the coaching styles are night and day different.

Inevitably, whether it’s watching them interact with their players or just hearing them discuss their craft in some downtime, you start to feel like you’re talking with a teacher. There’s a reason for that.

“I believe that coaching is teaching. It’s just that your test is every week and your test is on the field,” Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Craig Dickenson said.

“All of the principles of teaching and education — and I have my masters in educational administration and leadership — all of those skills you learn and the foundations of teaching, the foundations of leadership, they all apply to the 10th degree in coaching. You use all of those sorts of things: The idea of presenting information, getting feedback, giving them guided practice, evaluating them quickly and thoroughly and then making corrections and then giving them another opportunity to show you what they’ve learned. That’s coaching. That’s also a lot of the fundamentals and principles of teaching.

“I’ve always felt the best coaches are teachers deep down and view themselves as teachers, too, not as taskmasters or generals, but as teachers. (They’re) people there to help others learn and grow. I think the best coaches do that.”

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Through the vast majority of his football life, Dickenson has been involved in special teams. It started for him growing up in Great Falls, Montana, when he added kicking and punting duties to playing receiver in high school. When he got to the University of Montana, he eventually focussed solely on kicking and punting. As he was wrapping up his playing days, his hope was to combine those four years and become a high school teacher and coach. Instead, he got an invite to join the Grizzlies as a student coach.

“When I got an opportunity to be a student coach at the university level, I also was able to go to graduate school and when I went to grad school I realized I really enjoyed working with a little older athletes,” he said. “We had some success at the University of Montana, we had some good teams then and because we had some good teams, I was able to get a promotion and then start kind of establishing myself as a college and university coach.”

While he spent so many years on special teams as a football player, coaching opened his eyes to that facet of the game in a way he hadn’t been able to see it before. As he grew as a coach and built a career, his only regret is one that many of us feel as we get older.

“The reality is when you’re playing, you tend to just focus on your own job,” Dickenson said.

“I was really just concerned with doing the best I could as a kicker and a punter and trusting that the other guys were doing their job in front of me as a player. When I got done playing and started coaching, I remember thinking that first year as a student coach, ‘Man, I wish I’d known back when I was playing what I know now,’ because you look at things differently.

“When you’re coaching, you start to look at the big picture a little more. And you start to understand what everybody’s doing and how it relates to each other, whereas, really when you’re playing, most players — and I was no different than any other player — most players make sure they know their own job. To me, that’s not unusual.

“I think that’s probably why I wasn’t a great player. I think the great players know their job, do it well and then they also know what other guys are doing and understand the big picture. But as I got into coaching, I certainly started to learn that more and more and I wished I would have applied myself a little more…but you don’t know what you don’t know.

“I wish that I had known what I knew as a coach when I was playing because, to be honest, I would have played a little bit more, I think,” he said, laughing.

An invite to join the University of Montana coaching staff at the end of his playing days opened up the door to Craig Dickenson’s coaching career (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)

After a long run as a special teams expert, Dickenson made a seamless transition into his first head coaching opportunity. He went 13-5 in his first season at the helm in Saskatchewan. The Riders finished first in the West and had the league’s second-best record behind Hamilton. If we see a 2020 season, there’s every reason to believe that the Riders would be in the thick of the chase for a Grey Cup.

Dickenson made his way up to Regina from Montana a couple of months back, hopeful that the season would start and is ready to get to work.

“We’ve got our install plan, but we don’t know what (training) camp’s going to look like. So the reality is everybody’s just kind of waiting to see what the decision is,” he said.