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June 7, 2024

Resonation in Rider Nation: Corey Mace brings new voice and family-first focus

Corey Mace’s words resonate in ways that extend far beyond the range of his deep and, if necessary, booming voice.

“He’s a stud and we’re lucky to have him guiding us,” Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Trevor Harris says of the CFL team’s first-year Head Coach.

“He’s the kind of guy who is easy to follow, just because of his temperament and his enthusiasm. He understands what it’s like to be in our shoes so, when he gets after us, guys listen.”

Everyone listens, because Mace is blessed with the ability to deliver emphatic messages, loud and clear, when the circumstances warrant.

“He’s able to use his inflection well,” Harris says. “He’s supportive and he’s loving of us, but when we need that jolt or that kick in the butt, he’s going to be able to give it to us.

“He’s got a respect. He’s of the mindset where it’s more important to be respected than liked. You can be both, but I know that he commands that respect just by his general attitude.”

Mace has quickly proven to be both, balancing amiability and an authoritative approach.

“When you hear that he’s a players’ coach, it isn’t going to be like, ‘Players, do what you want, and I’m not going to say anything,’ ” defensive tackle Micah Johnson says as the Roughriders prepare for Saturday’s regular-season opener against the host Edmonton Elks (2 p.m., TSN, CKRM).

“Mace isn’t playing that game. Everybody is taking him seriously. He makes it extremely transparent as far as what is expected of you. It’s like, ‘Here’s the standard and we can’t drop that level.’ If things need to get corrected, they’re corrected.”

Players are asked to own their mistakes, without errors being held against them unless there is a recurrence.

“It’s football,” veteran placekicker Brett Lauther says. “Everyone’s going to mess up. Everyone’s going to have bad plays.

“It’s about taking accountability, whether we’re running, fixing little things in meetings, on the field, off the field, no one is just able to slide.”

That was evident during Coors Light Training Camp. One memorable day, Mace abruptly stopped practice and voiced his displeasure with the players’ proclivity for penalties. Some unscheduled running — from the hash marks to the sideline, with repeats — was prescribed before the workout resumed.

Fans in the stands at Saskatoon’s Griffiths Stadium were clearly impressed. They gave Mace two standing ovations during the interruption in practice.

More kudos emanate from marquee free-agent addition A.J. Ouellette, who was named an East Division All-Star running back during both seasons he and Mace were mutually employed by the Argonauts.

“This is exactly what I was expecting, starting with the team meeting,” Ouellette says of Mace’s introductory address to the players, en masse.

“When the meeting broke, the first thing I told the guys was, ‘Yup, he did not change. It’s exactly who I wanted as my head coach.’

“He’s going to come out here and lead with positive energy and light a fire under you when you need it.”

Optimally, though, Mace should not have to ignite the pilot light.

“The heaviest motivation has got to come from within the players,” he says. “That’s something I’m pushing these guys for. The leadership needs to be heaviest in the locker room.”

At the same time, the Roughriders’ 38-year-old field boss acknowledges that he is “a piece of it” when it comes to motivation.

“It’s got to start somewhere,” he says, “and I have no problem with that.”

The importance of relationships is another cornerstone.

“Yes, football is important, but building a family relationship is a big deal,” Mace says. “That’s the atmosphere that we want here.

“Once those guys understand that we care about more than what they do for us on the field, I think the product will be better for them and the atmosphere to come to work every day will be top-notch. It has been great to establish the culture.”

Mace and his wife, Petra, have two children — Maleena and Micah. The Maces’ son was named after Johnson, a former teammate with the Calgary Stampeders.

Mace and Johnson lined up alongside each other as defensive tackles before their relationship evolved into that of coach and player.

Upon retiring as a player, Mace was named the Stampeders’ Defensive Line Coach. He excelled in that role from 2016 to 2021 before spending two seasons in Toronto.

With the Argonauts, Mace celebrated a Grey Cup championship (in 2022) and a 16-win season (2023).

Now, as the Head Coach and Defensive Co-ordinator in Saskatchewan, he is reunited with Johnson.

“There’s honesty and the relatability at the same time,” the five-time All-Star defensive tackle says. “He’s not a tightly wound guy. He’s a pretty loose guy but, at the same time, everybody knows what their job is and the standard that he’s holding us to. I think if you’ve got that with a coach, it becomes easy to buy in.

“Everything is family, family, family, family. That is showing daily with the way things are set up. Guys’ kids are starting to be around and run around.

“I just think it’s from top to bottom. It feels a lot different.”

Verification is not difficult to find.

“It’s awesome,” Lauther says. “There’s no B.S. There’s no complaining. You just work hard.

“Everything we’re doing is family-based. I don’t think any team wins a championship without having that.

“You look at any of the teams in any sport and, when it’s playoffs and push comes to shove, the closest team has an edge. For a while here, this is something we’ve kind of been longing for, and I think we have it.”

That is the mindset Vice-President of Football Operations and General Manager Jeremy O’Day hoped to instill when he hired Mace.

“Everything they’ve brought, especially behind the scenes, reminds me a little bit of the teams we were on in Hamilton when we went to back-to-back Grey Cups,” says Lauther, who was with the Tiger-Cats in 2013 and 2014.

“It’s easy to talk about, but you’ve got to go out and do it in games, myself included.

“I’m just looking forward to building throughout the whole year as a team, growing, and hopefully being there at the end.”

Jameer Thurman knows the route. He was the Stampeders’ starting middle linebacker in 2018, when he and Mace shared in a Grey Cup championship celebration.

After four seasons with Calgary and one year with Hamilton, Thurman signed with Saskatchewan as a high-priority free agent on Feb. 13. Mace’s presence in Riderville was a major drawing card.

“He commands the room, for sure, and he’s very personable,” Thurman says. “Guys can relate to him, being a former player. At the same time, he commands that respect and brings out that want-to to play for him and to play for the city.”

And, of course, there is that voice. The natural pipes are beneficial when an unequivocal message must be delivered.

“One-hundred per cent,” Thurman agrees. “In every aspect of life, having that voice carries over and carries a little power.

“At the same time, having a little humour while having that voice kind of eases people’s minds, where everything isn’t so strict.”

Asked jokingly about possessing what could be termed a “radio voice,” Mace understands that his larynx can be used advantageously, albeit tactically.

“I try not to abuse it unless it’s really needed,” he says. “Everybody is going to need a reminder. Shoot, some of the best players ever need reminders.

“Sometimes it’s going to call for a little bit of tone in the voice but, for the most part, it’s about having conversations with guys on the side.

“When the respect level is there and the family aspect that we’re looking for, (the voice) doesn’t always have to be used.

“But sometimes you have to have it. I just happen to have the voice I have. If it was high-pitched, we’d be in trouble, I guess.”