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If you were to compile a list of CFL players who never quite looked right in a different team’s colours, Ryan Phillips would certainly be at or near the top. That would be true for any man who left the BC Lions just three interceptions shy of Larry Crawford’s all-time club record.
But that’s not to suggest Phillips didn’t perhaps benefit from seeing how other successful organizations operate. After his playing career ended with a brief stint in Montreal followed by a training camp guest coaching experience in Calgary last season, Phillips is ready to take what he learned and showcase it in his new role as defensive backs coach with the Lions.
“When I got to Calgary, I saw right away how they operate. You see why they win and I was definitely impressed with how they did it,” said Phillips from his Seattle home on Wednesday.
“I respect Dave (Dickenson), Huf (John Hufnagel) and how they held you accountable and expected to be in the Grey Cup every single year. That was the message across the board. Just to see how they did it their own way, everybody’s structure is different, I think was a great experience for me and it helped me build myself as a player, but also as a coach. This is something I did want to pursue and now I’m able to take a bit of everything and apply it for myself to pass along to my new players.”
And he clearly made enough of an impression for new head coach DeVone Claybrooks. Phillips represents a familiar face for the organization in what will be a new-look coaching staff in 2019. Already entrenched in breaking down film before he and the rest of the staff arrive at the facility on a full-time basis next month, the four-time CFL All-Star is thrilled to be back in his football home.
“It’s definitely exciting. One, it’s great to be back home where everything started and to be able to continue the legacy from a coaching standpoint. It’s also great to have the trust from the people that are in the higher positions to put me in the position to try to give those guys the tools and mindset, everything that I can give them to bring their game to another level and help the Lions get back to the promised land of where we used to be,” explained Phillips.
Although returning to the Pacific Northwest seemed like a no-brainer, the 36-year old would have had a hard time not hitching his wagon to the Lions’ new head coach; wherever the highly sought-after Claybrooks ended up after leading the Stampeders to Grey Cup appearances in each of his three seasons as defensive coordinator.
“He is somebody I’ve known for a while, as well as Ed Hervey,” said Phillips.
“Those are guys I played against for a long time. For them to entrust that I can transition well from a player to a coach, and Claybrooks saw first-hand last year when we were in Calgary, speaks volumes about the faith they have in me and what I can bring to the table. The thing that’s great about DeVone is he is a personable guy. He lets you run your ship and that’s the thing I respect about him the most. Don’t get me wrong, he still has the last say and all of that, but he entrusts his assistants to be their own guys and bring something valuable to the table. It’s great to be with him and part of what he wants to build in Vancouver.”
Claybrooks spoke glowingly of Phillips on the day he finalized his staff in mid-December.
“It’s good because RP is a pro. I was fortunate to have him in Calgary with me as a guest coach and then he helped us out at a game against you guys this year,” said the head coach.
“He filled in admirable for (Josh) Bell when he had personal reasons and his mother passed away. RP is a great players’ coach, he understands the system, he’s played in our system, he’s worked with Stubes before, he understands the standard of what we want to come in and what we want to bring and I’m excited to have him.”
Working under defensive coordinator Rich Stubler will also help Phillips make the big transition. Stubler held the same title here from 2012-13 when Phillips recorded 75 total tackles, six interceptions and a forced fumble. Being part of a Stubler-led defence is certainly a winning attribute for any first-year coach in this league.
“I know what his expectation is, I know what his standard is. Stubes is a winner,” said Phillips of the four-time Grey Cup champion.
“He’s a coach who wants his players to put ownership on the scheme and on the defence. That’s just the reality of it. Coaches coach and players play. We have to put the ownership on players to be able to go out there and feel they are in the best position to play fast, winning football.”
Along with preparing for his new role and the daily task of grading his new/old team on film, Phillips is devoting a big portion of the offseason to his family: wife Fadhila and sons Ryan Jr. (12) and Braylen (6).
He is currently coaching Ryan Jr’s Rotary Style basketball squad, a task that involves travelling to competitive tournaments out of state. It seems like only yesterday that his oldest son was a regular toddler in the post-game locker room game balls presentations.
“It’s been great to be able to be involved and be down here, see him elevate his game and grow” added Phillips on his other coaching gig.
“Braylen is in kindergarten and plays basketball too. It’s a lot of running around on weekends, but for me to be able to be the father I want to be and give my boys the best foundation and advice possible is always going to be number one. I’m also big on letting them carve their own athletic path and not have them follow in my footsteps just because I play football. That’s a major thing as well.”
Back where he belongs, you get the sense he’s going to be a heck of a coach.