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DeVone Claybrooks has spent the last month-plus experiencing firsts.
Hired for his first head-coaching gig with the BC Lions on Dec. 11, Claybrooks is finally experiencing the side of his profession that he was only able to see up close over the last nine years, first as a D-line coach and then the defensive coordinator of the Calgary Stampeders.
There was his introductory press conference in Vancouver. There was the assembling of his first-ever coaching staff. Normally, Claybrooks said at the presidents and GMs meetings in Mont-Tremblant, Que. he’d be off doing his own thing at that point in the year. Taking part in the meetings was another first.
Through all of that, though, was a first that Claybrooks was ecstatic about.
“(This) was the first day I got to sleep in with no alarm,” he said, when the cast and crew for those meetings were still rolling into the Westin hotel.
A 1 p.m. start on those meetings gave Claybrooks some very rare down time.
“If you’re a coordinator you’re enjoying the off-season (at that time),” he continued.
“But you don’t smell the roses anyway. I believe that once you win the championship you’re on to the next one and what steps you need to take. You go from Grey Cup to interviews, interviews to getting hired, you’re doing the staff, to the staff you’re figuring out players. From players you’re figuring out CBA, figuring out the off-season.”
In spending the last seven years on staff with the Stampeders and three before that as a player, Claybrooks feels like he learned from two of the best when it comes to off-season prep, in John Hufnagel and Dave Dickenson. With the success that the Stamps have had for the last decade, Claybrooks has learned that it starts at the top.
“The best thing for me is coming into the situation with the one that I was in with Ed (Hervey), coming from Huf and Dave they’re all very similar in the aspect of being straight shooters,” he said.
“What we’re trying to establish in BC is a standard of excellence. I want my coaches to put in the full-time (work) and I want my players to understand that I’m not asking you to do nothing that the coaches won’t do. I’m not asking the coaches to do nothing that I wouldn’t do and vice versa.”
In the years leading up to Claybrooks taking the Lions job, he thought about what he’d want his first coaching staff to look like. Making that a reality has been one of his favourite moments so far.
Defensive coordinator Rich Stubler had always been high on that list.
“When (Stubler) had just been hired as a D.C. in Calgary he said, ‘I’m probably going to be working for you one day,’ Claybrooks said. “He told me, ‘You have that it (factor). I can see it now.
“It came back full circle. I asked him what he was going to do, because he had options too. It was really a no-brainer where he was going to go. He kept it straight up and honest with me because he’s a mentor and a friend.”
Claybrooks’ staff has a full range of experience and characters. On one end is Stubler, with over 40 years spent on teams’ sidelines. On the other end of that scale is Nik Lewis, who will go into his first year of coaching, after a hall of fame-worthy 14-year pro career as a receiver. He’ll serve as the running backs coach with the Lions.
“Nik and I have been best friends for eight, nine years now? Damn, that’s a long time,” Claybrooks said.
Claybrooks knew for a long time that Lewis wanted to go into coaching.
“He and I had talked about it and I knew he wanted to get into coaching and he knows what his objective is and where he wants to go. I was asked three times why he’s not the receivers coach,” Claybrooks said.
“If you’re going to be an offensive coordinator you need to know the run game and you need to know protections, right? Well, who better to teach you that? If you’re the running backs coach you have to work with the offensive coordinator and you have to work with the receivers and the o-line (coaches). You have to work with them all to learn the offence.”
He points back to Dickenson, who before assuming OC and head coach duties in Calgary, as a great offensive player that got his start in coaching in 2009 as the Stamps’ running backs coach.
“If that’s the next step in your progression of where you want to go then that’s how you’ve got to do it,” he said.
Claybrooks was happy to help out his friend, but made it clear it was about more than friendship. In Lewis, he sees a coach. Now he’ll watch as Lewis learns about how your job changes as you go from the day to day of coaching versus what it was like as a player.
“We talked about it. It was one of those, if I get hired I want you on the staff in some form, or capacity, as long as you understand that this is entry level and you understand this grind that you’re about to be on,” Claybrooks said.
“You’ve got to understand it’s 15-hour days. But it’s energetic and it’s new to him. You always want to show that, especially (coming in as) a highly successful player.”
It’s still a long way from May, when training camps are scheduled to open, but it’s all going by quickly for Claybrooks. He’s envisioned this for a long time and is enjoying putting everything in place for his team, the way that he watched Hufnagel and Dickenson do it over the years.
“You have your points and now you’re implementing your plan,” he said. “Every coach that’s been in this league a while has his plan when he becomes the guy. Now you get to see, am I really as smart as I thought?”