MODDEJONGE: Len Rhodes' tenure with Eskimos a twisting tale

Eskimos President and CEO Len Rhodes announces that Eskimos’ General Manager Ed Hervey has been fired, during a press conference at Commonwealth Stadium, in Edmonton Friday April 7, 2017. David Bloom / Postmedia

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It all started with a press release on Oct. 5, 2011: The Eskimos announced that Len Rhodes would be replacing Rick LeLacheur on the first day of 2012, becoming the club’s new president and CEO.

Looking back now, seven-plus years later, and if you’ll pardon the pun, what complicated roads it’s been.

With so many twists, turns, complicated personalities and power moves, it isn’t a tale for the weak of heart.

But, as difficult as it is to sum up, one thing is for sure: Whether it was by choice or a shove, Rhodes’ tenure in Edmonton, one that included a Grey Cup championship in 2015, has come to an abrupt end.

It was labeled a “mutual agreement,” by Eskimos chairman Brad Sparrow, and it may have been just that. While Rhodes has done much good, he had become one of the biggest lightning rods in club history.

Those close to him say he had grown tired of the personal and professional attacks from a portion of the fan base that has never forgiven him for firing Ed Hervey back in April of 2017.

Since that bombshell, Hervey’s hand-picked coach, Jason Maas, and Rhodes’ hand-picked general manager, Brock Sunderland, have both been almost as controversial as Rhodes at times.

There’s no way to sugarcoat the past few months. They’ve been ugly.

Not making the playoffs in a year when the Eskimos were hosting the Grey Cup is about as unsightly as it gets.

Then there was the unexpected loss of long-time personnel guru Paul Jones to the hated Saskatchewan Roughriders. Shortly after, future Hall-of-Fame linebacker J.C. Sherritt announced his retirement to — gulp — join the arch-rival Calgary Stampeders in a coaching capacity. And lastly, in the ultimate public-relations disaster, quarterback Mike Reilly, the face of the franchise, appears to be poised to sign with former Esks GM Hervey in Vancouver.

No boxer could take that many body blows, and neither could Rhodes.

From Day 1, Rhodes inherited a complicated situation. Former GM Eric Tillman had just created his own firestorm, trading icon Ricky Ray right before Rhodes’ official tenure began.

Tillman took over a 2-8 team, one with only one winning season in the previous four years, and went 23-21, but, that winning record aside, trading Ray made him dead man walking.

Naming Hervey as his replacement was widely cheered. But before long, Hervey, who had clashed with Tillman, began to experience more of the same with head coach Kavis Reed, who will always be remembered here as a class act. After going 4-14, Reed was dismissed.

Then, came the hiring of head coach Chris Jones. It brought the highest moment of the Rhodes era, a Grey Cup championship. But even in the midst of success, the turmoil continued. Hervey’s conflict with both Rhodes and Jones was anything but a secret.

One staff member during the Grey Cup season put it this way: “Ed had a f___ -you attitude toward Len, the commissioner (Jeffrey Orridge) and it got so bad with Chris that he told us not to talk to the guy. He told us, ‘If you go in the bathroom, if Ed’s at the urinal, go sit on the toilet and shut the door.’ ”

After Jones left for the green-money pastures of Saskatchewan, the divide in the Rhodes-Hervey relationship got even worse over the next year. Ultimately, it reached the breaking point and Rhodes fired the popular GM.

For Rhodes, fair or not, his slide began that day. In the midst of being battered by Hervey’s media allies, he uttered this fateful phrase, “It (winning) isn’t enough.”

That may be true, but when your fire a GM with a 40-32 record, you’d better keep winning. The Eskimos didn’t. And by all accounts, the likeable Rhodes finally grew weary enough to simply walk away.

His popularity at a league level could open another door.

“Len is a smart, good man, but he was an outsider,” said one club president. “In Edmonton, outsiders don’t seem to last too long.”

Pro sports can be vicious. Not everyone walks away quietly and Hervey certainly hasn’t.

Now, 22 months later, he watches with a grin as the man who fired him falls on his own sword. And if that isn’t enough revenge, the former Eskimos GM has pulled out his own sharp blade with plans of sticking it to his old team in free agency.

And there should be no doubt when Reilly officially announces his plans to wear orange and white, that cut will be deeper than deep.


On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge