Hamilton has seen its share of hometown success in the world of professional sports. The story of the born-and-bred athlete turned-pro resonates in a “big little” city like ours, where so many have competed alongside them, attended school with them, know their families, coached them, or even just followed their continued success through the years.
By comparison, a Hamilton success story far less often told is one of the professional coach. The value of a coach cannot be stressed enough when it comes to the strength, cohesion, and success of a team. Look to some of the most decorated athletes in sports, and they will be quick to point out the integral role that a particular coach had in developing their potential.
In a sea of local athletic success stories, Hamiltonian Brent Monson’s story as a coach stands out; not just because of his new role (Defensive Coordinator – the highest defensive coaching position), or his team (the Calgary Stampeders – needs no introduction). It stands out because it’s one of hard work, teamwork, and humility; the kind that comes with “starting from the bottom” and achieving success through a different means than most.
As the newly promoted Defensive Coordinator for the Calgary Stampeders, Monson’s strengths and skills have brought him success in a competitive territory – the Stamps are arguably one of the strongest franchises in the CFL, winning eight Grey Cups, most recently in 2018, and making household names out of players, like Bo-Levi Mitchell.
And he has certainly merited his position. His 10 years on staff have seen him grow and succeed in various roles. In the last 4 years of his as linebackers coach (2014 – 2018), the Stampeders allowed the fewest offensive points in the CFL. Among the players he has coached are two-time CFL All-Star Alex Singleton, Canadian Football Hall of Famer Jon Cornish, and Deron Mayo, now assistant strength and conditioning coach for the New England Patriots.
Long before this opportunity presented itself, Monson grew up on the West Mountain and was playing competitive hockey. He didn’t begin playing organized football until high school, where he was a linebacker for the St. Thomas More Knights. He recalled enjoying the competitiveness between school teams, and the camaraderie that came with playing an organized sport at that age. “Being involved in sports helped me understand how to be a part of a team, taught me how to work hard, be punctual, and accountable.”
These skills would prove to be valuable as come university, he was leaning more towards the coaching side of the game as he began to hone in on his strengths. “I realized I was more of a coach on the field,” recalls Monson. “I used my football smarts and knowledge to make plays, instead of my athleticism.”
At this point, he sought out experience on a local level — enter Rob Menna and Rob Underhill. When completing his degree at McMaster University, Monson called upon Menna, who was head coach of the Bishop Tonnos Titans at the time, hoping to help out on his coaching staff. Menna brought Monson on to coordinate special teams.
At this time, Rob Underhill was the defensive coordinator for the Titans, coached for the Hamilton Ironmen and Team Ontario, and it was he who helped Monson get his foot in the door with teams at a higher level. “They showed me the necessary work ethic and prep involved in coaching football – that was my intro to it.” From there, Monson became even more self-motivated and committed to coaching, putting out his resume to Division 1, 2, and 3 colleges stateside in order to gain more experience.
While many professional coaches get their start as professional players themselves, Monson’s 10 year journey with the Stamps began in the offices, rather than on the field. By 2009, the Stamps were in need of a video assistant; Monson was hired on, and so the western leg of his story began. It’s a modest start that he says was invaluable in prepping him for where he is today. “You’re at the bottom of the totem pole,” says Monson. “You take all the little jobs, but then later down the road, nothing is too much or too little for you to do.”
Aside from being a foot in the door, the position also taught him the tech side of things. “Skills I wouldn’t have learned otherwise in terms of computer and video software have allowed me to help teach the team, and my staff. With the work flow and time factor, I can work through it easier knowing how to do it myself.”
It only took one year before Monson was promoted to Linebackers/Strength and Conditioning coach. “Huff (John Hufnagel) and Chris Jones saw something in me early on, and that had a strong impact,” Monson says. “I owe a lot to them giving me those opportunities.”
In the following years, Monson would gain momentum and experience in other areas: in 2011, he became a Defensive Line/Strength & Conditioning Coach, then a Running Backs/Strength & Conditioning Coach in 2012, before returning to coach Linebackers again in 2015. “I have been around so many strong coaches: Dave Dickenson, Chris Jones, Rich Stubler, Mark Kilam. I’ve learned something valuable from all of them.”
Although a bulk of his coaching has been on the defensive side, he got to learn the other side of the ball from Dave Dickenson when coaching running backs, which gave him a different angle on the game. When coaching under former defensive coordinator DeVone Claybrooks, they worked closely, and Monson was able to take on a greater role. “Clay really gave me the freedom to troubleshoot a lot of my ideas and implement lot of things, which was huge for me.” He even stepped in as the acting Defensive Coordinator for the August 25th, 2018 game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, when Claybrooks was hospitalized due to illness.
After Claybrooks took on the head coaching position for the BC Lions in December 2018, Monson was promoted to Defensive Coordinator. In discussing this, Monson is equal parts humble and confident. When asked what has kept the Stamps so dominant in the better part of the last decade, Monson attributes a lot of it to the people above him – the culture that has been instilled since John Hufnagel began his lead with the team back in 2007. “We have the same common goal and it starts at the top. The tone is set by the management, the scouts, the coaches, and then it’s instilled in the players.”
“The big difference,” continues Monson, “is unselfish play – everyone’s on the same page. The team enjoys playing for each other, and with each other. Each of us has the buy-in, which is huge, and we work hard together to get what we want.”
However, with every success comes a set of challenges. Coming off of last year’s Grey Cup victory, there are high expectations. The Stamps also lost 11 of their 24 starters to free agency and the NFL. However, Monson is undeterred. “We have to be as good, if not better,” says Monson. “We’re focused and confident.” As for the new additions to the squad, Monson welcomes the new energy and fresh blood; he’s excited to see these players get their chance on the field.
While Monson lives in Calgary on-season, he spends the offseason in Hamilton. “I have my football family in Calgary, but when I’m not working, I want to be around my family and friends back home.” He notes that Hamilton’s growth has been particularly great to witness as someone who isn’t here all year long. “Every time I come home, there’s a new restaurant to try or a place to check out.” That said, he admits he’s also loyal to old favourites, like West Town and the Keg.
And what about when he finds himself on hometown turf, coaching the Stampeders against the Tiger-Cats? Monson says he enjoys being able to coach a game where his friends and family can be there to cheer and support, “whether they’re cheering for the Tiger-Cats, or not.”
“It’s a great feeling, because it’s like being back in high school.”
“Also,” he smiles, “because we’ve never lost a game in Hamilton.”
Lead photo is copyrighted from Lyle Aspinall/ Calgary Sun/ QMI Agency