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Nicholson steps down, Rudge takes over as Argos' CEO

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The Canadian Press
1/30/2012 8:42:15 PM
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TORONTO -- He's already in charge of making sure the 100th Grey Cup is the best ever. Now Chris Rudge has added the huge challenge of making the Toronto Argonauts relevant again.

Argos owner David Braley announced Monday that Bob Nicholson had stepped down as club president with Rudge taking over as executive chairman and chief executive officer of the CFL club.

And it's not just an interim posting. Rudge, who has acted as the Argos' chairman and alternate governor, will continue leading the Toronto club years after the Grey Cup game in November.

"I don't mind anyone saying the Argos have slid ... that's a reality and has been for some time in this town," Rudge said. "We're down the road to changing that.

"In 20 years we've gone through a succession of itinerant owners, many of them wonderful people with great intentions but they didn't last very long. This time we have a business investor (Braley) who understands this business, who has the wear-with-all to last and help us build into the future. I fully expect within two, three, four years we'll have this franchise in the black, we'll create enterprise value that will have others want to look at it in the appropriate way and have people in the city saying, 'Jeez, the Argos of the old days seem to be on their way back."'

Monday's announcement wasn't a complete surprise.

There had been talk during Grey Cup week in Vancouver that Nicholson's days with the Argos were numbered and the club was looking for someone who was comfortable speaking with reporters and before television cameras to be its public spokesman.

That quickly prompted suggestions that person was indeed Rudge, the former CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee and chairman of the Own The Podium program. He held that post through the 2010 Olympics that saw Canada win 14 gold medals in Vancouver, the most by any country in a Winter Games.

Further fuelling that talk was Braley's long support of Rudge. Back in 2002, it was generally accepted that Braley -- then just the owner of the B.C. Lions -- headed a faction of CFL owners that wanted Rudge to be hired as the league's commissioner. But Tom Wright eventually got that job.

And Rudge, who joined the Argos in 2010 and is also heading up the 100th Grey Cup organizing committee, said he's taking on the added job responsibilities simply because he couldn't say "no" to Braley.

"I'm good at delegating authority," Rudge said. "Quite frankly, I've spent my life fixing businesses that were broken.

"Not that this is a broken business but this is a business with some huge challenges but with I think an absolutely terrific upside. I found the opportunity irresistible."

Braley, who is also a Senator also still owns the B.C. Lions, praised Nicholson's efforts.

"Bob Nicholson is a tremendous individual who really cared," Braley said. "I'm very, very lucky to have someone like Chris Rudge available to step in.

"He has a wealth of experience running major operations. He decided to help me out by handling the 100th Grey Cup ... he's capable of doing more and we've given him that opportunity."

Nicholson was in his second tenure as Argos president, returning to the franchise in May 2009. He had previously served as the team's president from 1995 to 1999, with the Argos winning consecutive Grey Cup championships in 1996 and 1997.

The Argos enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in 2010, posting a 9-9 record to reach the CFL playoffs and secure head coach Jim Barker the league's coach of the year award. But last season Toronto posted a 6-12 record to finish last in the East Division and out of the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.

What's more, attendance dipped 10 per cent to an average of just 20,018 spectators per game, hardly a springboard for success heading into a crucial 2012 campaign with Toronto hosting the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup.

The biggest challenge facing Rudge is making the Argos relevant again in Toronto within a sports landscape that also boasts the NHL's Maple Leafs, baseball's Blue Jays and the NBA's Toronto Raptors. There's also the presence of the NFL's Buffalo Bills playing exhibition and regular-season contests at Rogers Centre, which also acts as the Argos' home venue.

"I think the biggest challenge we have, quite frankly, is changing the perceptions of what our team and organization are all about," Rudge said. "Once perceptions become entrenched in the hearts and minds of souls of people they're very difficult to dislodge even with facts.

"I think that perception has to be changed through experience and therefore we have to create the kinds of experiences for people that have them say to their friends, 'You should get down to the Argos games and see what's going on."'

And that means not only winning games, but doing so in an entertaining, offensive fashion. For years, the Argos have been woeful on offence and relied too heavily on a bend-but-don't break defence to win games.

"I don't think our fans want to see a team that's 9-0 at home with an average score of 12-7," Rudge said. "We need some excitement on the field and we're going to provide that."

Putting a more offensive product on the field has certainly been the team's emphasis in a busy off-season.

Barker stepped aside as head coach to concentrate on being the club's full-time GM and hired respected assistant Scott Milanovich as his replacement. Milanovich spent five seasons as an assistant with the Montreal Alouettes, the last four as the offensive co-ordinator with a club that made three Grey Cup appearances, winning twice.

Then shortly after hiring Milanovich, Barker acquired veteran quarterback Ricky Ray from the Edmonton Eskimos for quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a 2012 first-round draft pick. The 32-year-old Ray is a two-time Grey Cup champion coming off a 2011 season that saw him throw for over 4,500 yards with 24 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.

Chris Rudge (Photo: Toronto Argonauts Football Club)

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(Photo: Toronto Argonauts Football Club)
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