It was February of 2018 and Orlondo Steinauer was a wanted man.
He’d just completed his first season as a defensive coordinator in NCAA Division I football, helping Fresno State perform one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in college football history. He was nominated for the Frank Broyles Award, which honours college football’s top assistant coach.
It was a remarkable debut for someone with no previous NCAA coaching experience. Schools from some of the big conferences had taken notice and were calling, wanting to interview a rising star in the coaching ranks. In response, Fresno State extended his contract for a third season. Life was good.
Of course Steinauer had been wanted very much back in Canada as well, where he’d resigned a year earlier as defensive coordinator with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. In his absence, the team had stumbled to an 0-8 start in 2017 and changed head coaches, with June Jones replacing Kent Austin.
Tiger-Cats president Scott Mitchell had let it be known that the door was always open for Steinauer to return, just in case Fresno State wasn’t completely to his liking. But there wasn’t much Steinauer didn’t like about his situation in California, even though it took some time to adjust to some of the administrative duties that come with being a college coach.
But overall, he and his wife, Gina, and their two daughters, Rheyna and Taeya, then 13 and 12 (a third daughter Kiana, then 19, was away at Southern Connecticut University), were very content.
“California was amazing,” Steinauer said. “The kids had adjusted. Gina loved it. Our neighbours were great. The neighbourhood, the schools, it was just awesome. But obviously I’m back.”
How Steinauer came to be so in demand and why he chose to spurn the bright lights for a return to humble Hamilton can be traced to elements of his life journey – both within and beyond football.
As an athlete, Steinauer possessed assets that are essential to becoming a good coach – strong communication and leadership skills and a dedication to being a student of the game.
In fact, his ability to communicate and relate to people emerged early in life, long before his athletic gifts did.
“My grandfather would tell me, he’d say, ‘Lons, people are drawn to you and you’ll learn that later. …I’m interested to see what you’re going to do with your platform … there is impact you can make’” Steinauer recalls. “It didn’t hit me until college where I said, ‘Okay, people are listening.’”
His grandfather’s words proved prophetic as Steinauer inevitably found himself a captain on virtually every team he played on, from youth sports to the pros. He’d relied on his athletic gifts and instincts to star in football, basketball and baseball, receiving college scholarship offers in all three sports.
He chose to play football at Western Washington University where his skills as a defensive back and returner put him on the NFL’s radar, earning him a contract with the Detroit Lions.
“I was this kid with 10 interceptions so the NFL scouts said, ‘We’ve got to go take a look,’” said Steinauer.
His playing career, however, brought him to Canada – first to Ottawa after he'd been released from Detroit in 1996, then to Hamilton where he thrived under the tutelage of Tiger-Cat head coach Don Sutherin and later in Toronto under Argonaut defensive coordinator Rich Stubler.
Steinauer spent a year in broadcasting after his career ended in 2008. Then new Argos coach and GM Jim Barker, who didn’t know him well, offered him a coaching job before the 2010 season.
“I brought him in to interview and five minutes in I said, ‘This is done, you’re going to be just fine,’” said Barker. “He has special qualities. He’s different from anybody I’ve ever been around, just in terms of his charisma and his ability to see beyond, to see the big picture better anybody.”
Three seasons into his time with Toronto, Hamilton recruited Steinauer to become their defensive coordinator, which led to back-to-back appearances in the 2014 and 2015 Grey Cup games.
All of that CFL success garnered the notice of Jeff Tedford, who in 2015 was head coach of the BC Lions.
A longtime college coach and former CFL quarterback, Tedford had returned to the NCAA ranks to take over the program at his alma mater, Fresno State, following a 2016 season in which the team won just one game.
Most of his staffing hires consisted of people he’d been associated with in the past. That’s why Steinauer was so surprised when the call came from Tedford, gauging his interest in joining him in California. He’d shaken hands with Tedford, but that was about it.
But it turns out the coach had told his wife that if he ever had to build a staff again in college football, he was going to go after Steinauer.
“When I was in the CFL last, and having to prepare to play Hamilton, it was a nightmare,” Tedford said at the news conference introducing Steinauer.
Steinauer was humbled.
“The fact that he was going to go to his alma mater and try to put his stamp on it and he was going to entrust me… I just wasn’t going to let him down,” Steinauer said.
But concurrent to his coaching career taking off, Steinauer’s family life had blossomed away from the field.
Having grown up as the only child of a mother with a Grade 10 education who battled addiction issues and a father he never knew, Steinauer relished fatherhood and being present as his daughters were growing up.
With no siblings, he’d been a latchkey kid growing up in Seattle, often awaking and returning to an empty home. His grandfather, Gene, a sergeant in the King County police force who’d also worked fishing Alaskan king crab, and his grandmother, Bonnie, helped fill the void, but his experience growing up often by himself left an impression on him.
“My dad was never there. That’s what I was not going to be,” he said. “I think all of that heightened my awareness of my parenting. I don’t think it’s better or worse than anybody’s. I think I’m in tune with the little things that I think make a big difference, like bike rides, homework, calls, texts, FaceTimes … going to the water, doing things we are passionate about. That’s important to me because I didn’t have it.”
Moving to Fresno State had been a challenge from a football perspective, but Steinauer thrived in his new environment. It was the challenges that his job presented to his life at home that he was less certain about: being all-in 11 months a year, leaving the house before his kids were awake and often arriving home after they’d gone to bed.
“I didn’t have a challenge with anything as long as you get a chance to recharge [but] you’re just not really afforded that same thing down there,” Steinauer said. “The lifestyle is definitely different. You have a great opportunity for work-life balance in the CFL.
“What’s interesting to me is that putting in 12- or 15-hour days becomes normal. And I just don’t think that’s normal. To me football is what I do, it’s not really who I am. I know for other people it’s flipped. This is who I am and they are really all in. I don’t have any judgement on that except for…I want to see my kids.”
So when Mitchell suggested there was room for him on June Jones’ staff in 2018, with the potential of becoming the Tiger-Cats head-coach-in-waiting, Steinauer had to give it some thought.
As he pondered a return to the CFL, he thought back to a time a few years earlier in Canada, when he’d looked in on his oldest daughter, Kiana, while she was sleeping, noting how much she’d grown.
“I thought, ‘She’s just entering high school. There’s four more years.’ But boom, that was gone,” he said. “I remember in California, I opened the door and I looked in on Rheyna and it was déjà vu. She was going into Grade 8 and I said to myself, ‘Woah, it’s going to go.’ And so it was kind of weird, the timing. That was an ‘aha moment’ for me.”
So Steinauer and his family decided to return to a place where he knew he could coach football and still be present as his two youngest daughters moved through their teen years.
They’d never sold the family home in Ontario, so resuming life back in Canada was nearly seamless.
By the end of last season, Steinauer was considered a leading candidate for coaching vacancies in B.C. and Toronto. But that speculation ended when the Tiger-Cats accelerated their process this past winter, moving Jones to offensive coordinator to open the head job for Steinauer. (Jones later resigned to take a job in the XFL.)
He’d come back to the CFL because he had two passions, football and family, and this was the place he could balance them better than any other.
“If this opportunity hadn’t come, I’d still be [in Fresno],” he said. “I knew what I was getting into coming back … it wasn’t a leap of faith.”