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Alouettes owner says Higgins hiring maintains separation of coach and GM jobs

Tom Higgins, head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos, answers reporters questions after winning the CFL's Coach of the Year award in Edmonton, on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004. Higgins has been named the new head coach of the Montreal Alouettes.THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Ulan

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Tom Higgins, head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos, answers reporters questions after winning the CFL's Coach of the Year award in Edmonton, on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004. Higgins has been named the new head coach of the Montreal Alouettes.THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Ulan

MONTREAL - Coach Tom Higgins calls working with general manager Jim Popp "a match made in heaven."

And the pleasantries exchanged between the two men on a conference call on Tuesday made it hard to imagine they were rivals for the Montreal Alouettes head coaches job.

That was settled when team owner Bob Wetenhall insisted that the jobs of coach and general manager be kept separate, and that Popp would have to stick to his GM duties.

"This is the model that has made us successful," said Wetenhall. "This has given Jim the time and the freedom to go out and build our team, year after year, always with a few new players added.

"To have a GM with the freedom and the time to do this is the model we really wanted to go back to."

In the 59-year-old Higgins, the Alouettes hired a CFL veteran who spent seven years as a head coach in Edmonton and Calgary, winning a Grey Cup with the Eskimos in 2003. The Woodbridge, N.J., native spent the last six years as the league's director of officiating.

"Tom brings a winning record and a tremendous reputation as a stand-up, high class guy," said Wetenhall.

Popp, the team's general manager since it returned to Montreal in 1996 who is considered among the CFL's best, had hoped to continue in both jobs after taking over from the fired Dan Hawkins, who had no previous CFL experience, only five games in to the 2013 campaign.

When Higgins was confirmed in the job on Monday, it raised speculation that Popp may be on his way out.

Wetenhall would not confirm Popp's long-term status with the club, but made it clear he wanted his GM to stay. And Popp, whose name has been linked to NFL jobs in recent years, said he's wants to carry on.

"I've been with the Alouettes for 18 years — I plan on being there, it's my other home," said Popp. "I've had six children that were all born in Montreal and I really have no interest in leaving.

"Circumstances come up, but the organization knows how loyal I am. I'm a company man and it's a place I enjoy being. There's a lot that gets thrown around out there, a lot of it that's not true. But I'm very happy."

That Popp joined in the conference call was a surprise. His name wasn't mentioned in the Higgins announcement. And it was unusual that the general manager was not involved in the decision to hire the head coach.

Wetenhall's son Andrew, a team governor, said that as a candidate for the coaching job, Popp would have been in conflict of interest if he had a say in who the next coach would be. But Popp had provided the owners with a list of potential coaching candidates with an assessment of their abilities.

"This is a case where two people can work together who didn't select one another," said Andrew Wetenhall. "We have the added benefit of two guys who know each other and have a heck of a lot of respect for each other."

Higgins said he didn't feel awkward at all working with Popp.

"I couldn't be happier," he said. "I think our personalities complement one another.

"We both want the same thing. This is an opportunity for myself to get back on the field where I belong. This is not a challenge whatsoever."

Higgins' first job will be to hire an offensive co-ordinator and fill out the coaching staff, which he expects to complete within 10 days.

The Alouettes had already signed defensive co-ordinator Noel Thorpe to a two-year contract extension on Dec. 4, with the added title of assistant head coach.

They also confirmed that Andre Bolduc, a former CFL player and head coach at Sherbrooke University, was signed as a defensive assistant coach.

Wetenhall said one of Higgins' assets was his ability to work with young quarterbacks, which will be needed in Montreal this season.

For the first time since 2000, they will not have Anthony Calvillo as the starter as the CFL's all-time passing leader has retired.

Troy Smith, the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner, and youngster Tanner Marsh are expected to compete for the starting job, with Alex Brink also in the picture.

Higgins said he has worked with gifted young pivots before in Henry Burris and Ricky Ray. He feels the Alouettes can improve on last year's 8-10 season.

"I've always marvelled at the level of talent in Montreal," he said. "I hope to bring a level of consistency and discipline.

"We are going to be competitive and entertaining. And when you start doing that and playing disciplined football, usually you win more than you lose."

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