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THE MOJ: B.C.’s Corey Mace coaching Saskatchewan to run roughshod

Port Moody product has the Roughriders out to a 4-0 start as they head into a clash with the Lions
Port Moody’s Corey Mace returns to Vancouver this weekend as the head coach of the undefeated Saskatchewan Roughriders. Photo Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards

They’re often referred to as ‘technique coaches’ who usually specialize in what it takes to win one-on-one battles on the line of scrimmage.

If you are coaching the defensive line, you’re lucky if you get to wear a headset in a game. That privilege is reserved for defensive coordinators and linebacker or secondary coaches.

A d-line coach becoming a head coach of a football team? That’s as rare as the WWE not selling out a house show.

So when you see a defensive line coach evolve into a head coach, you kind of take notice.

And a 4-0 record will also make you take notice.

That’s the record of the Saskatchewan Roughriders team coached by Corey Mace, who started his coaching career working with the defensive line in Calgary before moving to Toronto to become the defensive coordinator of the Argonauts before taking over the reins of the Roughriders this past spring.

Mace and the Riders (4-0) are on a heater right now and will give the B.C. Lions all they can handle when the two teams clash this Saturday night at BC Place Stadium (7pm, TSN, CKNW 980).

A graduate of Port Moody Secondary, it will be Mace’s first game as a head coach at BC Place Stadium in front of family and friends.

“It’s just special anytime you get to go back to your hometown, see your city and see the people you know. I’ve had a lot of experiences in that stadium. You can reminisce a little bit, but for the most part, it’s a game day,” said Mace, who’s on the hook for a dozen or so tickets for family and friends with even more friends buying their own tickets.

Mace grew up in East Vancouver and was slated to go to Killarney Secondary until his family moved to Port Moody. That move introduced Mace to the game that he fell in love with and he hasn’t looked back since.

“It was just exciting to play high school football. I was going to go to Killarney but they didn’t have a football program. So to get out to Port Moody and get to play football in high school and play football in the community was just awesome. It was a dream. I never had a chance to play prior to that, so it was cool,” said the likable 37-year-old.

Mace attended Banting Middle School before moving on to Port Moody Secondary, where as he puts it, he got to do all the ‘cool stuff playing running back and linebacker’ and realizing he had a future in the sport around Grade 11.

“I just started training with guys who were moving on to the next level. Athletically, I found myself keeping up with those guys, so I knew that it was a possibility. Going into Grade 12, I really locked my focus into playing somewhere post-secondary. I ramped up my workouts with my trainer (Kevin Phillips) and I really locked in,” said Mace.

The end result was a 12-year-run that saw stops with Palomar College, the University of Wyoming, the Buffalo Bills, the Hamiton Tiger-Cats and the Calgary Stampeders as a defensive lineman. It was a good career but it was slowed by several injuries which included a ruptured Achilles tendon, a torn shoulder labrum and a fractured foot.

The coaching bug actually hit him during his last couple of seasons as a player in the CFL.

“I spent a lot of that time (while hurt) trying to help out the young bucks and help out the coaching staff so I wasn’t totally just stealing cheques. Once I got the clicker in my hand and understood the computer part of it, it was really interesting. I tried looking at other stuff towards the back end of my career that wasn’t football-related but it just didn’t spark anything for me. I knew coaching is where I wanted to go,” explained Mace.

First off was a gig as the Stampeders defensive line coach from 2016 through 2021 where Mace’s thirst for knowledge had him looking at the bigger picture on defense.

“As you get more comfortable, you start broadening things and looking at what’s going on with the full picture. And I was just lucky to be around some good coaches to teach me up along the way,” said Mace.

There was also the desire to have more of an impact as a coach, and that meant transitioning to a coordinator and eventually a head coach.

“Did I want to be a d-line coach forever? I love — and I mean I love d-line play — but you have to learn more and have more of an understanding of what’s going on. The more you know, the more you can help with the full picture and with the scheme on defense. It was just sitting down with other coaches on staff and picking their brains. You’re constantly learning. Even now, I’m constantly trying to learn more and more stuff. It’s only going to be for the betterment of the team moving forward,” said Mace.

There have been many coaching influences in Mace’s career but if there’s one thing he’s proud of it’s that he’s held true to himself.

Coaches, in a way, are like thieves. They will pick up little things along the way from certain coaches but if you want to be successful, you have to be true to yourself. Try being someone you’re not and players will read right through you and lose respect.

It’s one of the reasons why Mace has been so respected and well-liked by his players at all his stops.

In 2022, Mace was hired by the Toronto Argonauts to be their defensive coordinator – a position he held for two seasons until he accepted his current post in Saskatchewan.

So what’s been the biggest challenge from transitioning from a coordinator to a head coach?

“It’s just being fully in tune with every game situation in all three phases and trying to see the full picture. Even from that standpoint, I’m still learning. It’s my first time, and the only way to do it is to do it. I’m learning along the way but I got great people around me who are great sounding boards and it’s been good thus far,” said Mace.

For a team to be successful, players have to feel that they’re invested into the program.

A coach who doesn’t get feedback from his players has lost half the battle before his team even steps on the field.

One of the first things on Mace’s agenda when he arrived in Regina was to talk to leaders on the team such as Trevor Harris, Brett Lauther and Rolan Milligan to get feedback on what was going on and what changes needed to be made.

“I’m very fluid. It’s the players that win the game. It’s the players that run the locker room. I want to make sure that the environment is conducive to fit what they want, but also follow the guidelines of what we feel breeds success. There are some non-negotiables, but for the most part, it’s putting together a culture that is a marriage of our foundation as a staff and the players we have,” said Mace.

A 4-0 start reinforces what Mace and his staff are trying to sell in Saskatchewan as it’s easier for players to buy in when their team is winning.

“The start certainly helps. Some of the intangible stuff that we wanted to instill here on year one…just what it means to be a pro…playing and preparing as a winner. These guys have been putting in the work and taking heed to what we’ve been saying and really holding themselves accountable. And it’s ever changing. Every team you know will hear a message and take it one way and run with it. These guys are running with it and it’s contagious. It’s infectious within the locker room and within the building. I’m very pleased with how the guys have responded to what we’re trying to get accomplished,” said Mace.

And all of this success is taking place in the hotbed of CFL football in Saskatchewan which makes it even more special.

“It’s been incredible. It’s everything you thought it would be and then some. It’s just great that you’re in a place that cares about the team, that cares about the CFL, you know? It’s not unusual to have daily conversations with people in the community because they’re invested. It’s a unique situation being a provincial team – a community owned team. It’s important to us and we realize as an organization that they’re a part of this thing. Man, it’s been awesome,” noted Mace of being in Regina.

Regardless of where the Saskatchewan finishes in the standings this season, Mace and his staff have the Riders pointed in the right direction.

That’s pretty impressive for an old d-line coach.

Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media.

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