Toronto Argonauts head coach Scott Milanovich paces the sidelines… (MIKE CASSESE, REUTERS )
It never would have occurred to Jim Barker that on the day he began coaching in a league meant to combine the antics of professional wrestling with football, he would meet a man he'd later hire as his own replacement.
It was about 9:30 p.m., and Barker had just finished one of his first meetings as offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Xtreme of the XFL, a league started by World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon.
Barker walked out of the meeting room and was immediately greeted by Scott Milanovich, a former Maryland star, and Tommy Maddox. The two quarterbacks had some questions for Barker.
The Xtreme had their first day of minicamp early the next morning, but Milanovich and Maddox wanted to talk protection schemes.
"It was about 3 in the morning by the time we finally got out of there talking about nothing but protections," Barker said. "It was at that point that I kind of knew Scott was more than just a player. He was a guy that was interested in the whole deal, and that really impressed me."
So when Barker stepped down as coach of the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League to become the club's general manager at the end of the 2011 season, he only had one candidate in mind.
Milanovich was his man.
When making his decision on the Argonauts' new coach, Barker couldn't help but think back to that meeting in Los Angeles.
"To sit there and talk about protections for four or five hours — nobody does that," Barker said. "And it was an intense four or five hours, just the three of us, and I had a sense about Scott that coaching was going to be his path."
Always a student
Milanovich was 7 years old when he first ambled into a video room and saw his father, Gary, a former assistant football coach at Butler (Pa.) High, breaking down film. Scott had yet to play an organized football game, but he took an immediate interest in analyzing tape with his dad. The game already fascinated him.
"He spent a lot of time as a young kid watching film that didn't involve him, stuff that I was watching for the teams I was coaching," Gary said.
Interest in the schematics of the game stuck with Scott even as he reached the highest levels of professional football. He never lost the curiosity surrounding a game plan that he discovered as a kid, even when he started smashing records at Maryland.
Milanovich still holds almost every major statistical record for Maryland quarterbacks — and he graduated almost 20 years ago — but it wasn't because he was exceptionally talented.
It was because he had already started looking at the game from a coach's perspective.
"When you're not talented, you kind of have to be good at some of the other things," Milanovich said. "I think that was probably as big a reason as any that I found the coaching side of the game interesting."
Mark Duffner, Milanovich's coach at Maryland, added: "We had a pretty wide-open, spread attack and he was able to operate at a very productive level in that offense. You have to be sharp and you have to be aware to be able to do that."
The Terps went 12-21 in Milanovich's three seasons as a starter, even though a quarterback who was rapidly rewriting Maryland's record books was leading the offense. Milanovich threw for almost 3,500 yards his sophomore year, and still is the Terps' career leader in completions, yards, completion percentage and touchdowns.
After graduating from Maryland in 1995 and going undrafted in the 1996 NFL Draft — his stock partially hurt by a four-game suspension for betting on six college basketball and football games not involving the Terps — Milanovich signed on as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He saw action in one game his rookie year, and then didn't see the field again until after his release in 1999.
As soon as his stint in the NFL was over, Milanovich started to prepare himself for coaching while bouncing around almost every conceivable professional football league. He kept playing to offset unpaid coaching jobs, but also to soak up lessons from across the globe. The learning never stopped, no matter what continent or country he happened to be in.
Milanovich had stops in Berlin (NFL Europe), Los Angeles (XFL), Florida (Arena Football) and Calgary (CFL). In Los Angeles, the Xtreme used the first overall pick in the initial — and it turns out, only — XFL draft in 2001 on Milanovich, who attempted just nine passes for the organization.
Milanovich's role expanded to include coming into the office during coach's hours to learn from Barker and the rest of the staff as he watched Maddox become the XFL's top star. Maddox, a first-round pick of the Denver Broncos in 1992, eventually won the 2001 XFL MVP and the 2002 NFL Comeback Player of the Year with the Pittsburgh Steelers.