EDMONTON - The Edmonton Eskimos are willing to court controversy to turn the floundering franchise around.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, it seems.

The 2-8 Eskimos reached out Tuesday to hire Eric Tillman, a three-time Grey Cup winner but a polarizing figure carrying the stigma of a sex assault.

Eskimos president Rick LeLacheur, who sat next to his new general manager at a news conference, said the community-owned club has received a "substantial" number of calls from fans since news of the hiring broke Monday. He said the calls were running two-to-one against hiring Tillman.

"As far as how the community feels we recognize that," said LeLacheur. "It was a very difficult decision based on the community aspect.

"Over time, it's going to be up to Eric to show this community what he really is all about and what his character is."

Tillman said LeLacheur has already given it to him straight: "There is a second chance, there will not be a third chance."

Tillman said he doesn't begrudge those who didn't want him hired.

"It's my responsibility to carry myself in a way and conduct myself in a way that will re-earn respect and trust," he said.

Tillman, 52, had been the general manager of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the architect of their 2007 Grey Cup win, but left in January after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting his 16-year-old babysitter in 2008.

He was given an absolute discharge, so he does not have a criminal record.

"It's a privilege to be in this league and not a right," said Tillman, stopping at times to fight back tears as his wife Francine sat in the front row.

"I hurt two families, I hurt the Rider Nation, and the Canadian Football League.

"I've learned a lot (but) it came with a very heavy price. My remorse is profound. I don't know anything else to do but get up and go forward."

Tillman won Grey Cups as a GM with B.C. (1994), Toronto (1997) and Saskatchewan (2007), but faces an uphill challenge with the Eskimos.

The Green and Gold have the worst record in the CFL. They have been mediocre for the last five years and have missed the playoffs twice.

This year, they fired general manager Danny Maciocia after the team limped out of the gate to a 1-4 start. Two assistant coaches have also been replaced and the team has airlifted players in and out, particularly on the offensive line, looking for a spark.

The plan had been to wait until year's end to hire a replacement, but that timetable was moved up recently when the Calgary Stampeders blew out the Eskimos in two games.

Tillman, who has a three-year deal, says he doesn't have plans to immediately shake up the organization or fire head coach Richie Hall, who ran the defence in Saskatchewan under Tillman.

But he said the homegrown talent, which critics have labelled the worst in the CFL, must change.

"Everything we do from this day forward will always be with strong Canadian content being our greatest mandate and our ultimate objective. If you achieve that you're going to be successful."

He said he told the players earlier Tuesday he can relate to their plight. "It hurts when people wear bags on their heads. It hurts when people call you names. It hurts when people ridicule you. I understand that. I've been through that at a personal level."

Doug Goss, the Eskimos chairman of the board, said it was a unanimous decision reached after weeks of talking to Tillman, members of the Riders, and others.

"In no way do I think this is a panicky decision," said Goss. "We would've waited to the end of the year if we thought there was someone better or other candidates more qualified to lead our football team.

"This was the best football guy available."

The players, back at practice Tuesday preparing for Sunday's game against the Montreal Alouettes, said it's time to look ahead.

"I don't really know him as a person, but as a general manager to a player his door was always open. He was willing to listen," said linebacker Maurice Lloyd, who played for Tillman in Saskatchewan.

"If the court and the family give him a second chance, why can't we?"

Defensive lineman Adam Braidwood said he hopes the fans come around.

"I always believe in second chances. I'm sure there will be some people out there who will be negative, but those people aren't a part of the team.

"(Tillman's) got a lot to prove and he's willing to do that."