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May 6, 2016

Blog: Patience Is A Virtue

Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea before the Banjo Bowl game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, MB. Saturday, September 12, 2015. (PHOTO: JOHANY JUTRAS)

Patience is a tough thing to ask of fans that have been longing for a winner for decades. I get it. We get it. Will 2016 be the year our fortunes turn around? I can’t promise you anything, but I can promise you that this franchise is in the right hands and is headed in the right direction.

But of course I’m going to say that, right? After all, the team signs my paycheques.

They do, but they don’t pay me to spread lies, and I certainly wouldn’t write it if I didn’t believe it. Heck, I wouldn’t have written the above preluding many of the seasons I’ve been here. But something you develop over a long period of countless hours in the sports business, is a strong sense for what feels right or wrong heading into a new season; knowing when things are actually on the right track, or when they aren’t. It’s often people like myself, or Al Couture (Head Therapist), or Brad Fotty (Equipment Manager), who aren’t at the forefront of decision-making but toil behind the scenes and see everything, that know the real state of affairs.

“Developing the respect to garner interest from players and developing our way of doing things here was going to take time. I think we have finally turned that corner.” – Kyle Walters

CEO Wade Miller? Yes, he’s my boss, but he gets it. He’s implemented things here that fans don’t see but that matter in the long run both on and off the field.  He knows it’s the small things that go a long way, like calling a veteran free agent after he’s signed with the team to congratulate him and send his son a Bomber jersey. The player in question told me, “in all my years being in the league, that’s never happened.” Do the small things win you games? Directly, no. Indirectly, yes. They win respect. To Wade, these small gestures are simply second-nature, but that’s another topic.

GM Kyle Walters?  He knew the state of the roster he took over, specifically the position we were in regarding our Canadian depth and lack of a long-term quarterback. We spend nearly every day talking football, talking about our team, and exhausting every option to improve the roster. He knew from the get-go how he wanted to build his team, but he also knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight. I go back to what he told the Winnipeg Free Press in July 2014, after a strong 3-0 start: “You have to count on the draft and overspend in free agency to get better Canadians. You can’t do it in July.” In other words, this takes years to build, not one month and three wins. Not even two years and 12 wins.

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Finally, this season we are starting to see that development come to fruition. Sukh Chungh (2nd overall, 2015) will return in 2016 after starting every game for us last season at guard. To put that in perspective, and to highlight just how challenging that is to accomplish as a rookie offensive lineman, Sukh is one of only five lineman drafted in the past three years to start ten or more games in a season. Over one spot, Matthias Goossen (2ndoverall, 2014) will take over at centre after being drafted as a 21-year-old.  Matthias is one of only three lineman drafted in 2014 who made a start (six total) in 2015. Meanwhile, Derek Jones had a career-high 15 special teams tackles (fourth round, 2014). An example of a what good drafting can do to help your club in time.

Head Coach Mike O’Shea? I’ve made my point on Mike in previous blogs. He is the best Head Coach I’ve ever worked with, without question. I thought Pinball Clemons put it very well in the Argos’ video tribute last season: “He made me better as an opponent. He made me better as a teammate. And he made me better as a person. One of my favourite people on the planet, without question.”

The guy has passion for the game and our league like nobody I’ve ever known. His compete level, desire to win, and love for the sport is apparent within minutes of meeting him. For example; Friday, August 14, 2015 – our first game following some major injuries to Drew Willy, Darvin Adams and Paris Cotton. Mike walked into the locker room five minutes before team introductions. He called everyone together, and with the fallen guys standing in the circle, addressed each one of their replacements. And with his eyes starting to well-up he said; “this is why, before I had a *** Swiss ball (he sits on a Swiss ball in his office instead of a chair) and a computer, and I had one of those (points to a locker) and a roll of tape, these were my favourite games. It’s your *** chance to honour your teammates. You get to look around and do it for those guys (pointing to Paris, Drew, and Darvin),” his voice now shaky. “These are the best games to play for.”

Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea before the Banjo Bowl game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, MB. Saturday, September 12, 2015. (PHOTO: JOHANY JUTRAS)

I could write for days of examples like this one, and I will in time, but all this to say that our football team is in great hands with Mike O’Shea as our Head Coach, and I’m excited to see what 2016 brings for him. He deserves the success that will come.

With injuries and roster turnover to get the team where it needs to be, the club had 80 different players take the field for at least one game last season, the third-highest total in CFL history.

“We knew all along that this was going to take time,” Kyle told me recently when I broached the topic. “Of course the Canadian depth end of things was without question going to take time, but developing the respect to garner interest from players and developing our way of doing things here was going to take time. I think we have finally turned that corner.”

It’s true. During free agency in 2014, we sent out offer after offer, only to, for the most part, get a ‘thank you, but no thank you’ reply back. Last season was a bit better. And this season our offers, which were really no different than any other club’s financially, were accepted. One after the other, everything fell into place. Everyone talks about how we were so aggressive in 2016, but the reality is that the past few years have been quite similar in our approach, the only difference is that now players want to play here.

With February just about behind us, we look ahead to the Combine, and then mini-camp in April. This year, we won’t be hosting it in Florida but rather here in Winnipeg, so we encourage fans to attend. We’ll get more information out in the coming weeks.