Winnipeg Blue Bombers Head Coach Mike O'Shea during practice at IG Field September 24, 2019
There’s a straightforwardness to Mike O’Shea that some in the media – especially those around him for the first time – can find as startling as a cold shower in January.
We see it occasionally – check that… we see it often – in his daily media sessions when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are playing, as he steers clear of detailing anything about game plans, about personnel or roster decisions, about the tendencies of opponents and even about his own hall-of-fame career.
And so in that respect, the Bombers’ head coach is as consistent as a metronome in never ever straying from his own script. Some may also call it robotic or dull, yet it’s all part of his working to maintain any kind of competitive edge.
Still, we should not mistake that approach as an indication that he is cold or uncaring, and I was reminded of that during a long conversation with him this week.
Now, full disclosure here: the initial story premise for my interview with Coach O’Shea was a simple one – to check in for a comment about the expected cuts to the football operations budget and how he and his staff are regrouping since the pandemic led to the cancellation of the Canadian Football League’s 2020 season.
He didn’t want to go there – at least, publicly – and that became obvious before my first question could even be finished. Instead, what followed was a reminder about how much the game and the people around it mean to him.
Indeed, as much as he may make it seem as such during the season, the business is hardly just about the Xs and Os, the Jimmys and Joes, the wins and the losses to O’Shea.
“I don’t think I’m comfortable talking about some of the information that’s out there right now,” began O’Shea, “because it can make the coaches and other staff uneasy, especially before we have answers for them and what the future might look like.
“The No. 1 thing and the last thing I said to the coaches was, ‘While we’re playing this waiting game, look after yourselves.’ I don’t mean it’s every man for himself, by any means. But whether it’s something you’ve been meaning to do or take care of, whether it’s getting caught up on some things or diving into your personal relationships make sure you take the time to do it.
“Maybe it’s about getting back to humanity because during the season, honestly, you go and go and go and you sort of lose track of a lot of other things that you wouldn’t normally lose track of in a different lifestyle. Now, we know what we’ve signed up for, but if you put a bunch of those things together and things that you need to take care of, or should take care of, can get put on the back burner for too long.
“Those are the kind of things I reminded the staff to make sure they utilize this down time for.”
O’Shea delivered a similar message to the players when the plug was pulled on the 2020 season – be a good teammate now more than ever. Reach out, be supportive and work to get through everything together.
Those words of advice aren’t uncommon for the coach during a season. It’s just that seldom do we get a glimpse of them. Rare are the occasions when O’Shea allows cameras to be around for a pre or post-game speech because of his belief that what is said in the locker room, stays in the locker room.
O’Shea and the Bombers coaching staff had kept busy through the spring and summer studying their tendencies and those of their opponents in almost every conceivable situation. And as August rolled around there was the expectation a bubble season was going to happen.
But since that concept was deep-sixed, O’Shea has advised his staff to take the time to pull back from their playbooks, take off the blinders and expand their horizons.
It’s a message that is about mental well-being as much as anything.
“For the longest time there was a bunch of work the coaches were doing,” he explained. “We believed we were going to start the season and so they were ready on time. Once that got delayed then everybody starts giving themselves more projects and things to look at – which is all good. It’s pro development. It’s introspection on what you’re doing to do while looking at other teams and what they do. Then that work got done.
“And now? I know you should say you should never really be done learning about football, but in an extended period like this personal growth outside of football is probably more important. You need to set aside some time for that. That could be anything.
“It’s finishing projects, starting a new hobby, figuring out what a new hobby might be so that when football is all said and done you’ve got something you are active in. It’s volunteerism, community service… whatever it is there’s lots of things to do and I’m sure every coach has lots of things on his list. But it’s about trying on a daily basis of trying to get rid of having that angst of not working, not being in the locker room or not being at the stadium. We’ll be back at it at some point.
“We all want to be back in the fury of the season and under pressure again,” added O’Shea. “But you’d hate to enter that not having accomplished some personal goals because this time shouldn’t ever exist again for a football coach.”
There are pressures that come with coaching, especially at the professional ranks where everything is measured by wins or losses. O’Shea has experienced the highs and lows of all of that from his days here in Winnipeg, from the playoff frustrations through to last November’s Grey Cup reward.
During the season coaches will spend hours at the office and away from their families. And even when they are at home their minds can still drift to practice planning, to ideas about schemes. Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday becomes Day 1-Day 2-Day 3 of a practice week.
Make no mistake, O’Shea isn’t seeking any sympathy for what he and coaches are going through right now. That wasn’t the gist of our conversation. What he is hoping is he and his coaches, given this time to get away from the game, will come back to work with a different and deeper perspective.
“You absolutely should have a different perspective,” he said. “I’ve said it before: as coaches you’ve got to be able to forgive yourself for having fun or taking up a new hobby or not thinking about football for a day.
“That was a big challenge at the beginning when all the work, all the preparation was done for the season and then the extra projects were done. You’ve got to allow yourself to go fishing, and allow yourself to read a book and allow yourself to idle down a bit without feeling guilty.”
We asked the Bombers boss if he has done any of the above. He chuckled and added: “I’m not good at following my own advice. There’s still lots of things left to do.”
More on my conversation with Coach O’Shea and other items in this week’s 1st & 10…
1. A couple of other items from O’Shea… first, we asked him about when he figured the coaches would be up and running with their routine again – pending some sort of concrete answers from CFL headquarters.
“I imagine fairly quickly in the new year,” he said. “There will be players to evaluate and there will be an ongoing roster discussion. The problem is until we know the parameters a lot of these conversations are preparatory. But I suppose those are good to have, too.”
2. I mentioned in our chat that I’m watching a lot of NFL and NCAA football to get my fix and that, more than once, I found myself thinking, ‘Damn… why can’t the CFL be playing, too?’
“I really believed we’d be playing. So, yeah… I understand that,” said O’Shea. “But I really think that kind of anger or whatever it is can be a wasted emotion. There’s nothing we can do about it. So I try to keep those thoughts in check.”
When I suggested that that’s a notion that is easier said than done sometimes, he concurred and added:
“We’re passionate people. We love our league.”
Asked what he is missing most about the game right now, O’Shea paused for a moment.
“There’s more than one thing. I miss the interaction between the players. That’s obviously something I really enjoy. And then there’s the competition on game day and watching the players compete and watching the physicality of it. I miss all of it.”
3. Drew Wolitarsky has always given us a hint at his creative side, right from the very first day he arrived in Winnipeg as a supplemental draft pick in 2017. His musical talents have been highlighted many times on bluebombers.com, but his latest initiative – ‘Curbside Concerts’ – allow him to both showcase and work on his talents at the same time.
Here’s a snippet of that, courtesy Wolitarsky and Bombers video ace Riley Marra:
4. Superb idea from the folks at Football Canada, led by Jim Mullin, for a Canadian Football Summit Meeting Series. It’s a two-part discussion being held remotely this month and will feature leaders from the CFL, the Canadian Junior Football League, U Sports – including the Canada West, OUA, RSEQ and AUS conferences.
Here’s a link to the Football Canada press release.
And here’s a solid report on the concept from Dan Barnes of Postmedia.
5. Another good read from Dan, this one on the CFL’s attempts to license a video game.
6. Just over a week ago the CFL released 10 names from each of the teams’ 45-player negotiation lists. Our recap of the names on the Bombers list, courtesy Danny McManus – the clubs Assistant GM/Director of U.S. Scouting – can be found here.
The juiciest names on these lists are always the quarterbacks and even moreso when one of those QBs is from hallowed Notre Dame, like Ian Book.
But another intriguing name on that list is Blake Jackson, who is listed as a WR/QB. Jackson has bounced all over since his college days, including getting a look-see from the Calgary Stampeders.
Worth noting here is with CFL teams likely dressing only two quarterbacks in 2021, it’s possible teams will look at players who could fill in on an emergency basis if two pivots are lost in a game.
That player currently on the Bombers roster would be Darvin Adams who, it should be noted, was 3-for-3 on pass attempts last year for 94 yards – including a completion to Andrew Harris that covered 74 yards in a game against Montreal and a 13-yard completion to Chris Streveler in the Grey Cup.
7. A few weeks ago we chronicled Thiadric Hansen’s decision to opt out of his contract and play for the Wroclaw Panthers of the Liga Futbolu Amerykanskiego in Poland.
An update for those who may be wondering: Hansen and the Panthers are 2-0 in league play after crushing the Tychy Falcons 51-0 and the Silesia Rebels 52-7. They also hammered the Dresden Monarchs 48-14 in an international exhibition game in Dresden late last month.
The Panthers face the 0-3 Warsaw Mets this weekend.
8. Yours truly has gone on and on in this weekly column about desperately missing the CFL this season. That’s just me being honest about the subject. But one of the ‘positives’ that have resulted from the games being spiked has been the creation of our ‘Handled Internally’ podcast.
We’d been throwing around the idea of doing it for a few years, but now that Darren Cameron – the Bombers Senior Director of Player and Public Relations and Chief Consigliere – and I are a half dozen episodes into the project, with the help of Rhéanne Marcoux and Riley Marra, it’s morphing into something really cool.
We’ve now done episodes with Buck Pierce, Andrew Harris, Doug Brown, Glenn January, Bob Irving and just this past week recorded two more with Chris Streveler and Charles Roberts.
More to come, too.
9. We went for over 80 minutes with Streveler this week and likely could have gone longer. Not to give away too much detail, but from our chat – which Streveler called the best interview he’s ever done in his life (I know, don’t pull a muscle patting yourself on the back here) – there were a few stories that stood out.
This one recalled a time last fall when the Bombers were spinning their wheels and Streveler was feeling some heat.
“We weren’t playing that well and we had lost a game at Saskatchewan and I was on the hot seat,” Streveler recalled. “LaPo (former Bombers offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice) brought me in and was pretty much like, ‘You’re on your last leg here, buddy. Let’s figure it out.’
“I remember specifically – and I don’t know if I’ve told this to anybody – but I had a conversation with Darvin Adams. I would stay after practice every single day and watch film late. Darvin gave me a call and he goes, ‘Bro… I just want you to remember you’re a dog, you’re that guy. You’ve got to remember that, you’ve got to know that, and be that dog.’
“For whatever reason, just hearing that changed my whole mentality. From that point forward, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to be that dude. I’m going to believe that, I’m going to act like that dog, act like that person. I’m going to be a leader.’
“We ended up winning that week against Montreal at home – it was that huge snowstorm before that game. And then we went to Calgary and played a great game, the game I got injured in. But I was locked in, I was dialled in and I just remember being on that sideline and feeling a different energy coming from me, coming from the team. That shifted everything for me going forward for the rest of that season.”
10. Finally, and related to our Handled Internally podcast, new episodes are originally available exclusively for season ticket holders and ‘W Hub’ subscribers but will then be made available on iTunes, Spotify and Google Podcasts a few weeks later. Episodes 1-3 are now available on iTunes and Spotify, episodes 3 & 4 are available on The W Hub.
🚨 BIG NEWS 🚨
— Winnipeg Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) October 2, 2020