HAMILTON – Mike O’Shea began squirming in his seat long before the question had been finished and then instantly attempted to stiff-arm the narrative to the ground before it gained traction.
Everyone in Bomberland understands fully by now, after a decade with O’Shea leading the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, that the head coach hates having the spotlight directed at him. And when we say ‘hates’ we mean it in the sense that he positively loathes the attention – any attention – that fixates on one person instead of the collective.
The Blue Bombers are here in Hamilton for the 110th Grey Cup this week for a fourth consecutive year with O’Shea’s hand on the rudder for every bit of the voyage. Only one other coach in Canadian Football League history has had that kind of run – Hugh Campbell guided the Edmonton Eskimos through six appearances and five titles from 1977-82 – which puts O’Shea in Everest-like rarefied air.
And so, it was during Tuesday’s annual Grey Cup Coaches press conference on Tuesday at the Hamilton Convention Centre when long-time Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons first provided that historical context to open his question – also pointing out that Wally Buono and Don Matthews didn’t take their teams to four straight title games – and then followed it with this question:
“What does it feel like now to have become a legend of the Canadian Football League?”
O’Shea’s first response was a ‘are you kidding me?’ guffaw, followed up by, “Well, that just sounds goofy.”
“I could never think that way,” he began, after the room had shared a chuckle with him. “I hold those coaches in very high regard. I’ve had interactions with all of them and I would never think of myself in the same light or conversation as those guys… ever.
“I certainly don’t look at (the consecutive Grey Cup trips) as four in a row. I never have. Honestly, when you’re in the grind of the season and you win that West Final and somebody says that to you, you begin to realize it. It’s just not part of it (the conversation). You say it’s the same team, but it really isn’t.”
Simmons then followed with: “And if it wasn’t for a crazy bounce, you could be looking at four wins in a row.”
“Yeah… What ifs. What was (long-time Hamilton defensive coordinator Don Sutherin) Sudsy’s line? ‘If ifs and buts were candies and nuts… ‘If if was skiff, we’d all go sailing.’ Sudsy used to say all these things.
“Yeah, I don’t wrap myself up in anything like that. It seems like a frivolous waste of time to think of all those different things.”
That’s what we do here, though, and we won’t be pushed away from this discussion simply because of O’Shea’s humility.
The Blue Bombers have two statues outside IG Field – one for Bud Grant, the other for Cal Murphy – for their lasting impact on one of the most-storied franchises in the CFL. It’s time to pick a spot for a third, because O’Shea’s 96 wins as head coach is second in Blue Bombers history to Grant’s 102 and by the middle of next summer, he could move into the league’s Top 10 all-time wins among coaches, a list that is topped by Buono (282 wins) and Matthews (231) and which also includes Frank Clair (147), Ron Lancaster (142), Eagle Keys (131), Ray Jauch (127), Dave Ritchie (108), Bob O’Billovich (104), Grant and John Hufnagel (102).
Interestingly, O’Shea’s coaching career began with the Toronto Argonauts in 2010 as a special teams coach. Two years later, he was joined on that staff by a former quarterback he had battled against during his playing days – Jason Maas, now the Montreal Alouettes’ boss and the man he shared a stage with Tuesday.
“Having played against Osh for my career and then getting a chance to be on the same side as him – you look at the work ethic as a player for him to play as long as he did and you see as a coach right away the professionalism he takes each and every day and the dedication to his craft,” said Maas. “Osh is a great person, and you only get to see that when you’re around him every single day. A lot of fun to be around, as well, so he lightened the mood for me in my first year coaching. Being on the staff with him we had a lot of talks about football, but really about everything. I really enjoy that aspect of Osh.”
That’s preaching to the choir in Winnipeg.
And while O’Shea may laugh off the CFL legend notion, the stadium footprint will one day also feature his likeness in bronze.