Editor’s Note: Arash Madani is a reporter and commentator for Rogers Sportsnet. He will be a weekly columnist for 3DownNation.
They started 1-4, and now have won their last seven, but those on every floor in the building will tell you there’s been nary a change from the office of the head coach at Investors Group Field.
“He’s steady Eddie,” laughs GM Kyle Walters. “He is freakin’ calm.”
“He hasn’t changed – winning, losing, any of it,” says Jamaal Westerman, the West Division’s sack leader last season. “He keeps consistency good and bad. It’s easy to follow that.”
Following Mike O’Shea’s lead is what these Blue Bombers have done since late July, when the walls were caving in and many in Winnipeg were calling for the head coach’s head.
“All you read is ‘Fire O’Shea,’” said veteran snapper Chad Rempel, “and with us, it was like he wasn’t hearing any of it.”
And the other night, when the Blue Bombers completed the sweep of Saskatchewan and rolled off their first in-season six-game win streak in a decade-and-a-half, O’Shea wasn’t having any of that when players tried to lift him on their shoulders in celebration.
“Nah, nah, guys, it’s not about me,” he told them.
“Some other coaches I’ve been around would be like, ‘I turned things around.’ Not O’Shea,” said Westerman. “With him, he’s still all about the guys in that locker room.”
The players, and the coach, have Winnipeg at 8-4. On Saturday comes the showdown of the two premiere teams in the CFL, when the Blue Bombers go to McMahon Stadium.
How fiery was the speech to get the team ready for the Stampeders?
“Okay, guys, real quick here: what we’ve done is great,” O’Shea told his team Sunday afternoon following meetings, on the day after their decisive win over Toronto. “But we have to continue to study. Watch some film on your day off, okay?”
The unwavering tone continues, two months after the walls that were once caving in are now being torn down in celebration.
As the final third of the schedule begins across the league, the CFL’s biggest story – besides the epic dysfunction in Montreal – is the run in Winnipeg. And it has been led by one of the finest Canadian linebackers ever, who loathes attention on himself, even as he’s turned around the franchise left for dead in late July.
It was a hot Saturday in 2009 and for the first time in his life, Mike O’Shea was without what he’d always known. A few weeks before his 39th birthday, O’Shea invited his pals from the University of Guelph over for a weekend barbecue.
He had finished his 16-year playing career the season prior, and transitioned into orthopaedic sales. Which meant, on a random summer weekend, he was off. No game, no travel, no treatment, no practice.
O’Shea did a lot of the listening that afternoon. His old college teammates were accomplished professionals, who had progressed in the real world while he was becoming the CFL’s second all-time leader in career tackles. Those friends were talking about buying boats and retiring early and as he flipped steaks on the grill, O’Shea realized that he had to do something that invigorated him.
That was football.
By the next season he was the Argos special teams coordinator, and then-Toronto head coach Jim Barker raved about the attitude change the kick unit had under his tutelage. He quickly had quietly become one of the hot, young head coaching candidates, even before the Argonauts won the Grey Cup in 2012. Montreal had called, so had Saskatchewan.
“I haven’t met anybody who has a bad thing to say about Mike O’Shea,” Barker said that Grey Cup week. “And I haven’t met anybody who doesn’t respect the hell out of him.”
“When I was playing with Osh – and I’m well into my playing career then, like ten years or so – it still meant to much to me to know after the game what he thought of me and how I’d played,” said Adriano Belli, who played with, for, and against him. “I’d ask myself, ‘did I do enough to impress him?’ I’ll tell you: I cared more about impressing him than any coach I ever played for.”
Sixteen seasons and three rings helps make that happen. But beyond that?
“His ability to be a lethally dangerous man and an angry SOB on the field, who was able to keep his composure. That’s a deadly combination,” said Belli. “See, Mike is always positive, but not a ‘rah rah’ guy. On the field, some guys are all loud and covered with tattoos, but come game-time, they’re (nothing). Osh, when the lights came on, he looked arthritic, but would rip your tongue out.”
By the twilight of his career, O’Shea out-thought most opponents, and even those on his own side of the football. He and Michael Fletcher and Kevin Eiben manned the linebacker corps of those cowboy Argos defences under Rich Stubler. It reached the stage where O’Shea would just tell Belli and Jonathan Brown, and the animals at the point of attack, to just do whatever they wanted on the line – but not retreat.
“Just cause trouble, but don’t move back – we’ve got this,” O’Shea would tell them.
Belli chuckles at the reminder.
“Imagine how fun it was playing football with no responsibility, all because Osh would clean up the mess,” he said. “If I had one last series left to play, and if I could pick anyone to go to war with, it would be with Mike O’Shea. He’s a guy on the field who would legitimately die with you.”
So when you have the respect and the track record and you’re your own, accomplished man, there are times you can even step out of your boundaries.
That came in November, 2013, when O’Shea – still Scott Milanovich’s special teams coach with Toronto, a month before he took Winnipeg’s head job – cleared his throat in an Argonauts team meeting. It was the Monday before the CFL East Final. The Tiger-Cats were the opponent that upcoming Sunday, with a spot in the Grey Cup on the line.
“I 100 per cent remember it,” said a now-retired player, who was in the room that morning.
O’Shea, not Milanovich, spoke with the team. His talk was simple: That opportunities like these don’t come around very often.
“Listen, guys, put the outside stuff away for two weeks,” O’Shea told those Argos. “Just don’t be out every night, smoking weed and chasing women around. This is all that matters now. I promise you, give everything you’ve got these next two weeks, and you’ll remember it forever.”
Those in the room say they just looked at one another – Canadian and American; veteran and rookie; black and white – and the message got through.
“I can’t think of another coach – other than Don Matthews – that the players would listen to when saying something like that,” said Belli.
In an emotional business, at an emotional time, O’Shea then, like now, was unemotional in how he spoke.
“He doesn’t snap to judgment on any decision,” said Walters. “Everything is thoroughly thought out.”
Said the retired Argos player: “If he wants to stand up and talk, which he didn’t do often, everyone is gonna listen. He didn’t say much more than that, man. He didn’t have to.”
That, like everything else he does in the game, hasn’t changed.
O’Shea didn’t have to drive to Drew Willy’s house last Sunday, when the Bombers dealt him to Toronto, to break the news that he’d been traded. But he did.
When the team sets its weekly roster, 48 hours before the game, O’Shea doesn’t have to approach each player, face-to-face, and tell them why – good, bad, or in-different – the organization has decided to start, sit, demote or release him. But he does.
“That just doesn’t happen,” Walters says. “Except with him.”
“We all know it’s a dirty business, but he tries to handle it with dignity and class,” Westerman says.
“He takes that role very seriously,” his boss, Walters, says sternly over the phone from his office. “He wants to connect with players.”
The end of his time coaching the Blue Bombers seemed almost imminent when Calgary came into Winnipeg and won by two touchdowns on July 21. This is O’Shea’s third season on the job. He hasn’t made the playoffs yet as coach, he’s in the final year of his contract.
But then the Bombers won at Commonwealth, rolled past the Tiger-Cats, knocked off consecutive road wins in Toronto and Montreal, and haven’t looked back. The Riders were taken down twice, the Argos outscored 17-0 in the fourth quarter on Saturday to make it seven straight wins.
This Bombers team that’s done it has had massive roster turnover since O’Shea came in – nearly a 100 per cent overhaul since he took over. That’s by design.
“He built this team on character, and a lot of people say ‘that can’t happen in sports.’ Osh believes in that,” said Remple, the long snapper, who played against O’Shea and has worked for him in Toronto and Winnipeg.
“When we make player moves and roster decisions, every conversation has Mike asking: ‘but how does this affect the team dynamic?’” Walters, the GM, relays. “It’s at the forefront of his thought process.”
O’Shea will stand on the table and fight to keep an ‘effort guy’ around. He’ll go to the wall for someone who brings it. It matters immensely to him. But a winning team can’t just only have those.
“We’re not all choir boys, but we respect the game and make sure one another are on point,” said Westerman, the rush end. “The players he’s brought in fit the profile of what he wants: guys who love playing, who bring toughness, who are not Boy Scouts, who are not afraid to hold others accountable.”
The attitude transformation since O’Shea has come in is evident. The locker room is self-governed now. Players take care of the petty issues. They don’t need a coach to come in and say, ‘do this, do that.’
“It’s very easy to see someone being a fraud as your coach,” said Westerman. “We’ve stuck together because we have character guys, who enjoying playing together and a head coach who isn’t MF’ing anyone. He puts things on the table. He’s honest. He’s real. And he’s always pushing us to be better.”
On Saturday, Blue Bombers CEO Wade Miller wouldn’t reveal in a phone conversation where things stood on a potential contract extension with O’Shea. But it’s coming. Walters left it this way: “he doesn’t want to think about anything but winning the next football game.”
To many, the next one is the barometer, the measuring stick: Calgary’s been the class of the Canadian Football League for years. O’Shea wants the Blue Bombers players to keep the same approach they’ve had the last seven, the last 12 weeks. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“From the time I came to Winnipeg, he hasn’t changed. He hasn’t changed with winning. He hasn’t changed with losing,” said Westerman. “If you can be consistent as a head coach, everyone knows the standard. He sets it.”
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