How Blue Bombers coach Mike O’Shea ‘commands respect’

When Mike O’Shea was early in his tenure as head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, his position coach from his university days at Guelph let him know about something he didn’t like.

“I did call him a couple of times when he was a young head coach saying ‘where’s your khakis, where’s your golf shirt? You must look the part,’ He’s never bought into that,” Dennis McPhee, now the defensive co-ordinator for the Guelph Gryphons, said over the phone this week.

“He’s continued to wear shorts, his crewneck pullover and his baseball hat and grown a beard. That’s because he’s from North Bay (Ont.), which he’s very proud of. He’s going to dance to his own drummer. He is not a pretender. What you see is what you get.”

What CFL fans are seeing is a coach — whose fashion sense ranks right up there with Bill Belichick — leading a remarkable run.

The Blue Bombers have won two Grey Cups in a row and are off to a 6-0 start this year after beating the previously unbeaten B.C. Lions and Calgary Stampeders in successive weeks. No team has won more than two Grey Cups in a row since Edmonton’s five-for-five dynasty with Warren Moon (1978 to ’82).

Winnipeg’s coach — a Hall of Fame linebacker with the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats as a younger man — is as big a part of the success as anyone.

“He’s created an environment over there where players police themselves. He hasn’t changed his personality one bit,” said Argonauts senior adviser Jim Barker, who brought a player he once coached into the coaching ranks as special teams co-ordinator when he was head coach of Toronto in 2010.

“He’s just a guy who never has shown when any kind of pressure gets to him. That’s how he was as a player. As a coach, he is the same way. Even in his first year as a coach in 2010 when he had never done it, he handled things calmly and very matter-of-factly. That’s kind of how his team plays. They play just kind of matter-of-fact – ‘here’s what we are, this is what we’re going to do, now stop us.’

That hard-working mentality is no accident, McPhee says.

O’Shea’s father, Michael Sr., was a member of the Royal Air Force during the Second World War before coming to Canada. His mother, Lynda, ran a family-operated Dairy Queen in North Bay, where Mike worked as a kid.

“Mike and his sisters were raised in that environment. The result is what you see,” McPhee said.

The Bombers are led by quarterback Zach Collaros, whose career seemed like it might be on the verge of ending before a late-season trade to Winnipeg in 2019 culminated in a Grey Cup. Now, improbably, the 33-year-old from the former steel town of Steubenville, Ohio (population of around 18,000) is considered by many to be the best player in the league.

Defensively, the Bombers have been beastly for years, emulating their coach’s hard-hitting style.

When Barker was hired as Argos coach early in 2010, he didn’t have much time to assemble a staff. O’Shea was working as a medical sales rep at the time.

“I knew he was making a lot of money doing what he was doing. I just gave him a call, he came down and we chatted,” Barker said. “Mike O’Shea was going to be successful at anything he did. But the guy loves football. I don’t know if he loves being a head coach because I haven’t been around him (much) since he’s been doing that. But I know he loves the grind of football, he loves the getting up and watching film and doing all the things that go into being a coach.

“When I talked to him, I wanted him to be our special-teams coach and was going to give him leeway. I gave him a lot of leeway to do things the way he wanted to and some things were very different. I’ve been around special-teams coaches that had playbooks. He had none. He had played for Gary Etcheverry (in Toronto) and Etcheverry was a little that way, no playbook. You teach it and get guys at the level you need to be at in other ways. He did a great job of that.”

After three seasons as an assistant in Toronto, the Bombers hired O’Shea as head coach in 2014.

There were growing pains and calls for his job at certain points, but the 51-year-old father of three is now on top of his field. The reigning CFL coach of the year has six Grey Cup wins in as many tries (three as a player, one as an assistant coach, two as a head coach).

Along the way, he has formed deep bonds with people and programs close to him – O’Shea watched over McPhee’s two sons while they played junior hockey in Manitoba, while O’Shea’s son followed in his footsteps and played college football at Guelph.

“I know him pretty good, I know his family pretty good. The bottom line is I’m not surprised at all,” McPhee said. “He’s very intuitive. He’s super smart and he’s smart in a lot of things besides football. He’s a deep thinker but he’s smart enough not to overthink things. He’s willing to listen to other people’s opinions. He’s not the rigid hard-headed guy (saying) this is the way we’re going to do it. But he is a prepared guy. He’s going to prepare, he’s going to educate himself.”

Added Barker: “(O’Shea is successful) because he commands respect when he walks in a room, he has a way about him. He did it as a player. He doesn’t have to say a lot. He understands players in this league and how to get through to them and get them to play at a high level because he did it for so many years as a player. He understands the CFL game and understands the CFL athlete and how to motivate. And he does it in the same way (as a coach).

“I measure great players versus good players. Great players are the ones who (make) players around them play better. That was the way it was with Mike.”

What we liked in Week 6

• Four games that went down to the wire. The largest margin of victory was seven – and that was the most exciting game with Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell’s strike to the end zone going off Kamar Jorden’s hands and being picked off by Bombers defensive back Demerio Houston to preserve a 26-19 Winnipeg win.

• Dane Evans’ resilience. The Ticats quarterback had yet another costly fumble and was pulled in the fourth quarter, but coach Orlondo Steinauer gave him another shot on the final drive and he proceeded to drive Hamilton down the field for the winning TD in a 25-23 win over the Ottawa Redblacks.

• The atmosphere at Touchdown Atlantic in Wolfville, N.S. The stands were full at Acadia University and it sure looked like a party vibe for the Argonauts-Saskatchewan Roughriders game.

What we didn’t like in Week 6

• Montreal Alouettes GM Danny Maciocia cited discipline as one of the major issues when he fired head coach Khari Jones and made himself head coach earlier this month. So how do the Alouettes respond in Maciocia’s first game? All they did was take 13 penalties for 193 yards, blowing a 19-point lead in a 32-31 loss to the Edmonton Elks.

• Roughriders receiver Duke Williams throwing a helmet at Argos’ Shaq Richardson after the defensive back crossed into the other end of the field before their game. Argos coach Ryan Dinwiddie then accused Williams of spitting at Richardson twice, while the league said Richardson also punched the former Buffalo Bill during the game. Williams got a one-game suspension, while Richardson was docked half a game cheque.

• Attended the game in Hamilton – and it’s clear the CFL has some work to do even in one of its stronger markets. Announced attendance was a generous 20,411 on a sunny, warm late afternoon.

Week 7 picks

Montreal Alouettes (-2.5) at Ottawa Redblacks, Thursday, 7 p.m ET

The Redblacks are the league’s only winless team, but are fifth in point differential in the nine-team CFL. PICK: Ottawa

Hamilton Tiger-Cats at B.C. Lions (-8), Thursday, 10 p.m. ET

Short week with bad travel for the Ticats, who played at home last Saturday. The Lions are coming off a bye. PICK: B.C.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers (-7.5) at Edmonton Elks, Friday, 9 p.m. ET

Could this be a trap game for the Bombers? Winnipeg is coming off wins over previously unbeaten B.C. and Calgary and meets the Stamps again next week. Edmonton, meanwhile, has lost 10 in a row at home dating back to 2019. PICK: Edmonton

Toronto Argonauts at Saskatchewan Roughriders, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, No line

Game’s status up in the air with Roughriders announcing 10 players were in COVID-19 protocol on Wednesday. No pick will be made for this game until it is confirmed.

2022 record: 11-12

Lines from FanDuel as of Wednesday.

Power rankings

1. Winnipeg Blue Bombers (6-0, last week: 1): Have knocked off previously unbeaten teams the past two weeks to become the only undefeated team in the league. Two-time reigning champs haven’t missed a beat

2. Calgary Stampeders (4-1, last week: 2): If Jorden hauls in Mitchell’s pass in the final minute, the Stamps were destined for overtime against Winnipeg. Instead, it was an interception, all but ending a thriller.

3. B.C. Lions (3-1, last week: 3): Got to figure Nathan Rourke will learn from the team’s stumble last time out against Winnipeg.

4. Toronto Argonauts (2-2, last week: 6): Hey, an East team managed to beat a West team for only the second time this year! Toronto built off a narrow loss to Winnipeg and got it done late against Saskatchewan in Nova Scotia.

5. Saskatchewan Roughriders (4-2, last week: 4): There are injury concerns for quarterback Cody Fajardo (knee) and now a COVID-19 outbreak.

6. Hamilton Tiger-Cats (1-4, last week: 7): It wasn’t pretty, but Evans rallied Hamilton to its first victory of the season last week against Ottawa.

7. Edmonton Elks (2-4, last week: 9): Fought back from a 31-12 deficit to win in Montreal. Did so with their third starting quarterback of the season — Taylor Cornelius.

8. Ottawa Redblacks (0-5, last week: 8): How many close games can the Redblacks lose this year? Chance to finally get that first win this week against Als.

9. Montreal Alouettes (1-4, last week: 6): Blowing a big lead at home against Edmonton in a head coach’s first game isn’t a promising sign.

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