Settled back behind his coaching podium after a year and half without football, it’s difficult to imagine Mike O’Shea outside of a CFL locker room.
Like a fish is born to water, it is the environment that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach was created for, whether he was wearing shoulder pads or a coaching headset. No where else would the wry smile, dry wit and gruff directness that defines him as a leader feel so perfectly in tune with the requirements of the job and the slight twinkle has returned to his eye when asked about what he missed during the league’s COVID-enforced hiatus.
“Obviously, I missed just seeing the players interact,” O’Shea told reporters during a media availability Friday.
“I like competition. I like all that. I like the planning. I like seeing guys compete on the field and in games, in practice, all that stuff. But I do miss just the daily stuff that goes on, the way the players interact with each other on a daily basis. I really get a charge out of watching guys be teammates.”
While O’Shea can dissect the Xs and Os as good as any coach, it is his love of the team community that has defined his tenure in Winnipeg. It’s been essential to the Bombers’ creation of one of the league’s strongest locker room cultures and the key to their Grey Cup championship in 2019.
It is little wonder then that even amidst his excitement for the approval of the 2021 CFL season, the coach’s first thought was for his players.
“I’m extremely happy, not only for the CFL fans but the players especially. Boy, they deserve and need this,” O’Shea said. “They’ve suffered a lot, so it’s good to see them excited about the season.”
Excited may be an understatement. Players across the league have been in a near constant state of limbo since the the CFL’s board of governors pulled the plug on the 2020 season a year ago. Most had to find other ways to provide for themselves and their families, never knowing when they would be able to return to the football field.
Looking back, O’Shea wishes he could have been a better “COVID leader” for his team, but has remained impressed with their perseverance.
“Early on in the process, I left them with a simple message that they had to make sure they were in contact with their teammates and looking after each other as best they can. I know our coaching staff did a great job of checking in on the guys and making sure they were staying healthy,” O’Shea explained.
“It’s been a trying time, especially for the players, and I can’t wait to get them back in a distanced locker room where they can lay eyes on each other and rekindle those relationships. It’s going to be a lot of fun to observe all that.”
Now with player arrivals little more than two weeks away, that pay-off is fast approaching and O’Shea describes the rapid preparations as akin to being a “one-armed juggler.” There will be plenty of unprecedented parts to training camp, from distanced locker rooms to the lack of preseason games, but the Bombers will be in a better situation than most thanks to the retention of their veteran, Grey Cup-winning core.
O’Shea, who’s been known to put a premium on veteran leadership at the best of times, doesn’t see that as a luxury, but rather a necessity in a COVID world.
“It’s a necessity. It really is. I do think that hitting the ground running on a shortened season and getting off to a great start is important,” he emphasized.
“It’s not the only thing — with how we approach things, we are looking only at what the next day holds in store — but I do always value a veteran presence and in this particular year, it should prove its worth.”
Even with a returning core, training camp will be a time of tough choices. Others around the CFL have speculated that the time off will result in “surprise cuts,” with some players not ready to compete physically. That’s not something O’Shea is overly concerned about.
“I imagine right through training camp, there’s going to be people that are going to be questioning what they’re doing because having that much of a layoff might prove to be challenging, but for the most part our guys are pretty fired up and I do believe they’re in shape and working out,” he said.
Even with the coaching staff taking on extra work without the aid of guest coaches, the Bombers are not in the business of making rash training camp decisions.
“If guys are here and they’re in shape and they’re ready to go, they’ll get a fair shot. We’ll look at them and we’ll put in the amount of time required to make the good decisions,” O’Shea added.
“Unfortunately, yeah, people will be released, but I’m sure they’ll all come in shape and put in a good effort. I know that the coaching staff and management will make sure we’re diligent in giving everybody a fair look.”
Ultimately, that process will culminate in the season-opening Grey Cup rematch versus the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on August 5, beginning a 14-game regular season. Some have wondered why that slate doesn’t include a matchup against the Ottawa Redblacks, led by Winnipeg’s former offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice, but O’Shea has no such qualms.
He’ll just be content having his team around him again, who they play is simply gravy.
“If they rolled out a schedule and we had to play the same team for every game, it would have been perfect,” O’Shea smiled.