Special teams coaches getting ‘more respect’ as Dickenson and O’Shea trailblaze path to head coaching success

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

The CFL’s West Division Final will feature two head coaches who made their way in similarly peculiar fashions.

Both Saskatchewan’s Craig Dickenson and Winnipeg’s Mike O’Shea cut their teeth as pro football coaches by working the special teams crew, rather than coordinating an offence or defence.

Dickenson worked exclusively with special teams in 20 of his 24 years of coaching in college, the NFL or CFL prior to his hiring as Roughriders head coach in 2019.

O’Shea did spend 16 impressive seasons as a star CFL linebacker, including an NFL tryout with the Detroit Lions once upon a time, but his assistant coaching career before joining the Blue Bombers was spent entirely on special teams with the Toronto Argos.

Both men are viewed in high regard amongst their peers and what makes their success intriguing is the fact that they are extremely rare examples of special teams coaches being hired as head coaches anywhere in pro football.

Dickenson insists those years of preparing backups for kicking plays were paramount to preparing him to head an entire squad.

“I do think as a special-teams coach you have a lot of experience addressing the whole team,” Dickenson said. “You coach everybody when you’re a special teams coach.”

“You coach the O-line on field goal, you coach the D-line on field goal block and you coach the quarterbacks, even, half the time because you’re running some plays with them when they’re holding.”

“So, I do believe the special teams coaches are starting to get maybe a little more respect that I believe they deserve because they coach everybody.”

The Dickenson-O’Shea connection, which has posted a combined .578 win percentage over nine regular seasons, is meeting in the West Final for the second time in as many seasons with O’Shea’s Blue Bombers ending up with the Grey Cup last time in 2019.

The National Football League is similarly light on examples of special teams coaches being promoted to the top job, despite the long-term success of John Harbaugh guiding the Baltimore Ravens.

Dickenson points to their success as proof there’s an untapped reservoir of special teams coaching talent waiting to help front offices who are searching for a new leader.

“If you’re looking for a head coach that has experience addressing the whole team and motivating the whole team, I think special teams coaches do that,” he said.

“I think there’s a lot of good coaches in this league worthy of consideration for jobs. I’m happy I got this one.”

“Osh (O’Shea) has done a great job over there in Winnipeg and the fact that we coached special teams as one of our training grounds, I think, is gratifying and means something and is something I’m proud of.”

Brendan McGuire has covered the CFL since 2006 in radio and print. Based in Regina, he has a front-row view of Rider Nation.