Something had to give — and Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Joe Mack says it was head coach Paul LaPolice.
Mack told a news conference Saturday afternoon he fired LaPolice because he felt, among other things, the team was undisciplined, unfocussed, had failed to develop offensively and the club was regressing this season off a Grey Cup appearance in 2011.
"As difficult as it was, I felt that now was probably the most unfortunate time but the necessary time to make the change," said Mack.
"Unfortunately we are a results-driven business and we haven’t been able to produce for approximately the past year now. Even though we did play a strong game last night, the overall feeling was we were not necessarily going in the right direction and that this was the appropriate time to make a change."
The Bombers announced earlier Saturday that they had fired LaPolice, less than 24 hours after their season record fell to a league-worst 2-6 with a penalty-filled 20-17 loss to the B.C. Lions at Canad Inns Stadium.
The club replaced LaPolice with defensive co-ordinator Tim Burke as the club’s new interim coach. Burke — who was the runner-up during the off-season for the head coach job with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats — will also retain his job as the Bombers defensive boss and secondary coach, but will farm out some of his responsibilities to his assistants.
It's the first time Burke has ever been a head coach and he pledged a new approach that will emphasize faster and more competitive practices, discipline and accountability. "If you want a team to have the personality of the head coach I would hope that will mean they will all become overachievers," said Burke. "Competitiveness and drive and not settling for second best."
It was pointed out to Mack that as general manager, his fingerprints are at least as evident on the club’s current 2-6 record as LaPolice’s and he was asked if he’d given any consideration to also resigning. Mack had a three-word answer. "No, none whatsoever."
Asked if he felt he bore no responsibility for the current on-field debacle, Mack interjected with a defence of his performance. "Of course I bear responsibility. But when I do the evaluation, with all due respect to everybody, I see a fair amount of talent out there that’s playing hard. And that’s all a general manager can do for a coaching staff. And ultimately, as everyone in this business knows, the head coach will ultimately be held responsible for the product on the field.
"It does start with me, but I feel that we weren’t making the necessary strides and in fact were possibly going backwards, particularly after having gone to a Grey Cup. I was a little bit surprised and disappointed that we seem to have regressed this year and at times I didn’t feel we were playing up to our full potential."
LaPolice leaves the Bombers with a combined coaching record of 16-28, after guiding the Bombers to a 4-14 regular season record in 2010, 10-8 (and a Grey Cup appearance) in 2011 and 2-6 this season. Since opening the 2011 season on a 7-1 tear, the Bombers under LaPolice are a combined 6-14, including last year’s playoffs.
Bombers CEO Garth Buchko was asked during the news conference to identify whose mistake it was to give LaPolice a contract extension during the off-season and how much that mistake will now cost the Bombers.
"It was no one’s mistake," said Buchko. "Joe explained earlier his reasons (for offering LaPolice the extension) and the football club supports those reasons. Paul was signed to an extension based on performance from last year and we’re in a performance-based business. We do have a contract to honour and we will honour it."
Sources said Saturday LaPolice was earning about $230,000 a year and the Bombers will have to pay him out the rest of this year and all of next year. The third year on LaPolice’s contract was an option and the Bombers will not have to pay that out.
There is also a ‘clawback’ provision in LaPolice’s contract that will allow the Bombers to reduce their payment to LaPolice if he takes another job in football this year or next year. Additionally, by simply giving the head coach duties to Burke and not hiring anyone new, the Bombers will not have to absorb a new salary.
Buchko said the club has committed to Burke as their interim head coach for at least the balance of this season.
Buchko said the costs of LaPolice's firing have already been incorporated into the Bombers budget and pledged they will not affect the club’s ability to make the large payments it will have to begin annually making to pay off a new stadium scheduled to open next season.
Burke said LaPolice was "gracious" when he spoke to him after he was given the news.
LaPolice didn’t want to face the questions of reporters on Saturday — the Bombers said he'd speak in the coming days — but he made his personal views on his firing clear on Twitter instead.
"Thks to everyone for the show of support. Although I 110% disagree with the decision today, I have loved every minute of being HC of Bombers," he tweeted.
"Last nights effort did not reflect a team that didn’t believe in the coach and players that have reached out to me disagree with that view," he tweeted. "Thanks to everyone and although not perfect I am proud of our Eastern championship, grey cup appearance and think the future can be bright."
Sources indicated the firing came as a surprise to LaPolice, who arrived for work at Canad Inns Stadium to review game film as usual Saturday morning and was expecting to hold his regular availability with the media at noon. LaPolice was first informed by team staff that his availability had been delayed and then advised shortly afterward by Mack that he had been fired.
The club announced the firing on their Twitter account early Saturday afternoon.
Sources indicated Mack had met with the board of directors twice in recent weeks to make his case to be given the authority to fire LaPolice. Part of the case Mack made to the board was that he had been querying players directly and had been advised, almost without exception, that LaPolice had "lost the room" — a term used when head coaches are felt to have lost their credibility and authority with players.
Sources indicated to the Free Press earlier this month LaPolice would likely have been fired last week if the club had lost to Hamilton at Canad Inns Stadium Aug. 16. But the Bombers won that game, 32-25, giving LaPolice a one-week reprieve.
Buchko said he met with Mack Friday night after the loss to B.C. and Mack asked for the night to "sleep on it." Mack informed Buchko Saturday morning he had decided to fire LaPolice and Buchko said he in turn convened a board meeting.
Buchko said he and the board "fully supported" Mack in the decision to sack LaPolice.
The move came as a stunner to at least one Bombers player. "I’m in shock," said all-star slotback Terrence Edwards. "I thought we’d played better the last couple weeks."
The Bombers won't practise again until Tuesday at the earliest. They play next in a home-and-home series with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, beginning next Sunday in Regina. The Riders were beaten 17-10 by the Calgary Stampeders Saturday afternoon and will head into the annual Labour Day Weekend clash having lost their last five games in a row.