MONTREAL -- If there is anyone anywhere who can empathize with the nightmare Tim Burke is living through right now, it would have to be Montreal Alouettes defensive co-ordinator Jeff Reinebold.
As Burke is today, Reinebold was the head coach of a terrible Winnipeg Blue Bombers team back in 1997 and 1998.
And as Burke is beginning to learn, Reinebold found during a season and three-quarters as Bombers boss that there is a special kind of angst that goes with being the coach of a struggling team in a community as football rabid and championship starved as Winnipeg.
And so, with the 3-10 Bombers set to take on the 8-5 Alouettes here at Stade Molson Monday afternoon, it seemed like the perfect time to talk to Reinebold about what he remembers of his years in Winnipeg and what -- if any -- advice he might have for the embattled Burke.
That conversation wasn’t possible earlier in the year, when Als head coach Marc Trestman had a policy in place that forbid his assistants from speaking to the media, including his new defensive co-ordinator.
But with the moratorium on speaking publicly now lifted, Reinebold was open, frank and thoughtful Sunday in the Montreal locker room as he reflected on his years in Winnipeg and the lessons he's learned.
"The hardest part of it all was that you recognized that you weren’t getting it done for people that were absolutely passionate about the game," Reinebold said following a light team practice at Olympic Stadium.
"They're great people in Winnipeg that love that football team and want to see it do well, and I hurt for them, frankly. I won't hurt for them for two hours tomorrow, but I hurt for them because I know how passionate those people are.
"I still have a lot people I care about in that city. That city was extremely good to me for the two years I was there. I have no regrets about having had that opportunity...
"I still get emotional about it."
Burke said Sunday afternoon, shortly after his club touched down at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, that he knows the feeling.
"The fans in Winnipeg are the best in the league," Burke said. "They just want us to win, but they love the Bombers. And I feel that towards them -- I wish I could deliver for them."
Reinebold’s Bombers were 4-14 in 1997 and 2-12 in 1998 when the club finally fired him.
A lot of fans were happy at the time to see Reinebold go, believing he was part of the problem, just as a lot of fans today have come to believe Burke -- and Paul LaPolice before him -- are at least partly to blame for Winnipeg, having made it to the Grey Cup last year, winning just three times this year.
The Bombers are 1-4 under Burke and are big underdogs against Montreal in a stadium where the Als are 6-1 this season.
Reinebold said he empathizes with the situation in which Burke finds himself, having taken over a bad team with a lousy record when he replaced LaPolice at the end of August.
"I'm sure he didn't want to get it the way he got it," Reinebold said. "But however you get (the head coach’s job), you have to do the best job you can, and I think he’s done a really good job. It is very, very difficult when you're going through the kind of season they're going through -- I've been through two of them...
"But it seems to me that his team has stayed together. They’ve fought hard, they compete... I’m sure they’ll come in here tomorrow and play hard. And I think the thing he’s done really well this week was he said, ’Hey, let's just go have fun. Turn it into junior high recess and let's go out there for 60 minutes and just fly around and love football again.’ "
There’s a devil-may-care attitude underlying that new approach from Burke for his team -- and it is one Reinebold has embraced in his own life since he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 2010.
Reinebold underwent a couple of surgeries to deal with the cancer and he describes himself today as cancer-free.
But Sunday he said the experience changed him forever -- and for the better.
"It changes your perspective on everything. I always thought I was a guy who enjoyed life and took every moment at its face value," he said. "But until you sit in that room and that man walks in with that look on his face and tells you that you have cancer, you can’t even imagine the impact of those words.
"What you learn is that it’s not a death sentence, it’s an opportunity to live -- to really, really live."
There’s also a professional benefit -- Reinebold said his cancer scare has helped dial down the pressure associated with being the co-ordinator of a particularly aggressive CFL defense.
"Like in B.C.," Reinebold said, "and it’s first and goal from the eight and you dial up a blitz, you don't worry quite so much. If (B.C. quarterback Travis) Lulay completes it, well that ain't the worst thing that ever happened in history."