Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Here's how to fix the Bombers

It's quite clear that they are broken...

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Garth Buchko has a long history as a successful businessman in this community. He climbed the ranks in the radio business and oversaw CJOB while it was a ratings and profit juggernaut. Buchko can turn a 30-second radio spot into cold, hard cash. No question.

But he doesn't know diddly about football and that's no slam. It's fact. He is not the man that should be determining the future of this franchise on the field.

Let's go back a few weeks to a scene at Rae and Jerry's to better understand the demise of Paul LaPolice and for a peek into a far more troubling issue where the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are concerned.

The Bombers were 1-5 at the time and just coming off the bye week. Four of the club's players had failed to return on time for the resumption of practice. GM Joe Mack was beginning to wonder about his coach's ability to lead the team and first-year CEO Buchko had some questions of his own.

The duo met at the venerable steakhouse and the seeds of LaPolice's eventual release were planted. Buchko bought Mack's excuses and agreed LaPolice was to blame for the club's woes.

After Friday's loss to the B.C. Lions, Mack huddled with Buchko and told him he was mulling a move. Saturday morning, Mack told Buchko of his decision to fire LaPolice and the CEO convened the board via conference call and informed them of the decision.

Buchko, according to the flow chart of power in Bomberland, had to sign off on the move.

Late Saturday, after LaPolice's firing had been announced, Buchko commented Mack had his support but would be accountable for how the Bombers perform on the field for the rest of this season.

"Right now Joe has my support, has the board's support and we'll see how the season plays out," said Buchko.

The current power structure makes Mack accountable to Buchko. That's a problem. It's no slight to Buchko that he spent his career doing things other than working in football. But six months in the corner office does not a football man make.

Buchko openly calls himself a fan. The CEO of the Bombers should be passionate about the product. But he should also be above the emotional tides of a team's on-field fortunes.

Buchko gives himself away during Bombers games when he can be seen patrolling the club's sideline. He's not far enough removed to be objective about the club's performance.

The entire league snickers about Buchko's presence on the field. Moreover, it's not his job. His customers are behind him in the stands, on the concourse and in our crumbling stadium's version of luxury suites.

Buchko's priority should be making sure his customers are looked after. We all know that's not the case. This past week he was forced to answer questions about the club's sincerity when it came to delivering its product to the most loyal fans in the CFL.

There were promises of being more available and accountable to the fans going forward, but there he was on Friday night, walking the sideline and hanging on every play. Hey, I get it: The guy loves the Bombers. But he's not just a fan anymore. He has responsibilities, including making sure this franchise can deliver on an $85-million debt commitment to the province. That needs to be Buchko's priority and it's why he was hired. He can sell. But we shouldn't confuse that with the ability to judge a football team's progress.

Buchko can't afford to be starry-eyed and under Mack's spell. The GM must be watched with cold and critical eyes for the next three months and assessed on a football basis. Buchko just isn't the man for that role.

The Bombers board does, however, have two capable football men in their midst in longtime Bombers Bob Cameron and Trevor Kennerd, two Blue Bombers Hall of Famers. They have tentacles that reach every corner of the organization.

Cameron is among the most knowledgeable men on the planet when it comes to the nuances of Canadian football. Kennerd isn't far behind. Though some myopic people are certain to point out they were "just kickers," they know the game inside and out. They can recognize a team on the rise and one in decline. They can't -- and won't -- be buffaloed by Mack. To ignore their acumen would be plain stupid. Let these two lead an ad-hoc committee to evaluate Mack's performance with David Asper -- the chairman of the board during the franchise's rebound from its financial horrors after the disastrous 1990s -- as a liaison between them and the rest of the board.

The franchise has gone 16-28 under Mack's watch and is 6-14 in their last 20 games going back to last season. Mack hired and fired head coach Paul LaPolice. Mack recruited and signed Buck Pierce and put the franchise in the hands of the oft-injured QB. Mack let the team's best offensive lineman, Brendon LaBatte, walk in free agency last winter. Mack has whiffed on draft day using first-round picks on the likes of Jade Etienne and Tyson Pencer.

Mack put the blame for the franchise's woes squarely on LaPolice's shoulders on Saturday when he threw him under the bus. "Mr. Mack" indeed. That's what LaPo respectfully called him.

Just for a second let's suspend reality and pretend Mack is right and LaPolice had all the tools to win, but just couldn't squeeze the juice out of the fruit the GM supplied. Then surely we should see a miraculous turnaround under new coach Tim Burke.

If not, Mack will no longer have anywhere to hide.

Someone has to be watching and making Mack accountable. Buchko is unqualified and it's not like he has any shortage of things to look after away from the field. He's a rookie in his new position and he's been tiptoeing through a minefield for six months. Not always so successfully.

Take a little off his plate.

Put the big-picture football decisions in the hands of those with a real understanding of the Canadian game.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 27, 2012 A3

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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