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Our local old boys' club a bust for Bombers

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This city has always been run by the old boys' club, even before the historically defining days of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

Sometimes, of course, that "club" has run the city not out of self-interest, but for the better of all. The foresight of creating Assiniboine Park comes to mind.

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More often, though, it's been perceived as being what's best for them.

Case in point: the two old chums in the top city hall jobs, the mayor and his CAO.

We all know how Sam Katz got his job -- fairly. He was elected and twice re-elected.

How his close personal pal, Phil Sheegl, the former real estate agent who was first hired as Winnipeg's director of planning, could have been the best candidate in a nationwide search to fill the city's top administrative job still eludes me.

But today I want to concentrate on the worrisome woes of another example of "the club" at work, this time within another club.

Coincidentally, Phil Sheegl is connected to that one, too. I refer, of course, to the Winnipeg Football Club and its board of directors, where Sheegl sits as the city's representative, and specifically its demonstrably disastrous recent history of executive hiring.

You remember Garth Buchko? The board hired him in January 2012 to take over as the Bombers' CEO.

His first year, and the organization as a whole, was miserable, thanks in large part to stadium construction delays that weren't his fault. They weren't necessarily Phil Sheegl's fault either, but he sat as the chairman of BBB Stadium, which was responsible.

Then last August, with the football club floundering, Buchko tried to take the knife to general manager Joe Mack -- another board hire -- only to be fired by the board before he could offer up his subordinate as the sacrificial lamb for the Bombers' on- and off-field chaos.

It didn't work.

Before Buchko could take the knife to Mack, the board president used it on the CEO himself, named former Bomber Wade Miller as his interim replacement and left it to him to carry out Mack's dismissal. As with Sheegl's appointment, how Garth Buchko and Joe Mack were ever hired in the first place remains a mystery to many Bomber fans.

Not to me. What it looks and smells like is the old boys just being old boys and hiring their own.

Back in 2011, the Bombers hired a head-hunting team and tasked it with doing a continent-wide search for a Bomber CEO.

After scouring North America, who did they recommend? A Winnipeg radio station general manager named Garth Buchko.

Apparently the recommendation was made on the strength of his knowledge of the local market, specifically the entertainment side. And, no doubt, his local connections. After all, he was already one of the old boys. The station he managed, CJOB, has broadcast the team's games for decades.

As for Joe Mack, he was a former Bomber director of player personnel from the 1980s, and he later worked for several NFL teams, but he had been out of football for years when he applied for the GM job with the Bombers in 2010.

The Bomber board's selection committee had desperately tried to hire assistant GM Brendan Taman, but he was intent on heading home to take the Saskatchewan GM position.

Mack knew two of the five members on the Bomber board's selection committee -- former Bombers Paul Robson and Joe Poplawski. The others on the committee were David Asper, Gene Dunn and Bill Watchorn.

While the recommendation to hire Mack was unanimous -- or so I'm informed -- I'm also told it was Robson's and Poplawski's recommendation that had the most to do with hiring Mack.

People in organizations do tend to hire people they know or have worked with, and often it works out. The problem is that while I'm told Mack's references were checked and nothing "untoward" came up, I wonder how diligent that due-diligence process really was.

Which brings us to another old boy.

Wade Miller is not only a former Bomber, but one of his companies had a business arrangement at the new stadium before he was hired as interim CEO. I am told by someone who's a big Miller fan that he's "an extremely intelligent guy," even if his management style tends to be "abrupt and gruff."

Of course, his big fan also happens to be another Bombers old boy.

I have some reservations about Miller. The Bombers don't need a bull of a CEO leading the charge in their executive office, particularly at an already tumultuous time like now. They also don't need a guy at the top who -- from what I notice in the paper -- doesn't make every effort to return media calls.

What it comes down to is this: The Bomber board, and the football team, can't afford to hire anyone but the best candidate to lead the organization. Not the next convenient old boy in line.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 B1

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