With the lights of the season still dim in the distance, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers plugged a key hole in their coaching staff Thursday, hiring Gary Etcheverry to helm the defence.
The veteran CFL coach will not take the defensive reins in Winnipeg alone. Etcheverry, 57, will arrive with defensive backs coach Nelson Martin and defensive line coach Mike Scheper in tow. That's the same trio that helped orchestrate the Saskatchewan Roughriders' back-to-back Grey Cup appearances in 2009 and 2010, and Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea was happy to bring them aboard together.
"I think it's very important that co-ordinators have staff there they want to work with, that they have worked with," O'Shea said from Kansas City, where he's doing some work and visiting family. "These are guys that Etch is very passionate about having in, and you can't argue with it. In talking to him, you hear his passion in how he advocates for them."
The hirings were in the works for awhile. In late January, the Free Press reported Etcheverry and former Hamilton Tiger-Cats assistant Martin were coming in, but it took a few more weeks to hammer out all three contracts and make the announcement official.
Before that, the Bombers had also met with former B.C. Lions defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler to see about filing the vacant DC position, but he signed on with the Calgary Stampeders instead.
In Etcheverry, O'Shea is getting a coach he knows from his own time on the field. Etcheverry started his CFL career as a defensive line coach with the Toronto Argonauts in 1997, where O'Shea was a linebacker, and spent three seasons with that club. O'Shea remembers him now as a teacher, someone who described plays in painstaking detail. When he called up some recent Saskatchewan players to get their thoughts on Etcheverry, he heard much the same.
"Etch is the type of guy that shortly after meeting him, I was questioning why I hadn't learned this before, why football hadn't been made that easy early in my career," O'Shea said.
"From my perspective, he took some of the fear out of football. There was never talk of missing tackles. It was about how you miss. He puts a lot of onus on the players in terms of the responsibility to teach other, and take control of what they're doing."
Etcheverry returned to Toronto as head coach in 2002, just another stop in a 35-year coaching career that has seen him bounce between college and professional teams in Canada, Europe and the United States.
That career has had its fair share of ups and downs: from the high of those back-to-back Grey Cup appearances, Etcheverry's last gig, as head coach of the 2012 Ottawa Gee-Gees, ended after they opened that season by losing five games.
The wealth of that experience, though, is something O'Shea hopes to lean on. In Etcheverry and in offensive co-ordinator Marcel Bellefeuille, O'Shea has surrounded himself with veterans, two people who have head coaching experience themselves. It's a similar blueprint, O'Shea volunteered, that fans can see in how the Bombers traded for and then extended veteran defensive back Korey Banks earlier this month. Guys with experience. Guys who have been around.
"I've said it before... you hire people better than you," O'Shea said. "You want to be successful, surround yourself with people who are smarter, better at their field than you are, and then let them work. Let them do their jobs."