December 4, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
TIM Burke is a rookie head coach no longer.
As the clock struck midnight on Sunday with Burke still in the gainful employ of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the team's field boss is officially in his second year as a head coach.
It was exactly a year ago Sunday, of course, the Bombers tied the can to former head coach Paul LaPolice and replaced him with Burke, who until then had been a wildly successful defensive co-ordinator but never a head coach.
If Burke was a bit jumpy when the phone rang Sunday, it would have been hard to blame him. Consider:
LaPolice actually had a better record than Burke does -- 2-6 versus 1-7 -- the day he was fired; LaPolice's Bombers had only narrowly lost to the B.C. Lions -- the best team in the CFL at the time -- the night before he got canned, while Burke's Bombers just got roasted 37-14 on Saturday by a marginal Hamilton Tiger-Cats squad; and LaPolice was less than a season removed from a 2011 Grey Cup appearance, while Burke was 4-6 in relief of LaPolice last season and his team missed the 2012 playoffs.
But with Aug. 25 having now come and gone this year without another Bombers coaching change, the question today is what three things have we learned about Tim Burke -- the man and the coach -- in the full year he's now been the boss of the CFL's most embattled franchise?
1. Burke is honest. Maybe even a bit too honest for his own good.
He raised some eyebrows a couple of weeks back when he told the media he was leaving the decision about who would be the starting quarterback to Gary Crowton, his offensive co-ordinator at the time.
Now, choosing your starting quarterback is perhaps the most important decision for any football team, and so Burke saying he was leaving it up to Crowton sort of seemed like a bit of an abdication of his responsibilities.
But not really. You don't think Lions head coach Mike Benevides -- another former defensive guy who took over head-coaching duties -- leaves the big decisions on offence up to his OC, Jacques Chapdelaine? Of course he does.
But the difference is Benevides is much more circumspect in what he tells the media and would never -- like Burke did a couple a weeks ago -- create even a sliver of doubt about who was running the show in Vancouver.
Of course, the other way of looking at that little episode is Burke -- in abdicating the decision to Crowton -- was simply giving the guy enough rope to hang himself, which was promptly what happened last weekend when Crowton was fired.
Crazy? Like a fox, maybe.
2. Burke is not nearly the fiery hard-ass he wants you to think he is.
Yes, there was a moment during training camp this year in which Burke lined his troops up on the goal-line and lit into them using language that had little old ladies across the city spontaneously making the sign of the cross.
And yes, Burke is not afraid to call a player out publicly for his poor play.
But for the most part, he is gentle, self-deprecating and easygoing, a man who is quick with a joke and actually surprisingly difficult to anger.
For example, in my experience as a sportswriter, nothing ever lights a coach's fuse like when a reporter questions his in-game management or a particular call following a loss. I maintain, for instance, that the reduced hearing in my right ear is the result of the night in Sioux City I made the mistake of asking then-Goldeyes manager Hal Lanier why he gave the green light to a runner who promptly got thrown out at home by 30 feet.
But not Burke, who will stand in with good humour and patiently answer even the most condescending questions from even the stupidest people in the room, night after night after night.
I couldn't do it.
3. Burke has found serenity. It will serve him well as this thing continues to unravel.
You know when American presidents first take office and they look all young and vibrant and full of vigour? And then a couple of years later, you notice how they're all grey and their eyes are sunk into the sockets and they walk stooped over, like they're carrying a sack of flour?
That happens to football head coaches too. But it won't happen to Burke.
What has become clear in recent weeks is that Burke has both recognized and accepted there is only so much he can do to change a gong show of a football team that he inherited from a GM who didn't know what the heck he was doing.
Now, you can argue that maybe Burke's been too accepting, that the tiny roster changes he's made in recent weeks as his team has been engulfed in flames is like a fireman using a garden hose to put out a fully-involved highrise.
But whether his approach has been right or wrong, you cannot help but conclude when the phone call finally comes, telling him his services will no longer be required by the Bombers, Burke won't lose much sleep over it.
Burke said following the loss in Hamilton on the weekend that he feels like he's doing the best he can with what he's got. That hasn't been very good, but neither is what he's got.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2013 C1