He couldn't make them win. Probably no one could have done that. But he made them care.
And while that almost certainly won't be enough to save his job at season's end -- in a business that's all about winning, Tim Burke's Winnipeg Blue Bombers have just three of them in 17 games in 2013 -- the Bombers head coach can savour the fact his players never quit on him as the biggest victory of all in his one-plus seasons as field boss.
Whatever tiny glimmer of hope Burke had of saving his job probably evaporated in the past couple weeks with a pair of losses to the Toronto Argonauts, including Thursday's 36-21 defeat at Rogers Centre.
Burke's Bombers were vastly improved -- and as they say in the horse racing world, "game" -- over the last month and could have, with a few breaks, won both those Toronto games and be riding a three-game winning streak when you add the win in Montreal on Thanksgiving.
But the Blue Bombers didn't win and the most recent losses to Toronto have left this particularly sadsack edition of the Bombers flirting with some unfortunate infamy -- needing a win in their final regular-season game on Nov. 2 against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to avoid tying the franchise mark for worst regular-season record in an 18-game season, set in 1998 by the 3-15 Bombers.
When that's all your team has left to play for -- well, that and the dwindling number of fans who actually turn out to see the Bombers play in a sparkly new, taxpayer-funded football palace -- the question becomes not if you're going to be fired, but when?
And that's too bad. I will continue to argue, even as Burke packs his suitcases sometime in the next month or so and points his car south on Highway 75 for one final time, that this Bombers team lost this season despite the efforts of its head coach, not because of them.
And there are others at the highest level of the Bombers organization who feel the same way. But the fans are angry -- and rightly so -- and the team that plays for Burke, despite its very best efforts, has simply not been good enough to provide the Bombers front office enough wins to make the case that Burke should stay and fight on in 2014.
And so sometime before the end of this year, Burke is going to have to walk the plank. But first things first -- the club must decide whether to remove the "acting" tag from CEO Wade Miller and, once that's done, decide whether to do the same for acting GM Kyle Walters.
Only once those two things are done and both positions are filled on a permanent basis -- or at least as anyone with the Bombers ever has a "permanent" job -- will the inevitable decision on Burke be made and a hunt for a new head coach begin.
And who will be on that list? The two names that have popped up most in the past few weeks are Calgary offensive co-ordinator Dave Dickenson and Toronto defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones.
Dickenson is probably the better choice, given that the chronically offensively challenged Bombers need an offensive guru much more than they need a defensive one. But whether Dickenson would be interested in the Winnipeg job is a much different matter.
The story in Calgary goes that Dickenson was offered the Edmonton head coaching job a few years ago but passed in large part because his wife and kids have deep roots in Calgary and had no interest in moving, even if it meant just a short drive up the road.
Whether the Bombers will be able to convince a family like that to move to Winnipeg and take over the reins of a football team that has a terrible reputation right now among coaches and players throughout the CFL, sounds like a tall order.
Maybe Bombers special teams coach Craig Dickenson can talk his brother into making the jump to Winnipeg? Maybe, but it says here probably not.
So, Jones? Maybe, but that sounds an awful lot like what the Bombers had in Burke, a defensive guru with no experience on the offensive side of the ball. Sounds like more of the same movie to me.
So, who else? Saskatchewan's quarterback coach Khari Jones? He knows the city, the city knows him and they like each other.
Or how about an off-the-board pick in Edmonton head coach Kavis Reed, who will probably soon be looking for another job, after his team -- like Burke's -- lost a ton of games this season not because of the head coach, but because of a lousy GM.
Or how about B.C. offensive guru Jacques Chapdelaine, who is widely considered one of the Canadian game's best offensive minds?
Suffice to say, the Bombers will have all kinds of potential choices for a new head coach, but they all -- with perhaps the lone exception of Dickenson -- would probably come with a great deal of risk and unknown.
One thing is certain, however -- Whoever the Bombers retain as head coach next season, nothing is going to change until this team does something about its quarterback problem. Not to mention its kicking game, Canadian talent, secondary...
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