Wade Miller celebrated his two-month anniversary as acting CEO of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Wednesday by sitting down with Free Press football writer Paul Wiecek to talk football, finances and how he's going to convince a city full of disgruntled Bombers fans to remain Blue Believers.
WIECEK: The team is 2-12, ticket sales are at a standstill and it's now almost a certainty this team will miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years? How did it get to this point?
MILLER: How did it get to this?... We just didn't bring in the right talent and we're working at getting that corrected now. And I think you've seen -- we've taken a lot of steps since August to move the team forward. Unfortunately, it hasn't shown on the field yet. But the difference is this process started in August instead of starting at the end of the season. So I think there's a lot of positives to that. And I think ticket sales are actually pretty good for the last two games of the season...
WIECEK: People are still buying tickets?
MILLER: Absolutely. And that shows how great our fans are. Everybody wants to talk about the fans to the west (in Regina). No, Winnipeg's fans are the best. And I will tell you -- I thought I knew that as a football player but it wasn't until I took this role that I understood how great are fans really are.
WIECEK: There are some decisions being made right now and in the coming months that are going to be absolutely critical to this franchise's future. And yet the two men making those decisions -- yourself and GM Kyle Walters -- are both serving in an acting capacity. Is this franchise operating with one hand tied behind its back right now?
MILLER: Not at all. Help me understand the question.
WIECEK: Well, if you're making decisions in the coming months that will have an impact on this team for years to come, would it not make more sense for the people making those decisions to be the same ones who are going to lead this team for years to come?
MILLER: Kyle is in a permanent job. I've said from the start, he will be a part of this organization. And I'm fine with the title of acting. You know I have other business opportunities I could be doing. I chose to come take this on to help this franchise and be a part of turning this around. My most important thing is making that happen and sustaining it so we're developing something that isn't just for next year or the year after but is something that's here for 10 or 15 years. And that's the approach we're taking. Do we want to win the next game? Of course we do.
WIECEK: Who are you auditioning for and at what point do you find out if you've got the job?
MILLER: I'm not auditioning for anybody. I'm not that guy. I'm not auditioning. I'm here making changes, doing everything I can to improve on the field with Kyle and then everything off the field to improve things for the fans and making a great game-day experience.
WIECEK: So when do you find out if you've got the job?
MILLER: My concern right now is doing what we need to do in the next month to six weeks because there's a lot that's going to happen unlike any other year. There's a tremendous number of things that are going on that are so positive for this team. Having an expansion draft this year is the best thing that could have happened for the Bombers.
WIECEK: Expand on that please.
MILLER: There's going to be a lot of change, a lot of players moving to different teams. And it's an opportunity for us to take advantage of that. And we're very focused on that and have a very good plan of what we want to do.
WIECEK: The reviews of Kyle Walters' early performance have been generally positive, but in announcing his promotion last summer you said you intended to conduct a continent-wide search for a new GM at the end of this season. Do you still intend to conduct that search and has it begun yet?
MILLER: I will definitely be doing that. I have the qualifications of what we're looking for and a plan of what we're doing. And I've already been doing that.
WIECEK: So Kyle doesn't have the GM job yet?
MILLER: "No, but Kyle is going to be an integral part of this organization no matter what. And stability is part of what we need to create here -- that people know they're going to be a part of this football team and this community. And Kyle is both of those things.
WIECEK: Is Kyle still in the running for the job?
WIECEK: One of the tools available to the CEO of a struggling sports franchise to effect change is to fire the head coach. You've kept Tim Burke on despite his team's 2-12 record this season. Why?
MILLER: Because he's doing everything he can to turn it around with what he's been given.
WIECEK: You've said you're going to make a lot of changes this off-season. Will Tim Burke get a chance to lead that new and improved team next year?
MILLER: Everything is going to be reviewed. Coaches, players, the way we have everything structured -- it will all be reviewed.
WIECEK: You said last week this team is on track to meeting its financial obligations? A lot of people have parsed what you meant by that. You tell me exactly what you meant.
MILLER: That we're on target to meet our obligations under the agreements we have.
WIECEK: So if I understand the agreements correctly -- your obligations at the end of this season are a payment of $1 million to the province and then further multimillion-dollar payments to the bank that loaned you the $10 million or so necessary to make the upgrades you did on the stadium prior to moving in this year. Are you telling me then that all those payments are on track?
MILLER: I'm not getting into the specifics of those. But I am telling you we're on target to meet all our obligations. And I think it's very positive that we are, given our record on the field.
WIECEK: Clearly you've had some unanticipated financial challenges this year -- both on the expenses side, with things like fixing the outdoor press box and lack of field access via the grandstands and on the revenue side, with the challenge of selling tickets to see a 2-12 team. But there are also being concerns expressed, as high as the premier's office I understand, that the team's business plan for this stadium was simply too optimistic and you're never going to be able to consistently turn the $4.5 million per year profit necessary to make all your loan payments. Having seen the business plan in action for most of a season now, was it too optimistic?
MILLER: No, we're on target to meet our obligations. And will be on target. It's not too optimistic.
WIECEK: So again, there's no cash crunch around here, right? Because you know there's all kinds of rumblings that there is, right?
MILLER: No. None. You know what? If we reversed our record on the field, we wouldn't be talking about any of this -- even if we had the exact same number of fans this season. Even if we had less fans. I appreciate that everyone wants to talk about everything that's going on with the stadium. But what we should really be focusing on is what an unbelievable facility this is that in a lot ways has put us on the map in Canada. You travel around lots -- what are people saying about this stadium?
WIECEK: They're blown away. To a man. It's unanimous.
MILLER: Absolutely. But instead we're focused on all this other stuff instead of talking about what an amazing facility this is for all of Manitobans. It's all people want to talk about when I travel around is this stadium. When people come to town, they want a tour of this stadium. It's a landmark for this province.
WIECEK: All right, well if you want to get the focus off the books, you need to improve the product on the field. What's your plan for fixing this team at quarterback?
MILLER: Like I said, this is a good year for that with the expansion draft. So we're going to look at all the available opportunities that we're going to have to bring in another couple quarterbacks.
WIECEK: That was going to be my next question. Everyone speaks of bringing in a quarterback. In fact, you probably need to bring in a couple of quarterbacks, don't you?
MILLER: Yeah. And not just at quarterback. I want you to come here to training camp next year and report in the Free Press, 'Wow, every position is competitive and I'm not sure which guy is going to be here.' That's what we need to do every training camp.
WIECEK: You talk a lot in generalities about things like competition for jobs and instilling a winning attitude. But what specifically are you doing to make this team better? What'd you do yesterday, for instance?
MILLER: I'm in meetings working with business operations and creating stuff for the fans, really working quickly and trying to do the things that make a lot of sense.
WIECEK: Are you hands-on with Kyle in terms of the football ops?
MILLER: Yeah, we're both hands-on in the sense that we're both football guys and understand it. We have a lot of conversations and bounce ideas off each other and work together. That's the organizations that are successful -- in football and in business.
WIECEK: Do you have final say on personnel moves?
MILLER: No, nobody has final say. Because we all work together. It's Kyle's job to make the moves that make most sense on the field. But do we talk about it? Absolutely.
WIECEK: There's a lot of very angry Bombers fans out there. How are you going to convince them to buy season tickets again next year?
MILLER: We need to make improvements on the field obviously. And we've started that already... Go back and show me the last time the Bombers made a trade, much less three of them in one year. We've brought in players that can help us. And we've done things that are strategic that will help us in the future. It hasn't helped in our record yet, but it will come. And all we can do that is communicate that to our season ticket holders.
WIECEK: Is signing a new starting QB the single highest priority?
MILLER: It's one of the priorities. Look, we're going to celebrate the 1988 team at the Nov. 2 game. Who was the quarterback that played on that team?
WIECEK: Sean Salisbury.
MILLER: Where did he rank among QBs in the CFL that year. Was he the best?
WIECEK: Not by a long shot.
MILLER: Did they win the Grey Cup? Yes. So there's different ways. Yes, it's a critical position. But there are ways to put a team together that isn't solely reliant on one position or player.
WIECEK: I'm not sure after what they've been through the past few years that fans are going to be comfortable with the idea of putting together a team again without a clear No. 1 quarterback.
MILLER: Of course not.
WIECEK: I hear you have everyone on staff calling season ticket holders every week now. How does that work?
MILLER: We have 35 staff. From 11-12 every Wednesday, we stop what we're doing and each person calls 10 season ticket holders.
WIECEK: That's probably not always a pleasant conversation.
MILLER: It's unbelievable, actually -- it's the opposite of that. It's positive -- 'Hey, you guys need to fix that on the field, but we can see you're working on it.'