Blue Bomber Report Record: 4–1–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

LaPo had lost it

No control over players, was living on borrowed time; Mack may be in same boat

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It took Abraham Lincoln seven field generals until he finally appointed the one -- Ulysses S. Grant -- that won the Union the American Civil War.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers GM Joe Mack -- an afficionado of U.S. history -- brought that obscure little factoid up Saturday as he tried to explain why it wasn't his fault, or, for that matter, anyone else's, that he had just fired head coach Paul LaPolice only months after giving the same man a contract extension.

"The reason I mention that," Mack explained to a room full of puzzled reporters, "is you really don't know what someone can function like as a leader until they're actually in that situation."

And so, in other words: If it took Lincoln eight tries to get it right, well hey, the point is he did get it right in the end, right?

This was not, to put it mildly, a very reassuring story for anyone who is a fan of Mack's Bombers.

For starters, if Mack is saying eight is the magic number for finally finding a winning leader, then the Bombers are only halfway there.

Bombers defensive co-ordinator Tim Burke became the fourth head coach since 2009 when Mack announced Saturday that he'd given Burke the interim job, at least through the rest of this season.

And left unsaid by Mack was how the Lincoln analogy even related to a coach in LaPolice who he already had two complete seasons to observe in battle.

LaPolice was not, by any means, a raw recruit who had just shipped in from West Point to the front lines. On the contrary, it was precisely because Mack liked what LaPolice had done in guiding the Bombers to the Grey Cup last season that he gave his coach the contract extension.

He was battle-tested, in other words. And Mack liked what he saw. Until he didn't.

Now, Mack listed a myriad of perfectly good reasons for canning LaPolice -- his 16-28 regular-season record as the Bombers' head coach was lousy; his offence was lousy; his players were undisciplined; and he'd basically lost the room.

But perhaps the clearest reason actually came the night before in the 20-17 loss to the B.C. Lions that proved to the final straw. It was the second quarter, tempers were running high and both teams were jawing and taking some cheap shots at each other after the Bombers had taken a couple of terrible roughing penalties.

Over on the B.C. sideline, head coach Mike Benevides had charged about 10 yards on to the field and was screaming -- at his players. Over on the Winnipeg sideline, LaPolice had charged about 10 yards on to the field and was screaming -- at the referees.

And there it was, captured for me in one crystal clear image, the reason why Benevides is firmly ensconced today as the head coach of the best team in the land and why LaPolice is the unemployed ex-coach today of the worst team in the land.

If the road to recovery begins with admitting you have a problem, LaPolice never really seemed to get past the first step. His players? Out of control? Never -- it was the refs' fault.

Indeed, even the suggestion lately that LaPolice consider the hard truth of his situation was enough to set him off. Consider:

It was Aug. 15, the day before the Bombers took on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Canad Inns Stadium, and LaPolice was holding his pre-game news conference. The floor was open to questions, but no reporters were stepping forward so I asked the only question that was really on anyone's mind as we pondered the 1-5 Bombers: Do you feel your job is on the line tomorrow?

LaPolice turned a crimson red and stammered through a nothing answer. But he was livid that I'd even had the temerity to ask the question and he let me know it, ordering his media spokesman Darren Cameron to corner me after the news conference and give me a scolding for my audacity.

Of course, there was nothing audacious about the question at all, as the events of Saturday prove. LaPolice had been living on borrowed time and he only got a temporary reprieve after the Hamilton game because the Bombers had won.

The fact he grew so upset with the question was simply indicative that he had grown as out of touch with his personal situation as he was with his team by the end.

Of course, LaPolice isn't the only one who should be getting hard questions these days. And I had a similar one for Mack on Saturday, asking him if in addition to firing LaPolice he had given any thought to resigning himself, given that his failures as GM mean he's at least as much to blame for the current debacle as LaPolice.

Mack didn't think much of the question either, I presume -- issuing a curt three-word answer: "No, none whatsoever" -- but at least he didn't sic Cameron after me.

Mack, of course, has bigger problems than reporters to worry about. His boss, Garth Buchko, said Saturday that while Mack currently enjoys the support of the board and the CEO, Mack will also ultimately be held accountable for what the Bombers do this season.

And any fan of Lincoln will know how that story could end.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2012 B2

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