When I saw the incoming call on my cellphone on Saturday afternoon, I knew I wasn't going to like what I was about to hear if I picked it up.
Just like with the previous four head coaches that I played for and watched get fired, an editor at the Winnipeg Free Press was on the other end and wanted my take on the Paul LaPolice dismissal as soon as conveniently possible.
As a former player, it is the hardest column you can be asked to pen, even some five months into retirement, and having not spent any part of the 2012 football season with the team the latest coach got axed from. Each and every time there is a regime change, you are asked to give an honest assessment and accounting of your experiences with the most recently unemployed coach, while at the same time juggling and wrestling with all of the emotions that inundate you when a former colleague has just lost his livelihood.
During my career with the Blue and Gold, the first coach fired I was tasked with writing about was Dave Ritchie. Only four years into my career as a Blue Bomber, I was torn between expressing my loyalties and fondness for a great coach, while toeing the company line as an employee that understood the need for the franchise to move forward. I ended up writing about the character of coach Ritchie, a selfless old wingnut who, when accepting the CFL's Coach of the Year award in 2001, gave full credit to his players and staff for his accomplishment.
When Jim Daley was fired next, I referred to him as a man whose only shortcoming or failing as our leader may have been the fact he was too kind and considerate for the harsh realities of professional football. When Doug Berry got his walking papers three years later, the season after a Grey Cup appearance, I tried to rationalize that in this business, regression was a trend the franchise was apparently not willing to accept.
I was nowhere near as tactful espousing my viewpoints when Mike Kelly was terminated shortly thereafter, due to a personal issue I had had with him, and now, three seasons later, I am coining yet another eulogy for the fifth head coach I worked under in 11 seasons in Blue and Gold.
Opinions about head coaches are as varied and unique as the people expressing them, and there is no definitive right or wrong assessment of any one of them. The day that Paul LaPolice was fired happened to be the same day that I was MC-ing former Blue Bomber defensive end Gavin Walls' wedding, and since LaPolice was part of the regime that traded Gavin to Montreal, you can understand that reactions from former and current players, and even the media, are all influenced and biased due to their own individual experiences.
In my opinion, there was a lot to like about coach LaPolice as the front man of the Blue and Gold the last three seasons. He was a player-friendly coach, he was very consistent in his approaches, win, lose, or draw, and his door was always open if you needed to speak with him on any matter. The first time I ever wrote about Paul in a column was actually after watching him co-ordinate the offence of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the 2009 Grey Cup against the Montreal Alouettes. Without any idea that he would soon be leading my team, I remarked on how impressed I was with his game plan and play calling, as he had that year's top defence chasing their tails for four quarters. It seemed like he was always one step ahead of them, though they lost the game.
I will always remember my tenure with coach LaPolice for the poise and strength he demonstrated as he handled the passing of defensive line coach Richard Harris not even a third of the way through the 2011 season. How he elevated an entire roster from the depths of despair and massaged it into a Grey Cup appearance never ceases to amaze me, and it continues to astound me how that feat, all by itself, was not worthy of Coach of the Year honours.
We all have weaknesses and areas we can improve on, and as a head coach, Paul potentially wasn't as authoritative as he needed to be at times because he didn't have that @$$hole button in his personality he could press that seems to be more and more necessary these days, especially with the CFL's youngest roster. Either way, I'm certainly not alone in wishing him the best of luck, and my time spent playing for him was a privilege and will always be fondly remembered.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, is making a special appearance in today's paper. He generally appears Tuesdays and game days in the Free Press.