Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 9/8/2013 (2557 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The announcement long seemed inevitable, and yet when it came, the news that tumbled out of Blue Bombers HQ felt a little surreal. Amid promises of "new directions" and fresh starts, Winnipeg Blue Bombers CEO Garth Buchko was gone and GM Joe Mack was, too.
In Buchko's place, the struggling team's board of directors installed businessman and former Bomber fullback Wade Miller, though they prefixed his title with "acting" CEO.
The first thing Miller did with the job was pick up the telephone and let Mack go. The second was to sit before media in the basement of Investors Group Field, tripping over his words a little in the glare of the lights, and pledge to set the listing Bombers ship right.
"The finest facility in the country can't protect our fans from the disappointment of what is happening on the field," Miller said, a nod to the Bombers' miserable 1-5 start. "I'm committed to the heavy lifting required to put us on a new path, and effect the kind of change that will lead us into a new direction. These aren't empty words."
There were more words from Miller then, references to his 11-year playing career with the Bombers, paeans about how "racking up tackles" and "tackling everything that comes at me" taught him how to be tenacious and work with a team. He talked about how those are business qualities, too, ones that helped him found successful staffing company Pinnacle and open a handful of Booster Juice franchises in Winnipeg.
That's in the past now, and Miller is now devoted 100 per cent to the Bombers gig, he said. Other folks will run his enterprises.
What's in the future? A limited window of time in which to set the chaotic Bombers straight, and turn them into winners. Just how long Miller has to make that happen, Bombers board chairman Brock Bulbuck declined to say, just that it would be long enough for a fair evalution to be made.
It's not yet known who will take over as Bombers GM, though it is widely believed assistant GM Kyle Walters will be handed the reins on an interim basis.
By the time of the press conference on Friday morning, Miller had not yet spoken to Walters, who was en route to Winnipeg. But he had spoken to coach Tim Burke, who stayed in Winnipeg over the Bombers' bye week, and voiced his support for the coach.
So "new directions," yes, but the moves still come with risk, especially as they deal a financial blow to the team. The Bombers are now on the hook for more than $1 million in salary to three men they've fired. Buchko signed a four-year contract in early 2012 worth approximately $400,000 a year.
Mack's contract pays about $300,000 a season until the end of 2014, and the team is still paying out the last year of ousted coach Paul LaPolice's contract.
With the Bombers already in debt from the construction of the glowing new Investors Group Field, the extra salary burden is something the board had to review.
But with the Bombers once again in a tailspin, no answers at quarterback and Mack's record sinking to 21-39 since he was hired in 2010, it's not like they had many options but to take the hit.
"It is a significant issue, but it's an issue we'll have to manage through," Bulbuck said of the financials, though he wouldn't give specific figures. "The consequence of not taking action today, that was evaluated, but in light of the alternatives, the action taken today is necessary action."
It was also not a knee-jerk one. While the Free Press reported on Thursday that Buchko had advised the board to can the GM, the board had been quietly debating a succession plan for weeks, with at least two six-hour meetings to decide the CEO's fate in that time.
Buchko's advice -- and the subsequent Free Press report that Mack faced the axe -- "modestly accelerated" the board's decision, Bulbuck said, but it didn't make it for them. "We are accountable to our record, and we had to act accordingly. The board believed that a new direction was necessary, and necessary now."
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They didn't, however, plan for the media to help force their hand. Before formally announcing Miller as acting CEO at Friday's press conference, indeed before saying anything except greetings, Bulbuck slammed the leak to the Free Press, calling it "extremely unfortunate" and "unethical." He pledged "immediate corrective action" if the source is discovered. "It left Joe Mack in a position that we all find abhorrent," he said.
Now that chapter is closed, and the board hopes they will slip back to their preferred place outside the spotlight. They'd rather Miller run the show -- they've been eyeing him for awhile, though Bulbuck wouldn't say exactly how long, and they won't keep him leashed.
"(Miller will have) a clear mandate to do what he does best," Bulbuck said. "That's to roll up his sleeves, excite and motivate people, and effect the kind of change that will move the Winnipeg Football Club in a different direction, starting now."
As for Miller, head of the squad's alumni club and a Blue and Gold boy to the core, he must now figure out how to fix a team mired by minefields on-field and off. He plans to start by sitting down with Burke and Walters and building a plan to move forward. And he knows that after years of watching the Bombers' old glory rusting under mismanagement and mucky play, fans' patience is tattered and thin.
"I'm not afraid to prove myself, and let my results speak for myself," he said. "That's my calling card... so we're going to bring it."
Melissa Martin Reporter-at-large
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.
The new year 2012 was only four days old when Garth Buchko was unveiled as new Blue Bombers CEO, a timing that spoke of fresh starts and new hope.
For Buchko it was a dream job, but the former CJOB general manager joined the club at a nightmare time. The Bombers' CEO position had been unstable ever since Lyle Bauer stepped down in 2009, even as the club navigated the construction of its shining new stadium near the University of Manitoba.
So the Winnipeg Football Club needed a manager who could steer the ship straight. They considered up to 75 candidates, and even though Buchko had no football experience, they thought his resume in the results-based world of broadcast management would make him their guy.
It wasn't long before things started to go wrong. Construction on the new stadium was already well behind schedule when Buchko took over, but the incoming CEO stated bluntly there was "no chance" the Bombers would play another game at CanadInns.
Buchko later stated he just passed along information from contractors, but the Bombers ended up playing the entire 2012 season at the old stadium, triggering a brouhaha over tickets. The communications mess was at best inauspicious, and at worst inflamed fans' concerns about the club's management. Then there was the issue of Joe Mack. Buchko didn't hire Mack, and hinted the GM was next on the hot seat after the 2012 firing of coach Paul LaPolice. But he also hitched his wagon to the struggling GM when he handed Mack a two-year extension after last season, when the Bombers went 6-12.
That decision, ultimately, would force the board's hand: after 2013's 1-5 start it was clear Mack was done, and so Buchko had to go too. Still, on Friday board chair Brock Bulbuck acknowledged the mess that Buchko had walked into. "Garth took on the immense task of opening Investors Group Field, and along with this path, inherited a lot of issues that were not of his making," Bulbuck said. "We are grateful for his tireless efforts."
Even if the Free Press had not reported on Thursday that Joe Mack's job was hanging by a thread, on some level, the GM had to know the call was coming.
When it did, it came on Friday morning from Wade Miller, freshly installed as the Bombers' acting CEO, and the conversation was courteous. "He was very supportive, and said he wishes the best for this football club, and this organization, and believes it's close to turning," Miller said. "He did his best and worked his hardest every day."
Despite Mack's dismal results -- the Bombers went 21-39 between when he took the GM's chair and when he was canned -- few doubt that he genuinely cared for the team. The longtime NFL exec did leave a de facto retirement from pro football to take the Bombers gig before the 2010 season, drawn to return to the place started his pro career in 1984, the friends he still had in Winnipeg and the CFL's more family-friendly quality of life.
But the team was in a shambles, and Mack never found a way to get it straight. The Bombers did go to the Grey Cup in 2011, largely on the back of a defence that was galvanized by the sudden death of beloved coach Richard Harris, and Mack landed some solid talents: free agents Chris Matthews and Bryant Turner and draftee Henoc Muamba arrived under his watch.
Outside of those hits, though, Mack struggled to shore up the architecture of an ailing team. When he somehow survived 2012's miserable season, he told then-CEO Garth Buchko that he would "fix it" in regards to the quarterback question. But he passed on several opportunities to bring in productive arms. Instead, the Bombers started 2013 with talented but oft-battered pivot Buck Pierce, untested backup Justin Goltz, and a raw rookie in Max Hall.
When that group led the Bombers to a dismal 1-5 start, the writing was on the wall. On Friday, fans who had long clamoured for his release finally got their day -- a Twitter account for the fan campaign @FireJoeMack happily announced its rebranding as @BombersJetsTalk -- and with that, the Joe Mack era came to an end, leaving a team not enough advanced from how it began.