We already knew Mike O’Shea has all too often been part of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers problems on the field.
But what emerged this week — amid all the angst generated by O’Shea’s inexplicable fake punt call that precipitated last week’s loss to the B.C. Lions — is that the Bombers’ head coach has also become a part of the Bombers problems off the field.
On an absolutely perfect night for football, a lot of empty seats were masquerading as fans at Investors Group Field Thursday as the Bombers snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with a thrilling 41-40 comeback.
It was a glorious, gutsy, crowd-pleasing win. But unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a crowd on hand to actually see it.
After a decent opening night crowd of 30,165, the Bombers have now played their last two home games in front of crowds of 25,085 two weeks ago against Toronto and 25,931 Thursday night against Montreal.
And, sadly for them, the majority of fans who did turn out Thursday night were long gone by the time the Bombers mustered 13 points in the final two minutes to turn a 12-point deficit into a huge, potentially character-defining one-point win.
Keep drawing crowds like the last couple to a stadium that holds 33,000-plus and 2017 will continue an unenviable streak that has seen attendance at IGF decline every year since the stadium opened in 2013.
The one common link through the past four seasons? Mike O’Shea. And, increasingly, Bombers fans say those two things aren’t a coincidence.
Never have I written a column on the Bombers that has generated the kind of email response I got this week to my column last week in which I made the case O’Shea’s fake punt call against the Lions was symptomatic of a head coach who continues to make far too many mistakes and not learn from any of them.
And what emerged from that avalanche of email is that O’Shea has, for an alarming number of fans, become the smirking face of everything that is wrong with a franchise that has tormented its fanbase for over a quarter-century now.
"He’s had enough time — no more excuses. He simply does not have what it takes to be a head coach," wrote one reader.
"I gave up my season tickets (2 on the 50 yard line row 8 behind Bomber bench) two years ago because of the way (Wade) Miller manages & O’Shea coaches," wrote another.
And on and on and on it went:
"I said a few years ago that as long as Drew Willy is our QB and O’Shea is our head coach we are going nowhere: half the problem is solved, the other half still remains."
"I’m still waiting to see the smirk replaced with some of the engagement I see from Buono, Jones or Trestman. Doubt I’ll ever see it and I doubt we’ll ever hear this guy take responsibility for anything that goes wrong…"
And then there was this: "If Miller really is concerned about home game attendance, then he needs to have a long conversation with himself about O’Shea."
Wow — imagine how much fans in this town would hate O’Shea if the Bombers had a losing record right now, instead of the 3-2 season record they do have? The mind boggles.
Now, it’d be a dubious proposition to suggest CFL fans head out to the ballpark on a summer night to watch the head coach work.
Even in a transient league like the CFL, where teams often rely on the head coach to be the face of the franchise because the players change so frequently, I’m not sure anyone has ever bought a ticket just to watch hugely popular (and successful) former coaches like John Hufnagel or Wally Buono work the sidelines.
But I’m also pretty confident that no one in Calgary or B.C. has ever not bought a ticket either, just because of Hufnagel or Buono.
And that’s the part that should be alarming not just to Bombers management, but also every taxpayer in this province with a financial stake in the shiny new stadium in which the Bombers play: the idea that people are staying away from Bombers games — and even cancelling their season tickets — because they loathe the head coach that much.
I’ve covered a lot of head coaches in this town over the years — and all of them, sooner or later, wore out their welcome.
But I cannot recall another head coach in any pro sport in this town who generated, even in their darkest days, the kind of visceral loathing so many people have felt towards O’Shea from the moment he showed up on the sidelines in 2014 not wearing any pants.
Jeff Reinbold drove people crazy, to be sure, but I don’t recall anyone hating him.
Doug Berry was hard to love, but equally hard to hate.
Claude Noel? A lovable loser.
The train wreck that was Tim Burke? You just felt sorry for the guy.
Mike Kelly? At least he was entertaining.
And then there’s current Jets head coach Paul Maurice, who has led the Winnipeg Jets to one playoff appearance and zero playoff victories in three-plus seasons, just like O’Shea.
If I’d have written a gloves-off column on Maurice this week like I did on O’Shea, I’d have needed a wig, hat and sunglasses just to shop at Safeway.
So what is it about Maurice that local fans are willing to extend him an infinite amount of patience while at the same time refusing to be even seen in the same building as O’Shea?
Having covered both men, I think it’s a few things, none of which have anything to do with the fact Maurice wears pants to Jets games.
In my opinion, the smartest thing Paul Maurice ever did in Winnipeg was understand that this is an exceptionally intelligent sports town and to speak to the fans as equals. While you might not always like his answers, I don’t think anyone could ever accuse Maurice of talking down to the fans.
If the power-play sucks — and, Lord knows, it usually does under Maurice — Maurice will give fans a brutally honest assessment and always, always, always, put the blame on himself.
And O’Shea? Take all the above — and make it the opposite. This is a man who has condescended to fans since the day he arrived in Winnipeg.
He seems genetically incapable of stating even the most obvious of hard truths and the only party he holds less accountable than his players is himself — at least publicly.
If you’ve been paying attention to O’Shea for the last three years, I don’t see how you could conclude anything other than that the man thinks we’re all really stupid.
Little wonder his act has worn thin, particularly when the man marries all that hubris with a team that has consistently underperformed since he arrived, save for that glorious 7-0 respite last season.
Winnipeg’s record since that 7-0 run in 2016? With Thursday’s win over the Als, it’s now 6-5.
The more things change, the more they stay exactly the same under Mike O’Shea.
After years of dysfunction and a revolving door of head coaches and front office personnel, the Bombers have decided continuity is the way forward and O’Shea is the face of that continuity.
For better and worse — sometimes, like Thursday, in the same night — the smirk is going nowhere. But a disturbing number of fans are — they’re headed for the exits.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.