SIMMONS: Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach Mike O'Shea already among CFL legends

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HAMILTON — This is four Grey Cups in a row for coach Mike O’Shea and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

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The great impatient Don Matthews did win four in a row, but with two different teams. The legend Wally Buono, with more wins than any coach in CFL history, was never close to four in a row.

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Only the reclusive Hugh Campbell, now 82 years old, then coach of the dynasty that was the Edmonton Eskimos pre-name change, managed six Grey Cup appearances in a row, albeit five straight victories in the late 70s and early 80s.

When O’Shea was asked what it feels like, now that he’s becoming a legend in Canadian football, he took a few seconds before answering. The first thing he did was burst in loud laughter at the annual Grey Cup coach’s news conference.

“That just sounds goofy,” said O’Shea, stealing a word from the late Jack Gotta.

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Everything in Gotta’s CFL world was goofy. Normally, O’Shea is more pensive and reasoned with his responses.

“I can never think that way,” he said. “I hold those coaches (Matthews, Buono) in very high regard.”

They are his heroes.

“I would never think of myself in the same light or conversation as those guys. Ever.

“I don’t look at if it was four in a row. I never have. It’s the same team, but really it isn’t. We change players every year. I look at this one like it’s the first.”

It’s the way he has to approach coaching in his fourth Grey Cup and, really, had it not been for an Argos miracle or two late in the fourth quarter last year in Regina, he’d be in Hamilton this morning going for his fourth straight win.

Only Campbell has accomplished that in modern CFL history.

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He had Warren Moon and Tom Wilkinson playing quarterback. He had Dan Kepley at linebacker. He had Gizmo Williams on special teams. He had just about everything.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea gets a sports drink poured over him as his team defeats the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the 107th Grey Cup.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea gets a sports drink poured over him as his team defeats the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the 107th Grey Cup. The Canadian Press

O’Shea’s football team is a lot like O’Shea himself — it’s isn’t necessarily pretty or full of finesse. He’s an original grit-grinder.

If the weather holds up Sunday and it isn’t too close to freezing come night time, O’Shea coaching in a T-shirt and shorts would not be out of the question.

“If he’s being true to himself, that’s what I would expect him to wear,” said Scott Milanovich, the former Argos head coach who had a staff for the 2012 Grey Cup that included Edmonton head coach Chris Jones, Hamilton head coach Orlondo Steinauer, O’Shea and his Grey Cup opponent, coach Jason Maas of the Montreal Alouettes. “Probably the greatest staff I ever had.”

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Maas remembers the year well. It was his first season coaching in the CFL after 11 years of playing, mostly as a backup quarterback.

Like O’Shea, he worked for a year after his playing career was over. O’Shea sold medical supplies. Maas worked in the oil and gas industry in Alberta. Both knew that wasn’t going to be their lives.

O’Shea was hired by Jim Barker to coach with the Argos in 2010. Maas was hired two years later, his first job, coaching his close friend Ricky Ray and his backup the following year happened to be named Zach Collaros, who has quarterbacked the Bombers to these four Grey Cups.

“Legend?” Maas said about O’Shea. “He’s a legend in our sport. I’m not afraid to say that.”

They were part of one Grey Cup-winning team together, the 100th Grey Cup won by the surprising Argos, and Maas recalled Tuesday how both drank from the Grey Cup within seconds of each other.. Maas was in charge of quarterbacks on that team. O’Shea was the special teams coach.

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“Almost everybody on that staff got promoted to coordinator or head coach,” said Milanovich, for now still on the Hamilton coaching staff. “I remember bringing Jason in. He was just about the most competitive person you will ever meet. He was pure intensity. But then Osh is about the most competitive person you’d ever be around. I liked having that competitive fire with our coaches. You want to find guys that just hate to lose and we did that.

“I wish I could take more credit for Osh, but he was on Jim Barker’s staff when I got there. When Jim hired me he said: ‘You’ve got to look at this guy. He’s going to be a head coach one day.’ Fortunately, I listened to him.”

Lots of people become head coaches. A tiny number become legends. O’Shea has now become the coach all others are measured against in the CFL.

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Only Campbell has equalled him with four Grey Cup trips in a row with the same team.

In the long history of the National Football League, since the invention of the Super Bowl, only Marv Levy went to four in a row. Chuck Noll won four in Pittsburgh — four in six years. The genius Bill Belichick never won more than two in a row, never appeared in more than three in a row.

Mike O’Shea was born in North Bay, played his college football at Guelph, played all 16 of his professional seasons at in Ontario, as either an Argo or a Ticat, and won a Grey Cup at Tim Hortons Field two years ago.

This still feels like home for the coaching legend who doesn’t view himself that way. He’s just another coach, he says. Just another legend emerging before our very eyes.

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