Long Read | The Magic of Coach O’Shea

HAMILTON, Ont. – Decked out in a Winnipeg Blue Bombers hoodie and jeans, Mike O’Shea is sitting comfortably in a director’s chair while squinting into the bright lights and a crowd behind them. To his immediate his left is the Grey Cup – that cherished old trophy that already has his name engraved on it five times – and just a few feet further is one of his closest friends in the game in Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach Orlondo Steinauer.

Welcome to the head coaches press conference, a staple during Grey Cup week as the bosses of the two finalists set aside about 30 minutes to answer questions on any number of topics. And as comfortable as the Blue Bombers head coach looks in this setting, those who know him well would say he’d likely prefer a session in the dentist’s chair than to be pushed into the spotlight and forced to answer questions about himself.

His team? He’ll gush about them. Ditto for Steinauer, who he described as ‘damn smart’ and a ‘dude you’d want to hang out and have a beer with’ – compliments of the highest order for O’Shea. Mike O’Shea is that dude, too.

“He’s just ‘That guy’ you want to sit down and have a beer with and just be people,” said Steinauer. “‘Coach’ is a title. We’re people first and I’ve got to keep it light because I’ll get emotional. That’s the truth. I care about him as a person, and I’m not shocked why he’s up here again. He’s just a fighter. Everybody should be proud. He’s true Canadian and what the CFL is about.”

That was never in question during O’Shea’s hall-of-fame playing career when he established himself as one of the best in the three-down game. Yet, how he got here, not just to the stage during Grey Cup again, but as one of the most respected coaches in the CFL, is an interesting tale. And it began with one phone call early in 2010…

Jim Barker was comfortable in his role with the Calgary Stampeders as the Senior Vice President of Football Operations and Director of Player Personnel. But when David Braley bought the Argonauts in February of 2010 – and after Bart Andrus had been fired following a 3-15 season – Barker was asked to come back and lead the team for a second time.

He cleaned out the previous coaching staff. And then, so very late in the process, he began looking for coaches to fill out his staff. One of them was Steinauer, the other was O’Shea, who had played for Barker before and at the time was settling into a career in the medical sales field.

“He was making good money,” began Barker in a chat this week with bluebombers.com. “I remember saying, ‘Listen, I want you to come coach and start with special teams. You’ll be making less money, but it’s something that could turn out good for you down the road.’

“It’s funny… I remember Osh’s playbook his first year was a piece of paper with one small word – ‘Focus.’ He did things that were different. Both those guys, Osh and O, they were two guys who weren’t coaching, but I thought needed to coach. Osh just kept growing. He got better and better and he coached very similar to how he played – he was very intense, he was very detailed, he was not a ‘busy work’ guy. I’m sure players love playing for him because he tells them exactly the way things are and goes by that.

“I always thought he would be a great coach,” Barker added. “When he was on the field, he was a coach. He wasn’t afraid to tell players where to be. Back in those days we had great defences, but we didn’t have the smartest guys. Osh would always get them in the right place.

“He was just that guy who watched more film, he got players together to watch film… he just had that in him. And I believe that as a player, he really loved it. He was such a perfectionist, and it was like in the back of his mind he thought, ‘I don’t want to screw these guys up.’”

O’Shea spent three seasons with the Argos and was part of the staff that helped the franchise win a Grey Cup in 2012. He was a rising star in the coaching ranks, certainly considered a defensive coordinator candidate in waiting. And then, another phone call… this one from Winnipeg.

On December 4, 2013, O’Shea became the 30th head coach in Blue Bombers history. He was brought on board by GM Kyle Walters and President and CEO Wade Miller as part of a rebuild for an organization which had become somewhat of the CFL’s laughing stock.

“You don’t need to have a big resumé sometimes to take that step up to be a head coach,” said Miller on Wednesday while watching the Bombers practice at McMaster University. “It’s about how you are as an individual, the leader that you are, how you’re going to build and motivate your team and build something that’s long-lasting. Mike’s proven that.”

Miller had played against O’Shea for years and knew him as a gifted linebacker, but one with a tough and gritty edge. There was a respect among the two of them, as both also had that do-anything-to-win mentality.

“As he opened the door for our interview he said, ‘Should we put on the face shields for this?’ He was a professional as a player and he’s always had that work ethic when it came to preparation and an attention to detail.”

The Bombers opened their first season under O’Shea by winning five of their first six games before going just 2-10 the rest of the season – losing five games by a touchdown or less. The club was just 5-13 in Year 2 and opened up the 2016 campaign 1-4 as the grumbling only grew louder. But in late July, the club made a quarterback change to Matt Nichols, cranked out seven straight wins and made the playoffs. Since that change the team is 54-27, has posted five straight double-digit win seasons, ended a 28-year championship drought in 2019 and is aiming to become the first Bombers team to win consecutive Grey Cups since 1961-62.

“The players say they’ll go through a wall for him, but it’s really based on the opposite – he’ll go through the wall for them,” said Miller. “He’ll run through a wall for each one of these guys, and that’s where the difference is for him as a coach. He cares about each player like they’re his family. He allows each player to be themselves as well, and that’s all a player asks for from a coach. There were lots of other good coaches out there when we hired him. It was just Mike had these other characteristics.”

The word ‘culture’ comes up in any discussion about O’Shea and what he’s helped build with the Blue Bombers. To the outsider it’s often viewed as some sort of mythical, magical formula where everyone in the locker room gets along, eats and drinks together and exchanges Christmas cards after each season. It’s not that at all with the Blue Bombers. Partly, yes, but O’Shea played long enough and was influenced by enough coaches – including the late, great Don Matthews – to understand what worked and what didn’t work in building a good room – the culture.

“The magic of Don Matthews was he understood what was important to winning,” Barker explained. “Too often coaches try to control somebody’s life. Osh’s background in this league was so long with Don, he learned that. To me, that’s why the players play like they do for him. Mike has the magic that you want from leaders in this league.”

“He lets us be who we are. He implicitly trusts us, not just as football players, but as people,” added Bombers guard Pat Neufeld. “He brought in character people; people I think he sees a little bit of himself in into the locker room. He just really breeds confidence in all of us through that trust.

“It’s the repeated experiences of doing the right thing. With him, it’s us making sure we’re doing our job. It’s him seeing us doing the right thing over and over and over and having the guys in the building who do the right things over and over.”

It was Tuesday, not long after the Bombers had landed in Hamilton for the Grey Cup, and the first media sessions were being held at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. Before O’Shea was scheduled to do interviews he wandered about the place and was fascinated to learn a replica of the plane his father flew in World War II would soon be added to the display.

This is the side of O’Shea that others don’t always see in his media interviews. He has a thirst for knowledge beyond football. Yet, one of his best skills is a simple one: he listens, he learns and he really knows how to relate to people. Again, it’s not complicated, but neither is the man. What you see is what you get, and the Blue Bombers have certainly been better for it since his arrival. Punch the clock, do your job, respect your teammates.

“Osh is definitely a unique coach with a unique coaching style, one that I’ve never seen before or been around, but one that I respect the hell out of,” said running back Andrew Harris. “He gets the most out of the guys who are playing and the staff. He has a bunch of respect from everyone in the building, but from a players’ standpoint he lets us run the show with these little bits and pieces he wants to see. He’s not a dictator. He’s a guy you can go to with anything and have full trust and talk to him about anything, whether it’s family stuff or something on the field.

“It’s almost like a big brother mindset, but also one that is a higher power and that you respect and want to go to war for.”

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