Jeffrey Orridge exit leaves CFL starting over, yet again

CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

The only thing surprising about Jeffrey Orridge’s exit from the CFL commissioner’s chair is that it took this long to happen.

Many connected in league circles during last November’s disastrous Grey Cup week — remember the Pizza Pizza fiasco, and then the thousands of free tickets given away to Bell employees to paper the house? — weren’t sure if Orridge would make it to January.

In turns out he did, but as my grandmother would so often say, “these things take time.” Orridge’s was up when his bosses had fully lost confidence in his leadership. It took a mere 25 months.

Orridge was miscast in the role from the beginning. At his introductory press conference, he tried to convince Canadians he grew up glued to the CFL. Being a life-long CFL fan wasn’t a pre-requisite for the position, so the suggestion by the New York native was a curious one. Was it a sign of insecurity? Regardless, it meant that all future proclamations must be received with a grain of salt.

The introductory press conference wasn’t Orridge’s only public misstep, and the ones that followed were painful. In each of his ‘State of the League’ addresses during Grey Cup week, he was lost in the wilderness, seemingly unaware of the real issues facing his office. In 2015, he pulled open the curtain on a new league logo and said a new CFL Web site was about to be unveiled. That is, until an aide ambled up on stage and whispered in Orridge’s ear that the site was still weeks away from launch.

Things hit rock bottom in 2016, not when he referred to CFL.ca as a dot-com, but when he vehemently denied any link between football and brain diseases.

What the CFL originally sought from Orridge was a marketer, a leader and someone who could promote growth and harmony. It just didn’t happen. There was a showdown with the Edmonton Eskimos over live mics and a public battle with the Tiger-Cats over Kent Austin’s discipline for making contact with an on-field official. The Saskatchewan Roughriders, who remain the pulse and lifeblood of league business, openly questioned the league’s discipline.

Employees at CFL headquarters in downtown Toronto often found Orridge’s door closed — a stark contrast the more open and inclusive approach of Orridge’s predecessor, Mark Cohon.

After promoting Glen Johnson to vice-president of officiating, the Orridge administration became focused on promoting their “innovative changes” to the league, as opposed to more pressing league issues.

It was as if the department was seeking recognition from south of the border that they were doing new things the NFL wasn’t. The league’s PR department became obsessed with their American TV deal, even going so far as to invite ESPN football writer Kevin Seifert to watch a game from their replay command centre and interview Orridge.

When the commissioner gleefully spoke of the possibility of Johnny Manziel coming north, it led to some angry phone calls from CFL front office personnel and later Orridge claiming he was misquoted.

As confidence eroded last year in the league’s ability to get calls right through replay, the league dealt with another crisis from one of their “innovative changes.” The game suddenly became too choppy, with coaches throwing challenge flags as often as screen passes into the flat. It led to a mid-season about-face and a rule change on the fly mid-summer.

Amidst the fascination with U.S. television, domestic TV ratings took a pounding during Orridge’s time in office. The 2016 Grey Cup, for example, had the lowest ratings for the game in over a decade. Remember, Orridge was brought in to attract a broader and younger audience. It didn’t happen.

And then there’s player safety, which Orridge insisted was a priority. In addition to the incredulous declaration that football doesn’t harm brains, the CFL Players’ Union has taken the league to task for how poorly it treats injured players that require further rehabilitation beyond one season.

Beyond all else, Orridge was unable to navigate the political cauldron that is the CFL sandbox. This remains a league in which nine governors have their own agendas in mind — and that hasn’t changed since the game was still broadcast in black and white TV. Orridge was often referred to as “the invisible commish” by many league stakeholders — from fans to owners. He was never quite able to connect the league’s grassroots core with the corporate presence it so badly craves.

To be fair, the Toronto Argonauts situation was a disaster Orridge didn’t create, but inherited. But the league could and should have done more earlier to try and fix a broken 2016 Grey Cup last fall. The failure to do so was another nail in his coffin.

When Orridge empowered Johnson to run his football department, he pushed aside Kevin McDonald — who had been in the role and had better relationships with team coaches and GMs. It is well known in league circles that Johnson craves the commissioner’s job, and has aligned himself politically with governors in the hopes of taking over the chair.

And so it was then, late last November at Orridge’s State of the League — one bumped up by 30 minutes after learning the players union would be holding a news conference of their own that same morning — that I asked Orridge about his future and if he was confident he’d remain in charge.

If you know the history of the CFL, and the folks that govern it, when the storm clouds are near, it may already be too late to batten down the hatches. If his words in November are to be believed, Orridge didn’t see the storm clouds coming.

In November he boasted of how confident he was in his leadership and that the owners had just approved his long-term, strategic plan. He was excited about what was ahead.

Orridge made it to January, but he’s not going to see Opening Day. In a vintage CFL move, they waited for the opening day of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to make the announcement. The story likely gets buried as a result, moreso than their usual Friday afternoon doping infraction results.

The CFL’s next move is likely to appoint an interim commissioner, perhaps Jim Lawson, who stepped in during the transition between Cohon and Orridge. It would merely be a stop-gap move while a larger search takes place.

The CFL is in desperate need of direction, vision and leadership from someone holding its most important position. And now six weeks away from training camps opening across the country, they are without someone providing that, yet again.