Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea still has a linebacker’s mentality.
Earlier this week, veteran Winnipeg linebacker Adam Bighill quipped that what he missed most during the CFL’s down time was hitting people.
O’Shea, who played 16 seasons as a middle linebacker before entering the coaching ranks, fully understands the sentiment.
“Hell, I’m 50 and I still miss hitting people,” O’Shea said during a video conference Friday. “I miss just seeing the players interact.
“I like competition, I like the planning, I like seeing guys compete on the field in practice, in games, all that stuff. But I do miss just the daily stuff that goes on, the way the players interact with each other on a daily basis. I really get a charge out of watching guys be teammates. That’s been missing for sure.”
The CFL’s board of governors voted Monday in favour of starting a 14-game season Aug. 5 and opening training camps July 10. The league didn’t play in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Winnipeg has the distinction of winning the last CFL game played. The Bombers defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-12 in the 2019 Grey Cup, the franchise’s first championship since 1990.
Some 19 months later, the Bombers can finally look at defending their title, even if it will be amid COVID-19 safety protocols and limited fans in stands.
“I think it will be a great lesson in resiliency and flexibility, I really do,” said O’Shea, a native of North Bay, Ont. “Every team will experience that, where things come up during the season and you have to be able to adapt very quickly.
“I fully expect our guys to be able to do that, we’ve got a bunch of pros. There are points inside our room where I want our guys to be flexible so they’re kind of used to that. I don’t see any challenges that won’t be overcome by any team, really.”
O’Shea is entering his seventh season as Bombers head coach. The 2019 championship was his fifth but first as a head coach and first with Winnipeg.
O’Shea’s first three titles came as a Toronto player (1996, ’97, ’04) before he earned another as an Argos assistant coach (2012). O’Shea enjoyed a decorated playing career, being named the CFL’s top rookie (1993) and outstanding Canadian (1999).
He became the first Canadian to surpass 1,000 career tackles and was named to the Argos’ all-time squad in 2007. O’Shea was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2017.
When Winnipeg opens camp, it will do so with many veterans from its ’19 squad, something O’Shea feels is crucial during a shortened season and with teams not playing any exhibition games.
“It’s a necessity, it really is,” he said. “I do think hitting the ground running on a shortened season and getting off to a great start is important.
“It’s not the only thing. You know how we approach things looking only at what the next day holds in store but I do always value a veteran presence and in this particular year it should prove its worth.”
With no exhibition games, CFL teams will look to stage scrimmages with other squads as another means to evaluate talent.
“I don’t think it’s been approved yet but we’re looking at a practice with Saskatchewan,” O’Shea said. “I do believe it will be a great opportunity for us to look at some young guys and see them compete against someone they don’t already know.
“By the time you’re a week into training camp you should know how to steal the other side’s script, what plays are coming and you should be able to read the quarterback and be better at 1-on-1s than you were the first day. The idea of having a practice against another team certainly should ramp up the competition and should give a better picture of who we have in camp.”
Then again in O’Shea’s mind, practices also serve that function.
“I don’t know what the definition of scrimmage is necessarily,” he said. “To me, every time we run a drill where we’re competing against each other, that’s what that is.
“I guess I’ve never really looked up the term to see what it really means . . . but when practice culminates with a 10-, 15- or 20-play team period, that’s to me scrimmaging. We do it every day.”
O’Shea ensured he and his coaches remained ready to go at a moment’s notice during the CFL’s down time. But also took to becoming more of a handyman.
“I’ve spent a bit of time building a woodshed, probably took a lot longer than it should’ve,” he said. “I tore apart a basement and I’m running out of time, I still have to hang some doors.
“I’ve tried to get a little more hands-on on some things. You spend a lot of time in this seat watching film and sitting behind a desk with a remote in your hand so I think I’ve tried to use my hands a little more, tried fixing a few things and building a few things in the off-season.”
But make no mistake, O’Shea is glad to finally have an actual season around the corner.
“It’s nice to have real dates, something you can grasp ahold of and work towards,” he said. “I think there are times in life in general but in the last 15 or so months with the CFL where without a pressing deadline you just sort of bounce around a little bit from one idea to the next without maybe enough acute focus.
“But it’s there now, let me tell you.”