The fact that Mike O’Shea and Kyle Walters are together again in Winnipeg is almost destiny.
After crossing paths during their playing days at the University of Guelph, and then once again in the professional ranks with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the two men have joined forces once again, in an effort to lead the Bombers to the promised land.
Walters and O’Shea began their coaching careers as special teams coordinators and both gained strong reputations; working their way up the player personnel and coaching ranks rather quickly.
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In 1992 O’Shea was a star linebacker entering his fourth year for the Guelph Gryphons. Walters was just a freshman beginning his career at the U of G. Guelph would claim the Ontario University Athletics championship that year with a 45-10 victory over Western in the Yates Cup.
It was the only season Walters and O’Shea would spend together on the Guelph campus. Shortly after, O’Shea would be selected fourth overall by the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1993 Draft.
However, his career in Green and Gold would be short-lived, as the Eskimos traded O’Shea to Hamilton almost immediately after the draft, where he began his pro career.
O’Shea went on to have one of the best careers of any non-import linebacker in Canadian Football League history. He is one of only three players to record 1,000 or more career tackles, ranking second all-time with 1,151.
He played for 16 seasons and won three Grey Cup titles as a player and one as a coach, all as a member of the Toronto Argonauts.
After O’Shea left Guelph, Walters switched over to the other side of the football and developed into a leader and talented defensive back for the Gryphons.
Walters, like O’Shea, was picked high in the Canadian Draft, going 10th overall to Hamilton in 1996. He spent training camp with the Tiger-Cats that year before going back for his fifth and final season at Guelph.
He then captained the Gryphons to a Yates Cup triumph to cap his university career.
In 1997 Walters began his playing career with the Ticats, the same team O’Shea started his. Hamilton was the only CFL city Walters experienced as a player. He spent seven seasons there and was a part of the last Tiger-Cats Grey Cup championship team in 1999.
The pair spent one season suiting up on the same team after O’Shea was dealt back to the Ticats in 2000.
“He got traded to Hamilton for one year and we developed a little bit more of a friendship,” Walters said.
“I knew Kyle was thinking about coaching [after his playing career],” O’Shea added.
It was a near immediate transition from playing to coaching for both men.
Walters was hired as the defensive coordinator at his alma mater in 2004. He was promoted to be the head coach in 2006 and after four successful seasons as bench boss in Guelph, Walters made the jump to the CFL.
He coached the Bombers special teams for three seasons and played a major role in scouting Canadian talent in the off-season. In 2013 Walters moved into the front office in a full-time capacity as Winnipeg’s assistant general manager.
Meanwhile, after ending his playing career in 2009, O’Shea was cutting his teeth as a coach as well. He was hired in 2010 to be the Argos specials teams coordinator, a position he excelled at and held for three seasons.
“As the relationship grew through coaching special teams and we would see each other at clinics, it was very clear that both him and I are kind of wired similarly,” Walters said.
It was a rough 2013 season for the Bombers, having finished fourth in the East Division. After GM Joe Mack was relieved of his duties in August, Walters was named interim general manager, a title he would hang onto until the end of the season.
In November, Walters saw the interim tag removed from his title, giving him free range to build his team as he sees fit. His first order of business? Hiring a head coach.
“There were a couple of general managers I know that offered their advice and I picked their brains. And the underlying comment I heard over and over again for it to work organizationally the general manager and the head coach have to be on the same page,” Walters explained.
“They have to have a working relationship, be able to close the door and hammer out their ideas and move on and both be pulling in the same direction.”
“The immediate first guy that popped into my head as the man I wanted as the head coach was Mike O’Shea, so of course you go through the process.”
“I think it’s very important that the head coach and the general manager have a good working relationship and see football in a similar light,” O’Shea added.
“You get a bunch of input from a variety of sources to make sure you’re not making a biased decision based on a relationship and as I said, I was confident that wasn’t the case with what my gut was telling me all along,” Walters said.
Sure enough, O’Shea was officially introduced as the Bombers head coach in early December and the two have been busy ever since. Winnipeg’s new football staff went out and got a new starting quarterback, acquiring Drew Willy on Feb. 6 from the Riders and signed him to an extension.
When free agency opened five days later on Feb. 11 the Bombers were rumoured to be targeting a number of players and they managed to land one of the biggest pieces on the market in receiver Nick Moore.
“It was a chaotic day, and Mike and I went out to Earls and had a few beers and kind of took a deep breath. For the first time it was like holy mackerel this is the real deal,” Walters said.
“After going through that process it was unbelievable how taxing and trying that day was. It was nice that me and the head coach could go out and just drink a couple beers and talk about how the day went.”
Next up for Walters and O’Shea – a couple of Canadians who know very well how important a strong contingent of non-imports are to a successful CFL club – is the Draft. Winnipeg holds six selections for the Canadian talent grab set for May 13.
“Between myself, Mike and Ted [Goveia] we’ve got three guys who are heavily involved in the draft,” Walters said.
During his time as the assistant general manager, Walters was tasked with handling the bulk of the Canadian scouting duties. He essentially did all of the legwork, but when it came to draft day in the past he didn’t have as big of an impact as he would have liked.
“It became frustrating,” Walters said.
“Certainly for the last two or three years I’ve been running the draft in my mind like I was the general manager. It’s always easy to be the assistant who doesn’t actually have to say the names or think that this is what you would have done. It’s easy to question or second-guess the guy that’s pulling the trigger, but now I am excited to be the guy to pull the trigger.”
Winnipeg’s general manager and head coach are working diligently to build Canadian depth and are devoting plenty of attention to the second overall pick. A vital selection for the present and foreseeable future, especially considering the misses the Bombers had in drafts during the Joe Mack era.
“You can’t be wrong. The focal point and the number one discussion is about number two,” Walters said. “We need to be bang on with that pick no matter which way we go. We need to be confident we made the right pick.”
“We want a guy that is going to start for us. A second overall pick has got to come in and play for us right away. That’s the bottom line,” O’Shea said.
“There are more than a handful of guys you can take at that spot and feel very comfortable they’re going to come in and contribute right away.“
If any trade offers come Winnipeg’s way they are willing to listen.
“If the opportunity comes up you make it,” Walters said. “I think it’s highly unlikely. But if we think players two, three and four on our board we’d happy to get then certainly in that scenario you might drop down to four, trusting that you’re still going to get one of your guys.”
Walters has a feeling that there could be some movement at the top of the draft.
“I think teams that are in need of offensive line help are certainly going to try and figure out how to get into those top three or four picks.”
With all of the preparation work put in, Walters envisions a smooth and simple procedure come draft day.
“It shouldn’t be a panic it should be a nice controlled environment where we’ve done all the work and we just have to check mark down a list.”
Walters and O’Shea will experience yet another football event together by selecting their inaugural draft class in Winnipeg as the top decision-makers for a professional franchise. Adding another chapter to their history with one another in the Canadian game.