TORONTO — He spent 16 years with the Toronto Argonauts as a player and coach, winning four CFL championships — including the historic 100th Grey Cup. But Mike O’Shea isn’t feeling any sense of nostalgia in his first game back at Rogers Centre as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ head coach.
Winnipeg visits Toronto to cap a stretch of two games in five nights, coming off a 23-17 home loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. But not surprising, the 43-year-old O’Shea, a native of North Bay, Ont., downplayed his return.
“It doesn’t stir any extra emotion,” O’Shea said. “It’s different staying in a hotel before the game and coming into the Toronto airport and trying to find a bus instead of my car.”
O’Shea patrolled the middle of Toronto’s defence for 12 of his 16 CFL seasons, winning Grey Cups as an Argos player in 1996, ’97 and ’04 and being named to the franchise’s all-time squad. He became the club’s special-teams co-ordinator prior to the 2010 season and was a member of current head coach Scott Milanovich’s staff when the team beat Calgary 35-22 at Rogers Centre in the 100th Grey Cup.
O’Shea became Winnipeg’s 30th head coach Dec. 4, 2013, replacing current Argos defensive coordinator Tim Burke, who was fired after the club finished out of the playoffs once again.
O’Shea was a decorated player, earning the CFL’s top rookie award in ’93 with Hamilton and the league’s top Canadian honour in ’99 with Toronto. O’Shea is only one of three players in league history to accumulate 1,000 career defensive tackles but was also a tenacious special-teams player.
Despite his lengthy tenure in Toronto, O’Shea admits he doesn’t know where the visitor’s dressing room is at Rogers Centre.
“I’ll probably take an extra 15 minutes to wander around, that’s about it,” he said.
O’Shea got the better of Milanovich and the Argos earlier this season as Winnipeg beat Toronto 45-21 victory at Investors Group Field on June 26 in the season opener for both teams. Toronto is coming off the bye but won’t have rookie slotback Anthony Coombs, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in a 31-5 road win in Montreal on Aug. 1.
Mike O’Shea celecrated one of his four Grey Cup championships in Toronto in 2004. He now returns to the place that he called home for 16 seasons as a player and then a coach.
Coombs joins receivers Andre Durie (clavicle), Chad Owens (foot), Jason Barnes (knee) and John Chiles (hamstring) on the injured list.
Milanovich, in his third season with Toronto, said a rookie head coach’s first season on the job can be very challenging. Milanovich leaned heavily on O’Shea his first year with the Argos.
“We were close when he was here,” Milanovich said. “He was one of my sounding boards as far as managing a team.
“I trust his input because we think somewhat similarly as to how to manage a team. It’s hard the first year and obviously he’s done a phenomenal job. Until you’ve been through it you second-guess everything you do. Once you’ve been through it and had some success you have more confidence that what you’re going is the right thing.”
Milanovich said a key for any first-year head coach is to hire experienced co-ordinators. When Milanovich arrived in Toronto, he retained O’Shea and hired Chris Jones — now the Edmonton Eskimos head coach — as defensive co-ordinator while assuming control of the offence. Milanovich served as Montreal’s offensive co-ordinator prior to joining the Argos.
It’s a lesson O’Shea obviously took to heart, hiring veteran co-ordinators Marcel Bellefeuille (offence) and Gary Etcheverry (defence) in Winnipeg.
“It’s critical you have great assistants you trust,” Milanovich said. “As a first-year head coach if you have to get yourself into the Xs and Os of all three phases and manage the team, it’s just going to be difficult. I think Osh’s hirings were excellent and it’s working out for him.”
And there’s plenty involved in managing a team, Milanovich said.
“When to give (players) a push, when to pull back, when to take a bullet for them, when to call them out,” he said. “All those things psychologically can be very important, particularly for a young team . . . Osh has had to do that.”
And apparently very well. Bombers quarterback Drew Willy said O’Shea’s experience as a player has helped him as a head coach.
“You can tell he was a player, he understands what the players go through and he’s very good at getting his point across quickly,” Willy said. “He’s not going to be the rah-rah type of guy.
“He gives you the information you need to be successful and I think professionals appreciate that. They don’t want their time wasted and coach understands that. He’s been great for us.”
Toronto centre Jeff Keeping, in his 10th CFL season, was a former teammate of O’Shea’s and even shared time on the field with him as a defensive lineman. Keeping knew early O’Shea had the qualities to be a good coach.
“When I played with Osh and played on defence he was a coach,” Keeping said. “The way (former defensive co-ordinator) Rich Stubler ran our defence we were all in one room, there wasn’t separate position meetings and between Osh and defensive back Orlondo Steinauer (now Hamilton’s defensive co-ordinator), they both really ran the room.
“All the traits that made Osh a great player lends to being a great coach. I think everybody, myself included, knew he’d make a great coach.”
Keeping, 32, wouldn’t mind following O’Shea and Steinauer into the coaching ranks once his playing days are over.
“I’m focused solely now on playing and want to play for a long while still,” Keeping said. “But it (coaching) is something I think I’d be interested in.
“I consider myself a student of the game. I enjoy the studying and game planning and that type of thing.”
Winning is always of paramount importance to a head coach but Milanovich said victories against good friends are especially sweet.
“Certainly, I’d like to beat Osh,” he said. “You always want to beat your friends, there’s no question about that.”