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It’s the eve of another CFL season, and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are the sexy choice to win it all.
Perhaps the so-called experts are simply getting tired of anointing the Calgary Stampdeders.
How else do you explain it?
This is a franchise that hasn’t sipped suds from Earl Grey’s mug since the Hubble Telescope was launched.
In that 28-year reign of failure, 11 men have signed up to be the head coach, cobbling together a pithy 234-268-2 record, combined.
Dave Ritchie lasted the longest, at five-plus years, and came the closest to vanquishing the drought with a 14-4 juggernaut in 2001, only to come up with the Big Choke in the Big O.
If Mike O’Shea lasts more than seven games this season, and we have no reason to believe he won’t, he’ll surpass Ritchie as the longest-serving front-man of the famine.
So where do all Bomber coaches go after they get fired or retire?
To Bud’s Diner, of course.
From the outside, Bud’s is your run-of-the-mill greasy spoon. But step through the creaking wooden door and you’ll see it’s really a walking, talking piece of Blue Bomber history.
The walls are lined with black-and-white photos of greats like Fritz Hanson, Herb Gray, Leo Lewis and Ken Ploen. There’s a leather helmet hanging here, an old tattered sweater there.
But this is a living museum, too, a place reserved for coaches, from Reg Threlfall and Bob Fritz of the 1930’s and ’40’s to Cal Murphy and Mike Riley of the ’80’s and ’90’s.
The place is named after Bud Grant, the best of the bunch, at the helm for four of the 10 Grey Cup titles in the team’s 89-year history.
You don’t have to be a Grey Cup winner to have a booth at Bud’s Diner, but you get a better table if you are.
I paid a visit this week to see what the real experts have to say about the Bombers’ chances this year.
* * *
It a sunny day, and Bud’s is bustling. Seems the start of another season still gets the blood flowing for these guys.
I slide into a booth near the front, next to where Murphy and Riley are yakking. Who better to eavesdrop on than these two, who combined for three Grey Cups, including the last one?
Sitting with them is Bud Riley, Mike’s dad, who had a much less successful four-year run in the ’70s.
“This is gonna be the year,” Bud drawled, slamming his first on the table for emphasis.
“What makes you say that, pops?” the kid wondered aloud.
“They’ve got all the horses,” Bud said. “You can’t win without the horses.”
That’s a common refrain in here, and the general feeling is O’Shea is holding the reins of a team of Clydesdales that would make Budweiser blush.
“But does he know when to pull, when to steer and when to slap ’em on the ass?”
It’s Kindly Cal, a sparkle in his eye and a grin on his mug.
Old-school as they come, Cal believes O’Shea isn’t enough of a hardass.
Riley, the kid, shakes his head.
“Those days are gone,” he says.
Bud agrees with his son, and now the next booth is in on it.
“Never mind cracking the whip,” Threlfall says. “Can O’Shea avoid cracking under pressure?”
Threlfall won Cups in ’39 and ’41 and has the best winning percentage in team history.
Smart as a whip, the guy was charting opponent’s plays and sending spies to watch practises before anybody had ever dreamed of game film or the internet.
He and Fritz, who won it in ’35, are still shaking their heads over some of the decisions O’Shea has made in playoff games, particularly the call for a 61-yard field goal in B.C. a couple years back.
Fritz points out O’Shea’s lieutenants haven’t exactly wrapped themselves in glory at crunch-time, either.
“Coach LaPo’s play-calling was as dull as dishwater in Calgary,” Fritz says, referring to last year’s West Final, in which the Bomber offence never found the end zone.
“At least he’s got a kicker,” Doug Berry chimes in from a few booths back.
“Westwood wasn’t your problem, Doug,” Kindly Cal says. “You’d have a burger named after you in here if Kevin Glenn hadn’t decided to dive for a loose ball and break his arm. You can’t win without the QB. I should know. I’d have another ring if Dunigan had stayed in one piece in ’94.”
Heads nod. Everybody in here knows how important the quarterback is. Particularly Jeff Reinebold and Mike Kelly, seated near the back.
“Nichols has to stay upright,” Threlfall says. “That Streveler kid isn’t ready for prime time. And Coach LaPo’s gotta spread that ball around.”
“Everybody’s gotta check their egos at the door,” Ritchie pipes up. “Including Matthews. I don’t care if he played in a Super Bowl. That new kid, Lucky What’s-His-Name, has gotta get the ball. Even if he’s a CFL rookie.”
At this point somebody brings up the ’01 Grey Cup. Somebody always seems to bring up the ’01 Grey Cup.
“Who’s the genius who gave Charles Roberts the ball just eight times because he was a rookie?” Frank Larson asks.
Larson’s 1950 squad was upset in the big game, like Ritchie’s was half a century later.
“When in doubt, blame the coordinator,” Ritchie snorts.
I’ve heard enough, so I sneak out the door into the sunlight.
On my way out I pass a booth right up front, the nicest spot in the place, next to a big window with a view of the lawn.
The table, covered in dust, is reserved for the next man who brings a championship to Winnipeg.
The guys at Bud’s all agree it’s sat empty far too long.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019