The Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Friday night loss helped seal the fate of head coach Paul LaPolice, who was fired Saturday.
The Bombers, who dropped to 2-6 after losing to the B.C. Lions on Friday, announced LaPolice was being replaced by defensive coordinator Tim Burke, effective immediately.
“This was an extremely difficult decision to make especially when dealing with the kind of quality individual as Paul is,” Bombers’ general manager and vice-president of football operations Joe Mack said in a statement. “As the season has progressed, and looking back on how we struggled throughout the second half of the year in 2011, we have become increasingly concerned with the direction of our Club and felt this was in the best interest of our entire organization. Our commitment to winning hasn't changed and this decision was made in order to get our team back on track."
There was no official word from LaPolice, who was named head coach in 2010 and guided the Bombers to last November’s Grey Cup, where they lost to the Lions, but he later took to Twitter to address his firing.
“Thks to everyone for the show of support. Although I 110% disagree with the decision today, I have loved every minute of being HC of Bombers,” he tweeted.
LaPolice also dismissed suggestions the Bombers players had lost faith in him as their head coach.
“Last nights effort did not reflect a team that didn’t believe in the coach and players that have reached out to me disagree with that view,” he tweeted. “Thanks to everyone and although not perfect I am proud of our Eastern championship, grey cup appearance and think the future can be bright.”
He leaves the team with a 16-28 record.
Burke has been in the CFL since 2005 with Calgary, Montreal and Winnipeg, which he joined last season.
Highly regarded for putting together top defences, he was a finalist this year to become Hamilton’s head coach, but the job went to George Cortez.
“I have mixed emotions on this day,” Burke, 58, said. “A lot of you know that I’ve really wanted to become a head coach and I really relish this opportunity to prove that I can be a head coach.
“I’m very sad also because Paul is my friend and he was very gracious after Joe told him.”
After LaPolice took over for the fired Mike Kelly following the 2009 season, the Bombers struggled to a league-low 4-14 record.
But Winnipeg rebounded in a big way in 2011, winning the East Division with a 10-8 mark before losing 34-23 to B.C. in the Grey Cup.
LaPolice was given a two-year contract extension in the offseason that took him through the 2014 season. He reportedly was earning about $230,000 a year, a deal the team has to honour. Mack also got an extension.
Mack said his concerns with LaPolice’s performance went back to last season after the team started 7-1 and then started sliding.
However, he said LaPolice’s extension was justified at the time, because it would have been difficult for a head coach to go into the locker-room command respect with only one year remaining on his contract.
“Also, there would become a case, potentially, of losing other assistants and also having a difficult time ... to get other assistants, particularly co-ordinators, to come onboard if they saw the head coach only had one year,” Mack said.
Mack stressed LaPolice was a hard worker, but one of the main reasons he hired him was to “revamp and reconstitute” the offence, which he didn’t think was accomplished.
Mack’s job security had also been a topic of conversation over the past few weeks, but he said the head coach was ultimately responsible for the team’s regression.
“Of course I bear responsibility, but when I do the evaluation, with all due respect to everybody, I see a fair amount of talent out there that’s playing hard and that’s all that a general manager can do for a coaching staff,” Mack said.
The team has back-to-back games coming up against the 3-5 Saskatchewan Rughriders
“We’ve got to have a greater sense of urgency and we’ve got to play with that relentlessness that we need to win in the CFL,” Burke said, describing himself as competitive and an overachiever.
He wants to make practices “a little shorter and more intense and a lot more competitive.” He’ll continue to coach the secondary, but give some of the co-ordinator duties to linebackers coach Chip Garber.
Veteran offensive lineman Glenn January was at the Bombers office Saturday and said the timing of LaPolice’s firing was surprising.
“We got off to a rough start, there’s no question about that,” January said.
“We have a very young team that you kind of feel has begun to turn the corner, but obviously there’s still considerable amount of room for improvement.”
LaPolice had passion and pride in the Bombers and January felt bad for him, but was also looking forward to playing under Burke.
“He’s been one of the best co-ordinators in the league for the past four, five years now,” he said. “He’s got a lot of Grey Cup experience under his belt.”
With files from The Canadian Press