No return to a championship game is guaranteed, even in an eight-team league. But Paul LaPolice wanted his Winnipeg Blue Bombers to know after their 34-23 Grey Cup loss that at least they had raised the bar.
The Bombers will move into a new stadium in time for next season. They have energized a fan-base that had become jaded, so much so that LaPolice called "the return of our fans," as being one of the things he will look back on with pride.
"You want to coach in a place that cares about football," he said quietly.
'Swaggerville' was not to everybody's taste in the 2011 CFL season, and with the usual off-season personnel decisions ahead there is no guarantee that the men who trademarked their loud, in-your-face and at times profane approach will be back. But know this, Toronto, as you prepare to play host to the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup game next season: even if 'Swaggerville' is not there, 'Staggerville' will be. It will be there in all of its unapologetic, face-painted, jerseys just a little too tight glory.
There is a tendency to make broad-brush statements at any big event. But reading anything into the state of the CFL based on a Grey Cup game is foolish, since it remains a national institution – a stand-alone event that is one of the few made-in-Canada sports events that is completely comfortable with itself.
There are issues in the league, to be sure: it is a non-factor in the biggest market in the country, one guy owns a quarter of the teams – yet Lions and Toronto Argonauts owner David Braley stood in line like everybody else in the Lions Den food line at the Vancouver Convention Centre, wearing a beige windbreaker - and its critics frequently point out it lacks star-power at the most important position in the game, quarterback.
But what people outside the centre of universe tend to forget is that in seven of the markets, it's less about stars and more about winning teams. It is only in Toronto that CFL teams are measured against NFL teams; talk to CFL fans in every other city and they'll tell you they measure their teams against the Montreal Alouettes; their stars against Anthony Calvillo – or somebody from "back in the day." There are plenty of places that care about Canadian football.
Just ask Doug Brown. This was a disappointing end through an emotional season that included the sudden death of beloved assistant head coach Richard Harris and ended with a tearful Brown, who'd announced his retirement after an 11-year career, breaking down in sobs as he answered post-game questions.
Seldom has a man that size looked so small, hunched over in his locker, not able to answer yet not wanting to move before Bombers media relations staff shooed the crowd away. Brown and the Bombers defence had reason to take solace, because they took the measure of the Lions for the most part in the first half before running out of gas.
Jovon Johnson didn't hold back: "Their offence played better than ours," he said. Brown said everyone was to blame for the loss, that "there wasn't any phase of the game we dominated or should have been successful in." But he, too, seemed to suggest there was an obvious truth to statistics that showed 411 yards net offence for the Lions and 291 for the Bombers. "B.C. … you have to trade punches with a team like that," Brown said. "But we kept taking them."
The Bombers, do not forget, were 4-14 last season. So for LaPolice, what did this game say about how far they've come?
"I don't think those emotions are ready," said LaPolice. "Ultimately, as an organization your job is to win, not just get to the game. As I told the players: we got the bar to a different level. Now, it's got to stay there."