This was supposed to be Bob O’Billovich’s last year of professional football. That was the plan.
But he can’t go out like this. He can’t go out not knowing. Not after 46 years kicking around the Canadian Football League. He can’t walk away from a job undone, from a Hamilton Tiger-Cats team that is constantly in a state of consternation.
“It’s one step forward, two steps back,” said a frustrated O’Billovich, truly hoping that this would be the year. When Obie took over the Ticats, they were a team in distress. His first year as general manager they went 3-15. Since then, a big improvement to 9-9 and then ... stagnancy. Nine and nine two years ago. Nine and nine last year. Seven and seven this CFL season.
“We just haven’t learned how to win on an every game basis,” said O’Billovich. “We haven’t got the mentality or the awareness you need. We’ve been building this team to get to a point where we think we have what it takes.
“In a position like myself, it’s frustrating. You’re not on the field coaching. You’re not the players making the plays or not making them. You think from a talent standpoint you’re better than what your record shows.
“We’re getting closer to where we want to be. But every time I think that, something happens.”
It has been a dance of discomfort for the Ticats, trying to find a place in this strange and balanced CFL season. They lost two to start the season then won their next three. Then it was lose one, win one, lose one, win one, lose two, win two, lose one. The football equivalent of paddling in circles.
By nature, O’Billovich is an optimist. Most people who hang around pro sports for five decades are. They always figure tomorrow will be better than today. But you have to wonder and worry about O’Billovich now. Whether this team is good enough. Whether head coach Marcel Bellefeuille is the right man to lead the troops. Whether you can win with Kevin Glenn at quarterback or in their latest scheme (Obie’s version of Condredge Holloway and Joe Barnes) with Quinton Porter being used more often than on just third down gambles.
“I’m not concerned about the coach,” said O’Billovich, who probably should be. “Some of our games have been lack of performance. Is that the coach’s fault? I don’t think so. I’m at practice every day. I see what’s going on. If I didn’t think our players were being prepared properly, I’d do something about it.”
So if it isn’t the coach, what is it? The players are Obie’s. He brought them in. It’s the youngest Ticats team in recent memory and sometimes they play their age. But if the players aren’t good enough, that’s on the GM. And if the coaching staff isn’t good enough, they have to go. The legend, Don Matthews, always said there are only two kinds of football teams, those that are getting better and those that are getting worse.
And the Ticats don’t fit in either category.
“We make stupid errors,” said O’Billovich. “You can’t turn the ball over the way we do. Sometimes we look like a good, solid football team and then ... We’re inconsistent. We have games where we light it up on offence and games where we don’t seem to do anything. We’ve had games when our D was outstanding and games when our D falls apart. Hopefully, we’re learning from this.”
The Ticats benefit from the fact that six of eight teams make the playoffs and that the Argos are having a horrible season. It is pretty much impossible for them to miss the post-season. But first, there are four games to play, a big one this Sunday against the Montreal Alouettes and the record-setting quarterback, Anthony Calvillo. After that, they have two easy games against Toronto and Saskatchewan and a tough one against the surging B.C. Lions.
Which means — bet on another 9-9 season. Three in a row for O’Billovich and Bellefeuille. No progress being made. No reason for excitement.
O’Billovich truly believed this could be an 11-7 team, maybe it they got a break or two, 12-6. The perfect time for him to walk away. Maybe with his last Grey Cup win at the age of 71.
But likely, O’Billovich is going nowhere. He will talk to his family at the end of the season. “A lot will depend on what happens,” said Obie. “How we finish, what we do.”
The betting here is he’ll be back for another year. In his mind, there is still work to be done and he’s the man to do it.