It was the craziest year in Bombers history

PAUL FRIESEN

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

Those of us who lived it won't soon forget it.

Player defections. An offence so bad fans were cheering first downs. Never-ending controversies on and off the field.

And, at the centre of it all, a head coach, Mike Kelly, who seemed to alienate the entire province, from the day he was hired in the waning days of 2008 to the day he was fired, 12 months later, after being arrested on a domestic assault charge down in Pennsylvania.

Oh, and longtime president/CEO Lyle Bauer resigned on the same day.

Bizarre.

But was 2009 the craziest season in Winnipeg Blue Bombers history?

We're talking about a franchise that goes back to 1930. Surely there was another year that produced as much news as this past one.

For the answer, I picked the brains of two men who, between them, if they haven't seen it all, they've certainly heard of it.

'Really crazy'

Jack Matheson, former sports editor of the old Winnipeg Tribune, is not only one of the best sportswriters this country has ever seen, he's the reason I got into this business (please, don't hold it against him).

And Bob Irving, well, he's only been the voice of the Bombers for the better part of the last four decades.

Between them, these two have 82 years experience covering pro football in Winnipeg, Matty going back to the days when "Indian" Jack Jacobs was throwing footballs all over the field.

Ask Matty where 2009 ranks, and he doesn't hesitate.

"This is really crazy," he said. "This would take the cake, as far as I'm concerned, going back to 1953 when I started covering the Bombers."

Matty's tenure covers some pretty rocky seasons, including the three-year Joe Zaleski era, 1967-69, when the Bombers never won more than four games, and the Jim Spavital regime, 1970-73, which began with a 2-14 season and ended with a 4-11-1 campaign.

But those were just bad teams, led by bad coaches. None of whom ever got arrested.

More recently, there were the Jeff Reinebold years (1997-98), one of the darkest periods in Blue and Gold history, producing 4-14 and 3-15 seasons.

But Reinebold, with his Harley and flip-flops, was more colourful than controversial. Aside from the fact he cut a slew of popular players, he didn't really peeve people off, at least not en masse.

Cal Murphy's reign as coach and/or GM (1983-96) produced some stormy headlines, like the time star linebacker Tyrone Jones led a player revolt over Kindly Cal's not-so-kindly treatment of players.

But the Bombers were winning, and Murphy was wildly popular with fans.

If there is one season that can rival 2009 for can-you-believe-it headlines, it was 1992, when Murphy needed an emergency heart transplant. Assistant coach Urban Bowman took over, and the Bombers posted an 11-7 mark and went to the Grey Cup.

"That wasn't crazy," Matty said. "That was sort of sad."

Tragedy of another kind nearly struck the Bombers in 2000.

Bleeding profusely on the balance sheet and teetering on insolvency, the organization made all kinds of headlines going into the season, few of them positive.

But by the end of that year, the mood had done a 180.

Irving looks back on his 36 years covering the Bombers and says '09 stands out.

"Reinebold's year and a bit produced more losses, of course," he began. "And crowds dwindled to a frighteningly low number. The Cal transplant year was dramatic. But never before has a coach or executive done so much, from start to finish, to alienate so many people. Never before has a season come apart at the seams like this one, when expectations were so high going in."

Let's take you back to Dec. 2, 2008, when Kelly was introduced as the 27th head coach in franchise history.

He was going to bring back Bombers pride, he promised. Take charge of an offence that had stagnated. Give the city and province something to feel good about.

"This could be a long and loving relationship," Kelly said that day, a prediction that couldn't have turned out more wrong.

And why did he believe that?

"Understanding this organization and this community, better than some of the other guys that have been here."

It turned out no Bombers coach has understood it less.

While covering the Kelly fiasco this past year, I often wondered what kind of things Matty would have written, had he been behind the keyboard for this reign of error.

So I asked him.

"I would have said he doesn't belong," Matheson said. "I can't think of one reason why they would have hired him. Apart from Lyle Bauer. He just didn't fit. His personality, and everything, is wrong."

Bauer's decision means the former CEO will go down in history for two reasons: for leading the team from near bankruptcy in 2000, to having a hand in the most unforgettable year the franchise has ever seen.

There may be a new stadium and a switch to private ownership in the near future, both huge stories, to be sure.

But it's going to take something extraordinary to top this.

Contact Paul at paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca or 632-2788.


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