WINNIPEG — Mike Kelly’s sudden exit as head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers was no surprise to some. It was just the latest twist in a stream of bizarre events.
Following Kelly’s questionable football decisions to his much-publicized run-ins with players, fans and the media, his dismissal Thursday night just hours after his arrest in Pennsylvania in an alleged domestic dispute was more of the drama his players had come to expect in Kelly’s single season at the helm.
“We had so many low points and so many twists and so much drama on the team, that his parting ways is with more drama,” Bomber six-year centre Obby Khan said Friday.
“It was kind of, how else would you expect this experience with coach Kelly to end other than how it ended?”
Kelly, 51, was arrested Thursday morning at his home and charged with simple assault and harassment of his ex-girlfriend. He was released pending a court appearance next Wednesday.
News of his arrest came hours after the Bombers held a news conference to announce Lyle Bauer’s resignation as team president and CEO. The board was planning to meet about Kelly’s future in the next few days, but his arrest sparked an emergency board meeting and he was fired.
It was an ending in stark contrast to his beginning with the team last December, when he replaced fired Doug Berry with much fanfare and hope. It was Kelly’s dream job, one he was passed over for in 1997 when he was the Bombers offensive co-ordinator and Cal Murphy was fired and replaced with Jeff Reinebold.
Kelly had a reputation of being a media-savvy, friendly, witty guy with a knowledgeable offensive mind.
But then he began to shock people on and off the field with his comments and behaviour.
First was his proclamation that no one would touch the quarterbacks except him. Then he insulted former director of player personnel Brendan Taman’s scouting system after Taman resigned, saying Taman must have kept his database written on napkins.
He traded for unproven third-year quarterback Stefan LeFors and released veteran Kevin Glenn, leaving the team without an experienced quarterback.
“That right there set the tone, I think, for the entire year for us,” Khan said of Glenn’s release.
At the team’s annual fan forum, Kelly jokingly repeated a fan’s insulting description of Saskatchewan being the “crotch of Canada.”
He also released veteran receiver Derick Armstrong after Armstrong refused to play in the season opener because he wasn’t going to start and the two had a shouting match.
Losing Armstrong was a blow, Khan said.
“There’s time where your arrogance and your ego have to be put aside for the betterment of the team and the organization,” said Khan, who lives in Winnipeg year-round.
“I think that was a thing Coach Kelly had a problem with and this is kind of how it all ended. That was really, I think, his major downfall.”
Kelly also tried to cut offensive lineman Kelly Bates when he was supposedly injured and linebacker Barrin Simpson asked for a trade because he wanted to start instead of rotate.
Other incidents included a team scout caught taking notes at a Hamilton practice and former NFL bad boy Adam (Pacman) Jones almost being signed.
Kelly also refused to take callers on his radio show, hung up on the team’s radio play-by-play reporter after a game and was fined $2,000 by the league for his behaviour to the media.
“It was just a very weird, surreal feeling every day when we went to work,” Khan said.
“It was, what’s going to happen today, who’s going to be let go today, who’s going to be blamed today, what else crazy is going to happen today?”
When LeFors and the offence struggled and then LeFors injured his shoulder, Kelly signed inconsistent veteran quarterback Michael Bishop. It appeared the team was flying by the seat of its pants.
LeFors said it’s ultimately the product on the field that counts, and that’s why he’s not surprised Kelly was fired after a 7-11 season where they didn’t make the playoffs.
“Pretty much from Day 1 when we saw what we were trying to do (offensively), how bizarre it was to us, how different it was from what everybody was used to, it was one of those things that never worked,” LeFors said from his Louisiana home.
When players offered ideas for changes, he said Kelly dismissed them, saying, “this is how it’s going to be done. It worked before, it’s got to work now.”
“It was kind of frustrating from that standpoint,” LeFors said.
Even though he was asked to take a pay cut to stay with the team, LeFors said he’s not bitter about Kelly or the season.
And Kelly did have some positive points, he added. He was good at keeping the mood relaxed with jokes and talked well.
Kelly was also great with some fans, including one young man in a wheelchair who came to every practice. Kelly would joke and toss footballs with him.
Yet that’s overshadowed by all the negative incidents.
“It came to the point where we were the laughingstock of the CFL,” LeFors said. “Every week something happened, from the Pacman thing to the Spygate in Hamilton.”
Khan said some players liked Kelly’s “kind of reckless leadership” while others didn’t.
“The majority of players definitely questioned a lot of the things he did,” he said. “When you’re in a leadership position, your employees have to look up to you, they have to admire you, they have to want to embody you, basically.
“I don’t think that was the case at all this year on the Blue Bombers. If this is the guy we’re supposed to model each other after and this is how things are happening, it left a real sour, sour taste in a lot of players’ mouths.”
Both players said they were shocked about Kelly’s arrest.
“I truly believe without a shadow of a doubt Coach Kelly loves Winnipeg,” Khan said. ”He loves this football team more than anything else in his life.
“He loved it so much that I think he might have tried too hard. He was his own worst enemy with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and that’s the real sad tragedy.”
Yet he and the teammates he’s talked to see Kelly’s firing as a “fresh start.”
“It’s almost like being reborn,” Khan said. “After you have all this turmoil in your life there’s that one event in your life that kind of turns things around. I think this is it for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I truly believe that.”