CALGARY — Jim Barker will have a unique opportunity Sunday.
Barker will be on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ sidelines when the East champs face the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Grey Cup at McMahon Stadium. That will allow the 63-year-old Californian a chance to watch two of his coaching proteges battle for their first title as CFL head coaches.
Barker has been part of four Grey Cup-winning teams as an assistant coach, head coach and front-office executive. A football operations consultant and assistant coach with the Ticats, Barker gave Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea and Hamilton’s Orlondo Steinauer their first CFL coaching jobs in 2010 as a special-teams co-ordinator and defensive backs coach, respectively, with the Toronto Argonauts.
“I got hired late in Toronto so I had to be creative with some of the hires,” said Barker, the CFL’s 2010 coach of the year after guiding Toronto to a 9-9 record. “Osh had played for me (with Argos) so I knew him better than Orlondo, who I knew by reputation and from watching him, but (former club president) Bob Nicholson knew him well.
“They were two guys who’d never coached before but I felt were perfect fits for what we were trying to do. There was a certain kind of person I wanted in the organization to change the culture and Osh and Orlondo were it.”
Steinauer guided Hamilton to a CFL-best 15-3 record, tying the league mark for most wins by a first-year head coach. Steinauer got the better of O’Shea this season as the Ticats swept the two-game series with Winnipeg.
But that didn’t stop the Bombers (11-7) from reaching the Grey Cup for the first time in O’Shea’s six-year coaching tenure.
“It’s been kind of fun to watch these guys develop their own personalities,” Barker said, sounding like a proud father.
Steinauer and O’Shea go way back. They were teammates in Toronto (2001-08), O’Shea a hard-nosed middle linebacker and Steinauer a versatile performer in the secondary. They also spent plenty of time together evaluating game-film as part of their pre-game preparations.
“I always watched film … and what I looked forward to the most was hearing that door creak open and it was Steiny,” O’Shea said. “Every time we sat together I got better and that was extremely important to me.
“Having a number of years together with Steiny and becoming champions together and then coaching together as champions, I don’t know if there’s an exact word to describe. But I like that the words championship and champion are in there.”
O’Shea and Steinauer won a Grey Cup as players in ‘04 before adding another as Argos assistant coaches in 2012.
“It’s a relationship and bond that’s deep and you can’t really sum it up right away,” Steinauer said. “One time we were in Montreal … they had this guy named Haskins (running back Thomas Haskins), he was a pretty good football player.
“There was a certain formation they lined up in and I saw Osh turn to me and wipe his gloves off and say, ‘I’ve got this one, I’m going to get this one,’ because he understood what was happening and where it was going to go. That just stood out to me, the preparation.”
O’Shea, 49, of North Bay, Ont., spent three years as Toronto’s special-teams coach before becoming Winnipeg’s head coach. He endured a rocky start with the Bombers, missing the playoffs his first two seasons while posting a 12-24 combined record.
But under O’Shea, Winnipeg has gone to the playoffs the last four years and posted a 44-28 record over that span.
Steinauer, a 46-year-old Seattle native, served as Toronto’s defensive backs coach and defensive co-ordinator from 2010-13 before becoming Hamilton’s defensive co-ordinator (2013-16). After spending one season as Fresno State’s defensive co-ordinator (2017), he returned to the Ticats (2018) as assistant head coach under head coach June Jones before being promoted to the top job prior to this season.
But neither O’Shea nor Steinauer had an eye on coaching after their playing careers ended. Both were in jobs outside of football when they got the call from Barker.
“Being around stadiums and seeing the hours coaches put in and recognizing some of the things they had to give up lifestyle-wise … I was pretty sure I didn’t want to jump into that,” O’Shea said. “And then when you taste the other side of it, being out of football, you realize this is what you do.
“Because I was so aware of the men that had led me and how they navigated every-day life, I knew how I had to do it and wanted to make sure it was done right for my family.”
Predictably, Steinauer echoed those sentiments.
“I felt like 12 years (playing) was a good run … I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to jump back into it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I didn’t want to but it wasn’t really my time.
“I accepted a job on a Friday then got a call from Jim Barker on a Sunday so it happened real quick for me. It’s been more rewarding that I would’ve imagined.”
Barker said while O’Shea and Steinauer were dominant players, they’re very different as coaches.
“Osh is old-school,” Barker said. “He’s a little bit like when Mike Ditka coached in that he was a very tough player and his players take on his personality.
“Orlondo, I’d say, is more of a Tony Dungy type. I’d say Orlondo seems like he coaches more to today’s player where Mike coaches more to yesterday’s player.”
Veteran Ticats linebacker Simoni Lawrence said under Steinauer, Hamilton is always prepared when it takes to the field.
“Football is so mentally draining sometimes,” he said. “He’s one of those guys where he can keep you in it all season long and help you be better every single day.
“We’re all great and elite athletes, but mentally I don’t think (any team) is more prepared than us.”
Both Steinauer and O’Shea remain thankful Barker took a chance on them.
“When he first gave me the job, I sat in my office for about five days with the door closed trying to figure out how to turn the computer on,” O’Shea said. “I had no clue what was going on … I couldn’t believe Jim had put his faith in me, put trust in me, but it paid off.
“How he managed me, how he coached me, looking back on it now I wouldn’t have realized it then but I loved it, I love the way he coached me.”
Added Steinauer: “He let us work. What’s unique about Jim and I appreciate it to this day is he’s done it from every level … that’s rare.
“He understood it from all angles and I just think, even currently, that was invaluable.”
While Steinauer and O’Shea have a deep bond, they’ll put in hold Sunday. Winnipeg is chasing its first Grey Cup title since 1990 while Hamilton last won it in 1999.
“This is all fun and necessary and both organizations have earned this attention,” Steinauer said. “But I can tell you after the coin toss there’s no wave across (the field).
“It’s going to be two physical football teams going after one goal. Nine teams start off with the same goal, there’s only two teams working this week. Yeah, we want to beat each other.”