Winnipeg coach Mike Kelly avoiding the public spotlight as Bombers struggle

WINNIPEG — It’s not surprising that Mike Kelly avoids going out in public these days.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' head coach Mike Kelly smiles during a game against the B.C. Lions in Vancouver

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' head coach Mike Kelly smiles during a game against the B.C. Lions in Vancouver

WINNIPEG — It’s not surprising that Mike Kelly avoids going out in public these days.

With thousands of football fans calling for his head, the rookie Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach can only find some peace in his office and condo.

“All the cash that I’ve gotten lately has been through drive-thru ATMs and most of the food that I’ve eaten has been handed to me through my car window,” Kelly said this week with a wry smile. “Not that I’m avoiding anything, but it’s just better for everybody else to enjoy their dinner without me walking in.”

What fans haven’t been able to enjoy this season is winning football games and most of the blame has been heaped on Kelly.

The Bombers (3-8) share the basement of the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts (3-8), whom they host on Saturday (TSN, 9 p.m. ET).

It’s not what fans expected when the 51-year-old Kelly replaced the fired Doug Berry last December.

The club’s former offensive co-ordinator (1992-96), Kelly oozed confidence after getting what he called his “dream job.”

He predicted the 8-10 roster he inherited would only have to be tweaked. He promised to restore pride in a club that hasn’t won the Grey Cup since 1990 — the longest current championship drought.

He also boasted that nobody would touch the quarterbacks but him, inferring he had the magic touch to produce an explosive offence.

Just the opposite has happened and the fallout has been felt across a city and province where the CFL club is the most scrutinized sports team.

“The anger of the fans is at a level that I have never seen before,” said Bob Irving, CJOB radio’s sports director and Bombers play-by-play man. “That’s partly due to promises that weren’t kept and partly due to unfulfilled expectations.”

The team gets daily coverage from all local media outlets. There’s also a weekly radio show with Kelly and plenty of online discussion forums weigh in on the team’s struggles.

“Blue Losing Hope” and “Despair Begins to Take Its Toll” were recent headlines in local papers, a feeling that’s echoed on the club’s online fan forum.

“I am just embarrassed by this team . . . it has become the joke of the league,” one posting reads.

Others write that they won’t go to games anymore.

And in what may be a first for a CFL head coach, a Facebook group called Fire Mike Kelly was started by a Winnipeg teenager.

Before the Bombers were blown out 55-10 by Saskatchewan at home on Sept. 13, the group had a couple hundred members. That tally has skyrocketed to more than 4,700.

“Worst coach in Bomber history,” wrote one of the members.

There’s also a Facebook group called Fire Lyle Bauer, the team’s president and CEO who’s been criticized for hiring his old friend Kelly. The pair have been friends since Bauer was the club’s assistant general manager from 1992 to ’95.

But there are Bomber fans fed up with the naysayers.

A Facebook group called Give Mike Kelly Some More Time was recently started and has almost 60 members.

“I think what this football team needs right now is a pat on the back and it starts with us the fans,” one member wrote. “We’re going to help them turn themselves around.”

The supportive fans may get their wish rather than the anti-Kelly group.

A source said Kelly’s contract is guaranteed for the first three years. Considering the club is still paying some of Berry’s salary, getting rid of Kelly would be a huge financial hit for a community-owned team that has to watch its bottom line.

Precedent also suggests Kelly will stick around past this season.

Former Bombers head coach Jeff Reinebold went 4-14 in his first season in 1997 and was fired midway through ‘98 after the team started with 10 straight losses and finished 3-15.

Reinebold has also been labelled the team’s worst coach, but not many people had high expectations for the Harley-riding, tattooed rookie coach with the easygoing personality.

Kelly offered a connection to the Bombers and experience as a U.S. college head coach, but his confident nature was quickly seen as cocky and brash, especially when he handled one of the many controversies that’s plagued the team.

Also the team’s offensive co-ordinator, Kelly’s offence has drawn the most criticism. The Bombers have scored the fewest points in the league, yet Kelly irritates fans when he says he’s going to “stay the course” with his schemes.

The team is now fielding quarterbacks Michael Bishop, Casey Bramlet and Ricky Santos. None were with the club when training camp started.

Kelly had hitched his wagon at the start of the season to unproven quarterback Stefan LeFors — now on the nine-game injured list with a shoulder problem — and dumped veteran Kevin Glenn.

Even though many fans wanted Glenn gone last season, they’re upset Kelly didn’t bring in an experienced pivot from the get-go.

Notes: The Bombers added non-import receiver Dante Luciani and non-import defensive lineman Justin Shaw to their practice roster Wednesday.

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