WINNIPEG — At the midway point of last season, Mike Kelly had his Winnipeg Blue Bombers sitting at 3-6 amid escalating calls for his firing.
Those cries for the first-year head coach’s dismissal grew louder after the Bombers were trounced 55-10 at home to Saskatchewan, and he was fired following a 7-11 season.
New Winnipeg head coach Paul LaPolice has his team at 2-7 heading into Sunday’s home game against the Roughriders (TSN, 11 a.m.), yet there’s barely any criticism about the rookie boss or calls for his head.
What’s the difference?
“We’re not pleased with being 2-7, but our problems this year are centred around trying to get more (wins),” Bombers president Jim Bell said this week.
“Last year, I think there were more problems off the field that gave rise to more calling for change . . .
“I just sense that the fan base and the community at large is prepared to be more patient right now. The fans think what the organization thinks — that we’re going in the right direction.”
That’s why he and the CFL club’s board of directors haven’t even raised the issue of LaPolice’s job security.
“Absolutely not,” Bell said. “And I want to be very clear that the board and management remains very committed, very supportive of (GM) Joe Mack and Paul LaPolice.”
Last year’s problems Bell referred to included a string of Kelly controversies. There was his insult of former GM Brendan Taman’s scouting system, the near-signing of ex-NFL bad boy Adam (Pacman) Jones and his refusal to take callers on his radio show after many challenged his moves.
There were also confrontations with players and media. Kelly swore and 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 toward the media.
LaPolice has been low key in comparison.
He didn’t even bristle when asked if he’s worried about keeping his job.
“You try not to worry about things out of your control,” LaPolice said.
“We’re in Year 1. We’re nine games in with a whole new crew and some new players and a new staff and new coaches.
“If we have two more wins, we’re right in the playoff hunt. We’re not happy at all where we’re at, but we’re doing our best to correct it.”
He’s grateful fans are sticking behind the team, which is last in the East Division and tied at the bottom of the league with the Edmonton Eskimos.
“The fans have been very positive and I hope it’s because they believe in the people and what we’re trying to accomplish here,” LaPolice said.
“Nobody is happy with what our record is now, but we’re trying to handle our process the right way and treat people right and coach the right way.”
Bomber players know the team’s record is worse than last season, but that’s where the similarities end.
“It’s just a better feeling, a better vibe around here,” receiver Terrence Edwards said.
“Even though we’re 2-7, we’re not having antics, we’re not having the fans calling for coach LaPolice (to be fired).
“We’re going in the right direction, even though our record doesn’t indicate it. We have done some great things, we just haven’t been able to finish games.”
Veteran running back Fred Reid also senses a different atmosphere around the team this year.
“There was a lot more going on (last season), the stuff off the field,” Reid said.
“We’ve got a good core here. We’ve got something good going on. We know we can win.”
Defensive tackle Doug Brown has seen a lot during his 10-year career and he gives his team a better grade than its record should deserve.
“There haven’t been many seasons where at the halfway point I’ve been worse than 2-7, but this is not one of the worst teams I’ve been on,” Brown said.
“We’re a lot better than I think our record shows. We start winning some of the games that we’ve been losing by close margins and the second half will be a different season for us.”
Winnipeg has lost four games by seven or fewer points.
“There’s definitely an air of professionalism around here that may have escaped us at times in ’09,” Brown said.
“I think all things are pointing in the right direction right now in terms of credibility and the brand of the organization right now.”
Bell noted the Bombers have drawn more than 90 per cent capacity for their home games at Canad Inns Stadium, including Sunday’s sellout of more than 29,500.
“That speaks volumes to how supportive this community is behind this football team,” Bell said.
Kelly could be gloating that his dismissal hasn’t translated into more wins for the Bombers, but when reached by phone he said he didn’t want to comment about the team. He’s back in football, including running Can-American APEX Football Camps for kids with ex-Bomber head coach Dave Ritchie and Montreal Alouettes scout and former CFL GM Mike McCarthy.