Wednesday, April 12, 2017
MADANI ON THE ORRIDGE OUSTER
The only surprise about Jeffrey Orridge's ouster from the commissioner's chair is that it took this long to happen.
Many connected in league circles during last November's disastrous Grey Cup week -- remember the Pizza Pizza fiasco, and then thousands of free tickets given to Bell employees to paper the house? -- weren't sure if Orridge would make January.
But, as my grandmother so often would say, these things take time, and Orridge's was up when his bosses had fully lost confidence in his direction. That took merely 25 months to happen.
Orridge was miscast for the position from the beginning. At his introductory press conference, a native New Yorker tried to convince Canadians he grew up glued to the CFL. There’s no need to be a lifer to be commissioner, of course, but starting that way was a warning sign, wasn’t it? An insecurity? The realization that his next proclamations required a grain of salt.
That wasn’t his only public misstep, and ones that followed were painful. In each of his 'state of the league' addresses at Grey Cup, he was lost in the wilderness, seemingly unaware of the real issues facing his office. In 2015, he pulled open the curtain on a new logo and said a new league Web site was about to be unveiled. Until an aide ambled up on stage and whispered in his ear that they were still weeks away from launch.
It hit rock bottom in 2016, not when he referred to that same league Web site as a dot-com, but when he doubled down and vehemently denied any link between the game of football and brain diseases.
What the CFL wanted in Orridge was a marketer, and a leader to promote growth and harmony. It didn't happen. There was a showdown against the Edmonton Eskimos over the live mic'ing of players; the Tiger-Cats were at war with the league office over Kent Austin's discipline for making contact with an on-field official. The football side of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who remain the pulse and lifeblood of league business, openly questioned the discipline brought forth by the league office.
Many who worked there, in downtown Toronto at CFL headquarters, would often find the commissioner's door closed -- a departure from the open communication Orridge's predecessor, Mark Cohon, had.
By promoting Glen Johnson to head football czar under his watch, the Orridge on-field regime became more about trying to draw attention to "innovative changes to our league," rather than addressing what had to be done to fix the issues in the game. It was as if the department wanted attention from south of the border, that they were doing new things the NFL wasn't, to gain some sort of validation and love. The league's PR department became obsessed with their American TV partnership, even inviting ESPN football writer Kevin Seifert to watch a game from their replay command centre, and interview Orridge. When the commissioner gleefully spoke of Johnny Manziel coming north, which led to CFL personnel lighting up his phone angrily, Orridge claimed he was misquoted.
As confidence eroded in the ability to get calls properly diagnosed through replay review last year, the league dealt with another crisis from one of their "innovative changes." The game became too choppy with coaches throwing challenge flags as if they were screen passes into the flat. It led to a mid-season about-face and a rule change on the fly in the summer.
Amidst the fascination with US television, the ratings domestically took a pounding during Orridge's time in office. The 2016 Grey Cup had the lowest ratings in over a decade, down 12%. He was brought in to attract a broader and younger audience. It didn't happen.
And then there's player safety, which the league insisted under Orridge was a priority, but then didn't live up to the billing. In addition to the incredulous declaration that football doesn't harm the brain, the CFL players' union of late has taken the league to task for how poorly they treat injured players that require further rehabilitation past one season.
Beyond all else, either Orridge did not understand, or was unable to figure out, how to play well in the political cauldron that is the CFL sandbox. This remains a league where nine governors have their own agendas in mind -- and that hasn't changed since the game was broadcast in black and white TV. Orridge was often referred to as "the invisible commish" by many league stakeholders -- from fans to owners. He was never quite able to understand the mix between the grassroots core the league has, and the corporate presence it so badly craves.
It wasn't Orridge's fault the Toronto Argonauts situation was the disaster he inherited, nor the circus it has become. But that the league did not step in to try and fix a broken 2016 Grey Cup last fall -- when it became quite apparent to so many of the disaster ahead -- was another nail in his coffin.
Orridge empowered Johnson to run his football department, pushing aside Kevin McDonald -- who had been in the role previously and had better relationships with team coaches and GMs. It is well known that Johnson craves the commissioner's job, and has angled himself politically with governors in an attempt to take over the chair. This, while Orridge was still in charge.
And so it was then, late last November at his state of the union -- one bumped up by 30 minutes, presumably after the league panicked, hearing the players union would hold a news conference of their own that Friday morning -- that I asked Orridge of his future. If he was confident he'd remain in charge.
If you've known the history of the CFL, and the folks that govern it, when the storm clouds are near, it may be too late to batten down the hatchets. Orridge didn't even see the cyclone coming.
He proudly boasted that day of how confident he was of his leadership. That the owners had just approved his long-term, strategic plan. That he was excited for what was ahead.
Orridge made it to January, but didn't get to opening day. In a vintage CFL move, they waited until the opening day of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to make the announcement. The story likely gets buried further then, than their usual Friday afternoon doping infraction results.
The CFL is in desperate need of direction, vision and leadership from someone in its most important position. And, six weeks away from training camps opening across the country, they are without someone providing that, yet again.