As the CFL looks to reopen for a 2022 season, the Ottawa Redblacks will have a new leader. Though Paul LaPolice has been the team’s head coach for over a year and a half, he has yet to coach his first game in the Capital.
LaPolice was born in New Hampshire and is an alumni of both Plymouth and Western Connecticut State Universities. He has had a decorated coaching career that began as early as his college years. He’s spent over 20 years in the CFL. In that time, he’s held several positions with the Toronto Argonauts, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He’s won two Grey Cups, as the Receiver’s Coach for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2007, and as the Offensive Coordinator of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2019.
Coming off a Grey Cup win and into a year of COVID-related shutdowns, LaPolice admits that his work is cut out for him. He has yet to meet most of the players, and is working with an all-new coaching lineup. Building a team culture from the ground up will be his first priority.
But, he believes Ottawa, both as a team and a city, fits the mold for success. Ottawa is a city that loves football, and as long as that is at play, he knows that he can bring value to the team and make an impact in his first year on the field.
You were born in Nashua, New Hampshire, named ‘The Best Place To Live’ by Money Magazine (in 1987 and 1998).
Tell us a little about the town.
Yes, I wasn’t living there in 98’ but I was there in 87’. Nashua is a city of around 100,000 people… there’s a bunch of other cities around it. It’s called the ‘Gate City’ because it’s right on the border of Massachusetts. You can be in Boston in an hour at a Red Sox game, and you can also go an hour and be on the seacoast. There’s a small part of New Hampshire that is on the ocean. You can also go skiing, if you drive 2 hours north you’ll be right in these beautiful, scenic white mountains. So, New Hampshire was a little bit of everything, which really made it an outstanding place to live.
You received your Bachelor of Science Degree in Physical Education while playing football. Did you originally have aspirations to be a teacher? Did you even think about coaching during your time at school?
I went to college and thought of doing a Business Degree, but the more I was playing football, I just didn’t think that mathematics and managerial accounting were really my passion. I did, however, have a passion for the game of football. I sat with this girl who was in all of my classes with me and she kept saying ‘why do you keep drawing up plays? What is that ever going to get you?’ I always laugh when I see her and say, “Maureen, look! I’m getting paid!”
So, it started in college. While I was still playing, I actually started the process to build a resume. I worked college football camps at Boston College and Northeastern University. I actually worked at Tom Coughlin’s football camp when he was the head coach of Boston College years ago. So really, college did make me think about coaching.
Who were some of the coaches you looked up to during your football career (or as a fan), and what made them such good leaders?
My high school coach was a gentleman named Kent Paradis. He was a legendary coach in the community who had won a lot of football games. When Coach Paradis would talk to you it would be a big deal. I remember as a young player, I had a really good game and he came up to me and congratulated me, and if that happened, you would be in awe just because of how revered he was by his players. My brother was a very successful player, he was what was called the ‘Gatorade Player of the Year’ in New Hampshire during his senior year and got a full scholarship to Boston University as a kicker, so that certainly pushed me into football a little bit more. I was just fortunate enough to have good coaches in a number of spots. Some of my head coaches, Bill Bowes in New Hampshire, Joe King at RPI, and then my CFL guys.
It’s a weird business because you start out with these guys and you’re all making four thousand dollars a year, with five guys sharing an apartment. And now, I’m a head CFL coach. One of the guys on the staff is working for the Buffalo Bills, another guy was the offensive coordinator for Penn State and Minnesota… just to see everyone branch out into different spots. I was fortunate enough to go back to the University of New Hampshire, my home state, to coach for a couple of years. We had a really good program and Chip Kelly, who was on the staff was with the Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, UCLA; it’s just the experience of growing up in the business and seeing all the guys I’ve worked with moving up to different levels. It’s been very inspirational for me.
You’ve spent just over 20 years in the CFL as a coach. What is the biggest difference between your approach to your career today and the day you walked on your first CFL coaching job?
When I first got into the business it was more about ‘do it this way because I’m telling you, I’m the coach’… where nowadays, I always try to teach the ‘why’ to my players. I ask them their opinions, and I really try to make them a part of the process. At the college level, it’s very much ‘my way or the highway’. At this level, I want it to be more collaborative. I want to promote leadership. I want them to be leaders, and the only way to do that is to let them have a voice, a say, and to take ownership.
On game days, how much of the play calling is directed by the offensive and defensive line coaches, versus you? What is the balance between the coordinators and you calling the shots during the game?
I’ve got a very veteran staff, both of my coordinators have been head coaches in the league, Bob Dyce and Mike Benevides, so it’s comforting that there’s a lot of situations that they’ve been in already that they can help me, which I think is a great thing.
Put it this way: there are things we want to do for Redblacks defense, our core, and what we do in certain situations. We’ve come to agreements on what we do. And it is the same with Bob on special teams. Once you’ve gone over those parameters with the guys it becomes more okay to let them do their thing and give them that freedom.
Whether it was fate, push, or pull that led you to become the head coach of the REDBLACKS (or a bit of all three), why did you personally accept the challenge of becoming the team’s coach, following a disappointing 3-15 season in 2019?
When you take a job like this, you certainly need to believe that you have the ability to win football games. Looking at the roster and looking at some of the things that they were deficient in, and the areas that I think are strengths of mine as a coach, I felt there were things that I could help to fix. I had good conversations with Marcel and his staff about what they needed to do and what they wanted to do. Once you get those priorities aligned, you throw in the fact that Ottawa as a city really cares about football. It has a great game-day atmosphere. People love going down to the stadium. That gives me a great feeling that we can continue to build on that because it is an environment that loves the game. I’ve been in the West for a long time where Saskatchewan bleeds green and white, and Winnipeg is very passionate, and after winning a Grey Cup, it was the right time to move on to take the next challenge.
At the time of this interview, there is optimism that there will be a CFL Season in 2022. What are you most looking forward to as Head Coach this season?
The thing I’m most excited about is being with players again. With my teaching background, I really enjoy the process of guiding players; going over the game plan, building the culture that we want. That is what I miss. Then, obviously, the competition that goes with building a team. I’m looking forward to starting to build relationships. It has been strange being the coach for a year and a half and only meeting about five guys in person.
What is the biggest challenge you are facing in your new role?
The biggest challenge would be that we are all new staff. We have to introduce a lot of new things to a new group of guys. If you look at the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, they have the same look; the same coaching staff, a majority of the roster, and they are bringing everyone back. Our team will be new to the system. So, this is the main challenge we will face especially if there are no preseason games. We need to educate the players on what to do within our system.
How instrumental has your wife been in your success?
First and foremost, especially in this business, you have to have a significant other who is very understanding of you and of the hours that go into football. It is important that they have some sort of independence or are comfortable with independence because once football starts, you don’t have a lot of days off. Tina certainly is all of that. She has had to take on doing all the chores, and picking people up from practice… We have three kids. She’s also been a football fan her entire life, and she was the cheerleading coach of the Blue Lightning. She said the other night, that she can’t wait to start watching football again on Friday nights.
You mentioned that you are a father of three. Do you see any similarities between coaching a team of football players and raising children?
Whether it’s your kids or players, you’re just trying to impart knowledge to them. I know from a player standpoint, players want to be able to see you as the coach stand up in front of them and know that you are the guy who is going to give them a chance to be successful. That’s what players expect from coaches. My job as a leader is to define the reality that they are in and then give them hope.
How are you enjoying Ottawa? Do you remember your first impression of the city?
We actually moved in the middle of the pandemic, so it has been a different scenario. Normally, it would have been in the middle of the season and my family would have come out in July. We had learned about Calabogie and going skiing in Packingham, so it actually gave us more time to learn about the city and the community. One thing I love about Ottawa, and that I am most impressed with, would be the outdoor atmosphere, meaning the pathways are always cleared so people can go for walks, bike trails are ready to go, and people really just care about outdoor activity and the city promotes it very well. It has been a lot of fun being able to do all these things with my family.
Favourite restaurants in Ottawa so far?
One thing that I’ve learned is how many food trucks there are in the greater Ottawa area. Our favourite one would be Ad Mare. But if we’re downtown, we’re obviously a fan of Joey Lansdowne because it is so close by. Another one would be Feleena’s Mexican on Bank Street.
If you could recommend one Netflix show or movie, what would it be?
Cobra Kai, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Yellowstone.
Finally, what is the best piece of advice you could give to anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?
The first thing I would say is, are you willing to pay the price? To move every three years? Do you want to start out at a job that pays very little, have a year-to-year contract? There are many steps and you’ve got to pay your dues.
You have to be willing to work hard. I was telling my daughter this the other day; you don’t just have to work hard, you’ve got to be able to work with people. It doesn’t even matter what business you are going into. When someone asks, ‘would you recommend working with so and so?’, you need those people in your corner who would say positive things about you. Overall, I think that if you work hard, are confident in what you’re doing, and work well with others, then you have a chance at being successful.
Photography by Sean Sisk