Nashua’s LaPolice establishing career as CFL head coach
Paul LaPolice is just now starting to get used to the idea that everywhere he goes in Winnipeg, he’s going to be recognized.
Ready for his third year as head coach of the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, it comes with the territory.
“Me being around, everywhere I go, everybody knows you,” the Nashua native said. “When I go to the grocery store, and everywhere else. Especially this year, after all the success. Everybody wants to talk to you about Bomber football.”
The success LaPolice is referring to is Winnipeg’s trip to the CFL Grey Cup, Canada’s version of the Super Bowl. The Bombers, after going 4-14 in LaPolice’s first season as head coach, finished 10-6, won a playoff game and then advanced to the Cup game, where they fell to the British Columbia Lions, 34-23. LaPolice suffered a less stressful loss to retiring Lions coach Wally Buono, who beat out the Nashuan for CFL Coach of the Year honors that were handed out on Friday.
It wasn’t unexpected, after BC started the year 0-5 and then won it all.
“Being nominated was a great thing,” he said. “I always say that coach of the year is more of an organizational award, anyway. I’m just the guy who makes sure the players are on the bus.”
LaPolice, who played on Ken Parady’s last team at Nashua High School in 1989, has made a nice career coaching in the CFL, first bouncing around the league for several years as an assistant, mostly offensive coordinator, and then landing his first head coaching job with the Bombers two years ago. He quickly learned one of the biggest differences between being a coordinator and a head coach.
“You really feel the losses as a head coach,” LaPolice said. “When you’re a coordinator, you may be a little upset, sure, but then you say, ‘Well, the offense played well’ so you don’t have that complete losing feeling. But when you’re the head coach, that doesn’t matter.”
Still, he appreciated the Grey Cup challenge, particularly after being in the game a couple of times as an assistant.
“It was a pretty neat experience,” LaPolice said. “I tried to impress upon our players to relax and play the whole game. My biggest thing was trying to get them to relax. But you could feel the adrenalin and it was cool running out onto the field out of the tunnel.”
Despite the success he had this year, there’s some thought that LaPolice may be on slightly shaky ground. A column in last Thursday’s Winnipeg Free Press depicted him as a possible lame duck entering into this the final year of his three-year contract, with no extension reportedly hinted at yet by Bombers general manager Joe Mack.
“I think that throughout this job I’ve never felt in the two years that I was over my head,” LaPolice said. “But you still have to be on your toes.”
LaPolice called the plays his first season, and then after this year Mack reportedly demanded a change of offensive coordinators and hired Gary Crowton, who has NFL experience (Chicago Bears) and also was the offensive coordinator for the national champion LSU squad in 2008, possibly when LaPolice, as the column said, would have liked to have promoted from within. But you know the Bombers head man would never air any of that laundry, and says he’s looking forward to working with Crowton and has no problems with Mack.
“I don’t feel pressure for my job,” he said. “I feel pressure to win football games. … He (Mack) pushes me to make sure I play a lot of the younger guys, because coaches sometimes tend to stick with older guys and veterans.
“I have a lot of say in the draft. (Mack) definitely knows what it takes to help make a coach successful. … I’ve worked with a lot of guys and take something from all of them. … But this year, I was trying to do a little bit more of letting the (assistant) coaches coach.”
Even his Grey Cup season didn’t come easy, as LaPolice had to help the organization deal with the sudden death by heart attack in late July of one of his assistant coaches, Richard Harris. LaPolice had just finished up an early week press conference when he was summoned to where his comrade had collapsed. Somehow, he had to pull everything together.
“That was the worst team meeting a head coach could ever have,” he said. “I called a buddy and asked him, ‘What do you do when your coach dies?’ I still had to put together the game plans, I had to get home, I had to try to fix things. … We kind of marched on.
“During our breakup week, I didn’t really bring it up much. But this wasn’t some after school special on TV. This really happened.”
Thus, LaPolice has had to overcome a lot of obstacles. He felt that the Bombers were making progress during that four-win first season, and one thing he tried to impress upon his players and his staff was not to lash back at any of their critics when things turned around the following year.
“When you’re successful, you don’t gloat,” he said. “That was something I really worked to address.”
And he also made sure he and his staff have had the proper down time to decompress after the long season. LaPolice took time to relax in Florida before getting back to the preparations for this season.
LaPolice, who turns 42 in June, says he really hasn’t thought about any other coaching job, including anything in the NFL.
“I’m a head coach in a great league,” he said. “It would have to be a hell of a job. I like where I’m coaching. People care about football in this community. I went to a Jets (hockey) game a couple of months ago. They had my picture up on the Jumbotron, and people were applauding.”
That’s the deal. He has a job now from which everybody knows his name.