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April 12, 2016

Back in the rooms he helped build, Paul LaPolice is ready to rebuild an offence

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Paul LaPolice has enjoyed spending the winter indoors.

It’s not because of the Winnipeg weather raging outside but, rather, it’s been the chance to get back to doing what he dearly loves to do and that is spending hour upon hour designing football schemes for implementation instead of just for the hell of it.

It’s an itch he’d been waiting to scratch for about three years.

“I’m finally able to sit in a room for four hours and say ‘here are my ideas. Help me figure it out.’ That’s been neat for me,” he says.

LaPolice is making his way home after another typically long day in the life of a football coach. He’s behind the wheel of his car, heading out from the office, entertaining questions on a wide range of topics: Everything from the early days of drawing up plays while he was supposed to be paying attention in class; to the hours and hours spent poring over the little things as offensive coordinator of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“We were working on our second-and-one game plan today,” he says, illustrating the kind of detail that coaches get into, even now, more than two months away from regular season kick-off. “There are always things to do.” His voice is energetic and his tone more than just suggests that he eagerly welcomes that reality.

BlueBombers.comLaPolice is introduced as a Bomber alongside Mike O’Shea (BlueBombers.com)

LaPolice loves the work and is labouring to ensure the 2016 Blue Bombers’ offence – filled with new and exciting veteran names like Andrew Harris, Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith – is going to put points on the board on a regular basis.

“Not gonna be anything enlightening,” he warns, when asked to describe the type of offence he wants to see in blue and gold this season.

Then he elaborates in terms that will be familiar to a football fan, outlining the characteristics he wants to see on game day. They are commonly held yet sometimes elusive qualities.

“It’s about making sure we’re not one dimensional,” he explains. “We need to have a plan to run the football. We need to be able to protect the quarterback and handle blitz situations. And we’ve got to get the ball to our productive players, whoever those guys are. That’s not different than my philosophy from back in 1997.”

1997 is a long time ago but that doesn’t even go back to the beginning for LaPolice. It’s merely the year he was elevated from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator at RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), the same East Coast U.S. school that many Canadians are familiar with because NHL stars Adam Oates and Joe Juneau once played there. It’s a detour in his life that he is happy to have made after originally wanting to stay at the University of New Hampshire, where he’d worked with the likes of San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly. That came after his early foray into coaching at the Maine Maritime Academy, where he forged a connection that would eventually bring him to the CFL.

“I knew I wanted to coach, probably, in my junior year,” he remembers, looking back on his college days where, as a receiver for Plymouth State, he admits he was just “average.” He liked to play but those average abilities weren’t going to take him to the pros. Certainly not after he broke a leg in his senior year, forcing him to miss the last six games of the season and got him to daydreaming during lectures.

“I used to draw up plays in class,” he laughs. “It’s funny because I used to sit with this girl, every day, in these two classes we had together. I wouldn’t pay attention. I’d just be drawing up plays. She used to be like ‘what are you doing? What are you gonna do with that? You’re not gonna do football for the rest of your life.’

“There ya go.”


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LaPolice has been energized by jumping back into the pool after three seasons as an analyst at TSN. He liked doing television, he says, and enjoyed the people he worked with. However, even during his time in front of the camera, he still employed that coach’s mind of his and that was by design. When he opted for the TSN job over a football operations role somewhere else, he made a request; one that would ensure he remained as plugged in as possible.

“I said that I have to be able to get the video that’s just like the coaches’ copies, right after the game or the next day,” he explains.

More than just television images, LaPolice insisted he get access to what’s known as “DragonFly,” the game video that all nine teams and CFL head offices get. It’s video that is much more valuable as a breakdown tool, with views from the sidelines and the end zones. He got it and used it to help inform his “Coach’s Playbook” segments on TSN, where he would show the nuts and bolts of scheming to viewers. It also gave him resource material for what he always assumed would be an eventual return to coaching.

“I could evaluate things, see what people were running, what I liked, how the players were doing,” he says. “It helped me with the ‘Coach’s Playbook,’ but it also gave me good ideas. It just kept me involved in the game.”

“I wasn’t just doing TV. I was always trying to get better and learn.”

That’s why LaPolice always kept up with his connections in the U.S., making the occasional trip to feed his football brain. It’s why he took on the position of guest coach at two Toronto Argonauts’ training camps, as well.

Always, in the back of his mind, was the thought that he’d return to the long, labouring days of pitting X’s against O’s as a coach. When the Blue Bombers came calling last December, LaPolice jumped at the chance to build another playbook as the team’s new offensive coordinator, more than three years after he’d been let go as the Bombers’ head coach. His first day on the job was a little odd, as he finally got to work in rooms he’d assisted in laying out.

“I helped design the building when I was here as head coach and then I didn’t get in there. I was gone by the time they’d moved in. It was pretty cool to go in there and see some of those rooms. The meeting rooms, the classrooms, the coaches’ offices. That’s been a really cool thing to go through, process-wise.”

“I wasn’t just doing TV. I was always trying to get better and learn.”

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

LaPolice on the sidelines for TSN during an Argos/Ticats game in 2015 (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Anything that gets LaPolice immersed in football culture and toil seems to fire him up and that’s been happening since the days following his broken leg nearly 25 years ago. It was then that he’d called around, asking buddies if they needed a “gopher” to help out at high school recruiting camps. He got three hundred bucks, he remembers, to do whatever needed being done for schools like Boston College and its head coach, Tom Coughlin. “Just to meet some people,” he says.

Soon after, he was given a job that would set him on a course for the CFL. Signing up to be the receivers’ coach at Maine Maritime Academy, LaPolice caught the eye of the head coach there, one John Huard. The same John Huard who was hired by general manager J.I. Albrecht to coach the Toronto Argonauts in 2000. With LaPolice coordinating RPI’s offence to a clutch of school records over the previous two seasons, his old boss in Maine decided to lure him to Toronto. At 29 years of age, LaPolice was named the Argos’ quarterbacks and receivers coach.

“J.I. announced me as thirty,” says LaPolice, laughing. “He didn’t want to have a 29-year-old be announced.”

Since then, LaPolice has been around, north of the border. Don’t forget, he was the Blue Bombers’ offensive coordinator back in 2002 before moving on to Hamilton, back to Toronto and then Saskatchewan before becoming Winnipeg’s head coach in 2010. Now, he’s again up to his neck in playbook pages as he gears up for the 2016 season as Winnipeg’s OC.

“People would be surprised how detailed the playbooks are,” he says. “It’s all on PowerPoint. Four hundred pages.”

That’s a far cry from scratching down ideas on a piece of scrap paper in a classroom in New Hampshire. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a staff to implement an offensive game plan and LaPolice reports that he and Offensive Line Coach Bob Wylie as well as Quarterbacks Coach Buck Pierce and Running Backs Coach Avon Cobourne – under the direction of Head Coach Mike O’Shea – are starting to sync up. “I’ve been excited to get back and work with a group of guys,” says LaPolice. “Excited about Mike. It’s been awesome working with Mike and I have a lot of respect for him.

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“As a new staff who hasn’t worked together in a little while, the last two weeks we’ve been going through the playbook and making sure we’re all on the same page on what we’re coaching and how we’re coaching.”

They are definitely on the same page when it comes to what LaPolice has deemed the most critical factor of all for the Winnipeg offence: keep the quarterback off crutches.

“The most important thing is that Drew Willy stays healthy and (if) we can do a good job of giving him an opportunity to play eighteen games, we’re gonna be happy with ourselves.”

Happiness is a healthy quarterback and a playoff spot, but that’s for a few months down the road. Right now, for Paul LaPolice, happiness is a room full of coaching comrades and an offence to build.