Even with Redblacks struggling, Joe Paopao is pumped being part of CFL
OTTAWA — Joe Paopao was back home — back where seven Paopao brothers had played their high school ball, back where he was coaching with his son and his nephew — when a panicked Rick Campbell came calling this spring.
I could use some help, said the Ottawa Redblacks’ head coach. My offensive coordinator (Jamie Elizondo) just bolted for the XFL and I need a running backs coach.
Sounds interesting, said Paopao, but first I have to consult my agent.
Your agent? Campbell asked.
Yeah, my agent, said Paopao. When you’re married to someone for 44 years you don’t make these decisions on your own. I’ll see what my wife says.
Dotti Paopao, as things transpired, said plenty which is why her husband, one of the great men of the CFL, is back in Canada.
“She goes, ‘I know you don’t say anything but I can see it in your eyes,’” Paopao said. “’You miss it. I know you like being around the grandkids and your family. But this is who you are. You’ve spent most of your adult life in Canada and going back to Ottawa will be a special.’”
That’s one way of describing this Redblacks’ season.
“You know what?” he continued. “I’ve enjoyed it. The season isn’t what we were expecting but I’m engaged with the players. I think the game will always pull me back for that reason.
Paopao, the CFL lifer, is speaking this day at TD Place where the Redblacks, like the Lions, are trying to salvage something from a dumpster-fire of a season. After winning their first two games, Campbell’s team has folded like a pup tent, losing eight of their last nine to sit at 3-9 heading into Saturday’s contest against the visiting Lions.
B.C. Lions vs. Ottawa Redblacks
4 p.m., TD Place, TV: TSN; Radio: TSN 1040 AM
It speaks volumes, in fact, that the 2-10 Lions have to guard against something resembling overconfidence in their second of back-to-back meetings with the Redblacks, especially after their ragged 29-5 win at B.C. Place Stadium last weekend.
This season, the Redblacks were ravaged in free agency; suffered the loss of Elizondo, one of the league’s star coordinators, just before training camp; and have been decimated by injuries during live action.
Campbell, the only coach the Redblacks have known in their six-year history, says this year has been more difficult than his 2-16 expansion season.
“In 2014, I was well aware of the situation,” he said. “We were an expansion team taking players from other teams they were choosing not to keep. I knew it was going to be a dogfight.”
As for this season: “I think we’ve been a little too result-oriented. We’re in the business of winning but a lot of times it’s better focusing on a good performance.”
Which is where Paopao comes in.
The original seen-it-all CFL coach — five decades, five different teams, head coach of the 1996 Lions the year they went bankrupt and, sorry, we just don’t have the space to get into those stories — Paopao was hired by Campbell largely because of the implacable calm he brings to the table.
He’s also needed it this season. Paopao started off as the running backs coach but graduated to quarterbacks coach and de facto offensive coordinator a month ago. He also calls plays for quarterback Jonathon Jennings, the embattled former Lions’ starter who’s trying to resurrect a career that’s fallen off the rails since its promising start.
“He’s like the old grandfather you have,” Jennings said. “He has so much knowledge.”
He comes by that knowledge honestly. After a starry career at Long Beach State, Paopao won the Lions’ starting quarterback job in 1979, eventually lost it to Roy Dewalt, was traded to Saskatchewan, then ended up his playing career in Ottawa and a return gig with the Lions.
He began his coaching career with the Lions in 1989, a career that included stops with the XFL’s San Francisco Demons in 2001, the head job with the now-defunct Ottawa Renegades and college jobs in Canada with Waterloo and Simon Fraser.
After serving as the OC at Simon Fraser, Paopao returned to Oceanside where he was happily working with assorted family members when Campbell came calling.
As a point of interest, he was asked how many Paopaos reside in the Oceanside area.
“Well over 100,” he said. “When my mom died a few years back there were 78 grandkids and great grandkids. My parents (his dad was in the Marines and transferred to nearby Camp Pendleton) had 10 kids and we’ve had families and our kids are having families.
“It’s like rabbits. We just keep multiplying.”
Then there’s his CFL family.
When he was hired back in April, Paopao circled this home-and-home series with the Lions because it meant a chance to reconnect with Kato Kasuya, the Lions’ longtime equipment manager and close friend to all the Paopaos.
Kato made regular appearances in Oceanside and was there in February for the wedding of Paopao’s daughter. A couple of months later, Joe took the job with the Redblacks. Nine days later, Kato died.
“I don’t know,” Paopao said. “It’s still very hard. I don’t know what to say other than I miss him, particularly during the season. I used to talk to him once a week. I’d ask him how the team’s looking. He’d say, ‘pretty good’ or ‘I don’t know about this year.’ But we always talked.
“When I see Danny Webb or George Hopkins (longtime equipment managers of the Argos and Stampeders, respectively) we give each other a hug. It’s our way of remembering.”
And after all this time, he remembers it all.
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