Long after CFL tenure, veteran football coach Adam Rita is still involved in the game

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Adam Rita has no intention of slowing down any time soon.

More than a decade after leaving the CFL, the amiable 73-year-old native of Kauai, Hawaii, is still in football.

Rita is head coach of the Barcelona Dragons, a franchise preparing for the inaugural European League of Football campaign later this month. Teams play by NFL rules, but revert to NCAA regulations in overtime.

"Coach or die, this is what I do," Rita said in an interview. "Everyone asks me how I'm doing and I tell them I'm grateful as hell and it's a great day because I got up and I get to coach.

"The people around me, especially the players, really motivate me to help, to serve and to try to make them the best they can be."

Rita is the definition of a football lifer. He played centre at Boise State (1965-68) before embarking on a coaching career at the university (1969-76). After stints at UNLV and Hawaii, Rita joined the B.C. Lions as offensive co-ordinator in 1983, spending the better part of three decades in the CFL as an offensive co-ordinator, head coach and GM with the Lions, Toronto, Edmonton, Ottawa and Memphis.

Rita's teams went to the Grey Cup eight times, winning six. His last CFL season was 2010 when his contract as Argonauts' GM wasn't renewed.

Since then, Rita has coached Toronto's Trinity College (2012-15), Clarkson Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont. (2016-19), the Prague Panthers (2012), Switzerland's Calanda Broncos (2013-14), Italy's Bergamo Lions (2017-19) and Berlin Adler (2020) before joining the Dragons.

"There are many reasons why I retired from the CFL," Rita said. "I'm an avid reader and when you read so much about different parts of the world, you want to see it live.

"I got to come to Europe doing what I love. Football has no language barriers, everyone understands football talk and if they don't, someone can interpret it for you."

The European League of Football opens June 19 and will become Europe's first fully pro circuit since the demise of NFL Europe in 2007. Six of its eight teams are based in Germany with the other in Poland.

The Dragons kick off June 19 against the Stuttgart Surge.

"This was a unique opportunity," Rita said. "It's a new league and I'm always up for a challenge.

"I think Italy and Spain are more my style with great people, great food and more of a family-style atmosphere. We're actually in Reus (a city of 103,000 located about 109 kilometres south of Barcelona). I don't want to deal with traffic and the kind of stuff I could live in Toronto and deal with."

Easy-going off the football field, Rita admits he's much more hard-nosed as he prepares the Dragons for their opening game.

"Right now we're establishing a relationship . . . and I want to make a point," Rita said. "They're younger, they're eager and they're non-professional right now, they don't know what it takes to be a pro on or off the field because some of these guys have never left home.

"We have 30 players living in residence, which can cause other issues because there are personalities, there's trying to get along and having a roommate who maybe doesn't clean up after himself . . . all those dynamics that we have to teach them. Sometimes we get more upset over the smaller things that make you wonder. That's why for every drill I say, 'Eyes up. When you get into your stance I want your eyes up . . . you can't block it if you can't see it, you can't hit it if you can't see it.' It's muscle memory."

Rita isn't the only Dragons coach with CFL coaching experience. Joe Paopao (quarterbacks) and Ron Smeltzer (offensive line) are both former CFL head coaches who were also recruited by Rita because of their familiarity with the Canadian ratio. Under ELF rules, Barcelona can have four Americans and 10 non-Americans (players from outside Spain) but the remainder of its roster must consist of Spanish competitors.

"That's why I wanted Joe and Ron, guys who are familiar with the Canadian ratio," Rita said. "That's because the first thing an American coach wants to do is cut a national player but that's the last thing you want because he's the most valuable guy.

"Joe is really hard on his quarterbacks but the guys love it because someone's paying attention to the little things. These guys aren't really used to having football 24-7 so when they go home every Friday, they have a simple video or written test because that also shows the coaches what the players know and don't know, which is important for (coaches) to know."

Rita has also adopted some CFL practices with Barcelona. His practice days are 4 1/2 hours long (like in Canada) and each Friday is dubbed Aloha Friday, where players and coaches wear Hawaiian-styled clothing.

During Rita's tenures in Toronto, players were encouraged to wear an assortment of head gear other than helmets for the final walkthrough before each game.

Spain is considering easing rules on face masks outdoors as early as next week. Masks became mandatory indoors and out throughout most of the country last summer but reduced transmission and increased vaccination rates appear to have helped lower COVID-19 infection rates.

In April, 36 players from 18 countries were selected in the 'CFL global draft, but none from Spain. Rita believes his team will be an underdog this season, and he's good with that.

"The level of play (in Spain) is relative," said Rita. "To me, unless we're playing the NFL, I'm not really worried.

"We're the underdogs. We don't have the same top-level talent that Germany has . . . but as I've told our guys, it's us against the world. We're too small, we're too slow but what they (opponents) don't know is we're going to be like a dog on a bone, we're going to keep after them. We're going to be in the best position because they think they can beat us but what they don't realize is we think we can beat them."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press