Maciocia's selling his vision

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

You'd figure Danny Maciocia, when he leads the Edmonton Eskimos onto the field at Commonwealth Stadium tomorrow night for his first regular-season game as head coach, will be thinking 'Wow!'

"I won't be thinking 'Wow!' I'll be thinking 'Now!" says Maciocia.

He's such a good story, it's hard to see him as anything but giddy going into his first game. But Maciocia says no.

"You just can't get caught up in it being your first game as a head coach with the most prestigious organization in the CFL. You can't sit back reading your press clipping with all the nice things people have to say.

"You do that and it's going to hurt you.

"So, no. I'm not thinking 'Wow!' I'm thinking 'Now!'

"All I'm concerned about is now and doing the best job I can do now."

That said, it doesn't change the storyline.

When Maciocia leads the Eskimos onto the field Friday, he'll be completing one of the most amazing trips in the history of Canadian football.

At the age of 37, Maciocia became the new head coach of the Eskimos despite having never played football at any level and having obtained his first 'job' in pro football by working as a Montreal Alouettes assistant coach for free.

We're talking about a short, stumpy guy who didn't get the body to be a football player.

For a kid from Montreal who started coaching bantam football, moved to junior football and spent his first two years in the CFL as a volunteer coach with the Montreal Alouettes, Friday night completes an improbable journey not just with where he's been, but with the team he takes over. The head coaching job with the flagship franchise is THE job in the CFL.

He's one year older than Hugh Campbell was when he began coaching a team which, like the one Maciocia takes over, had won a Grey Cup two years earlier and needed some tweaking.

But Campbell played.

There aren't many head coaches of professional sports squads who didn't play the game at any real level and made it to the top.

One coach who can relate to Maciocia is Ken Hitchcock, who came out of Edmonton and ended up winning the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars.

"I just played for fun," said Hitchcock.

"I didn't play junior and I didn't play pro.

"I coached 12 years of midget hockey in Sherwood Park when other guys my age were playing junior and pro.

"The toughest part, I found, was being believable. When I first went to junior, that didn't just include the players but the press and public. I hadn't done four interviews in 12 years before I went to Kamloops.

"When you reach the pro level, the first time you put a game plan together, the first time you're giving players information, you're being looked at by the players from a point of view of 'Is this going to make us successful?'

"So much of it depends on if the coach is sure of himself and really believes what he's selling. That's the key. Players can read that.

"Selling that is more magnified if the players know the coach hasn't played.

"As soon as the player sees success, then the issue just goes away. It disappears.

"The thing that helped me was that I was in team sales at United Cycle. I had to sell every day. And I had to be believable every day. That really helped me down the road."

I read those quotes to Maciocia.

"That's been exactly my situation," he said, almost as if to say 'How did this hockey coach get in my head?'

"That's it. Being believable. I remember when I was in Montreal and had Mike Pringle, Michael Soles and Thomas Haskins in the backfield. I was presenting the game plan and wondering what these guys were thinking."

Like Hitchcock's United Cycle job in Edmonton, Maciocia said he had a similar situation with his job in Montreal.

"I was an insurance industry claims adjustor and examiner. That helped me immensely. In that job, what you deal with on a daily basis are problems. Break-ins. Car accidents. That helped me in the football world.

"The thing that really helped, especially from the outside looking in, was when we won the Grey Cup in Edmonton. When I was in Montreal, I think a lot of people looked at me as the local guy who spoke French and that was probably the reason I was on board. The biggest boost in my career was picking up and coming to Edmonton.

"Because I didn't play the game, I had to really study the game and become a student of the game. A lot of players who play the game never really do that. But players respect you for playing the game. You have to have the players' respect."

There's only one way to get that, he says.

You have to earn it.

It helps taking over as head coach when the star quarterback, Ricky Ray, came back to rejoin the team partially because of his respect for Maciocia - Ray's quarterback coach and offensive co-ordinator here the first time around. There's also half a team of other veterans who already have that respect. Maciocia has added a few new players this year he'd coached before in Montreal.

The son of Cosmo Maciocia, a Montreal city council member who served in the Quebec Assembly for more than two decades, young Danny was never worried about dealing with the media.

"I grew up around that," he said.

"I watched my dad handle the media. They have a job to do and they're going to ask some tough questions. That's part of the territory when you are a head coach. I learned you have to be professional just like most members of the media are professional. And don't get carried away with the positive stuff one way or the negative stuff the other way. Keep on coaching the football team."

His dad probably would have added something about "as long as they spell the name right."

There's a gift of the gab involved here, too.

"I'm very comfortable with the media. I enjoy talking. I enjoy talking to the media and I enjoy talking to the fans."

Maciocia is an inspiration for a lot of people who never reached an elite level in sports and who think they could start at an amateur level and maybe make it as a coach.

But he's also going to be the darling of every female fan who finds out that Maciocia fell in love with a Portuguese waitress in a Montreal coffee shop.

He coached the Bergamo Lions of the Italian Football League, where he won back-to-back championships. He also coached the Cannes Iron Masks in France.

These are not the kind of credentials Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Knute Rockne or Bear Bryant had on their resumes.

A lot of people are cheering for Danny Maciocia.

First of all, he's a Canadian, the first Canadian head coach of the Eskimos since Annis Stukus was the original Edmonton coach when the team came into the league in 1949.

Maciocia is a Canadian who volunteered, after his second and third seasons as the offensive co-ordinator of the Eskimos, to coach Team Canada at the Global Junior Championships at the Super Bowl this year. He coached that team to an upset win over the United States in Jacksonville, Fla., fulfilling his commitment despite the fact he'd been given the Eskimos head coaching job in the interim.

Also cheering for him are all those people from bantam football, junior football and all those people from the current Canadian hotbed of amateur football in Quebec, to all those Italians around the country, to all the size and height challenged Walter Mitty's of the world who have a chance to live their dreams through him.

"Oh, trust me, I do know there are a lot of people cheering for me. Never a day goes by - when I go to a coffee shop on my way to work or take my daughter to Dairy Queen when I get sincere wishes of good luck.

"In our first pre-season game an official spoke to me on the sideline and said 'You don't know how happy Canadians are for you and how hard they're rooting for you.'

"I sense that support. I feel it."

That includes the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers.

"I've been an Eskimos fan all my life. They know at the training centre to tape the Eskimo games on TSN and CBC," says Hitchcock.

"I'm cheering for him big time."


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