Friday, August 1, 2008

A Final Ventura County Star Interview About the 2008 Elephant's Season

David Lassen interviewed me last Monday in order to write a final recap of the experiences I shared with the 2008 Elephants. 

This was the third such interview I have done with David this season for the Ventura County Star newspaper. We did one before when I made the decision to go to Catania back in October and the second one occurred at the mid-season point when I flew home for our son Michael's graduation from California State University-Channel Islands in May.

Thank you David for all of your support and travel tips on the Grand Tour.

David's pre-season article, dated October 18, 2007, can be found at:

His mid-season, May 18, 2008 article is available at:

Today's August 1, 2008 post season can be seen at:

Lassen: For Contreras, coaching football in Sicily a positive experience

It was never just about football, but football made it possible. And memorable.

George Contreras has returned from his seven-month adventure coaching an American football team in Sicily — discussed here on prior occasions and on his blog "Coaching for Pizza" — and it's safe to say the experience was a good one.

Good enough that, before he left the Catania Elephants, Contreras — who this year served as the team's defensive coordinator — agreed to return in 2009, this time as head coach.

"I'm looking forward to going back," said Contreras. "I'm not sure I'm too crazy about being the head coach."

The long-time local high school coach in Ventura County was in Sicily from January to July, visiting Spain, France, England, the Czech Republic and Austria along the way. Mostly, though, he saw Italy in a way few of us ever will.

"It got to the point where this was home; I'm not visiting any more," Contreras said. "You get into the day-to-day life of things. The biggest thing was just seeing everything and never feeling like we were super rushed."

As allowed by Italian Football League rules, Catania had three North American imports on his roster. One was Jason Johnson, a former University of Arizona, Buffalo Bills and Edmonton Eskimos quarterback who played that position for the Elephants, served as the team's offensive coordinator, and — along with his wife, Christie — shared an apartment with Contreras.

Johnson is not sure he'll return to Catania next year. But he, too, had a great experience.

"I don't think there was a day that went by that we didn't try to absolutely milk it for what it was worth," Johnson said. " For George, it was about having this whole experience of living in another culture, and experiencing football in that culture."

That meant everything from learning to deal with the local style of driving — "All Italian driving is based on greed," asserts Contreras, "what's best for me at this moment" — to the Italian way of doing business (Contreras left, after 199 days, never having received the high-speed Internet connection promised in 10 working days).

The Italian way shows up on the football field in unusual ways — the Elephants played all season in their red home jerseys because the sponsor logos were never sewn on the white road uniforms — and that made for some occasional coaching ups and downs.

Since the Italian players on the roster are playing strictly out of the love of the game (the imports receive a modest salary), practice attendance often took a back seat to job and family commitments. And the team was decimated by injuries, so Contreras had to learn to roll with the punches.

"There were a number of times," said Johnson, "when we would spend an hour or two scripting out practice and making elaborate plans, just to show up and have to throw it all out the window to work with the guys who were able to make it that night.

"It was definitely an adjustment, but I think at the same time, it was a fresh approach for George, dealing with the game through innocent eyes, almost."

Catania — making the jump from the third division of Italian football to the first — went 6-4 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. With the help of his players, Contreras came to appreciate what an accomplishment that was. He recalled a conversation with Marco Raino, a defensive lineman who's been playing for Catania for more than a decade, after the team lost 57-43 in a game at Bologna.

"He said, Coach, did you see what they were doing?' " Contreras recalled.

"Well, yeah, I saw them celebrating.

" Well, you don't understand how great that was.'

"I said, What?' "

Raino explained Catania had played Bologna a number of times over the years, and had always been routed, with Bologna treating the victory like no big deal. They were celebrating, they said, because they didn't think they could win.

"We're just excited to see we can compete with these guys, and make them work for a victory," said Raino. "It's not like the old days."

That the players were excited about the improvement, and felt they'd improved fundamentally, was "an exciting thing," said Contreras. And that he now understands the ways of Italian football is clear when he makes an admission that would be foreign to almost any football coach: the team probably needs to practice less.

"It's really just kind of like street football," he says. "Let's get out there and let the good guys play. You've got to have guys and just let them go."

In his Italian offseason, Contreras will coach at Rio Mesa High and work to recruit players for next season. He'll also speak positively of his Italian football experience to anyone who wants to listen.

"Anybody who's just out of college and still wants to play should go," Contreras said. " It's one of my selling points to guys: You can go right now out of college, or you can wait until you're 60 years old and retired. In between, it's going to be really hard for you to say adios for seven months.

"Every kid coming out of college who can do it, they're missing the boat if they don't."

Contreras didn't do it until he was retired. But he didn't miss the boat.

— Contact columnist David Lassen at For more on Contreras' thoughts on football in Europe, as well as a few stories about Contreras from quarterback Jason Johnson, see Lassen's blog at

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