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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Paopao: Canada, Land of Football

October 14, 2006

Hawaii, Oceanside, Long Beach and Vancouver. Sounds like a magnificent Pacific Rim vacation.

Then there are stops from Saskatchewan to Ottawa to Winnipeg, back to Vancouver, later visits to Edmonton and Hamilton, plus another extended stay in Ottawa. "The True North strong and free," as the Canadian anthem says. Oh, and a very brief stay in San Francisco, too, where X marked the spot.

This has been the itinerary of Joe Paopao, and his name may only ring a bell because it's distinct and his stay in Long Beach 30 years ago was brief, and then in a sport that's been AWOL here for half as long. The fact he's spent most of the last three decades winning games, making friends and becoming a football icon north of the border can also in make one a bit anonymous.

Joe Paopao is being recognized for his contributions to Long Beach State with his induction into the school's Hall of Fame in banquet ceremonies Thursday night, and it is clearly a case of someone deserving getting the acclaim and respect that was pretty easy to overlook.

The former quarterback was only a 49er for two years, but they were two of the most successful years in the school's more-valleys-than-peaks football lore. The 1975 and 1976 teams he led as quarterback went 17-5 and may have been every bit as talent-filled - Paopao, Dan Bunz, Russ Bollinger, Herb Lusk - as the better-known and much more revered 1969-70 teams featuring Billy Parks, Leon Burns and Jeff Severson.

Paopao has also spent the last 29 years playing and coaching in the Canadian Football League, and one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in 49er football history who had a longer and more sustained career in football, regardless of how many downs a team gets per offensive series.

"It's hard for me to think that it's been 30 years," Paopao said from Ottawa, where he now lives and spent five years as the head coach of the CFL's Ottawa Renegades (2001-05). "Those are still very memorable years for me that had a great influence on my life and career.

"Out of all the coaching staffs I played for and was a part of, the staff at Long Beach State is still my favorite of all time. They were extremely passionate and they cared about the players. Those teams had no fear of failure. The coaches liked to say that we should play until we tapped ourselves out."

The head coach was Wayne Howard, who had the best winning percentage in school history (.697), and his assistants included Ron McBride, who went on to be head coach at Utah; John Pease, who is in his 20th season as a NFL assistant, now with New Orleans; and the late Todd Gadd, who holds the school record for wins as a head coach at Bucknell.

"The coaches were almost insane with their intensity," Paopao said. "Coach Howard had that Columbo feel to him, wild hair and making hand gestures and just so passionate. He passed that down to all of the coaches. Those teams played reckless, team football."

The 1975 49ers went 9-2 and were one of just two teams in school history to post an unbeaten record (on the road. Lusk finished second in the nation in rushing and the offense ranked ninth nationally. A year later, led by Bunz, the 49ers ranked ninth nationally on defense.

The 49ers were running teams those seasons, but Paopao threw enough to finish his career fifth on the all-time list, and he still ranks eighth. He threw for 2,830 yards and 28 TDs on a mere 198 completions.

"I always felt Long Beach athletics at the time was the nation's best-kept secret," Paopao said. "The football team was successful despite being on probation. Dwight Jones had replaced Lute Olson as basketball coach and guys like Bob Gross were still playing, and the Glenn McDonalds of the Tarkanian era were still around campus.

"The track team had Dwight Stones and there all kinds of world-class athletes on campus. A lot of the women's programs were successful. It talks about the all the tentacles of athletics in Southern California that were at Long Beach."
Paopao was the seventh of ten kids in a military family (his dad was a marine), and all but one of his brothers played football. Oldest brother Junior was a linebacker at San Diego State, Buck was a quarterback at Utah, and Paul earned a scholarship to Arizona but returned home and played at MiraCosta College. Younger brothers Anthony and Mickey played at UCLA and San Diego State.

He has four kids of his own, three of them sons. Andrew played at Palomar City College and briefly at San Jose State before finishing his career at St. Mary's in Ottawa. His youngest, Carson, is a high school sophomore tight end, "who thinks he's a quarterback," Joe said.

Middle son Tyler, who will accept the Hall of Fame induction Thursday, was a standout at Occidental who played briefly for his dad in Ottawa before being released, and just spent a year as a player-coach in an Italian football league. He may follow his dad into coaching.

Paopao, who was born in Hawaii with a family tree planted in Samoa, calls his life in Canada a 29-year paid vacation, and most of the people he's touched as a player and coach consider him a native son who embraced the country and, in some cases quite literally, gave his all to the occasionally whacky CFL.

Paopao's hope to get a NFL tryout fell apart pretty quickly after his college career, so he returned to Oceanside to be an assistant at his former JC, Mira Costa. "I worked the graveyard shift at J.C. Pennies and coached in the afternoons," he said.
Without his knowing, a friend arranged an invite to a CFL free agent camp at Golden West College. Without having really worked out in a year, he attended and impressed the coaches, earning a contract with the British Columbia (B.C.) Lions.

He was a backup in 1978 and became the starter for B.C. in 1979, leading the Lions to the playoffs twice in five years as a starter. He was a backup on the 1983 B.C. team that lost the Grey Cup to Toronto, 18-17. He then spent three years playing for the Saskatchewan Rough Riders and a year each for Ottawa and Winnipeg, where he was a reserve on the 1988 Grey Cup champs.
He became a coach for B.C. in 1989, but returned to the field in 1990 as the transition quarterback for an import named Doug Flutie.
For the next two years, he served as Flutie's mentor in adjusting to the 12-man, three-down, wider-and-longer field game played in the CFL.

"He came ready-made," Paopao said. "He just needed to learn the nuances. I told him the CFL was like playing a golf course with wide fairways. 'Swing away and you'll be fine.' He had the kind of football spontaneity that was perfect for the CFL."
Paopao retired having thrown for 22,474 yards and 117 TDs, which earned him a spot on the league's all-time Top 20, a notable achievement considering all of the name quarterbacks who starred in the CFL.

The list includes the likes of old-timers Sam Etcheverry, Tobin Rote and Joe Kapp, collegians Tom Clements and Condredge Holloway, and later Flutie, Jeff Garcia and Warren Moon. Paopao was the quarterback for B.C. when they crushed Montreal and its new import, a guy named Vince Ferragamo.

Paopao played with Sean Salisbury in Winnipeg in 1988, and was head coach at B.C. when Damon Allen, brother of Marcus and former Cal State Fullerton football standout and now the CFL's all-time career passing leader, became the starting quarterback.

As steeped as his coaching career has been, Paopao's two opportunities as a head coach turned out to be exasperating. He was named head coach at B.C. in 1996 at a time when the franchise was failing financially. Nelson Skalbania - who signed Wayne Gretzky to his first pro contract - owned the team briefly before going bankrupt. "I think we had four or five ownerships groups that one year alone," Paopao said.

The league eventually took it over, but not before Paopao had to put some of the team's travel expenses on his own credit card. "It was odd to put a $25,000 hotel bill on your credit card," he chuckled. Briefly, there were suits filed over who was liable for those expenses, too.

Paopao's only job outside Canada came in 2001 when he took a flier to become an assistant coach with the XFL's San Francisco Demons, who advanced to the XFL title game, losing to the L.A. Express at the Coliseum. He then returned to Canada as head coach in Ottawa, which had been given an expansion franchise a few years after the original franchise had folded.
That experience also proved frustrating with a series of ownership pratfalls.

"It was humbling to be the face of the organization with so many different owners, and assistants and players coming and going each year," he said.

Paopao was a coordinator in Hamilton this year for half-a-season before being let go, and hopes to resume coaching sometime next season.

"I still have one kid to get through college," he said. "I feel blessed and fortunate to have had the career I've had . . . I look at it as a great ride. It's not what I expected, but it's been more than I can have asked for."

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