Adam Rita’s not entirely sure what he’s getting himself into, but he can’t wait to get there – to Prague, home of the historic St. Vitus Cathedral, Wenceslas Square and the monsters of the Czech Republic gridiron, the Prague Panthers.
Surely you’ve heard of the Panthers. Not only have they won 12 national championships since 1991; they also play in the vaunted Austrian Football League and are rated one of best four-down teams in Europe.
That’s why their newly-named head coach was busy this week, jotting down ideas and working on a playbook to ensure his players live up to their legacy.
“They play in one of the best leagues in Europe and the players look pretty good on tape,” Rita said from Toronto, where the six-time Grey Cup winner last served as general manager of the Toronto Argonauts. He was head coach of the Argos (1991-92), Ottawa Rough Riders (1994) and B.C. Lions (1997-97, 2002). “I’m really pumped up about this.”
Now, you might think it strange a career North American football man would switch continents for a job where only a couple of his 45 players can be imports (i.e. ringers, the rest have to be nationals). But Rita’s eyes were opened last September, when his wife took him to her parents’ home in Hungary. While travelling, Rita enjoyed the cultural differences and possibilities.
Not long after, he decided he wanted to return to coaching but was unable to find a spot in the CFL. One of Rita’s former co-workers with the Lions (Roger Kelly) contacted him and asked if he’d be interested in coaching in Europe. Former Lions coaches Dave Ritchie (Switzerland) and Dave Easley (Germany) were already signed up. Rita was intrigued.
“Roger has a website – Europlayers.com. I went on it and recognized a few people coaching there and thought it would be exciting,” Rita said.
“Prague is close to where my wife’s folks live. And Prague is more like Toronto – 1.2 million people. It’s got unbelievable culture and it seems like a good fit.”
Rita added that seeing video of the Panthers in action helped convince him to go.
“I thought their middle linebacker was a heckuva player. Then, they told me [the linebacker’s]wife’s cousin is married to Jon Landon. He played for the Argos when I was there [in 2004] I said, ‘You guys are like family. I’m coming.’ “ American football is growing steadily in Europe, where teams play 10 to 12 games a season and also compete in the top-end Eurobowl (former champs: the Helsinki Roosters) or in the second-level European Federation of American Football Cup. Prague won the EFAF Cup in 2009, defeating the Black Panthers de Thonon-les-Bains from France.
“I went to a lot of Eastern Bloc countries last September, and every one has a [football]team or several teams. NFL Europe pumped up the volume for U.S. football,” Rita said. “I’d like to get back to the CFL some day. There’s a new team coming with Ottawa and I’d definitely be interested in doing something there. This keeps me in the game and it sounds very interesting.”
So does his new quarterback.
“They just signed Justin Walz [an American who led the Crew Wroclaw to the 2011 Polish league championship] He’s ‘a cross between Doug Flutie and Matt Dunigan,’ “ Rita insisted. “A really good athlete and a good competitor.”
Sounds like a good fit, all around.