Gladiators’ GM Bart Iaccarino looking to make his mark on Spanish football

Once the beating heart of entertainment in the oldest Roman settlement on the Iberian peninsula, the sounds of gladiators haven’t echoed off the walls of the Tarragona amphitheater in almost 1,500 years.

That will soon change.

While the venue won’t be a UNESCO World Heritage site, 2021 is slated to mark the return of gladiators to the Costa Dorada. Gladiators Football will wear different armor than their historical counterparts, but the first Spanish franchise in the new European League of Football will fittingly have an Italian at the helm when they launch their inaugural campaign in the shadow of Roman ruins later this year.

Much like his conquering ancestors, Bart Iaccarino is leaving a lasting imprint on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. At just 37 years old, he’s the general manager in charge of bringing professional style American football back to Spain, building on the legacy of the Barcelona Dragons of NFL Europe.

Leading the Gladiators is the next step in a promising career for Iaccarino, but it also brings his football life full circle. Growing up in the small city of Sorrento along Italy’s picturesque Amalfi Coast, it was another Gladiator’s organization, the Gladiatori Roma, who pulled him into the sport during a traveling summer camp. Already six-foot-one and over 300 pounds at 16, the young Iaccarino was spotted by the team while shooting hoops and quickly found his life’s passion.

“They said what are you doing playing basketball, you should try American football,” Iaccarino recalls with a smile. “They put me in a helmet and shoulder pads and since then I haven’t stopped.”

While Iaccarino describes the experience as ‘love at first sight’, getting involved in this new sport was no easy task. Without internet access, Iaccarino and his family had to phone the Italian federation to find the nearest team to him. That was in Naples, an hour and twenty minutes away along the winding Italian coastline. Not yet able to drive on his own, it was Iaccarino’s mother who helped him make the weekly trek.

“She said you are crazy and I don’t like this sport but if you want to do it, it’s your life,” Iaccarino laughs. “She helped me get there until they moved the practice to Saturday and then I was able to go by train by myself.”

Photo: Thorsten Lux

Soon, Iaccarino found himself longing for a bigger challenge. Having outgrown the small Naples team, he set his sights on Rome. For two years, Iaccarino rode the train four hours every Saturday, spent the night in the Italian capital and rode it back late Sunday night in order to play with the country’s top junior team and still be on time for school on Monday.

His passion and commitment saw Iaccarino rise through the ranks as an Italian player and after eight years of playing at home, he earned an opportunity with Germany’s Berlin Adler. There, he had a conversation with legendary head coach Shuan Fatah that changed his view of the game entirely.

“Coach Shuan Fatah asked me what position I played. I said I played d-line. He said ‘yes, but what shade? One-tech, two-tech, etc. ?’. I had no idea what he was talking about,” Iaccarino says. “How is it possible that I had been playing for eight years and they hadn’t taught me the base of American football, the actual positioning of defensive linemen? This was eye-opening for me.”

Realizing his knowledge of the game wasn’t what he thought it was, Iaccarino re-focused on the details and committed himself to delivering a higher caliber of coaching to the next generation of Italian players. After learning at Fatah’s side, he spent six years with the Lazio Marines before becoming head coach of Spain’s Reus Imperials, just minutes away from the Gladiators new home base in Tarragona. In five years, he took the team from third division all the way to the top of the first division, losing in the finals to the powerhouse Badalona Dracs. It was a tremendous accomplishment but Iaccarino doesn’t like to take all the credit.

“I’m proud of it for sure but it is not only on me. I have a vision of how to run a team and I’ve been really lucky,” the coach deflects. “The people around me, they saw my vision and they helped us to succeed as a team. All together, we were able to build a successful program and to help the city of Reus to know the Imperials.”

Iaccarino returned to Lazio in 2018 to take the Lazio Ducks, a merger of the old Marines and Roma Grizzlies, to the Italian semi-final, but the chaos of Rome was no longer the right fit for his young family. The head coach of the Spain’s second division L’Hospitalet Pioners since 2019, a call from his old mentor Shuan Fatah set him up as the leader of the ELF’s new project in Spain. Despite his coaching pedigree, Iaccarino insists he will only lead the Gladiators off the field, not on it.

“I really believe we have to work hard to offer to our players a great professional product. I still have a lot to learn about the game and we are looking to bring in some great coaches from overseas,” Iaccarino explains. “We are hoping to have someone with NFL experience. We just signed an offensive coordinator with great experience and we are looking to offer to all our players a full US or Canadian coaching staff so they can learn from the best.”

That hire is still currently under wraps, but the Gladiators team is already starting to take shape. Player Combines set for Tarragona and Madrid at the start of February are nearing capacity with 130 players registered between the two events. While Iaccarino is familiar with much of the country’s top talent, the GM is looking to uncover a few diamonds in the rough.

“The goal of the combine is to find the guy hiding on the third division or maybe second division team that we’ve never had a chance to watch and give them a chance to compete and be a part of the roster,” Iaccarino says. “We want to give to any Spanish guy the opportunity to be a Gladiator.”

Iaccarino knows from experience what a passionate kid from a small town can do if given the opportunity. Eagerly soaking up knowledge from the team of former NFL Europe executives that advise the ELF, the kid from Sorrento has attacked this chance with the same passion he did as a player and coach.

“It’s totally different work. You have to think of the small details, the things that a normal club doesn’t. You have to take care of every aspect of the organization and the franchise,” Iaccarino explains. “We have a long checklist of over 400 items and we have to ensure that everyone who will step into the facility will feel like a professional player or coach.”

Bart Iaccarino coached the Reus Imperials from the depths of football in Spain to championship final

It’s a big task, but the ELF remain committed to their 2021 launch. For Iaccarino, the pro-style league is an essential next step for European football. He’s committed the last decade of his life to the betterment of the sport, building teams up from the bottom and co-founding the Europe Warriors to give young players a showcase. The ELF is the natural progression.

“I really believe we need a change. Football in Europe needs to be more professional and I think it’s the right time for this step,” Iaccarino says. “We have a big vision, but I think this can be a game-changer for football in Spain.”

It took the last Italians over 200 years to make their mark on Spain. Bart Iaccarino is making record time.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.