Legendary CFL coach Adam Rita ready to take the Catania Elephants to the next level

More than five decades into his illustrious coaching career, Adam Rita is still finding new challenges.

The legendary Canadian Football League coach and general manager has hoisted six Grey Cups, and helped build a European League of Football franchise from scratch. Now, at the age of 74, he’s headed to Sicily to take the 9-man playing Catania Elephants out of the third division and back to Italian prominence.

For one of the most well-respected coaches in international football, it is a drop in competition level that is sure to raise a few eyebrows. For Rita, it seemed like a natural fit.

“I don’t have to coach at the highest level of football,” he explained a few days after his signing was announced. “I just want to coach and I want to coach in environments where I want to be.”

Right now, Catania is where Rita wants to be, returning to Italy where he coached from 2017 to 2019 with the Bergamo Lions. Yet it was the Elephants who wanted him more, ambitiously targeting the big-name coach to spark their desired franchise turnaround. For that, both the team and Rita have another coach to thank, the former leader of the Berlin Thunder Jag Bal.

The last time Catania was in the Italian first division, Bal was at the helm and twice lost Italian championships to the Parma Panthers in 2010 and 2012. He returned to Sicily for a vacation earlier this year and when former players expressed their desire to rebuild the once great franchise, the Canadian coach steered them in the direction of his colleague from Mississauga.

“They were looking for a guy who was older, well-rounded and been around the block to help the younger coaches and a young team. [Bal] mentioned my name and they investigated and before long they got in contact with me,” Rita explained. “The speed of how they had the contract ready, the negotiations didn’t take very long. They pretty well knew what they wanted to do.”

The aggressiveness with which the Elephants pursued Rita, pitching him as the catalyst for new era in Sicilian football, made the choice to sign easy, despite other options in Italy being on the table.

However, one thing the coach did not have to spend too much time considering was a return to the ELF’s Barcelona Dragons, who he guided through their inaugural 2021 season. Rita noted that the franchise had not asked him to return at the time of his signing with Catania and confessed he likely would have turned the offer down if they had, more comfortable with the retirement schedule that the Italian league has provided him.

“Now that I have a choice, I’d rather work February to maybe the first week in July and then come home and enjoy my summer in beautiful Canada,” he explained.

Nevertheless, Rita remains extremely proud of what his team accomplished in the ELF and has no regrets about the job.

“It was a great experience. The facilities were fantastic. The weather was fantastic. It’s a pretty tough to complain about Spain,” Rita chuckled. “The fans were really good and the players played hard. They competed in everything, so I was happy about that. We should have probably won a couple more games, but that didn’t happen. That’s football.”

There is no question that the transition from coaching at one of the highest tiers of European football to a 9-man team will be a unique one, but Rita is quick to point out that the Elephants are no slouches. Even setting their strong franchise history aside, Catania has been near the top of the CIF 9 ranks in recent years and fell in the national title game in 2021.

August 16, 2006-Toronto Argonauts, QB Damon Allen and GM Adam Rita at team practice at UofT’s Erindale campus August 16, 2006. Photo: Tannis Toohey/ TORONTO STAR

A championship and promotion to a higher level have alluded them, but the current organizational leadership is ambitious. That has Rita excited about the way forward and he is already beginning to look at the tape to see what may have held the team back in the past. Ultimately though, the addition of Rita isn’t about scheme or system. It is about setting the tone for a new culture of excellence.

“I want to get the best out of each person that is on the field, whether it’s a coach or a player, but it starts with coaching. If I can get everybody to kind of buy into what the culture is, that should carry us over the tough spots. The tough spots are what gives you a culture, how you respond, how you learn from it and all that kind of stuff,” Rita explained.

“These guys, I’m pretty sure they think they are the cock of the walk right now. They’ve won a lot of games and what am I going to do to get them better? Getting better is a daily process, so maybe I can take that to the next level for each guy. You can make a six-inch move or a mile move, it depends on their motivation and ability.”

Both franchise and coach have big dreams, but it could take several years to get there. Rita is currently signed on for one season at the helm to kickstart the process, but he won’t rule out a longer stay in Sicily if all goes well.

“I’m 74, but I don’t expect to die any time soon,” he said. “I treat every day like a bonus and I like the ambition. If I can take them to the next level, we’ll talk. We’ll take it one year at a time, one game at a time.”

With Rita planning to head to Catania in February after the birth of another grandchild and Zoom meetings with players and coaches already scheduled, the first steps of the Catania revival are already in motion. If history is any indication, Italian football should be on notice.

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.