Born and bred coach brings Windsor to the world’s stage
Photo credit: Ron Jenkins / USA Football
Coach Joe D’Amore is a homegrown talent who took an unconventional path to become head coach of the Windsor Lancers. As his career continues to evolve, he’ll coordinate Canada’s offence, for a second year in a row, in the U19 game at the International Bowl in February 2016, followed by the IFAF U19 World Championship in July.
D’Amore took up the sport during his first year as a student at Villanova High School in LaSalle, Ontario – a suburb of Windsor.
“I asked my parents if I could try it out for one year,” said D’Amore. “I didn’t play much in my grade nine year but it was something I really enjoyed and as the years went on in high school, it kind of stuck with me.”
Joe caught the eye of Simon Fraser University but the move to BC proved to be too far from home and he was drawn back to Windsor.
“I got a scholarship to Simon Fraser in 1995. I spent one season there but it was really far away from home. I made the decision to come home and I finished my career at the University of Windsor. I joined the Lancers in 1996 and played until 2000.”
Playing running back in high school, D’Amore started his university career as a receiver before being converted into a defensive back while at SFU.
“I’ve always been able to play both sides [offensively and defensively], so I played three years as a defensive back (at Windsor). During my fourth year, I was a DB and I played offence on certain packages. Then for my last year, I flipped over to the offensive side of the ball.”
Shifting gears into coaching
Following graduation, D’Amore re-charged his batteries by playing abroad. After two years, he returned home and sunk his teeth into coaching while starting his career.
“My first real coaching experience was in 2004 as the defensive back coach and special teams coordinator for the Windsor AKO Fratmen (CJFL). Following two years with the Fratmen, I went on to coach three years with the Sandwich Sabres, a high school football team – I was their defensive coordinator for a couple of years and became their head coach in my final year (2008).”
“In 2009, I went over to my former school, Villanova. Starting in 2008, I also joined the Essex Ravens of the OVFL, spending three seasons there, finishing in 2009-10 as offensive coordinator.”
Unique path to CIS head coaching ranks
The young coach made the transition to the university ranks but wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
“In 2010, I became an assistant [wide receiver] coach and special teams coordinator at the University of Windsor. When they let go of their previous coach [Mike Morency], there was a national search but for me at the time, I wasn’t really someone that they’d probably look at on paper. But I continued to do my job there and did the recruiting and all that kind of stuff.”
“Basically they had a failed search, it was really late in the off-season and they had a hard time finding someone. I was approached by the athletic director to be the interim head coach for one full-season, in order for them to do a search after the season.”
D’Amore always dreamed of heading up a CIS football program and wasn’t about to let the opportunity slip through his hands.
“It was obviously something I wasn’t prepared for and didn’t imagine it would happen so quickly but as a football coach, you always dream of coaching at the CIS level. There’s only [now] 27 coaching jobs in the entire country, so I wasn’t about to pass if up, even if it was just for a one year opportunity.”
“I took a leave of absence from my previous job and I approached it like a nine month job interview. I played there and I kind of knew the ins and outs of how that program worked and I felt like if I could put some things in place and have a good year, I’d have an opportunity to build on that. I approached the season care-free and there were no real expectations for us; we were 2-6 the year before that.”
D’Amore had an instant impact at the helm of the Lancers, leading to a dramatic turn-around.
“We ended up going 5-3 and went to the semi-finals and were only 6 points away from going to the Yates Cup [Ontario university championship game]. I was lucky enough to be named Coach of the Year in the OUA and that really led to them considering me for the position.”
“I think me being an alumnus from Windsor, it really got the city and the alumni excited that someone came in and had a great year.”
Following his first year, he earned a three-year contract, leading the Lancers to four-straight playoff appearances.
“Besides Western and McMaster, we’re the only other team to be a playoff team for the last four straight years.”
D’Amore inked a five-year extension this past Christmas.
“I’ll have an opportunity to be there for another 5 years. We’re hoping to build on that and eventually win a Yates Cup.”
D’Amore had some déjà-vu when it came to his options at quarterback in his first year with the Lancers.
“It’s funny because over the last three years of my coaching career, prior to the University of Windsor, I had worked with Austin Kennedy (with the Essex Ravens) and I had worked with Sam Malian, my quarterback at Sandwich (High School) for three years. When I got to the University of Windsor, those were my two QBs.”
This upcoming season will be unique for D’Amore and the Lancers, as it will mark their first without impact quarterback, Austin Kennedy.
“Austin came on the scene and kind of exploded – I had the chance to work with him, for really eight years. We always say our careers are kind of tied together. We won an OVFL championship together, we went through 5 years of university together and it’s going to be strange.”
Coach education & giving back
D’Amore is a passionate coach that loves giving back. He understands the importance of coach education through the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) and helps train up-and-coming coaches by acting as a local Windsor NCCP learning facilitator.
“I think giving back to the young coaches is really important because there are a lot of good coaches that never get the opportunities. I was lucky enough to have something fall into place and I took advantage of it.”
“If they can get one or two things out of what I’ve taught them, maybe that will help them down the road. Hopefully they get opportunities like I did.”
Joe not only loves to develop coaches but sees it as a critical factor in growing football in his community.
“I come from a city that’s not overwhelmingly big. We have great football in the City of Windsor but at the same time, in terms of coach’s development, we don’t have a ton of people that can coach at a high, high level. Being able to educate those guys and being able to build that group, that can eventually be university football coaches, I think is really important.”
While instilling knowledge in the next wave of coaches, D’Amore understands that coach education is a lifelong process.
“It’s important as a coach, we can’t be stagnant. Just over the last 10 years, the game has changed and the way I coach the game has changed. I think it’s important as a coach to not think you know everything. I think you’ve always got to learn. When we go to clinics and things like that, I see some of the guys that have been in this business for 30 years, still sitting down and writing notes. For me being a 5 year coach, I could probably learn a little bit more too.”
International Bowl and the transition to 4-downs
After serving as the offensive coordinator of Canada’s under-18 national team at the 2014 International Bowl, D’Amore as he did a year ago, will return in February 2016 with the U19 national team.
“The 2014 International Bowl was a great experience and I really kind of fell in love with coaching at a national team level. I have a lot of interest in the American game. It’s exciting and it’s kind of fun to go in there and ask an offensive guy to use some of our Canadian concepts and try to fit them in to the American game.”
The transition to American rules is fitting for D’Amore, as growing up in a border city like Windsor, his life has been shaped by his proximity to neighbouring Detroit.
“[In the Windsor area] all our local TV is American and everything was American influenced. Now coaching football, I still love the American game and the way it’s played. The Detroit Lions are right there, a stone’s throw away from us in Windsor and because of that, I grew up being a big fan of American football.”
Being apart of a National Team coaching staff
For D’Amore having an opportunity to work with some of the best coaches Canada has to offer added to the appeal of the national team.
“First and foremost it’s an outstanding staff! I’m a big proponent of personalities and getting along. I’m only into my first year as part of the staff but some of these guys have been doing this for 2-3 years now. Just being able to fit in with our personalities has been great. I love spending time with these guys; a lot of them are my colleagues in the CIS. Some of them are from different conferences so I’ve gotten a chance to know them and get a chance to bounce ideas off of each other is really exciting.”
Another aspect of being a part of a dynamic coaching staff is the ability to pick fellow coaches brains and break down barriers.
“I think it’s really important and one thing I’ve always thought is in Canada, I think we’re a little too close to the vest — we’re not really as open to sharing secrets or ideas. In the U.S., Division-I schools that may play each other in national championships will spend summers and springs together going over concepts.”
“I think being a part of the national team staff kind of breaks that barrier a little bit and allows us to sit in a room and learn from one another. There are some great coaches in Canada. As a young coach, having the opportunity to sit down and learn from guys who’ve been around for a long time like Warren [Craney] is exciting.
“Even guys like Chris [Auger] who coaches at Laval and the great success that they’ve had. Having an opportunity to work with Chris and learn a bit of what they do offensively and more than that, being able to pass ideas back and forth. Maybe I just use them here with Team Canada but maybe I take some little things back and can put it into my university system, then it’s a benefit both ways.”
Looking towards the worlds
After following Canada’s 2012 IFAF U-19 World Championship victory over the U.S., D’Amore would love nothing more than bringing gold back onto home soil.
“My goal is getting the opportunity to win a gold medal at the world championship. I followed the  world championship last year when it was in Kuwait, so I learned a lot as an offensive guy, in terms of what was successful. I’m hoping we grow on that and find the things we need to do to win gold.”
“Winning gold in 2012 was a great thing for Canada and I think it really put us on the map as far as football is concerned. The U.S. had been a dominant force for so long and I’d love to be a part of a staff that takes that back in 2016.”
As the Windsor campus overlooks the Detroit River, D’Amore will get a daily reminder of who Canada will square-off against at the International Bowl in February – his neighbours across the Ambassador Bridge, Team USA.
This post is also available in: French