In 2003 the Victoria Rebels celebrated their first ever BCFC championship for a Victoria based club on Kelowna’s Apple Bowl field, following the Rebels 20-0 win over the Okanagan Sun.
Among the fans on the field watching the celebrations, was one in particular who likely felt a bit of pride for the role he played, however indirectly that season. John Cardilicchia may have just been a fan that day, but rest assured, if not for his efforts before that season the Victoria Rebels wouldn’t be raising the trophy on that particular day. Had there not been further heavy lifting on John’s part post 2003, the Westshore Rebels might not exist, let alone be in position to win a second franchise title in less than a week’s time.
John Cardilicchia’s Rebels story starts in 1998 when he took over as head coach of the Vancouver Island Sharks as the club was known, following an 0-10 and last place finish during the 1997 season. John had been a very successful minor football coach in Victoria since 1989, and football observers in the area were curious, if not anxious to see if he would be able to turn things around. Still, it would have been unrealistic, if not unreasonable to expect a coach new to the junior ranks to have much success in his first season. After all, in addition to going winless in 1997, the club was a combined 6-34 the past four seasons. A powerhouse the Sharks were not.
It’s an old saying that a new coach will try to put his stamp on his team. That couldn’t have been more true in the case of Cardilicchia’s club. Gone was the “Shark’s” nickname along with the teal jersey colours, in was the Rebels and the red and black that still exists today.
Those who thought Cardilicchia would need time to turn around the franchise couldn’t have been more wrong. They became a decent, if not good football team seemingly overnight. The Rebels would finish 6-4 and lose a semi-final game after finishing in third place during the regular season
Along with an improved on-field product came some controversy, as the players led by their fiery head coach seemed determined to live up to the “Rebel” moniker that adorned their helmets. This club was loud, brash, physical…and in some cases a bit dirty according to many BCFC observers. While Cardilicchia agrees his team played on, if not over the line a bit at times, he makes no apologies for the attitude he instilled in his players.
“I was a winning coach. I had one season where we weren’t scored on all year. I came in to the junior team and I saw a team that just accepted losing it seemed. Definitely they didn’t have high expectations of themselves…you know me, that’s just not my style,” recalled Cardilicchia.
“We had some kids who didn’t want to make an effort, but we had some kids who were willing to buy in, so the ones who wouldn’t put in the work were shown the door. We weren’t going to get any free rides from the other teams. We had to change the culture for sure. We were never given any respect. Our attitude was we were going to out hit our opponent every week and not lay down. Our attitude that first year especially was for a team may beat us, they were going to be sore as hell the next day, and not want to play us again. No team hit us harder than we hit ourselves in practice,” John continued.
“Up until then I think teams always had us circled for an easy two points. Not anymore.”
If other teams or observers took issue with the Rebels playing style or perceived “blank you” attitude on the field, John says he can see why, but defends his reasoning and will point to the team’s success in 1998 and beyond.
Or were other teams just whining a bit because the new kids on the block were fighting back finally?
John says probably a little bit of both.
“They (the Sharks) were getting blown out a lot. I saw all those games. There were a lot of good kids on those teams losing by some big scores. I told everybody I was way under qualified to coach at that level but that my teams wouldn’t lack effort. I faked it and did what I had to do to instill confidence in my players and they bought in.I don’t know what to say to people who want to criticize. I tried to get my players to have the ‘us versus them’ mentality but it really was that way. I remember calling Cal Nesdoly (Sun head coach) that first year to see about an exhibition game. He actually said they wouldn’t play us ‘cause we sucked so bad, he said there was no benefit to playing us. I could not get an exhibition game because our reputation was so bad,” John recalled.
“We had to earn our respect, so we did.”
The on field improvement would continue in 1999, Cardilicchia’s second season as the Rebels finished in second place and appeared in the BC championship game, a first ever for a Victoria based team. While the Rebels would fall 50-22 to an Okanagan Sun team that was in year 6 of dominating the conference, the Rebels had served notice they were no longer the whipping boys of the BCFC.
In 2000 the Rebels finished in second place during the regular season, and would face the Sun in the BC championship again. In what is often referred to as the greatest championship game in BC junior football history, the Rebels took the Sun to over time before falling 43-38 in a game that truly was epic.
Following the game, which had served as a culmination of three years of hard work and hard feelings between the Sun and Rebels often due to perceived chippy play on the part of the Rebels, something took place that those who know him well would say is typical of John Cardilicchia. The Rebels were forced to stay in Kelowna for the night due to the length of the game making it impossible to make the ferry home. On John’s suggestion the two teams would have a mutual get together that evening to celebrate an outstanding football game.
The night would prove to be a bit strained as forcing 100 football players from two different teams into a room was probably not the greatest idea in hind-site. The fact no fights broke out was probably a miracle in itself.
That John would expect an amicable get together after an emotionally charged game, not to mention season was something you could expect from him according to BCFC VP Tyler McLaren who knows Cardilicchia well as the two battled when McLaren was head coach of the Surrey Rams.
“John was that kind of guy. He could infuriate you during an intense game, and could give you the impression he wanted to kill you, and maybe he did. But once the game was over he could have a beer with you with zero hard feelings. You always knew where you stood with him. He could be very easy to dislike at first, but once you got to know him, he was an even easier guy to appreciate and respect.”
Cardilicchia would coach the Rebels again in the 2001 and 2002 seasons, taking the club to another conference title game before stepping down. In his five seasons at the helm he turned the club from bottom feeder to contender. He inherited an 0-10 team, and would go to 3 title games. He was named BCFC coach of the year in 1999 for his efforts.
Almost twenty years after first taking over as head coach of the Rebels, does he look back and think about if he would have done anything different? While his words say he isn’t sure, you get the impression he would do it all over again, exactly the same way. Out of necessity if nothing else.
“When I first took over our board of directors told me there was no way we would ever beat the Okanagan Sun. They looked me in the eye and seriously said that at a meeting. I’m a pretty positive person, but don’t ever tell me I can’t do something. Especially in a situation like that. I couldn’t believe it. I was so angry in that meeting I almost flipped the table over,” John remembered. “Coming in, you had to have a determination, work ethic and a belief. These guys were telling me not to believe in myself and my players. How does that make any sense?
“I think we were the hardest working team in the league. Now it’s hard to say that because I don’t know how the other teams worked. But I can’t believe for a second they worked harder than we did. I won’t believe that because I know how physical our practices were. We hit so hard in practice that game day was a picnic sometimes. Year by year I softened my approach as I learned, brought some more intelligence into things, less of the raw grit. But I would never trade in what we did in ’98. It was necessary,” John explained.
In 2005 John would see himself back involved with the Rebels as the team seemed set to relocate to Nanaimo. The team had run into financial challenges, requiring assistance from Nanaimo businessman Hadi Abassi, whose son played on the team. Abassi had infused the club with equipment (rumoured to be in the neighborhood of $40,000) but was no longer willing to do so if the team wasn’t located in his city.
“I received a call that they were moving the team up to Nanaimo, and you know I wasn’t too happy to hear that. It was a move that really wasn’t allowed under the society act. So some of us, who had real ties to the club got together to keep the team in Victoria. We kept the Rebels name and said to the guys in Nanaimo they could start a new team but ours was staying in Victoria.
“We said we wouldn’t stand in their way and we didn’t. We gave them our vote to start a new team there (in Nanaimo) but we certainly weren’t going to give up the Rebels.”
John says while he wasn’t excited about the prospect of getting back involved with a club facing an uphill battle to survive, let alone be competitive, it wasn’t a situation he was going to say no to.
“It was hard to get excited for sure. I mean we had the name but that was about it. They took all the players except two that stayed behind. We had no equipment, no jerseys. nothing. We were pretty much left with an empty house so to speak. It was a brand new franchise with an old name. The Raiders are always called the new franchise (in 2005) but we were the new team. That team (Raiders) already had a foundation of players from 2003 and 2004 and of course they did recruit some very good players in 2005. But they were not a new team by any stretch,” Cardilicchia explained.
“At that point I was appointed as general manager for one year, and asked to bring in a new head coach. That was when I brought in Paul Orazietti, and the rest is history. He asked me to be his defensive coordinator because he was having a hard time finding coaches here. I joined him on the staff and had three fantastic years working with Paul. We went 3-7 that first year (2005) with coach Orazietti and in my mind that was one of the most amazing seasons in the history of junior football. You take a team today, start a new franchise and try to win 3 games. It just doesn’t happen. Three of the games we lost were by 3 points or less. We took Surrey right to the final gun their last game of the season that year and they went on to win the conference,” John recalls.
“We battled every game. That was one of the best pieces of coaching I had ever seen by Paul and all of us. We went from losing our exhibition game in Nanaimo 86-6 to three weeks later they beat us at home 15-12. We made major strides in a short period of time. That was kudos to Paul and his abilities as a head coach.”
Among the young players on that 2005 squad were the brothers Cote, QB Nate and receiver Rob who joined the club out of Cochrane Alberta. Nate would spend three seasons with the club while Rob played through 2006 before joining the Calgary Stampeders where he is still a fixture today.
Rob speaks fondly of Cardilicchia and the Rebels.
“We walked into a situation we didn’t know a lot about. We didn’t know the history at the time and the problems the team was battling. The guys righting the ship were John, Paul Orazietti and Roger Wade. To this day those three men are three of the best people I know.
“John had a huge impact in my life. He’s a guy you want on your side. If he’s on your side you love him and if he’s not, you hate him. That’s what you want in football sometimes. He is fiercely loyal, that’s how I would describe him. He took care of us better than I could ever hope. We kind of went out on a limb going out there. At the time we didn’t know the sacrifices guys like John, Paul and Roger made for us. As we get older we see it.”
John would serve as a Rebels assistant through 2007 before stepping away from the rigours and time commitment of junior football.
But like an old gun fighter he would be back in 2009.
“I took a year hiatus and then about half way through the season in 2009 I came back out and started giving coach Orazietti a hand again with defense and special teams. It can be awfully hard to get coaches sometimes and that was the case, so yeah there I was back again.” (laughs)
John intended to be an assistant under Orazietti again in 2010 but when Paul took a position with the UBC T-Birds, Cardilicchia’s head coach abilities would be called upon again.
“I wasn’t keen on taking over as head coach again but I could see that it was something that needed to be done to keep the program going.”
John would stay on as head coach during the 2010, 2011 and 2012 and guide the team to the play-offs three straight seasons. In 2013 with Cardilicchia no longer on the scene the Rebels finished in last place in the conference with a 2-8 record.
While the saving of the Rebels in Victoria in 2005 was a combined effort of a group of dedicated people, Roger Wade who had been previously involved with the club in 2001 and returned in 2005 says that without John Cardilicchia the efforts would have failed.
“John was the driving force. Without John the team wouldn’t have existed that year. I’ve never seen anybody more passionate about a sport and a team.
“Guys like me, Jamie Chester and Joe Frenette rallied, but we rallied because largely we believed in John. Paul Orazietti came along and those two guys, there was no stopping them.”
Fast forward to 2016 and after a year as an assistant with the UBC T-Birds John is back on the staff as special team coordinator and special assistant to JC Boice. He is a week past finally dispatching his rival Raiders and less than a week away from potentially beating the club that beat him in three championships, the Okanagan Sun.
How did his fourth go around with his club come to be?
“JC invited me out to see the new facility. I liked what he was doing…he just kept calling me every day asking me to help out. I was always going back to UBC but I guess the grind of the ferry every day just caught up with me. One thing led to another, I started helping out a little bit and finally got fully involved again.”
Thinking back to 2005 and the rivalry with the Raiders, just how much does John Cardilicchia dislike or even hate the VI Raiders and how sweet was last week’s semi-final win for him?
John seemed surprisingly hesitant to answer. Maybe it’s because so many of those involved with the Raiders in 2005 have moved on or because an 11-year older John Cardilicchia has mellowed a bit that his response isn’t what it once would have been.
“That a really loaded question, but there has never been any love loss. I guess the part that really pissed me off was that we were made out to be the bad guy. Here is a program that had fought and scraped to be competitive, which we did in a quick time period. In 1998 (John’s first season) we won 5 of our last 6 games. We went up to the Okanagan, who hadn’t been beat in 29 games and next thing you know we are in the BC final every year. We did a heck of a job turning an 0-10 team around.
“These guys come along and decide to take our team away. We stand up and say you aren’t taking our team and we are the bad guys? People in the BCFC are looking at me like ‘why are you doing this’…and I’m like ‘why are you doing this to us?’
“There was a lot of things said, a lot of mud-slinging our way and that really bothered me. We didn’t even vote against them having a team. All we said is we want to keep our team, the Rebels are Victoria’s team. You ask any city if they want their team moved in the middle of the night. No one would like that. Then like I said, that first exhibition game. I had five 17 year olds starting, kids that had no business being on the field so soon but we had no choice. They just laid it to us in an exhibition game by 80 points and were really proud of it. I thought it was pretty classless and the rivalry was born.”
John is reflective when asked if the lack of support he feels his club received from the powers of the day in the BCFC might have been at least in part to how he carried himself when he first burst on to the scene in 1998. Was his willingness to wear the black hat a few years earlier keeping him from getting the support from the league he and his team needed and arguably was entitled to now?
“Possibly, I don’t doubt that had something to do with it. That and a lot of politicking, a lot of work behind the scenes from the other side. I’m just not a political guy, I wasn’t the type to be on the phone drumming up support saying poor us. We just took it on the chin and carried on.
“Beating the Raiders isn’t about just me. It’s about everybody before 2005 and everyone who worked to keep the team here. I might have been the strongest personality and biggest mouth, but it wasn’t just me by any stretch.”
If the Westshore Rebels defeat the Sun and capture the Cullen Cup JC Boice says it will be in no small part due to John Cardilicchia’s knowledge and guidance.
“John understands the undertones and culture of junior football that a new coach like me wouldn’t understand.
“He has been a huge sounding board and a big benefit to me. We are two very different people personality-wise, like a lot of us are on the staff…he and I are 100% united in our common goal. John backs up what he says. He is out working, getting kids jobs. He is so supportive and so optimistic. But don’t get me wrong, he is very good at telling them what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.
“He is just a really good guy. He deserves to be here and we need him. He is a such a well of knowledge and conviction. Invaluable really.”
John Cardilicchia’s tenure with the Victoria/Westshore Rebels spans 14 seasons over almost 20 years. He has been imprisoned in what some might refer to as the purgatory of junior football, where budgets are small and hours are long on 4 occasions with time off for good behavior.
Love the man or hate the man, or somewhere in between, you cannot question his conviction and work ethic. If every team in the BCFC had a volunteer of two with the passion of John Cardilicchia we would be in a far better place. Even is that passion had to be dialed down or channeled on occasion, we would be far better off.
The Westshore Rebels are a game away from a first ever BCFC home championship. While there are many in the organization currently and before who deserve credit for the opportunity, it’s hard to argue that the name John Cardilicchia shouldn’t be at the top of that list.
If you want to send him congratulations for a win or condolences on a loss after next week’s Cullen Cup you can email to the same address he has had since he joined the franchise in 1998…firstname.lastname@example.org