Have Football, Will Travel: Jacques Dussault in Canada, the U.S., and France

By Russ Crawford, Guest Contributor

Fiona Skillen and Carol Osborne recently wrote about the use of oral history in sport history for The International Journal of the History of Sport.  In their article they argued that the method should be more widely employed.[1]  This post leans heavily on two telephone interviews that I had with Jacques Dussault in recent months.  The original idea for writing about the French Canadian coach was the product of several interviews that I conducted between 2011 and 2015 with men he had coached.  When I did the original interviews, I hadn’t thought about oral history all that much, but after having spoken with many interesting characters, I agree that it is a method that should be used.  There are the drawbacks of dealing with faulty memories, and possible bias, but the use of oral histories add flavor to the story.  It can also lead the researcher down fascinating paths that had not been considered as part of the original story.

In his March 7, 2016, post on “Pro Football Artists of the 1960s,” Andrew Linden made the point that while working on a project, one often comes across great stories that cannot be fully included.  While researching the history of American football in France, I learned quite a bit about Jacque Dussault, a Canadian who had coached in France, among many other locations.  Unfortunately, most of that material ended up on the cutting room floor.  However, the story of Dussault’s career is one that those who love football should have the chance to read about, so here goes…

Jacques Dussault has spent his life working in football in one form or another since he was nine years old.  He has coached at all levels, from youth football to the professional level.  He has coached in Canada, the United States, and in France.  In addition to coaching, he has worked in the sporting media, bringing his knowledge of the game to fans across Canada, and now his podcasts can be heard across the world.  His experience is so broad that few, if any, other coaches can lay claim to having such diverse experiences.  His devotion to the game and to his athletes has shaped the careers and lives of thousands of young men on two continents.

Dussault

Jacques Dussailt with the Anges Blues of Montreuil

In Canada, he has coached beginner’s football, at the high school level, in the college ranks, and in the Canadian Football League, where he was the first francophone coach in league history.  He also directed Montreal’s short-lived entry in the World League of American Football. In the United States, he coached at Albany State University, has visited several other college football programs, and has been invited to take part in several National Football League training camps.  In France, he was the first imported coach, where he helped train the Anges Bleus (Blue Angels) of Montreuil, and blazed a path for other North American coaches who have crossed the pond to help European teams elevate their game.  He even worked with a Japanese team, teaching them the finer points of punt protection.  Wherever he has gone, though, he has been a missionary for football, the game that has filled his life.

Football, of a sort, began in Canada at around the same time as it did in the U.S.  Some Canadian sources even argue that it was an 1874 series of two games between Harvard University and McGill University that was the true birth of what we know as American football.[2]  Walter Camp would later change several of the rules to create the outlines of the modern game, and by the time young Jacques Dussault began playing, the game had changed significantly.  In Quebec, where Dussault began playing youth football as a nine-year-old, the game also had a pronounced English accent.  Dussault remembers that the anglophone Canadians at the time dominated football, and that they thought francophone athletes were “not smart enough to play.”  He played eight-man football for Saint-Louis-de-France league, his local parish team in Saint Foy, and managed to help prove the anglophiles wrong.  He told me that his team was the first to defeat English speaking high school teams, including St. Patrick’s and Quebec High School.  One of the victories even occurred at a field located on the Plains of Abraham, where the British army had defeated the French in 1759, which led to England absorbing the territory into their empire.[3]

After high school, Dussault continued his playing career at The College of General and Vocational Education (CEGEP)-Trois Rivières, and later at McGill.  While at CEGEP, he helped the Diablos win the provincial championship in 1970.  He graduated from McGill with an undergraduate degree in Physical Education, and later added a MA in Education from Miami University of Ohio.[4]  Miami of Ohio, sometimes referred to as “The Cradle of Coaches,” therefore helped prepare another distinguished alumni who is not counted among the usual list of coaches that came through Oxford.

Dussault put his degree to work largely on the gridiron, but he emphasized in a 2009 interview with the Canadian Press that he “wanted to benefit young people in learning,” and that “The times are not always easy for young people and for me football is a great way to guide them.”  He added that he had “always considered himself primarily an educator.”[5]

His coaching style fit that mold, and he could likely be described as a “players coach.”  During our interview, we discussed a problem that I had seen in French football – the failure of players to be able to hold position for a long snap count.  I posited that one reason for this was that traditional methods such as forcing violators to do pushups or run laps for their infractions were unavailable to coaches in France, since their players were typically adults, and would have little interest in being punished in front of their teammates.  He argued that he didn’t believe in doing that, since while the offender was doing his penance, he would “miss ten minutes of reps,” and referred to that method as being “50s and 60s style.”  He argued that during his practices, he had two goals.  He focused on correcting mistakes from the previous game, and doing things that would help his team beat the next opponent.[6]  That did not include wasting time with punishment details.

He began his coaching career in 1975 at the Napoléon Courtemanche High School in Montreal.  In 1979, he got the chance to coach at Albany State University in New York.  He wanted to coach in the U.S., and told me that he took the Blue Book of college football programs and began applying.  He ran out of money for postage when he reached the “D”s, but Albany interviewed him.  Dussault mentioned that the Albany State head coach Bob Ford didn’t want to hire him because he was concerned that the players would not be able to understand his accent.  Two of Ford’s assistant coaches convinced the head man to take a chance and hire Dussault, and so he became the first francophone coach to work in the U.S.[7]  Dussault later told a interviewer that he remembered his time in Albany as being financially difficult – he and his wife reportedly shared peanut butter sandwiches for Christmas dinner in 1979, but things were about to take a turn for the better.[8]

After two years south of the border, the professionals called, and he returned to Canada to become the defensive line and special teams coach for the Montreal Alouettes/Concordes (the Alouettes folded in 1982, but were reborn the next season as the Concordes) of the CFL.  His signing on with the Alouettes was another first for the young coach, when he became the first francophone coach to work in the CFL.  Of his groundbreaking role, Dussault told a reporter that “I knew from the start that this adventure would not be easy, but once I was able to take part, my goal was to succeed to leave the door open to future francophones.  It is a motivation that I always lived.”[9]

While coaching in the CFL, Dussault had the opportunity to add yet another first to his résumé.  Football had begun to globalize, and this opened opportunities for coaches willing to travel.  The first football teams outside of North America began playing in Japan in the 1930s, but no other nations joined the huddle until the 1970s, when Germans began forming teams and playing.   The Japanese were introduced to the game by Americans Paul Rusch, George Marshall, Alexander George, and Merritt Booth in 1934.  Rusch was a missionary who came to the country to help rebuild YMCAs after the 1923 Kanto Earthquake.  Marshall taught at Tokyo University, while George and Booth were military attaches at the American Embassy.[10]  Likewise, the Germans began playing after watching American service personnel play during the postwar period, and their initial teams included both German and American players.  France would be a different case.

The American military also played hundreds of games in France beginning in 1909 when teams from two ships of Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet played a game in Nice.  Soldiers and sailors continued to play games there during the world wars, and continued when France joined NATO in 1953.  All of those games, which ended in 1967, when France left the organization, along with tours of American teams in 1938, 1961, 1976, and 1977, left little impression on the people of France.  Football would not begin in France until Laurent Plegelatte, a French physical education instructor, brought back enough equipment to start a team in Paris in 1980.  Plegelatte organized a system whereby players would learn how to play the game, then go off to form their own teams.  In this manner, the Fédération Française de Football Américain (FFFA) joined in the globalization of the American sport.

Plegelatte was a committed Trotskyite, who reportedly sought to use football to toughen his personal Red Guard.  Some of the teams that calved off from his Spartacus team shared his love for football, but not his political leanings.  They also would come to disagree with his strictly amateur orientation for the FFFA.  The primary rival for Plegelatte and the FFFA was the Anges Bleus that were formed in 1981 by Stéphane Sardano and Olivier Passe, along with Yves and Jean-Luc Parelli.  They sought to elevate the level of play for their team, and in order to do this, they recruited Paul Troth and Bob Bopp, former players from William Jewell College in Missouri, who were then living in Paris.  Sardano, Passe, and the Parelli’s, along with several of their teammates also went on an epic 1984 road trip to observe practices at San Diego State University.  Their next step was to begin playing internationally, and did so successfully.  In their quest to improve, one of their players read an article about the francophone Dussault, and invited him to help them prepare for their first game against an American opponent.  Troth and Bopp helped arrange a game against the Heart of America Conference, which included William Jewell.[11]

Dussault, who admitted that he finds it difficult to refuse anyone who wants to be coached, flew to Paris to work with the Anges Bleus for ten or twelve days.  He remembered that the French players had “no idea what they would be facing” in playing a team from the U.S.  The problem was not lack of athletic ability or any reluctance to hit.  Dussault reported that the French players liked to hit, but often didn’t know who they should be hitting.[12]  One of the innovations that Dussault brought to French football was chasse touriste, which can be translated as hunt the tourists.  He coached the Anges Bleus to start hitting at the snap and keep hitting until the whistle.  If they saw an opponent who was not paying attention (a touriste), they were to knock him on his ass.[13]

Dussault 2At first, there was some linguistic difficulty.  Dussault spent considerable preparation time translating the positions and various other football terms into French, only to find that the players used the English names.  There was also the matter of his accent.  Canadian French and the French spoken in France are sometimes quite different, much as American English differs from the every day language spoken in Britain.  So even thought he was the first francophone coach in Canada and the U.S., he still had some initial problems making himself understood.  Eventually, by speaking slowly, and making an effort to use the correct word (quarterback or QB, rather than quart-arriére), coach and players were able to understand each other.[14]

The work that the Anges Bleus had been putting into elevating their game was paying off.  They had already defeated several European opponents.  Their first test against the Americans was not a disaster.  Even though they lost 29-13 against the Heart of America All Stars, they were not embarrassed.  Later, they even became the first, and only, French team to defeat an American collection when they beat an all star group from the U.S. Sixth Fleet 26-12 in Toulon on July 4th 1985.  The enthusiasm with which they hit their opponents did cause some minor problems though.  In a game against the Météores, another Parisian team, their opponents told the Anges Bleus at halftime that if they kept hitting the way they had in the first half, the Météores would quit.  The Anges Bleus agreed to tone it down, and the game continued.[15]

A more serious problem was with the federation.  Their international games were sponsored by Amerfoot, an organization led by Bernard Lecuyer.  Amerfoot sought to professionalize football in Europe by arranging matches between only the top teams in each country.  This flew in the face of the amateur and collectivist ethos that Plegelatte had built into the FFFA.  This divergence in goals led to the Federation War, which ultimately resulted in the Anges Bleus being expelled from the federation, until they agreed to sever ties with Amerfoot.

Dussault returned in the 1987-1988 season to continue to coach the Anges Bleus during his offseason.  He was now coaching with Acadia University in Nova Scotia during the North American season that ran from August to December, and coaching the Anges Bleus from December to June.  His first year as head coach of the French team, the Anges Bleus lost in the Casque d’Or (Gold Helmet) championship game 7-3 to the Castors to Paris.  Dussault noted that the referees at the game, who were stationed on the end zone pylons, missed three field goals that the Anges Bleus should have had in the game.

If coaching on two continents was not enough, Dussault had also branched out into the media.  He began providing color commentary for NFL games on radio and television, and over the years has broadcasted both the Grey Cup and five Super Bowls in French for the French-Canadian audience.  Though he is on a break from the sideline, he continues to provide podcast commentary on all things football for 98.5 Sports Radio in Canada.

In 1990, he returned to the professional ranks full time as the head coach of the Montreal Machine, which was part of the World League of American Football (WLAF).  The Machine was unique in that all of the top on and off the field management were French speakers, and for the two years that the WLAF lasted in Canada, Dussault was able to make football more popular in Quebec.  He told a Chicago Tribune reporter that “I can demystify the game,” and contrasted the news coverage that the Machine received as part of the WLAF with that he had experienced when he was on the staff of Montreal team in the CFL.  “It’s a night and day difference with the media from when I was with the Alouettes.  Then we’d have one or two reporters after a game; now we have nearly 20.  And after each game, I invite the media to view film with me.”[16]

Dussault3

Courtesy of Jacques Dussault.

Most coaches, as they progress up the ladder of coaching levels, generally focus on one position in which to specialize.  Dussault’s later career also proved his versatility and demonstrated that he knows the game from helmet to cleats.  After the Machine and WLAF folded, he coached wide receivers at McGill, defensive coordinator for the St. Leonard Cougars of the Canadian Junior Football League.  After another stint with the refurbished Alouettes, he once again became a head coach with University of Montreal Carabins, and in 2009, he became the head coach of the CÉGEP du Vieux-Montreal.  He only spent one year there, but it was a successful one, with his Spartiates winning the provincial championship.[17]  After a year helping to turn around the football program at Jean-Grou, a school in a rough part of Montreal, Dussault settled into his last coaching position, so far.  From 2012 to 2015, he coached at the Académie les Estacades, an unusual school in Cap-de-la-Madeleine, where students spend the morning practicing sport, and the afternoons working on academics.  From their website, this seems to be the equivalent of U.S. vocational school, where students focus on a career track, as long as they maintain a 75% academic average in their academic coursework.  Some of his friends joked that he was moving in the wrong direction, but Dussault is more interested in the coaching than in the age or skill level of the athletes.[18]

Unlike many, more famous, coaches, Dussault never settled into one place and built a career there.  Instead, he has seemingly been everywhere where football has played.  In addition to his formal positions, he has also been a guest coach at several universities during spring or fall practice.  He mentioned that Mike Reilly, then the coach of the Oregon State University, asked him to deliver a talk to the Beavers in French.  He realized that the players had no idea what he was talking about, but enjoyed the experience, and has a high regard for Reilly.  This perked up my ears, since, as an alumnus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where Reilly now coaches, I have not been happy with the way the Reilly era has started.  He also has visited Boston University, Louisiana State University, and McNeese State University.  He has attended training camps with the New Orleans Saints, the Tennessee Titans, and the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL.[19]  Over a career spent on sidelines from Quebec to Paris, and beyond, he has won championships and has twice been honored regionally with the Prix Frank Tindall, an award for top college level football coaches in Canada.[20]

From speaking with him and others who were coached by him, and by reading about his career, it is clear that Dussault was born to coach and teach.  Over his career, he has worked with thousands of young men, teaching them who should be hit, and much more besides.  The Anciens of the Anges Bleus are happy whenever their old coach can get together with them, and others have testified to his influence over their football careers, and their lives.  Anthony Coady, one of those players that Dussault coached at CÉGEP, told a reporter that “having the chance to be coached by Jacques Dussault changed my life…If there is someone real, it is Jacques Dussault.  Coady went on to argue that some players had difficulty accepting his direct appraisals of their play, but that “what is more beautiful with football is that you cannot hide.  When the balloon goes up, your true personality comes out. Whenever I see Jacques, it comes to me that I see myself through his eyes.  It makes me feel good to know that he will always be there for us.”[21]

From taking revenge on the Fields of Abraham, to making the CFL bilingual, and from coaching high school to being an agent of football globalization, Jacques Dussault has coached in more diverse situations than most.  He may not have built any dynasties, nor won any Super Bowls, but he has blazed a trail for other coaches to follow to France.  He might have made life more difficult for football touristes there and elsewhere, but he has also helped shape the world of football as we know it by spending his life devoted to the sport he loves.  Ça c’est bon!

Russ Crawford is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, with an evolving focus on nontraditional practitioners of gridiron football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published one book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, and has another, Le Football: The History of American Football in France that will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016.


Notes:

[1] Fiona Skillen and Carol Osborne, “It’s Good To Talk: Oral History, Sports History and Heritage,” International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol. 32, Issue 15, September 2015, 1883-1898

[2] “Birth of North American Football: 137 Years,” Canadian Football League, http://www.cfl.ca/2011/05/15/birth-of-north-american-football-137-years/ (Accessed 13 May 2016)

[3] Telephone interview with Jacques Dussault, conducted by Russ Crawford, Ada, OH, 22 February 2016

[4] “Au Nom du Sport,” Télé-Québec TV, http://aunomdusport.telequebec.tv/S01E02-fiche-jacques-dussault.asp (Accessed 13 May 2016)

[5] “Jacques Dussault deviant l’entraîneur des Spartiates,” The Canadian Press, February 2, 2009, http://www.lapresse.ca/sports/football/200902/02/01-823317-jacques-dussault-devient-lentraineur-des-spartiates.php (Accessed May 13, 2016)

[6] Dussault interview, 22 February 2016

[7] Telephone interview with Jacques Dussault, conducted by Russ Crawford, Ada, OH, 18 May 2016

[8] Serge Vleminckx, “Jacques Dussault: 30 ans dans le role d’entraîneur,” Journal de Montréal, April 11, 2005, http://fr.canoe.ca/sports/nouvelles/archives/2005/11/20051104-104445.html (Accessed 16 May 2016)

[9] “Portrait – Jacques Dussault: 30 ans de dévouement et de passion,” Université de Montreal, http://www.carabins.umontreal.ca/pages/ZoneBleus/portrait–jacques-dussault.aspx (Accessed 16 May 2016)

[10] “History,” American Football in Japan, http://www.american-football-japan.com/footballjapan-history-eng.htm (Accessed 16 May 2016)

[11] See Russ Crawford, Le Football: The History of American Football in France, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016

[12] Dussault interview, 22 February 2016

[13] Interview with Jean-Marc Burtscher, conducted by Russ Crawford, Clichy-sous-Bois, France, 3 June 2012

[14] Dussault interview, 22 February 2016

[15] See Crawford, Le Football

[16] Linda Kay, “Can U.S. Football Score in Montreal? Oui!,” Chicago Tribune, April 27, 1991 http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1991-04-27/sports/9102070403_1_french-connection-world-league-real-football (Accessed on 16 May 2016)

[17] “Au Nom du Sport”

[18] Dussault interview, 18 May 2016

[19] Dussault interview, 22 February 2016

[20] Jim Mullen with Ian Speers, Crown Countdown U  Red Book, 3 Minute Warning Productions, 2014, 132

[21] Richard Boutin, “L’influence de Jacques Dussault, Le Journal de Montreal, March 30, 2015, http://www.journaldemontreal.com/2015/03/30/linfluence-de-jacques-dussault (Accessed on 16 May 2016)

 

One thought on “Have Football, Will Travel: Jacques Dussault in Canada, the U.S., and France

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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