Just as there is no set blueprint for starting a successful professional football league, there is no set blueprint for said successful professional football league to choose the right Head Coaches for its teams.
It’s a great debate for A11 Professional Football League fans to have amongst each other – should teams go for the “name” candidates, the unknown innovators, the longtime assistants who haven’t gotten their chance to lead a team or a combination of Head Coaches from all those categories and more.
It’s also a great debate for someone to have amongst one’s self…
Dusty Sloan: The A11FL is going to debut in the spring of 2015, and with that, the league will have to hire eight Head Coaches to lead its charter franchises. There are a number of ways the league could go in terms of emphasis.
DJ Sloan: You know what happened when the United Football League tried to go with “names.” Yes, the league had quality football teachers like Jim Fassel and Marty Schottenheimer, but the UFL’s downfall was overpaying for those names – which led to that league’s rapid end.
DS: Having “names” can boost a league’s profile nationwide. Look what George Allen’s joining the Chicago Blitz did for the United States Football League, pre-launch. Not only did Allen’s presence add gravitas to the first-ever spring professional football league, it gave the USFL a “marked team” (and, thus, a storyline besides the signing of Herschel Walker) before the first ball was kicked off.
DJS: True, and there can be room for a few “names” in the A11FL, as long as the price is right. But one of the misnomers about “names” in new pro football leagues is that they draw more fans in the stands. In the UFL’s best season of 2010, the attendance leader was the Omaha Nighthawks, who routinely drew sellout crowds of 23,000-plus fans. The Nighthawks’ Head Coach was former Boston College Head Coach Jeff Jagodzinski – the rest of the league’s Head Coaches were former National Football League bosses Dennis Green, Jim Fassel and Chris Palmer, and new Washington Redskins Head Coach Jay Gruden.
It is at this point in my 1-on-1 conversation with myself that I add a note from my great friend, former co-worker in the UFL and fellow spring pro football connoisseur, Nation Hahn:
"It is important to remember that while the coaches were important for the UFL to gain respect in the media, we had little evidence to show that they sold tickets. The biggest UFL success story in ticket sales was in Omaha, which had Coach Jagz, the least-known coach of all. Meanwhile, we paid him far less than big names in other markers that were struggling financially.
“A new league would do well to put more money in to marketing and less in to staffing salaries. College coaches would likely bring more diversity and fun to the A11 ranks, too."
DJS: Can’t argue with any of that! The best advice comes from those who have lived it through trial, and, unfortunately, error.
In addition, the history of spring professional football shows that while higher-profile Head Coaches draw headlines, they don’t necessarily draw championships to the cities in which they coach.
DS: Here comes another history lesson…
DJS: In the USFL, the three championships were won by Jim Mora (spent previous five seasons as an assistant in the NFL, and the 17 years before that in college football) twice and Jim Stanley (spent prior 22 seasons in college, in the Canadian Football League as an NFL defensive line coach). In the first incarnation of the World League of American Football (1991-92), the two league titles were won by Larry Kennan (was a high school, college and NFL coach for 24 years) and Kay Stephenson, who had been a professional quarterback and spent three seasons as the Buffalo Bills’ Head Coach. And the only XFL title was won by Al Luginbill, who had been the head coach of the Amsterdam Admirals of WLAF/NFL Europe for six seasons, and a collegiate coach for 26 seasons before that.
In each case, a lesser-known Head Coach won a title, instead of a “name” – Mora and Stanley over names like Allen, Jack Pardee and a young Steve Spurrier; Kennan and Stephenson over the likes of Run “N” Shoot mastermind “Mouse” Davis and former University of Florida Head Coach Galen Hall and Luginbill over the likes of Ron Meyer and Hall again.
DS: The point, of course, being that in order to win in a spring pro football league, the “name” Head Coaches aren’t necessarily the way to go, even if they might bring some added exposure outside of the stadium. And, in almost all of those cases, the championship-winning coaches were used to having little time (and no preseason games) to get ready for their collegiate seasons, so that translated well to spring pro football.
DJS: Indeed. The USFL didn’t have preseason games in 1983, the WLAF didn’t have them in 1991 and the XFL didn’t in 2001. In each case, coaches had training camp practices, whittled their rosters down and away they went. That’s why someone like Barcelona Dragons Head Coach Jack Bicknell got his team to back-to-back postseason appearances in 1991 and 1992. Bicknell jumped from being the Head Coach at Boston College to the World League, and he did so with the same preseason mindset – little time to get a team ready for an opener, so get coaches and players as familiar with the system as possible, and let’s go.
DS: But for a league like the A11FL, in which the league’s offensive rules allow for so much innovation, wouldn’t it be better for the league and its teams to go away from past spring pro football experiences and think “outside the box” for Head Coaches?
DJS: Perhaps. Innovative offensive minds who already have A11FL concepts in place, or offensive concepts which are easily adaptable to the A11FL’s rules, would make more sense here than in any other spring pro football league, of course. But those minds don’t necessarily have to be Head Coaches. You would want them to, at the very least, be each of the teams’ offensive coordinators, but you would think that the league and its teams would gravitate toward some of the more innovative coaches around for the top spots.
DS: It seems as if the A11FL has a treasure trove’s worth of possibilities for Head Coaches, just like it does for a player pool. It’s going to be fun to see if there is a clear trend among the league’s Head Coaching hires, or if there will be a mix to see which style or background comes out on top.
DJS: Yes, yes, yes. Now on to the next story…
Dusty Sloan is the A11 Professional Football League’s Senior Editor/Vice President of Editorial Content.