Surviving a Lightning Strike
Arena/Indoor football began in Lincoln in 1999 when the Lightning became charter members of the Indoor Football League. After two years the Lightning became a member of af2 when the Arena Football League bought the IFL. After a disastrous 2001-02 off-season, the Lightning dissolved and what was left became the Lincoln Capitols of the National Indoor Football League. Through it all, Jose Jefferson has remained one of the few constants in Lincoln.
In four years in Nebraska’s capitol city, the 31-year-old Jefferson has seen three leagues, four uniform changes, four owners and five general managers (one twice). Despite all of the distractions and turmoil, he has fashioned a 25-19 head coaching record in three seasons, after being the Lightning’s offensive coordinator in 1999. The biggest cheers during player introductions at Lightning/Capitols games continue to be for former Nebraska running back Damon Benning and Coach Jefferson.
After spending just a little time with the coach, you realize that Jefferson is a man you just want to cheer for. Players and fans alike are just drawn to him and his positive attitude. A player’s coach and fan favorite, with his infectious smile and warm, personable demeanor, he works the Lincoln crowd before games, waving to fans and shaking hands. People in this metro area of one-quarter million spot him at other community activities and stop by to say hi. Players want to play for him and he is loyal to the athletes that have been with him. His guys know that he will give them a chance to play and he is known for giving everyone a “fair shot.”
But it hasn’t always been easy in Lincoln for the Omaha native and graduate of the University of South Dakota. Jefferson was hired on as offensive coordinator of the Lincoln Lightning shortly after their inception in 1999. Back then the Lightning drew sellout crowds of 5,000 to Pershing Center. The gatherings have since decreased to 3,500 last year in Lincoln’s af2 season and 1,600 this year.
“This is one of the toughest markets to sell arena football in,” confesses Jefferson. “University of Nebraska football sets high standards for the community and our off-field changes certainly haven’t helped.” There also is the matter of the very popular Lincoln Saltdogs baseball club, who many times play home games the same evenings as the Lightning/Capitols.
“Everyone thinks the transition from the Lightning to the Capitols was a nice, smooth one, but in reality it wasn’t,” says Jefferson. In fact, it was anything but. After an alleged, non-related, ticket selling scandal concerning the then-general manager and other off-field financial problems the Arena Football League came in and shut down the Lightning on February 8th of this year, just seven weeks before the start of the 2002 regular season. “At the time, we had 32 players already signed and ready to come to camp,” lamented Jefferson.
For four days Lincoln had no team or players and coaches had no jobs. With the Lightning’s demise here was no longer professional football in Lincoln. Most players left Lincoln and hooked up with other clubs to keep their careers alive. Jefferson himself was exploring options in other af2 cities before Lincoln businessman Bruce Bailey stepped forward to found a completely different team, the Capitols, on February 12th. One of the first things Bailey did was ask the head coach to stay. By then only seven Lightning athletes were left. “We started all over from scratch. We were the last team in the league to go to camp.”
But go to camp they did – with 50 athletes – due to hard work and the coach players want to play for. And things haven’t turned out too badly, either. Jefferson has hastily assembled a 9-4 record and plays at home this Friday for their regular-season division championship. A win will mean a home playoff game for “Jose’s guys.”
This past month Jefferson had an interview for a scouting position with the Green Bay Packers organization. Although things didn’t work out, he has no regrets. “I’m doing what I love. I’m a coach,” he says. And he doesn’t get bad results, either.
Jefferson spent 1995-96 with the Iowa Barnstormers. With the results Jefferson gets under adverse conditions and his likeable personality, don’t be surprised if you see him back up in the big leagues soon. Jose Jefferson is a survivor. Lincoln’s loss would be the Arena Football League’s gain.
Jay Jacox was a writer for ArenaFan Online from 1998 to 2002.