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ArenaFan Exclusive: Portland Head Coach Matt Sauk

D.K. White
Sunday February 9, 2014

The Portland Thunder are set to begin their first season in the Arena Football League in March, and the man who is going to be leading the charge is Matthew Sauk, a former AFL quarterback and a long-time assistant coach in this game. 

· 1997 second team all Big West

· 2001 AF2 rookie of the year

· 2005 AF2 offensive player of the year.

· Compiled career stats consisting of 2,721 yards passing 54 touchdowns to only 13 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 101.64.

Ok, so Coach could play, but so could Magic and MJ and how did that translate to the sideline? Yeah... not well. However Sauk also compiled a nice resume in his assistant coaching days highlighted by: 

· 2010 Arena Bowl champion as offensive coordinator for the Spokane Shock

· 2011 NET10 assistant coach of the year

· 2012 NET10 assistant coach of the year

So now we know Coach Sauk can play the game and we know that he's an excellent assistant. What remains in question that is what his future will look like as a head coach. To that end I spent 45 solid minutes one-on-one talking football and just a touch of life with the man who will lead the Thunder into battle in 2014.

DKW: "Coach thanks for sitting down with me. Can you tell me a little bit about your family first of all?"

Sauk: “I've been married since 1999 so it's going on 15 years. I have three kids, two daughters eleven and seven, and a two and half year old boy, so we're done but yeah it's been good. Usually they travel with me in the past but this time they remained behind in Utah where my wife works. She's kind of the person who makes the most money so she's staying behind until she knows that this is a good situation. I like it here. I moved out here officially last week the people are nice they treat you nice here but then we haven't played a game yet so we'll see.” (laughs)

DKW: "So you've been the offensive coordinator for the well-established Spokane Shock, and in fact delivered a championship. Now you are now the head coach of the expansion Portland Thunder do you feel more pressure or less being the captain of a brand new ship as it were?"

Sauk: “I think right now as we get down to crunch time. It's a little more pressure because you don't have everything done. When I was with Utah, you didn't have to worry about, you know, uniforms, helmets, shoes, socks all that stuff that has to be ordered....We need to finish up our office...So that's the stress for me right now where when you look at any other team you go in and all that stuff is done.”

DKW: "And so all that stuff is falling to you?"

Sauk: “Well no, no it's not me… its other people, but I am still the one being asked the questions like what I want to do and it's still all just gotta get done.”

DKW: "So what do you enjoy the most and least about coaching in the arena football league?"

Sauk: "What I enjoy the most I think for me is just the personal touch you get with every player being such small rosters you really get to know the guys around you. You know, it's almost like basketball where we are dealing with 20 guys, whereas with the outdoor game and you're dealing with 50 or 100 if you are going to college. With arena ball you really try to get to know the guys' families, and I do my best to make sure that while the guy is a player I remember he is also a human being and so you want to know what makes a guy tick. Try to meet his parents when you have a chance to and talk to them. I think the thing I hate the most is usually the travel. Unfortunately, when you travel, it's commercial and you gotta connect through different cities, and that can just be a long day."

DKW: "So coach, what I don't understand is why is it that a guy like Darron Thomas with many of the same skills as Dennis Dixon and Marcus Mariota and a proven winner with a better collegiate record than either guy, did not attract the attention of the NFL?"

Sauk: “You know I don't know. One of the radio stations asked him why he left early but I haven't asked him that yet. It's not really something I need to know about but I think eventually I will ask him about it because I have always wondered. You know last year we had a wide out who left early after his junior year. I think its people in your ear, (telling you) “Hey you gotta come out early,” and he probably thought it's the best chance for him to get drafted. Why he's not in there? I don't know. He's tall enough, he's 6’2 1/2”. He's got a strong enough arm. To be honest it could been a factor from the Chip Kelly thing where people just thought you were a system quarterback, and they didn't think you could do it. Now maybe this opportunity will say, “I can throw the ball and throw it accurately, and that's something we will see early on with him and once we start working with him.”

“I talked a little bit with him and a coach he was working with before the draft. They working on his release and how he held the ball and how he threw it. I guess he had a little bit of a hitch in college, but when I got into college at Utah State the first thing my coach said was “I don't care how you throw the ball. You’ve been throwing it for twenty years, eighteen years, and that's the way you throw it. If you are comfortable with that and can be accurate and that's the way you do it, then do it. I think maybe the problem is that a lot of times, NFL teams see a certain throw and just automatically say, “You know what, that just isn't working.” So long story short I don't know why he's not in the NFL. I look at it where a lot of players, if they're not drafted, it's luck. You just have to happen to be in the right place at the right time.”

DKW: "I realize this is a setup question and kind of in-your-face. Do you feel like you're coming out of the gate with the best quarterback in league?"

Sauk: "Uh… (laughs)... You know honestly I'm not gonna say he is. You have to earn that and there's some pretty damn good quarterbacks out there. Nick Davila has proven himself as a championship quarterback. Also since he has played in this league has been a top three quarterback rating wise. I'd like to think he's a good quarterback, and I'd like to hope that I can teach and the game but you know the arena game is so different that you never know if someone can do it until we actually start playing. But as far as, 'Is he the best?' I would never do that without having seen that yet."

DKW: "Sorry coach, for that setup question (both laughing) to sort of gauge various things from an interview standpoint, and I appreciate you answering it the way you did. He’s a hell of an athlete though?"

Sauk: "Oh yeah he's a really good athlete. He has all the tools its just whether he can do it or not."

DKW: "So I see we have a kid named Houston Lillard on the training camp roster that's a pretty good last name to have in Portland, Oregon right about now."

Sauk: “Yeah so Houston is actually Damien Lillard's older brother and is coming into camp for us on a waiver as opposed to being a contact person. He's got a chance to come in and compete for roster spot but you know it's a tough battle. It's going to be tough for him to come in and compete and I've told him that. When he did his workout he was extremely rusty and needed a lot of work he needs to get into better shape, get his arm into a little better shape and start getting a little more accurate. I think he took that to heart. I was honest with him, about as honest you can be. I said 'You know, to be honest, you're lucky I am inviting you to camp.' I said, 'You know, the way you came out in this work out it just really wasn't there for me, but I've taken a look at your past stuff and I think there is a chance, and you need to really take this chance seriously.' I said 'Do you want to do something with your brother, or do you want to take this seriously and maybe do something for yourself and play some football?'"

"To be honest I always look at this two ways, I always look at it media-wise, and I always look at it football-wise. Media-wise, it would be great for us. Media-wise, it would be great for us for Darron to do well, and as a coach, I'm going to do my darndest to make sure that I give him an opportunity to be the guy. But we also have Nathan [Enderle], who was the fifth round pick for the Chicago Bears, and he's no slouch either."

DKW: "Coach, talk a little bit about the reality of the level of athlete in the arena football league versus people's perception of it."

Sauk: "Oh, absolutely. Just on our roster alone, we have three guys that were drafted. We have a guy that was drafted in the third round and was a two-year starter for the Philadelphia Eagles on the offensive line [Max Jean-Gilles], so we have the players. But you look at one of our players is actually Dante Page Moss, a guy who was projected to be in the first round until he was caught cheating at North Carolina with his exams and all that stuff, and that was a whole thing that got brought out. So I mean, that right there automatically hurt him. When I look at the arena league I look at guys that really are looking for opportunity, guys who have had a cup of coffee in an NFL camp. But like I said, if you're not drafted, it's really hard to get into the NFL. It's just really difficult.”

DKW: "Okay so let's go the other direction coach, what would I find inside of an arena league player that maybe I wouldn't inside of an NFL guy?"

Sauk: "The whole thing is we've had NFL guys come in who were big in the outdoor game, and just they couldn't do it. They couldn't adjust their game. To be honest, I don't know what that is. You know, you recruit guys and some guys can do it and some can't. They have to learn how to play in very tight spaces, have to learn how to use the angles and understand that is just like the outdoor game where you are always going to have someone very close by to you. Linemen fail because they can't deal with a bull rush, can't deal with someone in their face right away. Quarterbacks fail because they're not accurate enough and they can't process the throw quick enough as far as the angles and where they're throwing. What's funny is with the quarterback, you're only going with three wide outs, and the coverages are pretty basic, but we will go man to man the first couple days and then start throwing in zones and then suddenly it's like, 'Oh my gosh, what's going on here?' I think it just takes a special person to play arena football, and it has to be someone who can adapt to the tight spaces quicker than others."

DKW: "I've noticed that the arena league asks in its quarterbacks to use some pretty ugly arm angles at times to get around defenders."

Sauk: (laughs) "Yeah with me, I was a sidearm thrower, and it's just the way the game is. I think the biggest thing in the arena league is you have to learn how to throw without your feet being right. The way the windows are, you can't just always throw over the top, because now defenders know all they have to do is put their arms straight up, where if you learn to throw sidearm, ninety percent of the guys on the defensive line there are so straight up. If you can learn how to go around, them you won't get balls batted. I'm 6'0", 6'1" at the most, and I probably had three balls batted my entire career. You just have to learn to throw around people."

DKW: "So what do you feel better about, your offense or defense at the moment?"

Sauk: "Oh, the defense without a doubt. We have more veterans on defense. We have three or four defensive backs that are veterans and are signed and a veteran defensive line. We have no veterans on offense. I really wanted to build the defense first veteran-wise, and what I'm hoping is with our rounded end zones, we can be very good on defense and allow our offense time to grow. Now, I like what we have on offense. I like our offensive line and like our wide outs, I like our quarterbacks, but I know that it's gonna take a little bit of time. However, defense-wise, we line up and be physical. We've got those guys set."

DKW: "So speaking of defense, what does a defense in the arena league do to fool a quarterback? Do you roll into coverages? Do you disguise coverages? Things like that?"

Sauk: "Well there's only so much you can do with three guys, but honestly, you are dealing with four, three defensive backs and then the jack [linebacker]. A lot of teams will disguise stuff by leaving your guy late or fading a guy off so you’re baiting a quarterback into throwing a corner by playing bad technique in the middle and having the front side bail get the interception that way. So there are some things defenses can do. But the most successful teams, Arizona for example, learn how to play man. Then when it comes to the red zone, you hold people, you’re being physical you do whatever it takes. I mean take a penalty. Who cares? What’s it matter? Especially with us with a rounded end zone, I'm going to be teaching my guys to be as physical as possible. We get a penalty? So what? They get a little bit closer and there's that much less room for them to work."

DKW: "What's the general makeup of the offense? How much do you run? Is there play-action? Screens? How much of the outdoor game comes into the arena league offensively?"

Sauk: "I wanna say we do anywhere between 40 and 60 some odd as plays. It just depends how much we're on offense. Running-wise, I'd say we do somewhere between zero and one. (laughs) Depends on if we're winning and we want to run the ball a little bit more. I've never really been a big screen guy, just because I don't know if I've ever had a team that could screen. I mean we'll see in camp if we’ve got guys we can screen with. You know strong guys, strong wideouts that can break a tackle and are fast enough to hit the hole. But offensively, I'm more of a five-step type offense type. I'd say 83 to 85% five-step drop. When I look at guys on film, it's guys that can protect on five step. Some teams might be more three-step drop but were more five-step."

DKW: (Laughing) "Ah... Okay coach, this one's for all fathers out there. How can we sell our daughters on arena league football? Now that's not what she wrote she wrote, 'As a 12 year old girl, tell me what it is that I would like about arena league football'. And to be honest coach, from a marketing standpoint the younger demographics must be critical to this league, and I guess the question makes a lot of sense."

Sauk: "You know, to be honest, what's funny is my daughter's love the game. They come out and a love the atmosphere because there's music, there's people throwing stuff into the stands, there's dancers, and anytime there's a stoppage of play there's someone on the field doing something, whether it's the mascot blowing shirts into the top of the stands or people eating on the field. There's nonstop action for 2 hours or so. I think the average time is 2 hours and 36 minutes. To me, it's nonstop action there for kids. They love it. There's just always something going on. They can be loud, they can be crazy in the stands, they can do whatever they want, and its perfectly acceptable. My two year old, it's funny, because in Utah we would have certain music for touchdowns so when that song would come on the radio at home or in the car and my two year old would go, 'Blaze football!!! Blaze football!!!' So he knows that's the song. I mean, it's just kind of such a unique game that I just wish that everyone would just give it one game. I'm not going to guarantee it, but I would say a lot of people would say, 'I didn't really like or know about the game, but I gave it a chance', and then they would come onto the field after the games and talk to me on the field and say, 'This is really cool. This was fun', and learn to appreciate the guys. If you really get into it and learn to appreciate the guys that go out there and put their bodies on the line, and it is different, you're constantly hitting every single game, every single play there's somebody getting blasted, and I think for the kids it's just a nonstop action."

DKW: "Last question coach, and I gotta tell you how much I really appreciate the amount of time you taken here today. This is significantly over the top as far as your patience and time given all you must have to do. Are you a KISS fan?"

Sauk: "Um... I am really not, obviously. I know about them, and I know that they are probably one of the best marketers I have ever seen. He [Gene Simmons] just seems to be able sell anything, and I know they are going to be successful because of that. That's just something he definitely does well, and I know every time he's on TV now, which is a lot, or on Twitter or Facebook, or whatever, it is always all about KISS. I know that they're doing well, and they are doing well season ticket-wise. I think between us and LA, we are number one and two in ticket sales every single week. Sometimes we're on top, sometimes they are as far as season ticket sales go."

DKW: "All right coach thanks so much for your time and best of luck this season."

Sauk: No problem at all it was a pleasure. If I can do anything else for you let me know."

Dave White is a freelance writer covering the Portland Thunder of the Arena Football League. He played Quarterback most of his 25 years in the game in various semipro leagues and hung up the cleats in 2012 at age 45. He "moonlights" as a Surgical Technologist in a large Oregon hospital and has preformed hundreds of procedures on athletes ranging from Pop Warner to the NBA. Dave spent 11 years in LA in the rock and roll business and in recent years has decided to take writing, a life long hobby, to the next level. While currently producing two works of fiction he will produce the column you will see here and is looking forward to it greatly. Dave is a die hard Central High School, Western Oregon Wolves, Beavers, Ducks and proud new Portland Thunder fan. He lives in Monmouth Oregon with his fiancée and their combined five kids...yep five.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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