AFL breeding ground for up-and-coming coaches
Tuesday July 5, 2016
Assistant Coaches Set Sights to Climb AFL Coaching Ladder
LAS VEGAS (July 5, 2016) – The Arena Football League has been a launching pad for many players, executives and coaches over the years. For example, the Kurt Warner story might be the greatest professional football story of all time. An undrafted quarterback that started out stocking shelves in a grocery store before taking a chance in the AFL and eventually became a Super Bowl MVP.
But that’s not the only major AFL success story.
From a coaching perspective, the story book rise of Jay Gruden from his AFL days to joining the NFL ranks as head coach of the Washington Redskins is a tale of a coaching dream that became a reality.
Gruden started out as a quarterback out of Louisville, who signed on to play for the Tampa Bay Storm in 1991. After beating out Florida State’s Chip Ferguson for the starting job, Gruden went on to have a Hall of Fame playing career and won four ArenaBowl titles. After winning his fourth title in 1996, Jay decided to begin his coaching career and landed the job as offensive coordinator for the Nashville Kats in 1997.
One successful year in Nashville led to his first head coaching opportunity with the Orlando Predators in 1998 where he led them to an ArenaBowl title in his first year. Gruden would go on to win another in 2000.
The outdoor game would eventually come calling as Jay joined his brother, Jon, as an offensive assistant for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002, as well as remaining a coach with the Predators. Jay earned a Super Bowl ring with his brother and would go on to get another coaching opportunity in the United Football League with the Florida Tuskers in 2009-10. In 2011, he would land his first NFL coordinator position with the Cincinnati Bengals before finally being named head coach in Washington in 2014 and where he is currently.
Are there more of those AFL stories waiting to be written?
The current roster of AFL head coaches is littered with successes that have started the same route that Gruden has taken – from AFL player to assistant coach to AFL head coach.
Current AFL head coaches: Clint Dolezel, Kevin Guy, Rob Keefe, Lawrence Samuels, Omarr Smith, and Steve Thonn were all former AFL players that became assistant coaches and finally head coaches in the AFL. Just like Gruden did.
So, who are the next group young coaches to start the journey along the AFL trail?
Current assistant coaches that have their eyes on climbing the AFL coaching ladder: Phil Bogle, Siaha Burley, BJ Cohen, Clay Harrell, Walt Housman, Dominic Jones, Will Mulder, Anthony Payton, Raymond Philyaw, Matt Sauk and Shane Stafford.
Granted, some from that list are further along in the process than others.
Take Orlando Predators Offensive Coordinator, Matt Sauk, for instance. He had a stint as head coach in Portland, but is a two-time winner of AFL Assistant Coach of the Year (2011 and 2012 with the Utah Blaze). During Matt’s playing days, he was a quarterback with the Arizona Rattlers, Grand Rapids Rampage, Los Angeles Avengers and Philadelphia Soul. Sauk completed 252-of-406 passes (62.1%) for 2,721 yards, 54 touchdowns and 13 interceptions over his four-year AFL career.
“I knew I wanted to be a coach since I was 7- or 8-years old,” Sauk said. “Coming to the AFL, it was easy to fall in love with the game. I think that being a quarterback made the transition from player to coach a lot easier because that position needs to know offense and understand defensive schemes more than any other position on the field.”
Sauk’s offense is currently averaging 57.1 points per game (No. 3 in AFL) and has the AFL’s most efficient offense by scoring 97-of-123 drives (78.86%). As a product of Sauk’s offense, WR Brandon Thompkins has a shot to possibly breaking the League’s all-time single-season, all-purpose yard mark (P.J. Berry, 3,708 yards in 2011) and currently stands at 2,810 yards with three games to remaining on the schedule.
Oh, and by the way, Orlando is 11-2 and currently sit as the No. 1 seed in the Postseason Standings.
“I try to be me,” Sauk said when asked about his coaching style. “(Former Los Angeles Avengers head coach) Ed Hodgkiss had a positive influence on me and is where I picked up a lot of my offense and working with Rob (Keefe) has been great. My favorite part of the game is the closeness with the players and coaching staff, the relationships you can make across the league. There is nothing like it.”
Arizona Rattlers Offensive Coordinator Siaha Burley enjoyed on-field success as a player. One of the AFL’s all-time great receivers, Burley played a nine-year career with the Orlando Predators, Los Angeles Avengers, Arizona Rattlers and Utah Blaze and finished with 843 receptions for 10,810 yards and 247 receiving touchdowns. The former All-Arena standout also added eight rushing scores and seven kick return touchdowns in his career. The highlight of his career came in 2007 while with Utah where he earned Offensive Player of the Year for leading the AFL with a then-single-season record 166 catches for a then-single-season record 2,129 receiving yards and 49 touchdowns.
Burley has a Gruden connection of his own – Jay was the first to sign Siaha to an AFL contract.
In 2000, Gruden invited him to an offseason workout where Siaha ran a few routes against a couple of the AFL’s all-time great defensive backs, Kenny McEntyre and Damon Mason.
“I was pretty confident,” Burley said about going into the workout. “I think a lot of players fresh out of college are a little cocky, but I was surprised by the talent level immediately. I learned quickly that whatever negative perception I had – I was dead wrong.”
Burley finished his workout and didn’t learn until it was over that Gruden was the quarterback that was throwing to him during the workout.
“There was no way he was the coach,” Burley said. “He looked too young and what head coach is in the drills throwing the passes? It was a total shock.”
Burley earned AFL Assistant Coach of the Year in 2015 while with the Orlando Predators under Rob Keefe. Under the direction of Rattlers head coach Kevin Guy, Siaha helps lead the AFL’s No. 1 scoring offense (66.8 points per game) and second most efficient by scoring on 111-of-141 drives (78.72%) so far in this season. The Arizona trio of receivers: Rod Windsor, Maurice Purify and Chase Deadder have combined for 229 receptions for 2,787 yards and 76 touchdowns in 2016 under Burley’s tutelage.
How was the transition from star receiver to coach?
“It’s funny because I am taking the same approach as a coach as I did as a player,” Burley said. “You are never too small, nothing is ever too big for you to make your moment. I was confident in my abilities as a player and knew I had to start at the bottom and work my way up. It is the exact same situation for me as a coach.”
“Of course, that’s the next step for me,” Burley said about becoming a head coach. “Rob (Keefe) and Kevin (Guy) both helped put me in spots to grow and learn. I have really gained a lot of the off-the-field experience here in Arizona with a great organization that provides me the tools that are necessary to take the next steps. I will do my best to help our team win a championship, but if the opportunity comes, I will welcome the challenge when it’s my time.”
Philadelphia Soul Assistant Head Coach Phil Bogle took a different path to the AFL. He’s not a quarterback like Sauk and wasn’t a star receiver like Burley, but he was the anchor in an offensive line that helped pave the way to the Soul’s championship in 2008.
Bogle played his college ball at New Haven University and was signed by the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2003. After blocking for future Pro Football Hall of Famer LaDanian Tomlinson, he went on to play for the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers before heading to the AFL’s Philadelphia Soul in 2007 and 2008.
Despite playing only three AFL seasons, he earned All-Arena all three seasons, was named to the All-Rookie Team in 2007 and was a finalist for Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2008.
In 2010, his final playing year in Dallas, Phil assumed extra duties as a leader and his thoughts of coaching became more serious.
“I was calling out the protections and running line drills during practice,” Bogle said. “I think that was when I started to think seriously about coaching in the AFL.”
As a coach, Bogle has consistently had his offensive line in the Top 3 for least amount of Sacks Allowed. Since 2013, 11 players earned All-Arena honors under Phil’s direction.
This season, Phil has also assumed the role of general manager and the added off-the-field responsibilities have helped him grow as a coach.
“Worrying about housing, food deals, medical treatments on top of recruiting and coaching has really given me a full perspective on both the football and business sides,” Phil said. “Those are the qualities that head coaches need to possess in the AFL and I could not have asked for a better organization to support me in my development.”
As far as Bogle’s coaching style, he points to a couple of coaches that have influenced him.
“Marty (Schottenheimer) was a true ‘players coach’. Having him in San Diego at the beginning of my playing career was a blessing and really showed me how to get players to play for you as a coach,” Bogle said. “Clint (Dolezel) and I have been together for a few years now and I think we have both learned from each other, but he knows the AFL inside and out. I have learned so much from him in all facets of the game.”
It all comes full circle as Phil talks about his AFL coach in Philadelphia, Bret Munsey, a disciple of Jay Gruden.
“Bret is a lot like Marty – he’s a players’ coach,” Bogle said. “He got the most out of his players and we won the championship in 2008. He is a former player that began coaching in the AFL and now he is on Jay’s staff in Washington. I think that is the path we all aspire to take.”
As Dolezel, Guy and Keefe cement their legacies on their coaching journeys, could Bogle, Burley and Sauk be the next generation of AFL head coaches? Only time will tell.
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