Freedom coach speaks out on football and more

09/18/03 Interview with Rich Huff by Rocky Larson

Before the league meetings, I had the opportunity to interview Fort Wayne, Head Coach, Rich Huff. I found him to be a football person through and through. Following the interview is Rich's bio.

Q) You've got a colorful and detailed history with minor league sports. From the CBA to the IPFL and now, to the NIFL, you've been involved in a very tough business. What draws you to it?

THIS IS MORE FOR COFFEY, BUT FOR ME IT WAS THE CHANCE TO BE A PART OF SOMETHING THAT WOULD ALLOW ME TO POOL ALL MY PAST EXPERIENCES. 

Q) How did your past experiences in minor league sports prepare you for the task of building the Freedom from the ground up?

ONE OF MY MAIN TASKS OUR FIRST YEAR WAS GETTING THE FOOTBALL SIDE OF THINGS UP AND RUNNING.  HAVING BEEN INVOLVED IN RECRUITING (BOTH SIDES) AND KNOWING A FEW PEOPLE AROUND THE BUSINESS WAS A BIG PLUS FOR ME. 

ON THE BUSINESS SIDE I'VE BEEN WITH COMPANIES AND GROUPS WITHIN COMPANIES WHERE PEOPLE ARE FORCED TO WEAR MULTIPLE HATS AND PICK UP NEW SKILLS OR FLAME OUT.  THAT HAS DEFINITELY COME IN HANDY OVER THE LAST 10 OR 12 MONTHS.

Q) How many hours per week do you work during the season? How about the off season?

168 YEAR ROUND IF YOU ASK MY WIFE AN OLDEST SON.  HONESTLY I REALLY COULDN'T PUT A FIGURE ON IT.  BEING AS INVOLVED AS I AM IN EVERY ASPECT - ON FIELD, FRONT OFFICE, OWNERSHIP - THERE IS ALMOST ALWAYS SOMETHING IN THE BACK OF MY MIND REGARDING THE ORGANIZATION.

Q) When you're not busy with the operations of the Fort Wayne Freedom, what do you do in your spare time?

WITH A WIFE AND 2 BOYS (3YRS AND 4MO) IT'S PRETTY BUSY AROUND THE HOUSE.  GETTING AMY A BREAK IS ONE BIG GOAL AND JUST SPENDING TIME WITH THE FAMILY AS A WHOLE.  ONCE EVERYONE IS DOWN FOR THE NIGHT I'LL PICK UP A BOOK OR SNEAK IN A LITTLE MORE WORK.

Q) Without question, the fans of Fort Wayne have embraced the Freedom. Attendance for home games last year averaged over 7,700 per game. Those are some fantastic crowds that are the envy of the league. In a business where 4,000 fans per game is considered good, to what do you attribute your success with the fans of Fort Wayne?

THERE ARE A NUMBER OF REASONS FOR OUR EARLY SUCCESS.  I THINK FIRST AND FOREMOST IS THE NATURE OF THE MARKET.  THIS IS A FOOTBALL CORNER, REGARDLESS OF THE FACT THAT IT'S INDIANA.  THE PEOPLE HERE LOVE THE SPORT AND SUPPORT THEIR TEAMS INCREDIBLY.  THE QUALITY OF FOOTBALL HERE IS GREAT FROM THE GROUND UP.  YOUTH PROGRAMS, HIGH SCHOOL PROGRAMS (I THINK 4 OF 5 2002 STATE TITLE GAMES HAD FW OR AREA TEAMS IN THEM ), SMALL COLLEGES (ST FRANCIS, TRI-STATE), YOU NAME IT, ITS HERE.  THROW IN NFL VETS LIKE ROD WOODSON (ALL-PRO) AND JASON FABINI (NYJ) AND YOU CAN SEE THE TYPE OF ENVIRONMENT WE HAVE TO WORK IN.

WE'VE REALLY TRIED TO CATER TO A FAMILY AUDIENCE AS WELL.  AGGRESSIVE PRICING MAKES US AN EXTREMELY AFFORDABLE ENTERTAINMENT OPTION.  WE'VE TRIED TO MAKE OUR GUYS AS ACCESSIBLE TO THE PUBLIC - ESPECIALLY THE KIDS - AS WE POSSIBLY CAN.  FOOTBALL CAMPS, FAMILY NIGHTS AT LOCAL RESTAURANTS, ETC.  OUR POST GAME AUTOGRAPH SESSIONS ARE AMAZING.  AT TIMES THE FIELD IS NEARLY FILLED WITH FANS AND THE ARENA USUALLY HAS TO START SHUTTING LIGHTS DOWN TO GET PEOPLE HEADED TO THE EXITS.

AFTER THAT, LOOK AT ALLEN COUNTY WAR MEMORIAL COLISEUM.  PROBABLY THE LONGEST NAME AND DEFINITELY ONE OF IF NOT THE BEST ARENA IN THE NIFL.  10,000 CAPACITY, 24 LUXURY SUITES, CLUB SEATING AS WELL, EVERY SEAT IN THE MAIN BOWL WITH GREAT PROXIMITY TO THE FIELD AND CLEAR LINES OF SIGHT...IT'S A GREAT VENUE.  WORD IS IT WILL ONLY GET BETTER IN THE FUTURE.  HEARD RUMOR THAT DISCUSSIONS HAVE STARTED TO BRING IN VIDEO BOARDS.

OUR STAFF MEMBERS ARE ALSO VERY EXPERIENCED IN MINOR LEAGUE SPORTS AND FOOTBALL.   CLUB PRESIDENT RICH COFFEY HAS BEEN DOING THIS FOR 10,15 YEARS NOW.  HE SPENT 10+ YEARS HERE IN FT WAYNE AS A GM WITH THE CBA'S FURY.  WE'VE BEEN ABLE TO TAKE WHAT WORKED BEFORE AND MODIFY AND BUILD UPON IT WITH POSITIVE RESULTS.  BRAD HARRIS AND MALISA FRITZ BOTH ARRIVED LATE IN 2003, BUT THEY WERE ABLE TO DO AMAZING THINGS ON SHORT NOTICE AND MID-SEASON.  I'M VERY EXCITED ABOUT HAVING THE GROUP TOGETHER WITH A FULL YEAR TO PREP FOR 2004.

Q) In your first year of operation, the Freedom managed an 8-6 record with only 1 loss at home. With the expansion Utah Warriors making the NIFL Championship game, expansion teams in the NIFL more than held their own during the 2003 season. Why do you think teams such as the Freedom and the Warriors were able to compete so well from their onset?

IT'S ALWAYS HARD TO SPEAK FOR ANOTHER FRANCHISE, ESPECIALLY ONE THAT YOU'VE HAD NO DIRECT CONTACT WITH SUCH AS UTAH.  

FROM A FOOTBALL STANDPOINT, I'D SAY THAT UTAH BENEFITED FROM HAVING AN EXPERIENCED AND TALENTED QB AND FROM SITTING ON A DECENT LOCAL TALENT POOL.  HAVING A POPULATION CENTER LIKE SLC HELPS AS DOES HAVING MAJOR PROGRAMS LIKE UTAH, BYU AND UTAH ST NEARBY.

LEXINGTON TIED INTO THE UK POOL EXTREMELY WELL AND TONY FRANKLIN KNOWS HOW TO MOVE THE BALL.  I WAS DISAPPOINTED TO SEE THAT TONY WON'T BE BACK NEXT SEASON, HE'S GREAT TO GO UP AGAINST.  IT WILL BE INTERESTING WHAT EFFECT, IF ANY, THE CHANGE WILL HAVE ON THE CLUB.

AS FOR US, I MENTIONED THE LOCAL TALENT EARLIER.  OUR SQUAD HAD TWO QBS, OUR 2 TOP RECEIVERS, A STARTING NOSE AND A KICKER ALL FROM FW OR ST FRANCIS GRADS.  WE WORKED PRETTY HARD TO GET THE RIGHT KIND OF TALENT AND THE RIGHT KIND OF PERSON AS WELL.  OUR LOCATION IS PRETTY GOOD OUTSIDE OF FW - WE PULLED FROM BALL STATE, INDIANA STATE, ILLINOIS, CINCINNATI, SAGINAW VALLEY, OHIO, AND EASTERN MICHIGAN AS WELL AS SOME SMALLER PROGRAMS.  HOPEFULLY A YEAR UNDER OUR BELT WILL GET US IN A COUPLE MORE DOORS AND HELP US CONTINUALLY IMPROVE.

FRANCHISE-WISE, I THINK THE NIFL IS TRYING TO IMPROVE ITS EXPANSION PROCEDURES EACH YEAR.  I THINK IT'S EVIDENT FROM THE SUCCESS OF THE SAME TEAMS MENTIONED ABOVE, BUT ALSO EVANSVILLE.  DESPITE A VERY TOUGH YEAR ON THE FIELD, THEY HELD THEIR OWN ATTENDANCE WISE.  I'M SURE THEY'LL LEARN FROM 2003 AND BE STRONGER IN ALL PHASES IN 2004.  MYRTLE BEACH PROBABLY HAD THE TOUGHEST TASK - HOW DO YOU FIGHT GOLF, BEACH TIME, AND THE NIGHTLIFE IN A RESORT TOWN?  HATS OFF TO THEM FOR THEIR HARD WORK.

Q) What was the response from the corporate community of Fort Wayne to the arrival and success of the Freedom?

OVERALL I'D SAY IT WAS VERY GOOD.  WE HAD OUR SHARE OF PARTNERS WHO WERE 100% WITH US FROM DAY ONE AND WE HAD SOME FOLKS WHO WANTED TO TAKE A WAIT-AND-SEE APPROACH.  I THINK THE NEWNESS OF THE NIFL AND THE GENERAL ECONOMIC ATMOSPHERE DAMPENED SOME PEOPLE'S ENTHUSIASM, BUT EACH HOME GAME SAW MORE ATTITUDES CHANGE.  WE HAD TO BE CREATIVE TO ACCOMMODATE SOME MID-YEAR PARTNERSHIPS, BUT THAT'S THE FUN PART OF MARKETING.  2004 IS LOOKING EVEN BETTER WITH RENEWALS NEAR 100% AND PEOPLE LOOKING TO JUMP IN HAVING SEEN THE
"PRODUCT."

Q) Do you have any returning players already locked up for the 2004 season?

AFTER THE SEASON WE SPOKE TO EVERY PLAYER ON THE ROSTER ABOUT FUTURE PLANS AND THEIR INTEREST IN COMING BACK.  ONLY ONE PLAYER SAID HE'S DEFINITELY NOT COMING BACK.  A NUMBER OF THEM SAID THEY'LL DEFINITELY BE BACK, BUT WE WON'T RELEASE ANYTHING ON THEM UNTIL WE HAVE INK ON PAPER.  ANDRAE BROOKS (8 INT, ALL-EASTERN DIV), BOBBY PETRAS (10G 4INT), AND KICKER JOHN DIETTRICH HAVE ALL SIGNED.  WE'VE ALSO SIGNED JASON BATTERSHELL WHO STARTED 4 GAMES AT LB FOR US BEFORE GETTING A KNEE DINGED.  HE'S GOTTEN THE BUG AGAIN AND UN-RETIRED.  WE'RE EXPECTING THE REST OF THE GUYS TO FILTER IN OVER THE FALL. 

ONE HOLD UP IS THE FACT THAT A NUMBER OF OUR GUYS ARE GETTING SOME LOOKS FROM AFL, NFL TEAMS.  I'D LOVE TO GET THE SAME GUYS BACK FRO 6 YEARS IN A ROW, BUT I THINK I'D BE EVEN HAPPIER TO SEE 3 OR 4 MOVE UP EACH YEAR.

Q) What role do you take in the recruiting process for the Freedom?

IT'S PRETTY MUCH ALL MINE.  FROM COMPILING PLAYER LISTS, CONTACTING AGENTS, PLAYERS, AND COACHES, TRACKING PLAYERS, I'M THE CENTER OF IT ALL.  I'M THE ONLY FOOTBALL GUY AROUND ALL YEAR, SO IT NATURALLY FALLS TO ME.  OUR OC, MATT LAND, AND I HAD A NUMBER OF DISCUSSIONS AT THE END OF 2003 TO TALK PERSONNEL, NEEDS, ETC.  WITH MATT RUNNING HIS OWN PROGRAM AT FW SOUTH SIDE HS, HIS TIME IS LIMITED DURING THE FALL.

Q) The NIFL is entering its 4th year of operation, with league meetings scheduled for later this month as well as in February of 2004. What do you see as the major issues that will be up for discussion?

I THINK MOST OF THEM HAVE EITHER BEEN BROUGHT UP ON THE MESSAGE BOARDS (YES, I GO THROUGH THEM NOW AND AGAIN) OR ARE RECURRING THEMES.  THIS YEAR THERE WILL LIKELY BE DISCUSSION ON THE STRUCTURE OF THE LEAGUE AND HOW THE ADMINISTRATION SHOULD BE HANDLED.  I THINK THAT ONE HAS THE POTENTIAL FOR A LOT OF DEBATE BECAUSE OF THE PHILOSOPHIES BEHIND THE OPTIONS. 

OUTSIDE OF THAT I THINK YOU'LL HEAR THE SAME DISCUSSIONS ABOUT OFFICIALS, RULES CHANGES AND INTERPRETATION, COMPENSATION, AND TEAM-SPECIFIC ISSUES. 

Q) The NIFL is a successful minor league. But, as with any minor league, it has room for improvement. If you had the power to make any changes to the NIFL with the wave of a magic wand, what would you change?

WOW.  THERE ARE A LOT OF THINGS THAT COULD BE IMPROVED WHETHER IT'S AT THE LEAGUE LEVEL OR RIGHT HERE IN FW.  HOW DO I DODGE THIS ONE? 

I THINK EVERYONE WOULD PROBABLY LOOK FOR THE SAME THING - A CONSENSUS ON HOW THE LEAGUE IS ADMINISTERED.  THAT SEEMS TO BE THE BIGGEST POINT OF CONTENTION RIGHT NOW. 

THAT AND I'D HAVE US IN THE TITLE GAME EVERY YEAR AND WINNING 3 OUT EVERY 5.

Q) The original executive committee has served their term and team owners will vote on the leadership and direction they wish for the NIFL to take in the future. Do you have any interest in a position on the NIFL executive committee?

I THINK EVERY TEAM SHOULD BE INVOLVED IN LEAGUE ADMINISTRATION.  AS FOR WHERE I AND/OR RICH COFFEY WOULD SIT, I HAVE NO DESIGNS ON SPECIFIC COMMITTEES.

THIS GOES BACK IN PART TO A LARGER QUESTION REALLY - HOW SHOULD THE LEAGUE BE STRUCTURED?  THE WAY YOU'VE WORDED THE QUESTION IT APPEARS THAT THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE CONTROLS THE DESTINY OF THE LEAGUE AS A WHOLE.  FRANKLY, IT SHOULDN'T BE THAT WAY REGARDLESS OF WHO SITS ON THE COMMITTEE.  THE PURPOSE OF ANY COMMITTEE IS TO INVESTIGATE AND RECOMMEND A PLAN OF ACTION FOR THE ENTIRE ASSEMBLY TO VOTE UPON.  BEYOND THAT I THINK THERE COULD BE SOME MODIFICATIONS OF THE COMMITTEE STRUCTURE AS A WHOLE THAT WOULD BE BENEFICIAL TO THE LEAGUE.

Q) You were the commissioner of the IPFL in its last year of operation. Several people associated with the NIFL, including myself, have called for an independent commissioner to oversee operations in the NIFL. From your unique perspective as a current owner of a team and a former commissioner, what are your thoughts on the hiring of a NIFL commissioner?

WRONG GUY, BUT I'LL WEIGH IN.  I THINK THERE COULD BE DEFINITE BENEFITS TO HAVING AN INDEPENDENT OFFICE.  THAT BEING SAID, I ALSO THINK MODIFICATIONS TO LEAGUE STRUCTURE AND PHILOSOPHY COULD MAKE A ROTATING PRESIDENCY MORE WORKABLE.  EACH HAS IT'S ASSOCIATED COSTS (FINANCIAL OR OTHERWISE).  PERSONALLY, I THINK AN EVENTUAL MOVE TO A CENTRALIZED OFFICE MIGHT BE IN ORDER.  THE TRANSITION WOULD NEED TO BE PLANNED TO GREAT DETAIL AND I WOULD NOT EXPECT AN IMMEDIATE CHANGE FOR 2004.

Q) The NIFL front office is, at best, understaffed and slow in response. (My words, reader, not Mr. Coffey's). Owners and the media have expressed frustration with obtaining timely information from the front office in the past. Will this issue be addressed at the league meetings and what do you think should be done in order to upgrade the front office?

I'M SURE IT WILL.  WITH THE AMOUNT OF ATTENTION IT HAS RECEIVED PUBLICLY I DOUBT IT COULD BE AVOIDED.  TO ME THE PUBLIC COMMENTS BY MEDIA/OWNERS ARE REALLY SYMPTOMS OF THE LARGER ISSUE OF LEAGUE STRUCTURE. LIKE ANY OTHER FAST GROWTH ORGANIZATION, THE NIFL IS FACING A POINT WHERE ITS RESOURCES/STRUCTURE IS STRUGGLING TO SUPPORT THE WHOLE AS WELL AS IT ONCE HAD.  DOES IT MEAN YOU HAVE TO SCRAP IT AND START OVER?  NO.  BY THE SAME TOKEN, MODIFICATIONS WILL LIKELY BE NEEDED TO SUSTAIN THE ORGANIZATION EFFICIENTLY.  IT'LL BE A LONG DISCUSSION AND A LONG PROCESS OF CHANGE - HANG ON TIGHTLY!

Q) The paying of players seems to be of some concern in the NIFL. The league has set rules for player compensation, but whether those rules are followed by NIFL teams is debatable. What should the league do  to address the concept of "buying" talent under the table?

MY FIRST YEAR IN, I HEARD THE RUMORS AND JUST TRIED TO CONCENTRATE ON DOING THINGS RIGHT IN MY CORNER OF THE WORLD.  I'LL TAKE THIS IN TWO STEPS:

1 - ENFORCEMENT HAS A FINANCIAL COST ASSOCIATED WITH IT AS WELL AS A LOGISTICAL ELEMENT THAT COULD BE UGLY.  I'D LOVE FOR EVERYONE TO FOLLOW EVERY RULE TO THE LETTER, BUT I'M NOT NAIVE.  SORRY BUT I CAN'T SAY THAT I HAVE ANY ANSWERS ON ENFORCEMENT.  IT IS YET ANOTHER PHILOSOPHY ABOUT WHAT THE PURPOSE OF THE FRANCHISE IN QUESTION IS.

2 - BOTTOM LINE, THIS IS A BUSINESS AND SHOULD BE APPROACHED AS SUCH.  ANYONE WHO HAS SEEN ME ON THE FIELD KNOWS HOW BADLY I WANT EVERY GAME, BUT IT DOESN'T MAKE SENSE TO HURT THE FRANCHISE FINANCIALLY TO DO SO.  I'M NOT INTERESTED IN BEING THE FLORIDA MARLINS OF THE NIFL, I'M LOOKING TO BUILD SOMETHING TO LAST.

UNTIL EVERY GROUP CAN SEPARATE THE FIELD FROM THE BUSINESS YOU'LL HAVE VIOLATIONS.

Q) It is no secret that the af2 has been courting various NIFL franchises, with both Fort Wayne and Lexington being mentioned as teams that could jump leagues. Is there still this possibility, or will we see the Freedom in the NIFL for 2004?

HONESTLY, WE AS AN ORGANIZATION WILL ALWAYS LOOK OUT FOR OUR OWN BEST INTERESTS.  ANY BUSINESS OWNER SHOULD TELL YOU THE SAME.  WHEN PRESENTED WITH OPTIONS WE WILL REVIEW THE COST/BENEFIT AND ACT ACCORDINGLY.

NOW, WITHIN THE LEAGUE CONCEPT, WE HAVE TO ACCEPT THAT OUR SUCCESS CAN BE EFFECTED BY THE PERFORMANCE OF OTHER MEMBERS AND VICE VERSA.  WITH THAT IN MIND WE'RE HEADED INTO THE LEAGUE MEETINGS OPTIMISTICALLY AND WILL BE DOING OUR BEST TO WORK TOWARD THE IMPROVEMENT OF THE LEAGUE FOR EVERYONE - TEAMS AND FANS ALIKE.

BIO -

A native Midwesterner, born in Michigan (Livonia, west of Detroit).  Finished HS in Vincennes, Indiana and went on to Yale University.

Economics and Political Science major at Yale, 4 years of football and 2 years of track (indoor & outdoor).

Track - sprinter, 100, 200, 4x100.  Some LJ.  Qualified for a combine Yale-Harvard team that competed abroad in Ireland and England in 1987.

Football - Started at WR on 86 freshman squad (no freshmen eligible in the Ivy League back then).  Moved to defensive back as a sophomore and started all three years.  2nd team All-Ivy as Junior, 1st team unanimous as a Sr.  Tied Yale record with 7 ints in one season, previous record holder is Heisman winner Clint Frank.

Spent fall of 90 coaching at Yale, freshman dbs and assisted with varsity secondary as well. 

Worked through the World League of American Football combine system in inaugural year (91) and was drafted 7th round by London.  Spent most of my time on reserve, did go active end of 91 with Sacramento at Frankfurt.  Started at FS, 3t FR.  Only US based team to win in Europe that season.  Bounced out when NFL guys started being allocated.  Brief time in AFL with Albany (now Indiana) Firebirds as an injury pick up.

Spent a short time out of football back in the Midwest being young and free, then got back into the game as a coach.  Spent time at Plymouth State (NH) and Brown University working under Don Brown, now head guy at Northeastern.

Got back out of football to get married and start a family - Time and money in coaching not what I wanted for family.  Worked for a few companies serving up data for a wide range of marketing purposes.  Project management in software and databases for consumer and business demographics, etc.

Was contacted by Rich Coffey about this venture not too long before we got running hard on it.  families go way back, both of us touching base now and again over the years.  At one point Coffey contacted me about playing for an AFL team in CT, but I passed.  My wife was very supportive (cursing herself now) because we both saw that this would be a way for me to be involved in something that brings together everything I've done in the past.

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