In Second Season, Fledgling UFL Makes Necessary Adjustments
The UFL's inaugural season finished with an exciting overtime championship game just miles from the Las Vegas Strip. Its second campaign begins in the less glamorous locale of Hartford, Conn.
"We are excited about bringing professional football to the Hartford area and think the local fans will appreciate us playing all our home games on Saturdays," said Hartford Colonials head coach Chris Palmer. "We have been active in the local community since the team moved here in February, and there is a great deal of enthusiasm from the people of Connecticut."
As well as in Omaha, Neb., where Maurice Clarett, once a freshman sensation at Ohio State, will try to resurrect his career.
Excitement, enthusiasm, community involvement and Clarett's opportunity for a measure of redemption -- all positives for the league. Frankly, anything that makes people notice the UFL's existence is an improvement.
But those changes are symbolic, really, with the league premiering a more realistic version of itself Saturday, when the Colonials host the Sacramento Mountain Lions.
Yes, the UFL now is made up of five teams, one more than last season, but the clubs represent more areas that are starved for professional football, a goal of the league since its inception.
The New York Sentinels, who did not win a game last year, became the Colonials, a team which shares Connecticut only with the WNBA's Sun. The California Redwoods are now the Mountain Lions, and the Omaha Nighthawks became the UFL's newest team.
The Las Vegas Locomotives and Florida Tuskers, who put forth a classic championship game at Las Vegas' Sam Boyd Stadium last November, stood pat. Not exactly the Colts and Giants at Yankee Stadium, but it'll do.
Speaking of venues, the UFL has decided to make the game experience a bit more cozy, so to speak.
Instead of cavernous palaces -- in lieu of counting the empty seats at the old Giants Stadium, it was easier to count the fans -- the league has opted for Hartford's Rentschler Field, Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha and Sacramento's Hornet Stadium. Two average-sized college football stadiums and, in the case of historic Rosenblatt, a minor-league baseball field.
Trading New York and San Francisco -- and quite literally, their big stages -- for Hartford, Sacramento and Omaha isn't usually a positive move for a professional sports league in the traditional sense.
But the UFL has flown in the face of tradition since the outset.
For starters, the league has decided to play its games in the fall, when, if you hadn't noticed, the NFL, college football and postseason baseball own the attention of sports fans. No matter, in 2010, the teams will play an eight-game schedule over 10 weeks, ending the regular season on Nov. 20.
That's a change from six games in seven weeks last season, when those contests were barely perceptible. In 2010, the UFL hopes to be more on the radar. Clubs traded in their shared training camp and practice sites for spots in their home markets, in which teams will also have radio broadcasts.
For those who tuned in on TV last season -- games were and still are broadcast on VERSUS and HDNet -- the UFL delivered because, well, it set itself up to do so. The viewers' expectations for the then-four-team league were set purposefully low.
"We aim to under-promise and over-deliver," a source told FanHouse last year. "We've put the majority of the money into the on-field product to bolster the quality."
And the quality was good last season.
Rick Mueller, who was the general manager of all four teams in 2009, said that he was in contact with 10-15 NFL talent evaluators each week. Those evaluators signed many players to NFL contracts, whether on the active roster or practice squad, once the UFL's season ended.
In fact, Graham Gano, the man responsible for the game-winning kick in the UFL's title game, split the uprights for the Washington Redskins in Sunday's season-opening win over the Dallas Cowboys.
If you can't deliver the NFL, make it as close as possible. In 2010, nearly half the league (120 players) has at least one game of NFL experience, while over 90 percent (234) have been in the NFL in some capacity, whether it be training camp or a practice squad.
The coaches are well-known. The Locomotives are guided by Jim Fassel; Dennis Green is the head man in Sacramento, while Jay Gruden takes over the Tuskers. The newcomers are former Boston College head coach Jeff Jagodzinski (Omaha) and Palmer, who was the New York Giants' quarterbacks coach just last season.
Fassel, of course, guided the Giants to the Super Bowl after the 2000 season, Gruden is the brother of Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden and Green, well, is who you thought he was -- the former head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals.
Sorry, I couldn't resist.
The question remains, though: why should you watch? It certainly isn't for those on the sideline, even if they can sometimes be entertaining. Jim Haslett, former Tuskers coach and current Redskins defensive coordinator, could keep anyone interested during the postgame press conference.
But the answer is, unequivocally, because the guys on the field can play. Former New York Jets quarterback Brooks Bollinger, the league's reigning MVP, remains under center for the Tuskers, who won all six of their regular-season games last season before falling in the title tilt.
Former NFLer Josh McCown and Ryan Perrilloux, much-hyped but troubled at LSU, will be quarterbacks for the Colonials, who also employ hometown favorite Andre Dixon, a standout running back at the University of Connecticut.
Tim Rattay and Marcel Shipp stayed with Las Vegas, while Omaha puts forth a star-studded squad that features quarterback Jeff Garcia and running back Ahman Green.
Oh yeah, Clarett (right) is there, too.
And just like the UFL itself, he's taking a step back to hopefully take two forward.