Football is the birthplace of the five-year plan, the preferred buying-time strategy for any coach tasked with a program start-up or rebuild.
Wonder if the Spokane Shock’s five-year plan actually read anything like this: championship, playoff appearance, overtime loss in title game, championship, hosting title game in an upgraded league. Victory 86 percent of the time. Arena filled to 94 percent of capacity on average. And two coaching changes just to make it interesting.
Tonight the Shock, in their first at-bat in the reborn Arena Football League, meet the Tampa Bay Storm in ArenaBowl XXIII, and it seemed as good a time as any to ask the organization’s midwives the secret to such unprecedented success in a game in which the playing field is leveled by strict salary limits.
Have they been smart? Lucky? Savvy? Cutthroat?
“If you asked me five years ago if we anticipated something like this, no,” said CEO and majority owner Brady Nelson. “But our goal every year is to win it. We’re a business first and foremost, and winning is good for business.”
And business is better when you’re adaptable. If there’s any lesson to be taken from the saga of the Shock, that may be it.
Certainly it was at the heart of what could be considered the franchise’s two defining moments.
The first: March 30, 2006 – the Shock’s debut in the now-abandoned af2, which the home team won over Stockton 41-40 by stuffing a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak at the Spokane 14-yard line with 55 seconds remaining, to the resounding roar of 9,386 curious customers.
And yet the very next day, the first Shock coach, Chris Siegfried, started tinkering with the roster – “cutting guys, bringing in new ones,” Nelson recalled. “Because we weren’t very good. We realized you’d better get used to change.”
Not that everything would change after that first game.
“I don’t like the word ‘lucky,’ ” said Shock general manager Adam Nebeker, “but there have been good bounces. Before that first game, we thought we did everything right – marketing, filling the building, game presentation. But we didn’t have control of it going down to the last seconds and giving people their money’s worth.
“By comparison, Stockton that same season did a very good job leading up to the first game – I think they had 8,500 in there. But they got killed, blown out. Everyone left at halftime and the next game they had 4,000 and never recovered.”
Still, it’s one thing to bring people back and another to bring them back crazy in love. The Shock have averaged 10,041 in the 51 home games since, and it’s the rare one who doesn’t show up in team-sold orange and shows up at work the next day hoarse.
“That would have to be for me the most gratifying thing – the passion of the fans,” Nebeker said. “I would never have imagined …”
“That it would be a way of life for so many of these people,” Nelson interjected.
Which brought a laugh from Nebeker.
“To a ridiculous extent, in some cases,” he said.
Of course, the Shock’s two principals have seen the flipside of that passion, which brings us to defining moment No. 2.
Sept. 24, 2009: Nelson and Nebeker decide not to rehire coach Adam Shackleford, just a month removed from leading the Shock to a second af2 title, and instead elevate assistant and former player Rob Keefe for the leap into the reborn AFL.
“We knew it would be unpopular,” Nelson said. “I remember going to a gas station and hearing the people working there talking about what a snake I was, not knowing it was me standing there. That was hard to hear.
“Shack was a really good coach – and really, we couldn’t say anything else. So that’s not much of a defense. But we just knew it was the move we had to make.”
That Keefe steered the Shock to the league’s best record and the title game in his first year – and, really, AFL voters, how is he not Coach of the Year? – has quelled the initial backlash. But the chapter underscored again that Shock management was not afraid of bold moves or disruptive change.
Although those things are relative.
“The comment I got more than anything was, ‘Isn’t this the riskiest thing you could have done?’ ” Nebeker said. “It sounds absolutely crazy, but we never felt it was risky. There was no doubt to us that Rob was going to take us where we are today. We knew the challenges in front of us in this new league. We knew we had the candidate with the exact skill set to succeed at this level.”
And they knew they had no patience for a five-year plan. Success is year-to-year with the Spokane Shock. Always been that way.