Robert Taylor and Steve Spurrier Jr. had never met, but they had a lot to talk about Wednesday as Washington State pro hopefuls were going through 40-yard dashes, zigzagging through cones and catching footballs inside the Cougars’ practice bubble with 28 NFL teams looking on.
Their paths didn’t intersect in Pullman – Taylor, a former WSU safety, graduated before Spurrier Jr. was hired by Mike Leach to coach the outside receivers – but the two shared a mutual interest in the recent erosion of the Alliance of American Football.
For a good 10 to 20 minutes Wednesday afternoon, Taylor and Spurrier Jr. met and chatted on the piece of turf underneath the canvas structure in Pullman, as various Cougars whizzed by.
Until Tuesday afternoon, the spring football league that had drawn some amount of fanfare and hype was employing Taylor, a defensive back for the San Antonio Commanders, and Spurrier Jr’s father, Steve Spurrier, who came out of retirement after spending the better of four decades in football to coach the Orlando Apollos.
The AAF’s purpose was to serve as a developmental league for the NFL, giving fans something to watch during the football-vacated months of February through April, while offering fringe NFL talents a chance to earn $70,000 – and more in their second and third years two – and showcase their skills to professional clubs. Despite decent ratings and a few lucrative media partnerships, the AAF folded when major investor and league chairman Tom Dundon pulled his finances on Tuesday.
For approximately a week before the league officially announced it was ceasing operations, there had been some speculation the AAF wouldn’t survive through the end of the regular season, let alone into the playoffs and beyond.
Taylor had a hunch things weren’t going well, but he and his San Antonio teammates had suspicions confirmed when Commanders general manager Daryl Johnston interrupted a skeleton drill Tuesday afternoon and gathered the team.
The raw news was delivered with players still in helmets and shoulder pads, dripping with sweat as they were preparing for a game against the Memphis Express – scheduled to take place Saturday at the Alamodome.
“There was word going around with the team,” Taylor told The Spokesman-Review Wednesday in Pullman. “We kind of figured everything that was going on, but right after second (skeleton drill) yesterday at practice, GM and the coach brought us up and closed the news out to us and let us know what was going on.
“After that, packed up the lockers and we just had to go on about our day.”
In Orlando, Spurrier, the longtime Florida and South Carolina coach, had guided the Apollos to the league’s best record, at 7-1. There were rumors the AAF would pull the plug after the seventh week of the season, but the Apollos and the league’s seven other teams got an eighth game.
Spurrier Jr. tracked news of the league’s suspension on Twitter, then spoke with his father later in the day.
“He had kind of mixed emotions,” Spurrier Jr. said. “For one thing, it was a neat thing for him to be a part of. For him to leave a winner … however it unfolded, it was neat to be the leader of the pack. He appreciated that, he thanked the team, he appreciated all their hard work. And on the other side of it, he felt bad for all the kids that worked so hard to put that thing together.”
Realizing WSU was holding pro day on Wednesday, Taylor booked a flight back to Pullman within hours of the league’s announcement. All but four of the NFL’s 32 teams were represented and Taylor, in peak shape playing for the Commanders, figured a solid pro day workout could ease the pain and frustration that came with news of the AAF suspension.
Instead, Wednesday came with more pain and more frustration.
AAF players had told they’d be released from their contracts by Wednesday morning, but that hadn’t happened by the time WSU players gathered in the team’s weight room for official measurements.
“I thought I was going to be released today,” Taylor said, “but unfortunately that wasn’t the case.”
It happened Thursday instead, so Taylor, who had 124 tackles and three interceptions in two seasons with the Cougars, is permitted to work out for NFL or CFL teams, if any should make contact.
“So just waiting on that, waiting by the phone,” Taylor said.
Taylor initially signed a contract with the AAF’s affiliate in Phoenix, the Hotshots, last August, then was added to San Antonio’s active roster on March 18. He played in two games, a 37-6 win over the Atlanta Legends and a 19-15 win over the Salt Lake Stallions, but had nothing but positive words to share about the experience.
“The fans down in San Antonio are probably some of the best fans I’ve been around,” he said. “We had 30,000 people at our game for a new league. That’s great.”
Taylor and his San Antonio teammates experienced a variety of emotions as they were packing their pads and clothes into bags and saying goodbye to one another for what was likely the last time.
“We’ve got a lot of love for each other, so it’s sad,” he said. “It’s kind of embarrassing at the same time. You’ve got a bunch of good football players and a bunch of great coaches on one team and for something like that to happen, it’s terrible.
“It’s not professional at all.”
Spurrier Jr. traveled to one of his father’s games in Orlando during WSU spring break and made a shorter trip to see the Apollos play in Salt Lake City.
“I got to get a T-shirt and a hat out of the deal,” Spurrier Jr. said. “It was neat to see them play and I went to the meetings, got to be in the locker room. It was cool to be able to watch my dad coach again and see him in the fire and kind of just see him really in his element.
The elder Spurrier spoke out about the AAF’s suspension, saying its founders were “not very truthful,” according to the Orlando Sun-Sentinel. He also crowned the one-loss Apollos de facto AAF champions.
“He certainly will make it be known to everyone on his team and the state of Florida that took pride in this that they raised a championship team there,” Spurrier Jr said.
If the second-year WSU assistant learned one thing watching his father’s return to the sidelines, it was this: “He can still coach.”
In 2020, another professional football league, the XFL, will spring up and try to succeed where the AAF couldn’t. Leach believes football “desperately needs a developmental league” and offered some thoughts on how such a thing could sustain itself and succeed in the long term.
“I think there’s more to it than making initial money, because if they’re able to develop quality players for a couple years in some of these developmental leagues, then they move up the NFL in the end, I think these teams will laugh all the way to the bank,” he said.
Backing from the NFL is vital, Leach believes.
“I think the NFL has to support it and not be afraid to pay the bills and I think they’d get paid on the back end,” he said. “And I do think on the back end, they’d make a lot of money.”
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