As young and innovative of a playcaller Billy Back has been in his 10 years as a professional indoor football head coach, his soul is much older.
The son of a small-town Ohio police chief enjoys domestic beer, the outdoors and bringing his own popcorn to local baseball games.
Back, 40, is somewhat active on social media but isn’t glued to his devices.
When Back received an unexpected direct message from the Spokane Shock account last year, it was during one of the half-dozen times a month he was scrolling the Twittersphere.
Back, who was then heading up the Carolina Cobras in Greensboro, North Carolina, was contacted by new Shock majority owner Sam Adams, who was in the final stages of bringing indoor football back to Spokane after a two-year hiatus.
During stints with the Cincinnati Commandos, Texas Revolution, Nashville Venom, Wichita Falls (Texas) Nighthawks and the Carolina Cobras, Back won five championships and compiled an overall record of 106-38, the kind of sterling résumé Adams was looking for in a coach to help revive one of the Lilac City’s cherished sports organizations.
Selling Back on the reborn Shock – winners of two AF2 championships in 2006 and ’09 before winning the Arena League Football title in 2010 – was easy.
Convincing his wife, Stacie, and their three young children to uproot their lives and move across the country to lead his sixth team since 2010 was the hard part.
She initially said no.
“I told her it was a different opportunity, to be in an environment we’ve never coached in front of before,” Back said. “With the fanbase the Shock has had, the success the team had and just being in the Pacific Northwest for the first time, it was worth pursuing.”
After flying out to Spokane to meet Adams and touring the area, the Back family went all-in on his decision to become the Shock’s fifth coach in franchise history.
“Let’s take a magic carpet ride one more time,” Back told his wife. “Let’s see what it does.”
Adams, a three-time former Pro Bowl defensive lineman who played for the Seattle Seahawks in the 1990s, believes Back can return the Shock to their former glory.
The Shock begin their 2020 campaign as a member of the 13-team Indoor Football League on March 22 on the road against the Bismarck Bucks.
“He knows how to beat (longtime Arizona Rattlers coach) Kevin Guy and (longtime Sioux Falls Storm coach) Kurtiss Riggs,” Adams said. “He’s done it in the same season.
“He knows how to recruit his own players, is organized and can handle all different types of temperaments in his players.”
“The Spokane fans really did their homework”
The Arena Football League folded in November, ending a 34-year run of highs and lows in 50-yard indoor stadiums across the country.
Back, a former small-college football, basketball and baseball player who was best on the diamond, remembers the height of the AFL craze and aimed to play in it.
After his baseball career came to a close, he found himself bucking a chinstrap as a receiver for a few local indoor teams such as the Dayton (Ohio) Warbirds and Bloomington (Illinois) Extreme in lesser indoor leagues like the National Indoor Football League.
He retired in 2009, a time when the more prominent AFL did well enough to have its own video game on Xbox, nationally broadcast games and a developmental league known as AF2, where Spokane shined from 2006 to ’09 before joining the AFL in 2010.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up and coach peewee (youth) football,” Back said. “I never thought it would be indoor football, but the fields are about the same size.”
Back began his coaching career in the smaller leagues in 2010 and considered the Shock among the arena game’s premier organizations, even when former ownership moved the Shock from the AFL to the IFL in 2015 and rebranded to the Spokane Empire.
In 2016, Back was the head coach in Wichita Falls, which made the trek to the Spokane Arena to face the Empire in their IFL home opener.
It was the most raucous crowd Back faced. The Empire clipped the Nighthawks in a wild 66-65 game that featured the Empire’s rowdy group of fans “The Goal Line Bandits” in the away team’s ear all evening.
Fans went as far as learning Back’s favorite singer, Lionel Richie, and made signs of Richie to get the coach’s attention.
“The Spokane fans really did their homework, man,” Back recalled. “After the game, one of them handed me a beer and I drank it with him.”
Back’s Nighthawks went on to go 10-5 that season and reach the playoffs and 11-6 the following year.
In 2018, he joined a different league, the National Arena League, to lead the Carolina Cobras in their inaugural seasons.
The Cobras, who would sometimes attract around 3,500 fans a home game, won the 2018 NAL championship and had another winning season in 2019. Back loved the organization and living in North Carolina, he said, but was ready for a return to the IFL.
With the recent Chapter 7 bankruptcy of the AFL, the top indoor organizations are now IFL-affiliated. The league plans to expand.
“The IFL, to me, is the premier league,” he said. “The NAL is a high-low game. A lot of coaches are doing the same thing and it got boring at times.”
Talent and loyalty
When the Spokane Shock made the concrete decision to return, they wanted to immediately bring in the best available talent.
The addition of one of the IFL’s all-time great quarterbacks was a good start.
Spokane brought in two-time IFL MVP Charles McCullum, who is 1,000 yards short of setting the league’s all-time career passing mark.
He and Back have seemingly been a package deal.
They teamed up in Nashville, Wichita Falls and most recently Carolina, where McCullum led the NAL in passing yards (2,888) last season and passing touchdowns (66).
The Atlanta native, who started games as a true freshman at NCAA Division I Florida A&M, said he has no problem following Back to the chilly Northwest.
“His personality. The way he lives his life, that’s who you want to play for,” McCullum said of Back. “A model citizen and just someone you want to be around. He does a lot for people.”
McCullum first met Back in 2013 when he was the quarterback at Cedar Rapids, which was playing an IFL game against Back’s Texas Revolution.
McCullum, 35, said he loved Back’s fun, high-scoring offense so much that he asked to be traded to Texas after the game.
A year later, they teamed up in Nashville and won a Professional Indoor Football League title.
“Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve won together,” McCullum said. “And we need to finish what we started in the IFL. I honestly don’t want to leave him.”
Several other former Carolina Cobra standouts have followed Back and McCullum to Spokane, including receiver Jordan Jolly, cornerbacks Michael Green and Cedric Poole, defensive end Steve Miller, defensive tackle Walter Thomas, and linebackers Dante Holmes and Pasquale Vacchio.
“I’ve had players follow me around the last seven years,” Back said. “To be successful you need talent, chemistry and a good system, and I think we have that.”
The right personnel
Players from big-time college programs dot the Spokane Shock’s initial 2020 roster, which will reach 40 players before being cut down to 25 when the season begins. Players report to camp the first week of March.
Ohio State, USC, LSU, Georgia, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma are among the Power 5 schools that have players in Shock orange, some with NFL training camp experience. Locally, former EWU receiver Terrence Grady and former Washington State receiver Kyrin Priester are also on the team.
Adams, who has been involved with the business side of indoor football football for over a decade, said this is already one of the most talented IFL teams he’s seen assembled.
But that doesn’t mean there’s any room for egos.
“Behavioral stuff won’t happen under (Back),” Adams said. “And if it does, they’re out of here. I played for no-nonsense guys in the NFL and that’s what I wanted here.”
Some of the IFL’s best players came out of nowhere, including Jolly, who played one year of junior college football before carving out a decorated indoor career.
Back has seen plenty of players with less decorated backgrounds beat out prominent players figures who were once on the cusp of the NFL.
He wants players who want to be IFL players and appreciate their opportunity.
“If the ex-big-time college players come into this not looking they’re trying to be the best (indoor) player possible, they’re going to get beat out by those NCAA Division III and NAIA guys putting in the work,” Back said.
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