New pro football league gives it the old college try

AAFL to start next spring with school atmosphere

August 04, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

The chance to reclaim past glory sent more than 300 college graduates to Orlando, Fla., and another 200 to Birmingham, Ala., during July to audition for the fledgling All American Football League.

Whether it represented an exercise in wishful thinking or legitimate opportunity is unclear. Two years in the making, the league's inaugural season is scheduled for the spring of 2008. Whether the AAFL makes it that far is the question.

For former college players J.P. Humber, a reserve running back at Maryland, and Davon Telp, a standout cornerback at Towson, opportunity is what led them to a two-day invitational tryout at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

"It's a professional league, but it's supposed to have a college atmosphere," Humber said from his home in Lakeland, Fla. "It kind of gives us the chance to go back and have the camaraderie we had in college."

Humber was joined by former Terps teammates Marcus Wimbush and Brooks Barnard in workouts for players from Bowl Championship Series schools. Telp's showing for smaller schools earned him a spot in a seven-on-seven scrimmage that closed the tryout.

"I think it's a real good opportunity," said Telp, whose career almost ended in a serious automobile accident in July 2004. "I believe it's going to work."

Pro football's latest spring fling will come down to deep-pocket investors, generous television contracts and entertaining games. The U.S. Football League and the XFL couldn't survive, but this developmental league is unique in its concept, and not just because it won't compete with the NFL.

The brainchild of California businessman Marcus Katz, the AAFL will focus mainly on college rivalries across the South and not on NFL cities. The catch is that all players must have college degrees, a tenet that attracted a who's who of NCAA administrators to Katz's board of directors.

"That's one rule we won't compromise," said board member Jack Lengyel, who was athletic director at Navy for 13 years.

It was what intrigued Cedric Dempsey when he first heard the idea. Dempsey, president of the NCAA from 1994 to 2002, saw it as incentive for players to stay in college. Dempsey and Katz, who made his money in the student-loan business, are neighbors just outside San Diego.

Gene Corrigan, past president of the NCAA and ex-commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, also liked the concept. Other board members include former athletic directors Doug Dickey (Tennessee) and Peter Dalis (UCLA), and former college chancellors Martin Massengale (University of Nebraska, Lincoln) and Charles Young (UCLA).

"It was a fun task putting it together," said Dempsey, chairman of the board. "We had some of the good minds of higher education and football."

It has not been all fun, however. The league had to postpone this spring's scheduled debut. It still needs investors, is trying to finalize stadium agreements and wants regional television contracts.

According to Katz, he has contract agreements for college stadiums in Purdue, North Carolina State, Florida and Tennessee. Florida and Tennessee, however, appear to be the only two of the group destined to play in 2008.

The AAFL also has agreements with Birmingham and Detroit, and is negotiating with San Antonio and Little Rock, Ark.

Dempsey wants at least six teams to play a 10-game schedule that would culminate with a July 4 championship game. The league will pay coaches and players the first year to give investors an opportunity to view the product. Then Katz hopes to take the teams public and sell shares to fans.

"I honestly feel like it's going to work," Katz said. "The fan gets to vote [for the league] with dollars. We're going to roll out ticket sales in Florida in August."

Katz's board of directors believes the demise of NFL Europa this year works to its advantage. According to Katz, salaries for the AAFL will range from $70,000 to $100,000, more than twice what players got for playing in Europe.

Although the league did not sign any players in the Orlando tryout, it did in Birmingham. The plan is for a September draft, after NFL cuts. For the most part, players will play in close proximity to their college teams.

"With NFL Europa folding, it opened up the coaches' pool and the players' pool," Dempsey said. "It opens up the need for a spring league. Most of the people I've talked to say that within two years, there will be some form of spring league."

Among former college coaches who attended workouts are Jackie Sherrill and R.C. Slocum, both former Texas A&M men, Jim Donnan (Georgia) and Bob Pruett (Marshall).

Because the league wants to avoid NFL markets, there won't be teams in Baltimore or Washington. But that doesn't deter Humber or Telp.

Glory might have eluded Humber in an injury-marred career at Maryland - he rushed for just 144 yards in 22 games - but football is not out of his blood. He participated in a minicamp with the Washington Redskins and had a tryout with the Buffalo Bills.

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