Steve Spurrier may have an advantage over other head football coaches in the new Alliance of American Football league.
He was a coach of the Tampa Bay Bandits in the old USFL league when it was established in the 1980s and understands how to build a team and a league from scratch.
Now, as coach of the Orlando Apollos, Spurrier has used that experience, plus the years he has coached in college and the NFL, to build a team that is considered the best in the fledgling league.
Spurrier, in an interview after Thursday’s practice, said he was pleased how quickly his players bonded at the beginning of the season.
“We have good team spirit,” he said.
He downplayed his experience in the USFL, where he also started a team from scratch.
“You always think you’ve got a good team,” he said.
The key to this team’s success is simple offensive and defensive schemes that players have easily grasped.
“The team has struggled offensively, but we’re playing better than the other guy in the fourth quarter,” he said.
Last week’s game in Salt Lake City was a first for Spurrier. He said it was the first game he’s ever coached in the snow. Playing in all types of weather is a part of football, and there is potential the Apollos could play in more foul weather before the season ends.
“We still play Memphis and Atlanta,” he said.
Tim Ruskell, the team’s general manager, said the team, 4-0, hasn’t suffered by moving at least 50 percent of its practices 180 miles from Orlando to Camden County High School in Kingsland.
“Everything is here at Camden County High School,” he said.
Ruskell said he doesn’t consider it a disadvantage for the team to live in a Jacksonville, Fla., hotel and board a bus to practice across the state line for at least half the season. The team was compelled to move its practices to Georgia because it was unable to get worker’s compensation in Florida. The players are able to get worker’s compensation in Georgia, which prompted the decision to hold practices in Kingsland.
The facilities at the high school, including the artificial turf playing surface and new weight room, provide everything the team needs, he said.
Ruskell said the league is designed to compliment, not compete, with the NFL. Those players currently considered by NFL teams in the upcoming draft cannot sign with the AAF until later this spring.
“We don’t touch these guys until May,” he said. “We’re complimentary to the NFL.”
Because the league is not trying to draft players right out of college in competition with the NFL, Spurrier believes the AAF will be around for years to come. Another reason he believes the league will be a success is it has a TV contract and players are not paid the high salaries of the NFL.
What players with NFL aspirations have is an opportunity to show off their skills, which Spurrier said are comparable to some of the players on NFL teams. Some of the league’s players will earn a spot on an NFL team as a result of their AAF experience.
“There’s a thin line between who makes it and who doesn’t,” Spurrier said. “A lot of our players are as good or better than backups in the NFL.”
Moving the practices to Georgia may be an inconvenience for players and coaches, but it also allowed players a chance to bond because of their close proximity to each other on and off the field.
“I think it’s made us closer,” Ruskell said.
Quinterrius Eatmon, an outside tackle, said practicing in Kingsland has not been difficult for him and other players.
“It’s a little further to drive but it’s not that bad,” he said. “We get to see each other more. We’re all pros here.”
Rule changes have also made an impact on the game, and Ruskell said the NFL is likely paying attention.
There are no kickoffs in the AAF and no TV timeouts. The game clock is 35 seconds instead of the 40 seconds in the NFL and the pace of play is quicker, which Spurrier said didn’t take a lot of adjustment once everyone got accustomed to the rules. The average game is takes about two and a half hours to play.
Ruskell said it’s been fun and gratifying to be part of a new team and league.
“To see it start from nothing, and now you’ve got a team, the chemistry takes care of itself,” he said. “They’ve handled it beautifully. I think it’s made us closer.”