The Coach of the Ironmen, Lou Blumling, is a stubby, amiable, gravelly-voiced Dutchman who joined the team as a scout in 1962 after a career as a 150-pound scatback for West Liberty State College and as a coach in local high schools. He is paid $10,000 a year and is convinced that Continental League football is just a shade below the two big leagues.
"If you talk to the real pro fan, " Blumling says, "he'll tell you this is great football to watch for excitement. And we feel we hit just as hard as they do upstairs. This is just one very short step below the big time. We get big college stars, All-Americas even, who can't make it. I can go through this NFL roster and find players on every page who got their chance here. We look at the Super Bowl last year and find two of ours who used to play for $150, Bob Brown of Green Bay and Andy Rice of Kansas City."
The Ironmen, Blumling says, fly like the big-time teams. They use the same plane the Chicago White Sox use. They stay in Holiday Inns and they eat the same meals, even if they do go home right after the game to save money.
But there are differences, too. The Ironmen don't have fancy equipment—no Exer-Genies, no diathermy machines. Just one seven-man blocking sled and a couple of dummies. Worse, they suffer from a severe lack of time. Most weeks the tiny coaching staff—four men, as opposed to, say, Green Bay's 10—has only Tuesday through Thursday, 1� hours per night, to work with the players. Even if the high schools happen not to play on Friday, they aren't particularly anxious to see the Ironmen use the facilities. "This week was Homecoming," Blumling sympathized recently, "and they sure didn't want us messing up their field."
Anyway, five Ironmen players are high school coaches and can't practice on Friday. One player commutes all the way from Uniontown, Pa. (70 miles), four from Pittsburgh and two from Columbus. Many of the others have to get up early to work. Defensive Tackle Joe Pabian, for example, shovels hot asphalt all day, starting at 7:30 a.m. (Even on Monday mornings. After one game of notorious memory the Ironmen didn't get back to Wheeling until 6:10 a.m.)
"Suppose we tried to keep them here two, three hours a day," Blumling says. "Here's a kid who has to drive 70 miles home, then get up to go to work. It's a little difficult putting demands on a kid making $150 a week. It's easy for him to say, for this money I'm not going to put up with this. I'm not going to work my tail off."
Quarterback-Coach Chlebek agrees. "Where Vince Lombardi can say, 'Be here at 6,' Lou has to finesse his way around." In addition to the handicaps that come with the franchise, the Ironmen voluntarily assume another. Unlike the league teams such as the Norfolk Neptunes and the Orlando Panthers, which stock up with veterans and thereby remain consistent powers, the Ironmen try to use youngsters still on their way up. Sometimes this hurts them.
"Jerry Marion, our starting flanker, was called up by Pittsburgh last year," Blumling says. "That didn't help us, but they had to have him, and we're not going to hold a kid down when he can go up and make a better living.
"But if we have a man hurt, where do we go to get a replacement? We have a 35-man maximum this year, but last season it was 30. That's barely one full team, not allowing for injuries."
Players aren't so all-fired easy to get at the beginning of the year, either. Blumling starts out by writing almost every college in the football guide for lists of players they think might be able to play pro football. He sends each man a questionnaire. He scouts. He pores over the NFL and AFL drafts, sending a letter to just about everybody but Leroy and Orange Juice. The letters are bumble. They say, approximately, "If your other prospects somehow don't work out, we're still interested."