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Peter King
March 04, 1991
For 17 days in Orlando, hopefuls from the U.S. and abroad faced the brave new World League of American Football
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March 04, 1991

Out Of This World

For 17 days in Orlando, hopefuls from the U.S. and abroad faced the brave new World League of American Football

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The two men laughed because both were having a great time. Landry, 66, was back in football for the first time since 1989, when Jerry Jones fired him as coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Landry and his son, Tom Jr., bought an 8% share of the Riders, and Tom Sr. put himself at Riley's disposal. Riley, 38, has asked him to help scout some players in Orlando. So here they were together, with seven other coaches and front-office types, figuring out whom to draft the next day. "It's fun," Landry said. "It's like the start of the Cowboys, when we'd be up till four in the morning working on the draft."

Riley won the Grey Cup, the Canadian Football League's championship trophy, in 1988 and '90 as coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. But presiding over a draft meeting and getting input from Tom Landry...well, Riley would say later, "This is a career highlight."

The WLAF had hoped to have a bunch of Riley types—bright young innovators—including two or three blacks, running fast-paced offenses. However, the league wound up hiring some coaching retreads along with an equal number of Rileys, but the real shame is that it has no black head coaches. According to Lynn, seven blacks were interviewed for head jobs, but all seven told the WLAF they were not interested. The league held fast to its salary scale for coaches—each head coach earns $100,000 and the four assistants per club are paid a total of $160,000. Reggie Williams of the New York-New Jersey Knights, the former Cincinnati Bengal linebacker who's one of the league's two black general managers, says he was unable to sign up San Francisco 49er assistant Sherman Lewis, who's black, because the NFL offers better job security and a better pension.

Coaching in the WLAF is not going to be easy. Frankfurt will have to fly 13 hours, over nine time zones, to play Sacramento on April 13. With the small rosters, coaches cannot risk injury by conducting hard-hitting practices during the season. Raleigh-Durham Skyhawk coach Roman Gabriel and Knights coach Mouse Davis plan to have some players go both ways. The Skyhawks' first pick in the draft, Brad Henke, who was selected by the New York Giants in 1989 and has been cut by three NFL teams, will be a full-time offensive guard and a part-time nosetackle.

Even the draft was a unique experience for the coaches. They scrutinized players at a specific position on one day and drafted them the next. (For example, quarterbacks were evaluated on a Sunday and selected on Monday.) "Getting your players isn't like life or death," says Barcelona coach Jack Bicknell. "It's like choosing up sides at the playground."

Michael Huyghue, 29, the general manager of the Birmingham Fire, is out to build the best organization in the WLAF. "Like the 49ers," he says. "There's a certain feel when you step into a high-class setting. That's what we'll build." The Fire will give its players custom-made warmup suits and travel bags. Training-camp headquarters will be a luxury hotel in Birmingham. Three hundred women are vying for spots on the Firing Squad, the cheerleading unit. The mascot will be the Torch, a circus performer who breathes fire.

All of this for a team whose biggest names are Brent Pease and Joe Henderson. "It's important that the fans don't see us as minor league," says Huyghue (rhymes with fugue), "and they won't."

Huyghue carries a cellular phone everywhere he goes. He's a Michigan law school grad who has worked for both the NFL Players Association and the Management Council. He's bright and confident, the prototypical pro football executive of the 1990s. And he has been sought out by a member of Birmingham's Shoal Creek Country Club to see if he would be interested in joining. He'll decide later.

Such is life when you're the first black hired as a pro football general manager. "When I took this job, they [citizens of Birmingham] expected me not to be vocal," says Huyghue. "I'm not Nelson Mandela, but I'm here in this position, and besides doing my job as well as I can, I hope to make some positive changes in the community."

The decision to take the job with the Fire, he says, wasn't based much on the opportunity to become the first black G.M. in football. "This league was going to let me show I could be a general manager," says Huyghue. "What I've fought so far in my jobs is being young more than being black. I really needed to be in this league to show I could run a franchise."

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