The 2019 Champions Indoor Football League gets underway tonight, and the Minor League Sports Report’s Robert Pannier begins his coverage of the team with a feature on the two new co-head coaches of the team, Rick Lee and Jerry Taylor.
Rick Lee, Jerry Taylor Named Co-Head Coaches for Wichita Force
The 2018 season for the Wichita Force had not gone well at all. The team lost three of their first four games, then reached the .500 mark with two straight victories, before dropping six of their final seven games.
Head Coach Morris Lolar was greatly disappointed in the performance of his team, especially considering that they had won the Champions Indoor Football (CIF) League title just two seasons early. He made it his mission to turn things around in 2019, as the Force not only saw some dramatic changes in the roster, but also added a new General Manager in former Wichita Wingnuts G.M. Brian Turner, and a new Assistant G.M. in Domonick Venskus.
Things were going to be different come hell or high water. Ownership streamlined, a group of young players were brought in. This was going to be the season that the Wichita Force became a force in the CIF once again.
A funny thing happened on the way to the 2019 season getting underway however. Just days before the first practice, Lolar was offered the opportunity to coach with his old team, the Montreal Alouettes. That left a huge void for a team that had aspirations of being the cream of the crop in the indoor football league.
No worries though. Like an elite military unit that just lost their commander, the Wichita Force have simply asked the next man to step up – in this case, the next two men, as assistants Rick Lee and Jerry Taylor have taken over the reins of the team as co-head coaches, ready to roll forward into battle Saturday night.
Coaching Is All They Know
If anyone had cause for concern about the late coaching change, there is no need. It was not like the two coaches were without experience. Rick Lee has been coaching high football since 1987, then joined his former high school football coach, Mike McCoy, with the then Wichita Wild back in 2007. He had remained with the club through a name change, giving him more than a decade of experience in the indoor game.
Coach Jerry Taylor is entering his 43rd year of coaching. He got into the profession a decade before his partner, spending 30 years coaching at the high school level before spending the next 13 years coaching with Morris Lolar at Bethel College and then at Friend’s University. In fact, his relationship with the his former head coach goes back to when Lolar was a high school player and Coach Taylor actually coached against him.
He then moved onto the Wichita Force after his wife encouraged him to find something to do after retirement.
“When I retired a long time ago, the first thing I did was that I drove my wife nuts because I was around the house, milling around and probably complaining. She finally told me, ‘Will you just go look for a football job.’ I did and the rest is history.”
Wisdom in Experience
When Coach Lolar joined the staff in Montreal, Brian Turner approached the two to discuss who should become the next head coach of the team. There was nearly 75 years of coaching experience between the two, but neither men had been a head coach before. That is when they decided that the most logical decision was to coach together.
Explains Jerry Taylor: “It happened real quick and it was just one of those things that they came to us and recommended Rick or I, and we both kind of looked each other and neither one of us had been a head coach at this level, so we thought that we should just go ahead and share it. That way we can share the duties and it won’t come crashing down on our heads all at once.”
This willingness to share the duties shows what kind of men the two head coaches are. Most men in this position would let their egos dictate the need to be the head coach, but both realized that the best option was to take the reins together. In this way, the team would get the very best of both men and their three-quarters of a century of experience. They checked their egos at the door, and the decision has proven to be a great one.
“For the most part it’s been pretty seamless,” explains Coach Rick Lee. “We got the heads up that he (Coach Lolar) might be taking off. Basically for Coach Taylor and I at this point in time it was just working with our other assistant coaches that we have, getting our roster scaled back down, continuing to press on with what Coach Lolar put in front of us.
“We are working more closely together than we have in the past, so we are still trying to work out our relationship as far as co-head coaches, but it is turning out to work out pretty well. We are pretty much on the same plan, the same schemes, the same philosophies. This is working out really well.”
While the two give each other much of the credit for the success, they are also very thankful for the role that Brian Turner and Domonick Venskus have played. “Brian Turner and Dom down at the office are doing a tremendous job working with us, helping us facilitate a lot of things so we can manage our way through,” explains Coach Lee.
Coach Taylor concurs. “The nice thing is that we’ve had some great help down in the office with our general manager, Brian Turner, and Dom. He’s down there helping out, too.”
I Am Who I Am
Both coaches are wise enough to realize that changes in philosophy have to be ones that come gradually and as the season goes along. Coach Lolar had brought in players to fit a particular philosophy he wanted to implement, and to change that would not only be difficult, but would likely have created chaos.
As Coach Lee explains, working within the framework that was already established simply made sense.
“I think right now just because the roster was built, we are just proceeding with the guys that we have so those schemes were based upon those players and the talents they have coming in. I think we are continuing on with that, with the philosophy and the schemes that we had.”
While developing schemes and game plans are important, a team in this setting is only going to be successful if they truly understand the fundamentals of this style of game. That is something that is not lost on either coach. Coach Lee describes the philosophy.
“In my viewpoint, and I think coach Taylor and the rest of the staff agree, if we get our guys in the right position to start plays and we know where we are going with those kinds of things, the rest of it is good to take care of itself.”
The Co-Head Coaches have no issues with building off the structure that Coach Lolar put in place, however, they are not Morris Lolar. They have their own unique personalities, which Coach Taylor explains is important to keep if he is going to be successful as a coach and if he is going to be respected by his players.
“Coach Lolar is tough. He’d go out there and get fired up and he starts screaming and yelling. I’m just not that way. I get mad once in a while and will yell a little bit, but I’m a different kind of person than coach Lolar is and I don’t even try to be like him. I can’t. The kids wouldn’t respect me if I did. You just got to go out there and just be yourself. Even though we are still using a lot of coach Lolar’s philosophies and ideas and a lot of the things he still had in place, I just realize I’m not Mo Lolar. I just can’t do the things that he did. They are just going to have to deal with Jerry Taylor and Rick Lee and see how things go.”
Redefining Themselves Along the Way
There is an adage that says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but both of these men are proving that belief wrong. Consider that each coach came with decades of experience in the outdoor game, yet were not deterred by the learning curve that comes with coaching indoors. In fact, for Coach Jerry Taylor, he loved the idea of learning something new.
“It’s a new challenge for me. Most of my time has been spent in 11 man football. You’re out of the open with a nice breeze in your face at night, the lights. It’s an entirely different game. Now, you’re playing inside, you don’t have to worry about if we defer or take the ball because the wind is going to be blowing. You don’t have those problems. It’s just kind of fun now.”
Coach Taylor is enjoying the opportunity to reinvent himself so much that, after five years, he is moving to the other side of the ball, coaching the offense for the first time since joining the Wichita Force. He is loving knowing that his experience will help him in his new position.
“I am very excited to get on the offensive side. Looking back as a defensive coordinator I would look at the offense and I kind of knew what we were doing, but most of my attention was based on stopping somebody. Now I’m on the other side and I’m trying to figure out how to beat defenses. Being an old defensive coordinator, it kind of helps thinking about what I would do on the defensive side of the ball, so now I get to battle with what they’re doing. It’s kind of like playing chess, you win some and you lose some. You just got to keep getting up and going at it.”
For Coach Lee, he has had to learn the indoor style of play twice. The Coach first began under the old arena football style after joining the Wichita Wild staff as a high school coach, but has had to learn how to apply new schemes according to the style of play that the CIF uses.
“When I first started, it was like the old AFL rules and I started coaching out both offensive and defensive line at the same time. We had three coaches on staff in total, which was a little different from her situation now. You coached up the offensive line and you taught the defensive guys how to be offensive players, and then you taught the defensive players how to play offensive line.
“The league we’re in now uses more traditional rules that are not as limiting to the defense. Back when we first started you had to have two linebackers in the box and 3D lineman which meant that you can only do certain things coverage wise. Well now in the league we play in now dictates that you only play one linebacker so you can have four DBs and coverages more resemble what you see in the outdoor game, which leads now to more of a running game, attack offense. You’re still going to sling it around and throw it, but you also see more zone reads and stuff like that.”
A Tough Challenge Right Out of the Box
This is a big opportunity for both Rick Lee and Jerry Taylor, but the league has done them no favors early on. The Wichita Force begin the season playing the defending CIF champions, the Duke City Gladiators, then they return home to play the Texas Revolution, the 2017 champions.
Fans are going to learn very early on what this team is made of, but it may not be for four or five weeks before anyone knows how good this team is going to be. This is a very young roster that is going to take some time to gel but, for now, this is where Coach Lee believes he is going to get a real feel of who his team is.
“Being a little bit younger and not having quite as many veterans on the team, you want to make sure that you come out and compete and get used to the speed of this game and those kind of things. You’re either going to make plays or you’re not, and you’re going to get used to that kind of stuff. I think that’s where we are at right now. We’ve got a feel our way through these first couple of ballgames. Unfortunately, the league didn’t help us out much by giving us the defending champs right off the bat and last year’s defending champs in week two. That hasn’t set up well for us, but I think our kids are going to respond and that’s where we’re at.”
For Coach Taylor, he is seeing the implementation of younger players as a sign of good things to come.
“We lost some veterans that we had due to retirements or moving to a different team. So, we have a bunch young kids, but that’s a good thing for us. That’s kind of how we won those championships was with younger teams, and kind of molding them into what we wanted. It’s exciting.”
It will be fun to see where the Wichita Force are in the standings 14 weeks from now. This team could take some time to mold, however, Coach Lee sees that there is great blessing in the struggle.
“We want our group to be recognized as competitors and guys that are going to bring their game day in and day out. They are going to play with some grit and face some adversity and still fight on. I think that’s what most any coach wants out of their group, not only to be successful, but to be able to show strides when things happen bad and be able to pull themselves up through that.”
Coach Taylor could not agree more.
“Life is kind of like playing a football game. You never know what can happen and so you better be ready to bounce around and do a bunch of different things because, if you don’t, life is good to be pretty tough on you. These early games are going to give our young men the opportunity to show who they are as men.”
There is no doubt that they will be successful in their aims. What separates these two coaches from many is that they aren’t looking to be the all mighty boss. For Coach Taylor, he wants to have fun with his players.
“I’ve been doing this for so long that I’m kind of a players’ coach. I like to have a little fun with them. It makes the job a lot more fun for me when we’re able to joke around.”
Coach Lee not only wants to create an enjoyable place for players to play, but he understands that the closer he is to his players, the more likely it is that his team will perform. “You can’t distance yourself from those guys. I don’t think you would want to. I don’t think that makes you a very good, effective coach. You can’t see them grow and develop when you don’t know them as men.”
How the Wichita Force develop and grow is going to be a lot of fun to watch. This team has the talent and ability to be one of the top three or four teams in the CIF. They could very well be competing for the league title at season’s end, which would not be a surprise to anyone who knows Rick Lee and Jerry Taylor. After all, these two men have the experience, wisdom, and love to turn Wichita into a true force. Not just a force of nature, but as a unit as well.
By Robert Pannier