Former CFL coach John Gregory in charge of fledgling National Arena League

Former CFL coach Gregory in charge of NAL

Even in retirement, it seems some men can’t live on golf alone.

Former CFL head coach John Gregory, an avid golfer, finds himself back in football partly because even he can’t spend all of his time on the links. The 78-year-old native of Webster City, Iowa, came out of retirement last June to become commissioner of the National Arena League and will lead the fledgling eight-team circuit into its inaugural season starting in March.

“Well, you can only play so much golf, really,” Gregory said during a telephone interview. “These people came to me last spring and asked if I’d help them set this thing up and gave me good reasons as to why they wanted to do it.

“It’s because of the players. There are so many good players who just need an opportunity so I said I’d do it.”

The NAL begins play March 17 with Columbus Lions hosting the Jacksonville Sharks. The other franchises include the Georgia Firebirds, Lehigh Valley Steelhawks, Dayton Wolfpack, High Country Grizzlies, Corpus Christi Rage and Monterrey Steel.

The inclusion of the Steel makes the NAL the first pro football league to have a Mexican-based franchise.

The NAL will consist of one division with the top four making the playoffs. Each team plays 12 games and carries 21 active players with a four-man practice squad.

The NAL was originally called the Arena Developmental League with a mandate to develop players for the Arena Football League, CFL and NFL. But that changed when the AFL announced only four franchises — the Tampa Bay Storm, Philadelphia Soul, Cleveland Gladiators and expansion Washington Valor — would play in 2017.

Jacksonville played in the AFL last year and Gregory said the Sharks joining the NAL was instrumental in his league changing its outlook.

“We’ve already got people calling to get in next year and we haven’t played a game yet,” Gregory said. “I’m anticipating next year doubling our size and maybe more.”

The Anderson Gladiators, Florida Tarpons and an unnamed franchise in Kentucky were all originally named when the ADL formed. But the Gladiators and Tarpons left to join other leagues while Kentucky was removed when the ADL changed names.

Gregory feels the NAL having a club in football-mad Mexico is a coup. On Nov. 21, over 76,000 fans watched the Oakland Raiders beat the Houston Texans 27-20 at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.

“I was in Monterrey when that game was played and I was shocked at the interest in football in Mexico,” Gregory said. “When we announced our franchise, they had 28 media outlets at the news conference.

“I think it’s going to be a great deal for us.”

Gregory is certainly familiar with arena football. He spent 17 seasons as a head coach in the AFL and afl2 (the AFL’s development league) from 1995 to 2011 and served as the Tampa Bay Storm’s offensive co-ordinator in ’12.

Twice he led the Iowa Barnstormers to the AFL’s ArenaBowl and was named its top coach on two occasions. Gregory also discovered an unheralded quarterback named Kurt Warner, who was working in a grocery store at the time.

Warner spent three seasons with the Barnstormers before playing in the NFL with St. Louis, the New York Giants and Arizona. He appeared in three Super Bowls, winning one, and earlier this month was named a finalist for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Gregory began his pro coaching career as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive-line coach (1984-86). He won his first Grey Cup in his inaugural season then added another as Saskatchewan’s head coach in 1989, when he was also named the CFL’s top coach.

Gregory was fired during the ’91 season but resurfaced as Hamilton’s head coach later that year. He led the Ticats to the playoffs twice in four seasons before being let go in 1994.

Gregory said going to arena football from the CFL was a seamless transition.

“The two games are very similar,” he said. “I basically used the same offence (in arena football) that I used in the CFL . . . it worked in both situations.”

Gregory is open to the NAL possibly expanding into Canada. The AFL entered the Canadian market in 2001 with the Toronto Phantoms but the franchise disbanded after two seasons, averaging under 7,000 fans per game.

“Arena football could work in Canada because there are so many arenas there that are perfect for football,” Gregory said. “I’m not talking about the big cities, I’m talking about Brandon, Manitoba, and places like that.

“We don’t need a stadium that seats 100,000 people, we need one that seats 15,000. And it’s very affordable, with tickets around $15 so you can bring your kids. If a team can average about 5,000 people a game, it can pay the bills and make a few dollars.”

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

Canadian Press