To see what a difference one year can make, you don't need to follow the Presidential election or gas prices. Just take a look at the AFL's Gladiators. In one year, they've gone from being a castoff team in Las Vegas to a playoff team in Cleveland.
Gladiators head coach Mike Wilpolt remembers the first time his team took the field in their new home. "At first, they weren't quite sure about the Arena Football League, but they've taken to us," he says. "After about a quarter of that first game against New York, it was so loud in there. Our players feed off the fans, and that's what we're looking for. We want to make 'The Q' a place that teams don't want to come play."
After hosting their first ever playoff game and winning a close one on Monday versus the Orlando Predators, 69-66, the Gladiators have to face the Georgia Force on the road in the Divisional Round on Monday July 7 (8:00 p.m. ET on ESPN2). Cleveland finished 9-7 in the Eastern Division, and some are picking them as a dark horse to advance to ArenaBowl XXII.
Contrast all of this to a year ago, when the Gladiators were in Las Vegas. They played at the Orleans Arena, a small facility at an undistinguished casino miles away from the Strip. Turmoil surrounded them on the field and in the front office. Their head coach was fired a month before the season ended, but was allowed to finish the year, mostly because he was also the team's offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and special teams coach.
A scheduling conflict with the circus forced the Gladiators to move their season finale to a Monday afternoon. Worse, the circus elephants left some presents for the Gladiators on their field. In some ways, it was a fitting end to a 2-14 season, as the Gladiators finally crapped out in Las Vegas. Marlion Jackson is one of the few remaining Gladiators who played in Las Vegas last season. "It was rough. Really rough," he remembers. "By far the biggest challenge of my playing career."
Once the 2007 season finished, major changes started happening, beginning with the team's ZIP code. In October, Gladiators owner Jim Ferraro moved the team from Las Vegas to Cleveland. "I had mixed emotions about the move," Jackson admits. "I had never been to Cleveland, and was accustomed to being in Las Vegas. But I was very happy that there would be a change. I knew we were going to get new coaches and everything. Once I talked to the new coaches and saw the expectations start to rise, I felt much better."
That new coach, Mike Wilpolt, has refused to answer questions about the team's days in Las Vegas, partly because he doesn't want to rehash the past, but mostly because he wasn't a part of it. The future, not the past, was Wilpolt's only interest.
"My biggest thing when I met with ownership was that I just wanted what other teams have," Wilpolt says. "I wanted a nice practice facility, the ability to go get players and grab quality free agents. We needed to get the players in and show them the commitment from the ownership that we're going to do things right. That was the key."
That process landed the Gladiators one of the biggest free-agent signings of the offseason. QB Raymond Philyaw had led both Kansas City and Chicago to the playoffs as a six-year starter, but had found himself on the market. As he remembers it, "I had an opportunity to take a visit to Cleveland, and [new Gladiators president and former Browns QB] Bernie Kosar opened the doors to his home. When most players go on a visit, they stay in a hotel. But Bernie actually offered to have me come out to his house and stay with him. That meant a lot. They did whatever it took to get me here."
Philyaw was available for Cleveland because Kansas City had allowed him to become a free agent after the 2007 season, even though he threw 85 touchdown passes and led the Brigade to the playoffs. "I felt that I did enough to be in Kansas City for this year, but for some reason, it didn't work out that way," he says. "I don't know whether the organization didn't feel like the position was that important, or what they were thinking. Now you see what Kansas City's had to go through this season, going through three or four quarterbacks this year."
That transaction drastically changed the fortunes of both teams, and Jackson knew immediately that Kansas City's loss had become Cleveland's gain. "I was ecstatic! From seeing Ray play, playing against him, and watching him bring teams back with poise and leadership, I was excited to see that we'd picked him up."
Coach Wilpolt was pleased with the pickup as well. "He's not going to have the big flashy numbers, but he's very steady and very smart. He doesn't turn the ball over. And he's a leader. He's a veteran who has experience in the playoffs, and he's won playoff games. That was a big key for us. We needed a starting building block at quarterback, and Raymond has given that to us."
In the regular season, Philyaw threw 83 touchdown passes and finished with the second-highest passer rating in the AFL. WR Otis Amey led the league in scoring, and Jackson added 23 rushing touchdowns, tied for tops in the AFL. Both Amey and Jackson were named to All-Arena teams this week, and their quarterback couldn't be more proud. "We've got a group of guys that I wouldn't trade for anybody else in the league. I thought a lot more of our guys deserved to make the All-Arena teams too."
The playoffs aren't the only thing fueling Philyaw's competitive drive. As many games as he's won over the years, Philyaw isn't mentioned with the Aaron Garcias, the Clint Dolezels, and the Mark Griebs of the league. This year, he wasn't even mentioned with Matt D'Orazio and Joe Germaine on the All-Arena teams.
"I don't see how I couldn't make first or second team," he admits. "You've got guys who played nine or ten games and they make first team. Matt D'Orazio and Joe Germaine are great guys, and I talk to both of them. But I feel like coming to a first-year franchise, putting everything together, and the season we had, maybe I deserved it."
"Yeah, I'm disappointed, but I'm not going to pout about it. Actually, it's driving me to work harder. And maybe I do need to work a little harder. But everywhere I go, I win. If that's the only recognition I get, I'll take it any day."
Troy Clardy hosts Inside the AFL, ESPN's official arena football podcast, posted Thursdays on ESPN's PodCenter. You can drop him a line at email@example.com.