The new coach of the Utah Blaze certainly won't have the national name recognition of recently retired coach Danny White, who once starred as the quarterback of "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys.
But unlike White, the new guy will be be a full-time Utah resident. The Blaze want their new coach to be available year round, whereas White, an AFL Hall of Fame coach, had an agreement that he could spend the majority of the offseason in his native Arizona.
"The league has evolved and become extremely competitive in terms of the process of acquiring the right free agents and the time that it requires," said Blaze president Jason Jones, who is leading the search for a new coach. "That means the coach needs to have a year-round focus on the team. Having somebody living in this market or willing to relocate to this market is important to us."
The Blaze are also interested in a coach who knows the arena game.
"To be a qualified coach for this position, you need to have significant Arena Football League experience," said Jones. "The indoor and outdoor games are different enough that it is paramount that a coach has indoor experience."
Jones says there has been much interest in the job nationally since White resigned on Monday afternoon just two days after the Blaze lost their first-ever home playoff game.
"I've said that we've launched a full-on search for a coach, but with a job as coveted as the head coaching job for the Blaze, it sort of launches itself," said Jones. "There has been great interest, and we've been weeding through the candidates to come up with a legitimate short list and then arranging to discuss the job with them."
Jones says he figures there will be "four or five candidates" that he has interviewed or will interview for the job. One person on that short list, Jones confirmed, is Blaze defensive coordinator Ron James. Jones could not confirm any others, citing confidentiality concerns.
James, the former head coach of the Las Vegas Gladiators, has been a Blaze assistant the past two seasons. He has a home in the Salt Lake area and was in charge of most of the team's scouting and player signings last offseason as the team's director of player personnel.
James began last season as Utah's line coach but was promoted to defensive coordinator midseason in place of Hunkie Cooper, who was eventually let go. The Blaze defense, which struggled while the team went 0-9 to start the season, improved greatly over the final seven games under James' tutelage.
James was the head coach of the Gladiators during the 2005 and 2006 seasons, going 13-19 (.407) and missing the playoffs each year. But Las Vegas was a floundering AFL franchise that made it to the playoffs only once in its existence before relocating to Cleveland before the 2008 campaign.
By comparison, Utah, in each of its first two years, won the AFL's award for best support staff. The Blaze ownership group, led by John Garff, has been willing to push up to the league's salary cap to pay players, and Utah has been active on the free agent front. That makes the coaching job in Utah much more attractive with more potential than the job James had in Las Vegas.
Also, James' winning percentage in Las Vegas wasn't much different than White's with the Blaze. While White had great success in 13 seasons with the Arizona Rattlers, taking the team to five ArenaBowls, his Blaze teams went just 21-30 in three years for a .412 winning percentage.
Another candidate with local ties is Lee Leslie, the current head coach of the Boise Burn, an AF2 team. Prior to taking the job with the Burn two years ago, Leslie had spent most of his adult life coaching in Utah. He was a successful high school coach at both Tooele and Hillcrest and also was the head coach of the old Utah Warriors, the local minor league arena team that played in the E Center.
Leslie was the Blaze's defensive coordinator during their first season in 2006 before taking the head coaching job in Boise, where his teams have gone 15-14. The Burn are currently 7-6 with two regular-season games remaining before the playoffs.
Other available candidates with recent AFL head coaching experience include Ed Hodgkiss, who was recently fired by Los Angeles after leading the Avengers to the playoffs five times in seven seasons, and Doug Kay, most recently of Columbus. Kay has been a head coach of three different AFL franchises and has 13 years of experience in the league.The Blaze don't figure to be without a head coach for very long. Jones says he hopes to have a new coach in place "sometime next week."
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