VIRGINIA BEACH — The chair never stood a chance.
“You see, it’s like this,” Marty Schottenheimer said as he sprang to his feet in his office and grabbed the unsuspecting furniture. “If you turn this way, you lose leverage and this defensive lineman’s got the advantage. But if you take a step back you see? Now you’ve got position.”
The question that brought on this demonstration had nothing to do with blocking technique.
It did to Schottenheimer.
He’s an even better coach with human beings than with office furniture. In fact, in the history of the National Football League, just five men have registered more coaching victories than Schottenheimer, whose teams went a combined 200-126-1 during his 26 seasons - including 8-8 with the Washington Redskins in 2001.
So what’s a guy like this doing toiling in the cash-poor, on-again-off-again United Football League, which barely registers as a rival to the vaunted NFL?
Well, winning, for one thing. Schottenheimer’s Virginia Destroyers won the right to host the fledgling UFL’s title game Friday against the Las Vegas Locomotives, coached by fellow NFL alum Jim Fassel of New York Giants fame, at the Virginia Beach Sportsplex.
Schottenheimer also seems to be getting a genuine kick out of this. After one recent victory, he was asked to speak to a local high school team assembled in a receiving line behind one of the end zones. As the coach was making his way through the line, several of the players - remember, these are teenage boys - wandered off in the direction of the cheerleaders. Before long, three players were with Schottenheimer; the rest were setting up a group photo with the young women.
Recognizing the situation, Schottenheimer, 68, sprinted over to the group, barrel-rolled into the middle of the frame, propped himself up on his elbows and flashed a huge smile for the camera.
“I’m having a ball,” the coach said.
The league itself has had considerably less to celebrate. The first-year Destroyers, for example, already have run through three coaches, three ownership arrangements and two general managers (the first was ex-Redskins quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams), and this was before they ever played a game.
Friday’s championship game was supposed to be played two weeks hence, but on Monday, the UFL announced that it was halting the regular season at four games. The four UFL teams were supposed to play six games; actually, five UFL teams were supposed to play eight games. But in July, with players already in training camp, the league suspended operations for 30 days. Just four teams returned when practices resumed.
The only thing saving the UFL from national ridicule is national anonymity. The league no longer has a national television deal, and even game results - forget highlights - barely show up on ESPN’s omnipresent radar.
“People love it in the cities where we have teams,” said UFL consultant Jerry Glanville, yet another former NFL coaching veteran who has hooked up with the upstart league. “But the rest of the country doesn’t even know we exist.”
The UFL has acknowledged losses in excess of $100 million over its first two seasons. Still, league Commissioner Michael Huyghue wasn’t afraid to inquire last winter about the retired Schottenheimer signing on. After all, Fassel and Glanville had bought in. So did Dennis Green, onetime coach of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals, who heads up the Sacramento franchise.
Schottenheimer said he declined at first. Then Huyghue showed up in person. The two men talked. Played golf. Had drinks.
Before long, the commissioner had his man.
“I’ll tell you what it was,” Schottenheimer said. “My daughter said, ‘Dad, your grandchildren need to see you doing the things you did so well during your coaching career.’ I think that was what did it.”
Fair enough. Still, with all due respect, what drives a successful and accomplished football lifer to leave wife and home in Charlotte, N.C., and live out of a hotel for months in service of the no-profile Destroyers?
Schottenheimer says he can do without the national acclaim, the perks and even the salary that comes with being in the NFL - but you can coach chairs for only so long.
The UFL may have serious issues, but the quality of its players isn’t one of them. Eighty percent of the Destroyers spent at least some time in an NFL training camp. Quarterback Chris Greisen ended the 2010 season on the active roster of the Dallas Cowboys. Dominic Rhodes ran for 112 yards and a touchdown for the Indianapolis Colts in their Super Bowl XLI win over the Chicago Bears in 2007.
“I wasn’t a very good player,” said Schottenheimer, who started eight games in a six-year NFL career. “But it became apparent to me that I could do far better taking young men and teach[ing] them not what to do, but how to do it. That’s what I do.”
Destroyers lineman Shane Olivea, who played for Schottenheimer with the San Diego Chargers six years ago, said the coach has approached his new gig with the same vitality he had in his NFL days.
“Nothing’s changed,” Olivea said. “Same ol’ Marty.”
Cornerback Kyle Whitehurst, who bounced around in arena football leagues before landing in the UFL, said he learned more from Schottenheimer in one week than he learned in his previous five years.
“The man’s amazing,” Whitehurst said.
Apparently, not just with technique, either.
“Marty likes to say he was an English major, but he should have been a psychology major,” Glanville said. “He’s a master at getting guys to do exactly what he needs them to do.”
It’s not clear what the UFL is paying Schottenheimer, as the league does not disclose salaries. Whatever it is, the league certainly seems to be getting its money’s worth. On the field, the Destroyers coalesced quickly under Schottenheimer, winning each of their first three games by double digits before falling in overtime Saturday at Sacramento in what proved to be their final regular-season game.
His off-field contributions may be even more dramatic. The team freely acknowledges that it markets Schottenheimer, who doubles as general manager, as the unquestioned face of the franchise. He promotes the team on television commercials and rarely refuses an interview. His face adorns the supply truck that hauls the team’s equipment.
Given little time for marketing, the Destroyers were hoping for a crowd approaching 10,000 for their first game. They’ve drawn more than 12,000 for their two home games, and reserved seats are sold out for Friday’s title game.
“No question, he’s the best thing we have going for us,” said John Castleberry, the team’s vice president of sales and marketing.
But for how long? UFL officials insist they will rev up the league again in 2012, this time with at least six teams. At this point, though, it’s hard to take their word for anything.
That is, unless you’re a guy who loves to coach. Indeed, even as the UFL regular season crumbled around him this week, Schottenheimer spoke optimistically about the league’s plan going forward.
“There’s a certain intrigue in the challenge of doing something that people say you can’t do,” he said. “Now I don’t know if that’s the competitor in me or just stupidity. But I’m confident that the issues the league has can be resolved.”