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The original XFL professional football league flashed through the national sports conscious like a shooting star, and frankly, nobody seemed to care when the league folded after just one season. But league officials believe the second attempt will be different. This time next year, the XFL will return, although with a modified strategy. It’s no longer pretending to be the WWE-inspired alternative to the NFL, and D.C. will be a factor in whether or not it succeeds as just one of eight cities with a team.
On Thursday afternoon, the re-born XFL made its official introduction in a press conference at Audi Field in Southwest D.C. in front of local media members, Howard University athletic staff, and former Washington football team running back Clinton Portis. The still unnamed team will by led by general manager and head coach Pep Hamilton.
“Pep, through hard work and dedication, has climbed the coaching ladder in the college and pro ranks, and has earned this opportunity to become a head coach for the first time in his career,” XFL commissioner Oliver Luck says in a press release. “It’s meaningful that Pep will lead our team in Washington, where he played quarterback and began his coaching career at Howard University.”
Hamilton has several ties to the nation’s capital. He resides in Eastern Market during the offseason, cheers for the city’s NFL team, and spent his formative years in the city as the Bison’s quarterbacks coach.
Most recently, Hamilton served as an assistant head coach at the University of Michigan, and he also coached Luck’s son, star quarterback and former No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, Andrew Luck, at both Stanford University and with the Indianapolis Colts.
Luck said his son told him that Hamilton would be a “no-brainer” for the job.
Formed by legendary entertainment mogul Vince McMahon in a collaboration between the WWE and NBC, the original league launched in 2001 as a compelling alternative to the stodgy “no fun league” NFL.
In addition to a juiced up coin-toss contest, the first XFL promised more hitting, more action, more fun, and more-scantily-clad cheerleaders. With freedom to put whatever name they wanted on the back of their jerseys, players created wrestling-like personas for themselves with monikers such as “He Hate Me” and “The Truth,” among other forgotten gems like “E-rupt,” “Mantis,” “Chukwagon,” and “Tater.”
That XFL created a path to the NFL for some players, most notably quarterback Tommy Maddox and running back Rod Smart (a.k.a. “He Hate Me”). But for all its flair, the league struggled with ratings and lacked substance and financial success. The XFL folded after its 2001 season.
The league’s leaders don’t intend on repeating the same mistakes.
“We’re looking at doing some things a little innovatively,” Luck says. “But we don’t want any gimmicks.”
The new version plans to take the product on the field more seriously while experimenting with different rules, like a running clock to keep fans engaged and the pace of play moving.
From a personnel standpoint, the XFL will be investing in big names. Former Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops will be coaching the Dallas franchise, and former Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley is the league’s senior vice president of football operations.
The innovation won’t just be limited to the playing field.
“We really do want to be a league of opportunity, not just for [players and coaches],” Luck says. “As we talk to our broadcast partners there are certain things they would like to do that they probably cannot do with major college ball or the NFL, and we want to say, ‘Yeah let’s figure out a way to do that.’”
A former athletic director at West Virginia University who has also served on the College Football Playoff committee, Luck was working for the NCAA an executive vice president before taking over as this start-up league’s commissioner. He played quarterback at WVU and spent four years with the Houston Oilers, mostly as Warren Moon’s backup. After his playing days, Luck earned a law degree from the University of Texas and then became general manager of an NFL Europe team in 1991, and later became president of that league. He’s seen the game from many angles.
The original XFL had no such counterpart—at least not with Luck’s football resume.
“I did this for ten years for the NFL over in Europe,” he says. “As I like to say I was doing my missionary work over there. But you realize what connections have to be made to put a franchise down, put roots down, and build the brand.”
The league will compete during the NFL and college football’s offseason. But the launch comes during a time when the market is being saturated. The Alliance of American Football recently launched and there’s also the American Flag Football League, which has names like Michael Vick, Terrell Owens, and the NFL Network attached to it.
On top of that, at least two other non-NFL football leagues are expected to launch in 2020.
“I take the interest that exists right now in spring football in terms of launching leagues as a positive,” Luck says. “Because I think it’s an affirmation of what we’re all seeing together, which is football being the No. 1 most popular sport and there being some business opportunities in the spring for a development league … Do we complain in the fall about having too much college football?”
The new XFL will also address off-field concerns that have embroiled the NFL. The league will have a zero-tolerance policy for domestic violence and other serious crimes, and will maintain its “no politics” stance outlined in McMahon’s initial announcement of the new league. Asked about whether that is still the case on Thursday, Luck replied with a firm, “Yes.”
It remains to be seen how a progressive city like D.C. will respond, but Luck is confident this is what football fans want.
“We play football… I don’t think fans want to come to Audi Field and, you know, be engaged politically,” he says. “They get enough of that in this town, and elsewhere, the rest of the time. We want to be somewhat of a refuge from all of that. That’s always been one of the beauties of sport over the years—historically at least.”