Would-be NFL Lockout Alternatives: Detroit Fury

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With the NFL lockout still in full-force, we continue our look at some alternatives of the past that could have been a useful distraction while the NFL owners and players settle their dispute. We continue today with the Detroit Fury of the Arena Football League.

The Arena Football League was absent from the Detroit area after the Detroit Drive left for Massachusetts in 1993 until the Detroit Fury made their debut in 2001. The Mike Ilitch-owned Drive were successful by any account, a feat the Palace Sport and Entertainment group sought to replicate. The Fury nickname was unveiled in January 2000 to much excitment. PS&E president Tom Wilson was quoted as saying, “Today, its just a name, tomorrow it will represent an emotional connection in the minds of football enthusiasts. Ultimately, football is a game of fury.”

For a while it looked like that kind of enthusiasm would turn into something tangible. The Fury finished their inaugural season with a 7-7 record and a playoff berth. Crowds didn’t fill the Palace of Auburn Hills but they did manage to average over 9,000 fans during the 2001 season. Unfortunately, the Fury never built upon what appeared to be a decent beginning for the franchise. The 2002 edition of the Detroit Fury managed just one win while losing 13 games and drew less than 6,700 fans to the average home game.

The team was able to rise from a disastrous 2002 season to put together another .500 season in 2003, good enough for the second playoff berth in franchise history. This time the Fury were able to get out of the first round. They defeated the Grand Rapids Rampage in a see-saw affair before being knocked out by the Tampa Bay Storm, the former nemesis of the defunct Detroit Drive. The team put together a 5-11 season in their fourth and final year of existence. A year-long search had been conducted in hopes of finding an owner to keep the Fury in Detroit but none was found. The Indiana Firebirds and Carolina Cobras also ceased operations that year.

Jamie Samuelsen is a familiar name to those that know the Detroit sports radio scene. He was the voice of the Fury on WDFN from 2001 to 2003 and I had a chance to ask Jamie a few questions and he was kind enough to answer them:

Zac Snyder: The Detroit Drive was an amazingly successful franchise while the Detroit Fury struggled for much of their existence. Was it a case of right place-right time for the Drive and wrong place-wrong time for the Fury or was it something more than that?

Jamie Samuelsen: I’ll admit that I didn’t live in Detroit when the Drive were so popular, so it’s hard for me to compare. The Fury were up against two factors during their brief existence.

A) The Red Wings were an annual Stanley Cup contender and the Pistons were just going through their renaissance and becoming a contender again with the emergence of Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace and Richard Hamilton. The Fury had no shot to compete in the sports market with a playoff team. There was one Fury game in 2003 that went directly against a Pistons playoff game in Philadelphia. When the Fury game ended, they put the Pistons game on the big screen at the Palace and we opted to cancel the radio post game show for the Fury because there was so little interest in it. It was certainly the right choice, but it was pretty telling.

B) The AFL was going through a lot of changes. The first year of the Fury was supposed to be 2000, but the season was canceled because of a labor situation. The second year started in the early spring. The fourth year started right after the NFL season ended hoping to capitalize on the popularity of football and hoping to pick up NFL fans who might be looking for a football alternative. There was no consistency to the seasons. And there was no consistency to the game times. The Fury played games on Thursday nights, Friday nights, Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. You never really knew when they were playing.

ZS: With the NFL lockout in full force, do you think football fans would be diverting their attention to a team like the Fury if arena football still existed in the Detroit area?

JS: I don’t think so. In traveling around to different AFL cities with the team, I found that with few exceptions – the league flourished in non-NFL cities like Grand Rapids more than it did in NFL cities. I had the chance to call games in Dallas, Denver and Buffalo and the crowds there were no better than they were for the Fury. The only two real exceptions were Tampa Bay and Arizona which both had long traditions of good AFL football with competitive teams and players who’d been around for such a long period of time that they had become fan favorites.

ZS: What is your favorite Detroit Fury memory?

JS: There were two big memories for me.

First was the chance to work with Mouse Davis who was the head coach and de facto head of player personnel for the first two years. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked with a nicer more interesting guy than Mouse. Here’s a guy who basically invented Arena Football and had coached at every level of football for years and years. This was his last head coaching job, but he brought the same passion and interest and sense of humor that he brought to every job he held. It was an honor to spend time with him and just talk football with him. I’ll always treasure that relationship in my career.

After the second year under Mouse, the coaching staff was fired and the Fury hired Al Luginbill and his son Tom (now an ESPN college football and recruiting analyst). The Luginbills overhauled the roster and turned the team back into a contender. The team made the playoffs in 2003 and won an epic, come-from-behind game at Grand Rapids with a touchdown at the very end. They lost the following week in Tampa Bay, but the 55-54 win over Grand Rapids was easily the landmark win in the brief four-year history of the Fury.

ZS: Is there anything else you would like to add about the Detroit Fury or your time as an arena football broadcaster?

JS: It was one of the great experiences of my life. The Arena League is a lot like minor league baseball. There were a lot of long bus trips. There were a lot of questionable hotels. There were great stories of just what goes on with a professional sports team in what essentially is a minor league. The team was full of guys who either had their shot in the NFL (former Lion Kevin Scott) or who would get their shot in the NFL (R-Kal Truluk played for the Chiefs) or who would never, ever get their shot in the NFL, but loved football and didn’t know what else to do with themselves. But these guys were all competitors. I can’t imagine that the wins were any sweeter or the losses were any more bitter just because another league played a different or higher brand of football.

My thanks to Jamie for helping out with his inside perspective! You can hear Jamie Samuelsen on 94.7 FM WCSX every morning from 5-9. If you’re more of a reading than listening type then check out his blog on the Detroit Free Press website and follow him on twitter.

Enjoy some Detroit Fury highlights:

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Tags: Arena Football League Detroit Fury Jamie Samuelsen

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