A Look Back: the Las Vegas Sting

By Fran Stuchbury

Contributing Writer

The Las Vegas Sting played in the Arena Football League in 1994 and 1995. Their head coach for both seasons was Babe Parilli. In 1994, they played at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. In their first ever home game against the Miami Hooters, they played in front of 10,109 fans but lost the game, 35-22. Despite a 5-7 record they made the playoffs only to lose to the Albany Firebirds in the first round, 49-30.

On offense they were led by quarterbacks Scooter Molander and Tom Porras who combined for 33 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions. They had a solid wide receiver in Tyrone Thurman, who despite only being 5’3 was very explosive player, catching 85 passes for 893 yards and nine touchdown receptions. He also had 1,175 return yards and two touchdowns.

On defense the Sting was led by OL/DL Sam Hernandez who had 7.5 sacks and ended up playing 13 seasons in the AFL, most known for the time he spent with the San Jose SaberCats. Hernandez named to the AFL Hall of Fame last season. The Sting average home game attendance was 6,413 fans per game, but rumors were they gave away a lot of complimentary tickets, so a lot of fans saw the games for free.

In 1995 the Sting moved to the Thomas and Mack Center. They finished with a 6-6 record but failed to make the playoffs. Scooter Molander was the starting quarterback again for the Sting throwing for 2,459 yards, 37 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

OL/DL Sam Hernandez was named to the First Team All Arena Team. Kicker Ian Howfield was named Second Team All Arena Team, connecting on 20 of his 28 field goal attempts and making 58 of his 64 extra point attempts. Defensive Back Mike Wilpolt led the team in tackles with 54.5. He ended up being a head coach of two teams in the AFL the Indiana Firebirds in 2004 and the Cleveland Gladiators in 2008.

Despite the move to the Thomas and Mack Center the Sting struggled with attendance only averaging 5,053 fans per game. They ended up moving to Anaheim the following season and became the Piranhas.

Note: The following article on the Anaheim Piranhas, formerly the Las Vegas Sting, was first published in September 1995.

Contributing writer Fran Stuchbury recently posed several questions to former AFL team front office worker Ian Welsh. Welsh served as Director of Player Personnel for the Arena Football League’s Anaheim Piranhas in 1996 before being promoted to Director of Football Operations the following year. While withthe Piranhas, he had the chance to work with David Baker, now the commissioner of the AFL.

Fran Stuchbury: What interested you in working for the Piranhas?

Ian Welsh: I worked for the Las Vegas Sting in 1994 and 1995, and that ownership group sold their franchise to the Anaheim group. I was Director of College and Pro Scouting in Las Vegas, and the owners and Coach Babe Parilli recommended I be hired in Anaheim as Director of Player Personnel and to help with all of the football operations.

I met with Dave Baker and a few of the other owners in the Las Vegas airport, and they sent me a contract offer soon thereafter. Babe Parilli was hired as the head coach as he was the Sting head coach in 1994 and 1995. I moved from Las Vegas to Anaheim in December 1995, and we prepared to launch a new franchise for the 1996 season. Prior to the 1997 season they also gave me the title of Director of Football Operations as I mainly did that in 1996 but did not have the title.

FS: How familiar were you with Arena Football?

IW: I was very familiar, as I had been introduced to the game in 1990 when I helped Rick Buffington in Albany, NY as he launched the Firebirds first team. I worked for team owner Glenn Mazula in his various businesses, mainly on the Albany Patroons CBA basketball team.

He hired Rick Buffington, and I hit it off with him and he had no assistants initially so I stayed most every night and helped him build the first team. I think we had like 5-6 months from the day he started until the first game of the 1990 season, with no players and no coaches. I learned a lot from him about the game, the type of players in the league, what he was looking for in new players, etc.

We had an open tryout and signed Merv Mosley and Pete Porcelli, both of who went on to play for several years in the AFL. That first year one of the assistant coaches was Jerry Trice (great person) now with the League Office.

A little known fact is that coach Buffington had an offer out to hire Jim Haslett as an assistant coach, and he wanted the job but was under contract at a College, U. of Buffalo I think, and they would not let him coach in the summer with the Firebirds.

The first game in Firebirds history was a 16-12 win over the Washington Commandos, coached by Mike Hohensee. The second year (1991) Coach Buffington hired two great football coaches and football minds in Mike Hohensee and Mike Dailey.

I actually lived with Mike Dailey during the season for a few years, I learned a lot from being around the coaches, hearing them discuss players, strategies, watching film etc. It was a great experience. The few months before the season we would have players come in for tryouts and go up to a field on a hill by the apartments.

I remember when Daryl Hammond tried out that way. During the season players would come in for two-three day tryouts. I remember answering the phone one day and it was an agent for Fran Papasedero, I had gone to Springfield College also so I told Mike Dailey and said invite him in for a day tryout. I remember opening the door to the apartment and there was the massive red headed guy with a big grin, just so eager to play football. Coach Dailey did some little drills with him right there in the living room, checking his stance and footwork, and when he left he said he thought we had a good one there.

Mark Valvo also did the two-day and showed some promise so we had him staying longer. He actually slept on our couch for a few days until a bed opened up in the players apartments. Mike Dailey was just tremendous developing these lineman. It was fun to watch.

Watching lineman one on ones was probably my favorite part of practice. He had them really going at it. There were so many great stories from the Albany teams and players. Ron James was a volunteer assistant there (now head coach of Las Vegas); Gary Gussman was our kicker (also now with Las Vegas).

FS: How did the team try to get fans to come to games? What type of marketing did they do?

IW: The first season was great, we had a full capacity of 16,900 at the first pre-season game. The place was rocking. They had pre-game tail gate parties with lots of fan friendly stuff, had family/kids sections with no beer drinking allowed, we started the post game practice of mandatory autograph signings and opening up the field to kids and fans to meet and really bond with the players.

We had a huge telemarketing push for season tickets by outside telemarketing groups. At that time I don’t think many teams had done that. We had lofty goals for season tickets and even though we were selling a very strong number of season tickets, when we were off pace for season tickets, the owners made every employee personally sell season tickets. So there I was with so much to do trying to get ready for our first season, you know recruiting new players, holding tryout camps, getting housing and practice facilities ready etc, and I had to take time to go hit the streets and sell tickets.

We all had goals. I think I sold like 20 season tickets. It sent the message that when we had a goal the entire organization would put a focused effort. Overall is was very successful for 1996, I think we had like 7,200 season tickets sold and averaged around 12,000 a game.

We did give away items each home game, had team posters and trading cards, everything had the Piranhas bite out of the corner, even business cards. All this was expensive but the organization put its best foot forward to introduce a new team and game to the Southern California area, and we had a very professional appearance. The area really responded to the team, and the players took pride in being ambassadors and good citizens in the community.

FS: Was The Pond a good place to hold Arena Football games?

IW: The Pond was awesome, definitely one of the nicer arenas and atmospheres for Arena Football. It would hold close to 17,000 for AFL games if I remember correctly. Also the staff and management of the Pond were very professional and organized.

FS: Your first year with the team you worked closely with managing partner David Baker. How did you like working with him? Are you happy with the job he has done as Commissioner of the AFL?

IW: I really enjoyed working with David Baker, he is a special person. He really had his heart in our franchise from day one. I spent a lot of time with him prior to that first season talking about some of the things we could do as an organization to treat the players with respect and as professionals, little things that really made the players feel good and want to do well.

We had breakfast catered to the practice facility every morning, and then had a deal with a local buffet restaurant that all players and staff could eat at everyday for lunch. We had a lot of get togethers at various owners’ houses that really helped the entire organization bond and get to know each other. The players really enjoyed and appreciated this.

We also had a mentor program with each owner “adopting” a couple of players, would take them to lunch, talk about their goals in life, give them advice, try to help them land of season jobs etc. We had about eight or nine owners including the investment group so this really worked out well. They were all very successful and just great, great people. We also would have little ceremonies during the week after any win, and each player would get a gift including the practice players, injured players, etc.

One week it was a travel garment bag with their name on it, one week a suit jacket with the Piranhas “A” on the chest, stuff like that but the players really liked it. Dave Baker would come and do those presentations, and would always weave in some inspirational messages about life, challenges, overcoming obstacles, team work, etc. He was really the glue of our organization, and I knew his departure would hurt.

He took me to breakfast to let me know about his decision to leave. I think I was the first person he told on our staff. I knew it was a big loss for us but I also knew it would be a huge gain for the league (no pun intended!).

I really think his hard work and efforts are what has been the single biggest factor in advancing the league this far in the last eight years since he took the commissioners title. He is just a great person and a class act.

FS: Why did the team experience such a big drop off in record from 9-5 in 1996 to 2-12 in 1997? Was it the coaching change from Babe Parilli to Mike Hohensee?

IW: That is a tough question and a complicated answer. The reasons were many and they all compounded together. It started with Dave Baker leaving, and the decision that ownership made to remove Babe Parilli as head coach. We had a team that been together for three years as a core group of players and coaches. It takes a long time to build the chemistry, camaraderie, belief in each other etc. we had built on team to be defense oriented and very physical.

Then on offense we were solid and somewhat conservative, and Babe called the offense that way to play on our strengths of defense, line play, and special teams. It was very successful. From the end of 1995 through the 7-0 start in 1996 we won 13 of 15 games, and that’s pretty hard to do.

One of the two losses I remember we got shafted on a bad call in the last seconds of game where JeMone Smith caught not one but two touchdowns in the end zone and they called them both out.

We dropped off in 1996 from the 7-0 start to 9-5, but the main reason was we hit an extremely tough part of our schedule right at the time the key player on our defense, Carlton Johnson, was hurt. We played consecutively Tampa Bay, Arizona, Iowa twice (with Kurt Warner) away and home back to back, then at Charlotte, San Jose, then at Orlando to finish the season. There was a feeling among the owners because we lost five of the seven that we had big problems, but I kept saying lets just get through the regular season and get Carlton Johnson back and we will make a run in the playoffs. Of all those five games we never lost by more than six points, were in each game to the final gun, and were playing solid, physical football against the best teams in the league.

The end of the season was the start of the big changes, as we went to Orlando for the last regular season game and the owners decided to pull Babe Parilli out of the offensive coordinator role. It was a terrible decision at a key part of the year. They put Jim Walsh who was the line coach in his first year in Arena Football in that role. He had a week to try to put in his own plays, and the players had to learn them. There was a lot of confusion and murmurs among the players, like. “what is going on?” So we went to Orlando and the players really came out strong.

Our big D generated six turnovers and really pounded a very good Orlando team. The offense struggled, but the D and special teams had us leading 38-21 at half after Jai Hill returned an interception for a TD. We led by 10 and had the ball at the Orlando 5 with three minutes left and somehow lost the game. We went into OT and immediately got a turnover, threw a pass down to the Orlando nine-yard line, and Jim Walsh decided to just kick it on first down. Ian Howfield hit the upright and then Orlando came down and scored to win. All in all we were still pretty confident going into the first round match up at number one seed Tampa Bay. Jim Walsh had decided to start Troy Kopp at QB over Scooter Molander. Our defense and front line totally dominated the game, but our new offense was just horrendous against a tough Tampa Bay defense. It was 17-16 Tampa late in the fourth quarter and Tampa got two defensive touchdowns to seal the game.

Tampa Bay went on to win the championship. I strongly believe if we had just left Babe Parilli calling the plays we would have put up 30-35 points and won that Tampa Bay game, then been in a solid spot to try and win the championship. So that’s how we ended the 1996 season with a fracturing ownership group and some real uncertainty among the staff and players.

Shortly after the season the owners decided to fire Babe Parilli and go in a new direction. This was tough for me as he was a very close friend, and we worked really well together. He had let me mold the type of team we had to play off the strengths of the key players and the supporting role players. We had the best pass rush and best defensive backfield in the league in my opinion. Then we played solid special teams and moved the ball well on offense, not flashy but scored enough to win.

When I was informed that Babe was let go, I had to think who would be a good coaching candidate. Mike Trigg came to mind. He was a successful coach and always fielded good offensive clubs. But the one person that stood out was Mike Hohensee.

My thought was to take our physical, defense oriented team and keep it mostly intact, then just add in the offensive genius of a Mike Hohensee to make our offense more efficient and less predictable, and we would be almost unstoppable come 1997.

Well we met with Mike and he took the job, in part to be out closer to his son who also lived in California. Mike is an outstanding coach and really knows this game. He is the type of person that has a lot of confidence in his ability and wants to have control of all factors that will affect his coaching record, which is understandable.

He is an ex-QB and wants the ball in his hands. He wanted control of the personnel and wanted more speed for offense. What went wrong for 1997 was a combination of a lot of things. Lots of personnel changes, not starting with a QB from the previous teams. Mike brought in Lee Williamson who played in the NFL and Ron Lopez from Iowa, and a fresh out of college rookie named Mark Grieb.

Lee Williamson had a lot of talent but was a little slow in picking it all up and then got hurt. The season was a revolving door at Quarterback. I think we started 5 different ones throughout the season.

It wasn’t until John Kaleo came via a trade with San Jose later in the year that we had some steady solid play at QB. He did a great job pulling the group together and showed a lot of leadership. Unfortunately, we just kept losing games we either seemed to have won or could have won. I think we had five last minute losses.

Besides the QB situation and overall a lot of new players which set us back in the chemistry and camaraderie department, we were just devastated with injuries to at least 8-10 key players. Carlton Johnson missed a good part of the year. This really hurt as we never had any good replacement for the middle DB position. JeMone Smith never played, Daryl Milburn, a great pass rusher, missed almost the whole season, Kevin Carrol missed a lot of time, Jerrick Bledsoe, another very good DB, who we traded for prior to the season, was hurt in training camp and never played a down. We went from expecting to have Carlton Johnson and Jerrick Bledsoe holding down the secondary to having neither one for very much of the season. Sai Poulivaati missed a lot of time with a high ankle sprain that would not heal properly. It was just a mess.

I remember an opposing coach coming over to me prior to the game and pointing to our 10-12 injured players sitting behind the bench and saying we had half of an All-AFL team sitting in the stands.

So you add it all up – the injuries, QB situation, loss of chemistry from the prior year’s team and loss of several close games. We started the season losing to New Jersey when Sai Poulivaati blocked their last second field attempt as time expired, only to have them be given another play as a brand new player (lineman Tom Briggs) was not in a down position on the line.

They got another try and made a 56-yard field goal on the last play to win 33-32. We should have known that would kind of foreshadow the whole year. I remember Mike Hohensee was also disappointed in the play of starting QB Ron Lopez who he said was like an entirely different player than the pre-season. That was the start of the QB shuffling. It was just a bad mix of several factors that caused the drop to 2-12. We certainly had a talented coaching staff. Will McClay was Defensive Coordinator, and they did their best, but it was just too much to overcome and then as the losses and injuries mounted the morale sunk lower it just snowballed.

One thing I remember feeling good about even as the season came down to an end was how hard our coaches kept working, how they kept preparing each week 100 percent to win. Even when the playoff hopes were gone, they really did their best to prepare each week to win. Mike Hohensee and Will McClay are really good coaches and you could see back then why they have both had great success as head coaches.

FS: When you look back at the 1996 season you must be happy with the progress of ex-Piranha QBs John Kaleo and Mark Grieb?

IW: Certainly Mark Grieb is a huge success story. I remember his first training camp. He was really nervous and it is such a different game he just did not look good at all for a while. But he came along quickly and when he was forced into his first start at Iowa he threw like six TDs. We still have some good memories of his first season, he was just a young kid and his roommate situation wasn’t so good, so I decided to put him in with Sam Hernandez and Sai Poulivaati, two really good guys, so we moved him in with them and he was lot happier. They busted his chops a lot but helped him along and now they are all really good friends. All three went to San Jose and played together after the Piranhas folded in 1997.

John Kaleo as I mentioned earlier came to us via a trade for Jai Hill in the second half of the season. He did a great job and you could see the difference in our offense. It didn’t translate into a lot of wins because by that time the injuries, defensive play which was devastated by injuries, and the low morale made it tough. But I had a lot of respect for the way John came into a tough situation and took a leadership role and played really solid football. I was disappointed when he decided to retire a few years later but then he came back and has had some great years.

FS: What were some of the reasons the Piranhas folded after the 1997 season?

IW: It was strange as the ownership group was totally falling apart, losing a lot of money and you had a lot of owners who could not agree on a lot of things. Without Dave Baker to lead that group and get them to a consensus on the issues it was tough.

But the league makes each team send in a commitment later for the next season and our owners did that for the 1998 season, but a few months letter folded. I think technically they had sold the franchise to LA or folded, not sure. I was gone by then. I had resigned and taken a job as CFO of a company in Texas.

Between the team and ownership situation and the fact that I was not in charge of the player personnel anymore, which is what I really enjoyed, I had decided to accept an offer for a lot more money. I had gotten married the past year and decided to move on and start making more money and start a family. The entire organization was performing poorly in 1997. I remember the season ticket effort was not even begun until February of the season, and attendance fell off and then got worse as the losses mounted. Budgets had been cut from 1996 as the team did everything first class in 1996 and had lost a lot of money. The football operations side did not feel near as supported from ownership/management as they did in 1996.

FS: If Anaheim got a future AFL team could they succeed? Could an arenafootball2 team work in Anaheim?

IW: Absolutely Anaheim could field a successful AFL franchise. I think 1996 showed that. The area loved it. The players loved living and playing here. Could the team be financially successful so that the ownership would keep it going long term? I don’t know. It would make for a great rivalry with the LA Avengers. And the Arrowhead Pond is a first class facility. I would love to see a team come back.

I don’t see af2 as being viable, this area is too “major league” in every aspect to want or support an af2 team. There is plenty of talent and there would always be some fans that would go, but I would think if a team comes back to The Pond it should be an AFL team.

Thanks for the interview Fran, it was fun reliving some old (and fond) memories.

P.S. I now live in Huntington Beach, CA with my Wife Monica and two sons, Sean O’Connor Welsh (7 years old) and Michael James Welsh (2 1/2 years old). We absolutely love living near the beach and the awesome weather. I still try to catch some AFL games on TV and go to 1-2 a year. It is good to see the recognition and success the league is having, I always knew it was just a matter of time as the product is just so fun to watch and the players really give it their all.

If you have any questions or comments about this interview feel free to drop me an email at arenazone@yahoo.com and I will be more than happy to get back to you.

 

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