Tim Benz: Testing his Luck — West Virginia alum named XFL commissioner
For the last three-and-a-half years, Oliver Luck has worked as the NCAA’s executive vice president for regulatory affairs. His job — as described in a press release when he was hired in 2014 — was to “bring the national office regulatory functions — academic and membership affairs, the eligibility center and enforcement — under one umbrella.”
He left that job this week to take the post as commissioner of the relaunched XFL.
A cynic might ask, “So, wait a minute. The job of overseeing regulations, eligibility and enforcement within the NCAA is so difficult, murky and seedy that this guy would rather take on the task of overseeing a whole new football league launched by WWE mogul Vince McMahon? After it flopped the first time?”
Well, I’m a cynic. So that’s what I asked Luck Tuesday afternoon.
“The wheels of progress grind slowly in Indianapolis,” said Luck with a laugh. “It doesn’t reflect at all any disappointment I had with the NCAA. I think college athletics is in a very healthy spot. It has its challenges, but it is in a very healthy spot.”
The former West Virginia quarterback and athletic director said he made the job change because he has “an entrepreneurial bent.”
I guess if Luck likes the challenge of building a business — despite dealing with “grinding wheels” — then, to quote McMahon:
“This Is The XFL!”
McMahon infamously tried and failed to make the XFL a successful secondary pro football league before. The first foray lasted all of one season before going belly up at the end of the inaugural 2001 campaign.
Luck also has experience running football teams and a football league that wasn’t blessed with the magical “NFL” logo.
He was general manager of the fledgling Frankfurt Galaxy and then the Rhein Fire — two of the more successful clubs of the World League of American football. He then oversaw the rebranding of the WLAF into NFL Europe as league president from 1995-2000. It stayed afloat for seven years after he left that job.
Plus, he helped get the Houston Dynamo soccer team off the ground in 2005. So the hurdles of igniting something new are not foreign to Luck.
Come to think of it, Luck’s biggest issue with the XFL might be that it isn’t new. America saw it once before, and it was rejected. In some cases, rebooting might be more difficult than creating.
Luck doesn’t have to open minds about this brand. He has the more challenging task of trying to change them, as he did in Europe.
In this case that starts with quality of play. Because after the cheerleaders, wrestling announcers and the goofy “opening scramble” to determine possession, the level of football in the XFL simply wasn’t good.
“We are going to be singularly focused over the next number of months in trying to make sure that we do we everything we possibly can so that when we launch in 2020, we’ve got a high quality of play,” Luck said. “Quality players. Quality coaches. A quality experience.”
To be honest, the previous XFL wasn’t bereft of experienced coaches. As examples, Galen Hall, Gerry DiNardo, Ron Meyer and Rusty Tillman had been — or eventually became — NFL or NCAA head coaches or coordinators.
But when it comes to decent players? Well, after Tommy Maddox the three best quarterbacks in the league were Mike Pawlawski, Jim Druckenmiller and Casey Weldon. Even in the NFL last year, Tom Savage started seven games.
Luck said the XFL plans on having eight teams, 10 games, at 45 players apiece, plus a taxi squad. He seems to think there are more quality players available than in 2001 to stock that pool.
“I’ve been impressed with the quality and the volume of players coming out of the college ranks,” Luck said. “There’s a more than adequate player pool that’s available.”
Luck suggested the depth of talent available beyond the major D-I football institutions has improved. He said it’s going to be up to the league to better identify those players than was perhaps the case 17 years ago.
As we’ve discussed here in the past, the XFL has spent a lot of its efforts relaunching by trying to capitalize on a perceived down cycle of popularity for the NFL.
But telling the public why you are different only lasts so long. At some point, you have to convince the public why you actually are good enough to watch.
For the last half century or so, no other American football league has done that successfully for an extended period. If XFL 2020 is to do so, it’d be a first.
But it won’t be the first time Luck has had to climb such a hill.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.