by Jay Luster
“I’ve been in five championship games, and I have three rings. When you’re there you have to take advantage of it because you don’t know if you’re ever getting back”
Jeff Bouchy Operating Manager of the Jacksonville Sharks.
This past season several teams left the AFL for other leagues. The Arizona Rattlers joined the IFL and are getting ready to play in that league’s championship game this weekend. On Monday July 10th, another AFL refugee, The Jacksonville Sharks, will be hosting the inaugural NAL Championship Game. Their opponent, The Columbus Lions, had played in what Jeff Bouchy the Operating Manager of the Sharks calls, “alphabet leagues.” He means the plethora of minor arena or indoor leagues around the country that have a tendency to pop up and die off. Some of them will last a while like the PIFL which the Lions were a part of for all four years of that league’s existence. When it folded they joined the AIF for a season before it to folded. Bouchy continued, “they were sick of it, and they wanted to start their own league, so they did.” It was called the ADL and was intended to be a developmental league. The Sharks had left the AFL and intended to follow Arizona into the IFL, but he says, “we didn’t fit their geographic footprint so the IFL thing fell apart, which in hindsight, was an absolute blessing. I called the Columbus guys on a Friday, and we met Monday morning at my office.” As it turned out Columbus didn’t want to be in a developmental league either. Bouchy continues, “ We said listen, we’d been thinking about it over the weekend and my partner, Steve Curran, came up with the name The National Arena League. That’s how it came about. We wanted this to be a league that could compete with the AFL and IFL.” The IFL and the AFL are considered to be the big leagues, the place where the best players and coaches want to be. He says, “It didn’t start out that way, but it’s definitely ending up that way. We have tons of players flocking to the NAL because they see the value in it, they see a viable league.”
When asked if he was happy with the season, Bouchy hesitated a bit and then said, “ It’s been ok, kind
of a roller coaster, mostly.” It’s curious the Operating Manager of a 13-1 team getting ready for the big game would think his season was only ok. Part of the reason for that is how bad it would feel to get this far and lose in your own building. However, that’s not all of it. During the season, with an 8-0 record, the team fired their head coach. Changing coaches, especially winning coaches is risky. Replacing an undefeated coach ⅔ of the way through a season is a serious head scratcher. Bouchy backs up a bit to the Les Moss era and said, “ In 2015 & 2016, we were pretty good, but we started out very slow. We rallied at the end, but we started out slow both years. We felt like we needed to make a change in 2014, but he had taken us to two Arena Bowl’s, and we’d won in 2011. We were loyal to Les because he’d done so much, he helped start the franchise, he was a friend. Honestly, why would we do that to a friend who’s helped us? We just didn’t want to do it.” The Sharks lost the 2015 Arena Bowl but chose to stick with Moss for one more season. When the IFL talks began they decided the time was right to make the switch. The IFL has different rules in all three phases of the game, and they felt they needed a guy who could help them with the transition. The guy they tagged was Mark Stoute.
Stoute was a former IFL Coach of the Year and had success everywhere he had been. When he came on board in Jacksonville, it seemed, at first, as if it was the right move at the right time. Bouchy, with the Les Moss experience as a guide, said of the mid-season replacement, “We were a finesse team, and I felt, even at 8-0, we were soft. We were dominating because we had better players, but teams were catching up to us by getting better players of their own. We weren’t coming down to their level;
they were coming up to ours.” Continuing, he said, “People were saying you’re 8-0, what are you doing? I was worried about upsetting the team. That mattered, but did it matter as much as making the coaching change? I’ve been in five championship games, and I have three rings. When you’re there you have to take advantage of it because you don’t know if you’re ever getting back. I felt that in a tight game, we were going to be in trouble. ”
That decision will be pointed at by fans as one of the big reason’s if the team loses Monday. Nevertheless, the Sharks weren’t afraid to make a move they believed would make them better prepared to handle tougher competition. They brought in Siaha Burley as the new Head Coach. Burley had been an AFL Coordinator for a long time and had developed a strong reputation for being a smart and aggressive play caller. Bouchy said, “He kind of reminds me of Jay Gruden. Gruden was the Offensive Coordinator with the Nashville Kats, and my brother (Brett Bouchy) had the wherewithal to hire him from Nashville. Orlando fans hated him. I was there the day we hired him, and we were getting death threats. Predator fans were so mad they were like what are you guys thinking? I wanted a new young fresh guy who’s innovative and has a fire under him.” It wasn’t their only move. The team also parted ways with Defensive Coordinator Joey Smith Jr. With an eye toward further toughening the team up Burley brought in Damon Mason. Bouchy said, “ Damon played 13 years in the AFL. Him and Kenny McEntyre, he holds the AFL all-time record for picks (97). Mason was
the hitter, and Mac was the Deion Sanders guy. He wouldn’t tackle. He liked to come up, and strip guys and Mason would tell him look dude, if I’m coming you better be ready to get out of the way because I’m not stopping.” He continued, “He was the Defensive Coordinator in New Orleans in 2014. He hadn’t been coaching in the last couple of years but the toughness man. The toughness of him is what we needed out there”
On the business side of things, Jeff Bouchy is focused on the near term and the long term. The near term, this coming weekend, includes Media Day, and the NAL Awards Ceremony as well as the game. He said, “I want a show that’s as good or better than the other leagues put on. I want it to be something nice.” While there is always an edge of competition with other teams and leagues, what is at stake is the need for the NAL to be taken seriously as a competitor to the self-proclaimed big leagues. He said, “The NAL 2017 season is really a bridge to 2018. We had to get all our ducks in a row,
had to make sure we had the right partners, and that’s what we’ve done.” As of right now, the league has a commitment from The Jersey Flight, a new franchise that will play their home games at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton, New Jersey. Though he declines comment on who they may be, he did admit there are also four applicants for league admission. As for Bouchy’s prediction for the game, he said, “Man, I don’t know. I just hope it’s a good game, and I hope we win.”