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The XFL experiment: How do you build a team that Tampa Bay wants to watch?

A look at the Vipers’ plan to connect with the community and maintain fan interest.
Running back Jacques Patrick is one of 30 Tampa Bay Vipers players who had ties to Florida before they joined the team. He played college football at Florida State for four seasons. [CLIFF WELCH  |  Icon Sportswire]
Running back Jacques Patrick is one of 30 Tampa Bay Vipers players who had ties to Florida before they joined the team. He played college football at Florida State for four seasons. [CLIFF WELCH | Icon Sportswire]
Published Jan. 13
Updated Jan. 13

The XFL is doomed.

That’s the conventional wisdom anyway.

Spring football that’s not NFL football just won’t work, and the naysayers have a persuasive ally: history. Many have tried — the United States Football League, the World League, the United Football League, the Alliance of American Football — and all have failed.

Yet the XFL, two decades removed from its ill-fated debut, defiantly presses on. XFL 1.0 was chaotic and crude. XFL 2.0 is purposeful and professional. Will all the money, research and due diligence this time around be enough, particularly in a market as notoriously fickle as this one?

Sure, there’s a buzz now. The XFL is a novelty. What happens, though, when the curiosity dissipates?

Here’s a look at some of the steps the XFL and the Vipers have taken to ensure fans in Tampa Bay stay hooked from February to April:

1. Hire charismatic head coach.

Just kidding! The XFL hired Marc Trestman instead. He’s smart and experienced, but personality-wise he’s the wheat toast of football coaches. You’re more likely to find him giving a TED talk than you are to see him in the middle of a pregame huddle banging his head into players’ helmets.

So what if Trestman is more Brené Brown than Knute Rockne? This, after all, is a team that is starting from scratch. It could use a coach who dares to lead by taking a longer view, who prioritizes culture over talent and trusts that a sound process will lead to positive results.

Related: XFL rules: Hello, nine-point touchdowns, multiple forward passes and overtime shootouts

For Trestman, coaching isn’t about wielding power. It’s about developing potential.

“It’s part of our culture that we want to take every player and try to build the best leader, the best father, the best husband, the best teammate because we think it leads to winning,” he said. “Our first step is to try to build as many truly authentic relationships with players and players with coaches and players with players as we can as we progress daily to try to develop our football team and our science along the way.”

Namaste.

2. Value local ties.

Some things money can’t fix. Among the league’s challenges: 1.) It can’t match the NFL’s quality of play. 2.) It lacks star power.

The Vipers’ solution: a touch of hometown bias. Instead of fighting it during the draft in October, they embraced it.

“If it was equal we were going to take the local player because we want our community to identify with local players, so we did that as a team, as an organization,” Trestman said. “We weren’t told to do that by anybody, but we wanted to do it because the guys who are tied to the community are guys who are going to play for the community.”

Related: Commissioner Oliver Luck is blocking the NFL from poaching XFL players

Of the 70 players attending Vipers training camp this month in Houston, 30 have a connection to Florida (either they call a Florida city their hometown or they attended college here). Some names that might sound familiar: offensive tackle Martez Ivey, defensive end CeCe Jefferson and running back Mack Brown. All three attended the University of Florida.

Fourteen players have ties to Tampa or Orlando, including three former Buccaneers: eclipse admirer Donteea Dye, receiver Freddie Martino and punter Jake Schum. The full list:

Player Position Tampa Bay-Orlando connection
Donteea Dye WR NFL: Buccaneers
Freddie Martino WR NFL: Buccaneers
Jake Schum P NFL: Buccaneers
Quinton Flowers QB/RB College: South Florida
Rannell Hall DB College: Central Florida
Jordan McCray C College: Central Florida
Terrance Plummer LB College: Central Florida
Matthew Wright K College: Central Florida
Ryan Davis WR Hometown: St. Petersburg
Shelton Lewis CB Hometown: Orlando
Aaron Murray QB Hometown: Tampa
Jacques Patrick RB Hometown: Orlando
Robert Priester S Hometown: Tampa
Bobby Richardson DE Hometown: Tampa

3. Build around players who have compelling stories.

The Vipers are full of interesting characters, starting with quarterback Aaron Murray, 29, who led Plant High to a state title in 2008, broke records at Georgia, played briefly in the NFL and made a cameo during Season 10 of the Bachelorette.

“Every quarterback is on their own journey,” Trestman said. “Steve Young didn’t start until he was 29. Rich Gannon didn’t become MVP of the league until he was 34. Brad Johnson. Delhomme. Kitna. Kurt Warner was in a grocery store when he got a call.”

Might a successful stint in the XFL pave the way for a return to the NFL? Better question: What happened “after the final rose”? What led to the breakup between Josh (Aaron’s brother) and Andi? Hmmmm?

Related: Here are the jerseys and helmets the Vipers will wear on game day

Speaking of triangles … actually the next few paragraphs have nothing to do with triangles. They’re about tight end and first-ever Vipers draft pick Nick Truesdell, who has the frame of a basketball player (6-foot-6, 250 pounds), the speed of a track star and the hands of, well, a football player. He’s hoping to stick to an NFL roster someday, but he’s 29. He’s running out of time.

To keep his dream alive, he has played in just about every “FL” in existence — the IFL (Indoor Football League), the AFL (Arena Football League), the CFL (Canadian Football League) and three NFL training camps (the Colts in 2016, the Vikings in 2017 and the Jets in 2019). Last year, he joined the AAF (the Alliance of American Football), where he played for the Salt Lake Stallions.

“He’s been around,” Trestman said. “We wanted to bring in somebody here with our first pick that we could all look up to, and we think we can do that with Nick.”

Truesdell’s more than a freak athlete. He’s a student of the game, as Murray can attest. He and Truesdell were roommates during team workouts last month.

“It’s the middle of the night,” Murray said, “I look over, and he has his phone, going through the plays, taking notes and making sure he’s ready for practice.”

He has extra incentive these days. About six weeks ago, his girlfriend, Klara, gave birth to a son — Tristan Nicholas Truesdell, or TNT.

Said Truesdell: “He drives me to work even harder.”

XFL key dates

Jan. 22: Training camp ends.

Feb. 8: Regular season begins.

Feb. 9: Vipers play the New York Guardians in East Rutherford, N.J.

Feb. 22: Vipers host the Houston Roughnecks at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

April 18: Playoffs begin.

April 26: Championship game.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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