A year ago, Chris Rebholz and his fellow principle owners were scrambling around the Milwaukee Mustangs offices in Wauwatosa trying to put an organization together, let alone a team.
The group’s ownership bid was accepted Jan. 5, 2011 and started with an employee count of zero before a season opener about two months away.
In hindsight, a 7-11 campaign and the Arena Football League’s top-ranked defense seems like a minor miracle.
This year, it’s different.
Ownership has had a full off-season to not only build the product on the field, but off it. And, while a bye week in Week 1 of the season isn’t always beneficial, the Mustangs managed to avoid the hiccups franchises in Orlando and Pittsburgh experienced last week in the league’s nationally televised season opener.
The day before the Orlando-Pittsburgh game March 9, both teams released all of its players and the AFL Players Union authorized a strike, which lasted about seven hours.
It wasn’t the type of publicity the league wanted as it began its 25th season, but the off week prevented the Mustangs from being embroiled in any of it.
"In my mind’s eye, it wouldn’t have mattered (if we started last week) with the quality of character of these gentlemen," Rebholz said. "Bob (Landsee) is undoubtedly the best coach in the league and a mentor and we bring the quality of character into it and these guys are here to play football and win. It wouldn’t have mattered, honestly."
Rebholz said the situation involving Orlando and Pittsburgh was isolated and negotiations are ongoing.
"It will get worked out between the league and the powers that be," Rebholz said. "I never really had a concern with that."
Landsee couldn’t have agreed more with his owner, alluding to the Orlando-Pittsburgh situation in his opening statements of a press conference Tuesday afternoon at the Bradley Center.
"This all starts from the top down and we’ve got an ownership group that’s as good as anybody in this country and in our game and they’re doing things in a professional way," Landsee said, flanked by quarterback Gino Guidugli, offensive lineman Adam Tadisch and defensive ends Luis Vasquez and Dwayne LeFall.
"They’re not doing things half-minded like you’re seeing out there right now. You see the (players) in here smiling. They’d be whining otherwise. They work hard and they’re treated right and they’re treated like the professional athletes they are."
Landsee told OnMilwaukee.com later that while he couldn’t specifically talk about labor issues, he was confident his players and ownership were on the same page about making the season run smoothly.
"Right now, as a single entity, we’ve got to make money to make it work," Landsee said. "These guys have common sense, but anytime you’ve got five guys, six guys talking for 100 guys, everyone gets the opinion of what’s put out publicly. These are good people."
Team is confident
As he did much of the day, Rebholz smiled when Landsee "committed" to winning a championship – even though it wasn’t quite a guarantee.
"We’d love to be able to bring the Mustangs back to where we used to be," Landsee said. "Two years ago were in a conference championship, this year we’re going be in a championship."
After Rebholz interjected about hearing a promise, Landsee corrected himself with a slight smile.
"I didn’t say a promise – I gave a commitment," he said. "I commit to a lot of things and I show up. Promises are a whole different world. Guarantees and all that stuff, I’ll let that to those other guys in the big, warm cities. We’ll take one day, one game at a time."
The Mustangs were the youngest team in the league last season and still managed to produce the AFL’s top-ranked defense, which returns Dwayne LaFall (7.5 sacks), Dexter Jackson (6 sacks) and second-leading tackler Marcus Everett (62.5, 4 INT).
The offense will be bolstered from a full season with Guidugli at quarterback, who played the final four games after trying his hand at coaching while earning a master’s degree. The 29-year-old signal caller threw for 1,313 yards and 23 touchdowns in those six games, nearly matching the 27 thrown by R.J. Archer in the previous 12.
"I always wanted to come back and play," Guidugli said. "Joining this team late in the year, I thought if we could’ve snuck into the playoffs we could’ve gave a lot of people headaches. We’re just going to try and build on the success on we had at the end of last year and hopefully start off on the right foot and get the season going strong."
Despite the building blocks in place, the Mustangs earned little pre-season respect. They head to Arizona (0-1) to start their season on Saturday, and the Rattlers were picked as the pre-season championship favorites.
The Mustangs did not crack the top 10.
"That’s fine with me," LaFall said. "I like to be underdogs. We’re just going to go out there and smack ‘em. That’s what I feel we’re going to do."
Following its contest Saturday, Milwaukee heads to New Orleans March 23. The Mustangs open their home schedule Thursday, March 29 against Pittsburgh.
That contest kicks off a season of expectation and excitement for the Mustangs, who have added new corporate partnerships, in-game promotions and a summer concert series.
Having a full off-season to put such deals together did allow Rebholz to make the promise his coach couldn’t.
"We’re putting on nine performances here. This is going to be a ball," Rebholz said. "For the entertainment dollar this will be, I guarantee you, the best entertainment in Milwaukee."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.