Matt Land understands Fort Wayne's love affair with sports.
And it's not complicated.
“Fort Wayne likes winning,” Land said. “If you're not winning, it's going to be a problem.”
Land has a knack for solving problems, particularly ones on the football field. So his return as the full-time, buck-stops-here head coach of the Fort Wayne Freedom should be welcomed by those who love indoor football and believe it can thrive again in the city.
Land, you'll remember, coached the Freedom to a 14-3 record in his sole full season as head coach in 2005. A new job beckoned - as head coach at Tri-State University (now Trine) - and he left the Freedom.
As it turns out, that 2005 season was the high-water mark for the franchise. The last three years were marred by poor management, an uncertain future, a brief name change (the forgettable Fusion) and finally, flirtation with extinction.
Local investors Mark Chappuis and Bill Fahlsing stepped forward to save the Freedom.
They brought Land back for the final couple of games last year, then convinced him to stay on board in 2009. It's a great move.
Land is itching to get going and put his stamp back on the franchise. Training camp opens next week. The first game is on the road March 14. The home opener is March 21.
“When we were winning and playing good football, putting a good product out there, we were getting 7,000 (or) 8,000 people, and some nights we were getting 10,000,” Land said. “It'll come back. I don't know if it can come back to those levels, but it will become an event again.”
That event, as Land mentions, requires winning. To that end, Land has assembled what he believes will be the roster to get that done.
Fans will recognize some of the faces, including running back Rocky Harvey, the most popular player in Freedom history. Other names will ring familiar, too, such as Luther Stroder, Rachman Crable, Scott Heighland and Adrian Reese. Local products Aaron Lane and Justin Wynn could be in the mix.
Also joining the team will be David Gater, an East Noble graduate who was the Continental Indoor Football Most Valuable Player last year with Kalamazoo. Gater works as an assistant to Land at Trine. Land told Gater he should join the Freedom, “if he wants to keep his (Trine) job.”
Two other Trine assistants will be involved with the Freedom - Troy Abbs as an assistant coach and Dan Musielewicz as a wide receiver.
In taking the Freedom job, Land vowed he would put the best possible team on the field.
“Ever play cards when you were little and stack the deck?” Land said. “That's what I like doing. I never met a good coach with bad players. If I'm going to play, I'm going to make sure I win, and I'm going to stack that deck with the best possible players I can find. I think I've been able to do that.”
Land said he believes the high entertainment value of the Freedom, which attracted the huge crowds at its peak, will return. And he believes that comes in part because the people running the show - the owners and Land - are Fort Wayne residents. They feel an obligation to make this team work that didn't always manifest itself when the Freedom was owned by outsiders. The previous owner was from Atlanta.
Land has a lot to juggle, given the fact he's recruiting college players and pro players simultaneously and running two programs. True, the seasons are different - Trine in the fall, Freedom in the spring - but it's a huge responsibility.
“I just like coaching football, that's all there is to it,” Land said. “I get to coach football as my job, and I feel like I'm the luckiest guy in the world.”
Luck has little to do with winning, however. Land will stack the deck with talent, work tirelessly to scheme a winning offense and defense, and prod the best possible effort out of his players.
He feels pressure to win, but that's a good pressure.
“I don't want to walk around and have people say, ‘There's Matt Land, who coached that (lousy) football team,” he said. “I have to live here the rest of my life.”
Land said he believes fans will find the revamped Freedom worth their time and money.
“All I can ask is for a clean slate,” Land said. “Remember what it was like the last time I did it, and that's what we're aiming for. If we all get together, we can get it done.”
Winning football sells better.
Given Land's history, I like his chances.