Q&A with Commissioner Luck
Oliver Luck has gone down this road before. Whether in the World League of American Football, later rebranded NFL Europe under his watch, or the MLS or the College Football playoff committee, the XFL’s CEO and Commissioner knows a thing or two about startups.
After a five-year NFL career with the Houston Oilers, Luck embarked on a post-football career that’s literally taken him around the world. Some of the highlights: general manager of two World League teams in Germany before becoming NFL Europe President, CEO of the Houston Sports Authority, president of the expansion MLS Houston Dynamo, West Virginia athletic director (his alma mater) and member of the CFP management committee.
He’s now at the helm of the XFL, which is set to announce the rosters of the eight teams Monday with Opening Weekend (Feb. 8-9) fast approaching. Luck recently took time to discuss the league’s first training camp in Houston, pace of play and rules, scoring and more.
What were your impressions of the first training camp in Houston?
Luck: It all went well. There are not many markets or cities that can do what Houston did for us. You’ve got four college facilities (Rice, Houston, Texas Southern and Houston Baptist), and there are not many communities where that’s the case. And as nice as some of those college facilities, we also had great high school facilities. People were blown away by how nice they were. That’s all logistics, but it’s an important piece. We’re a professional league with professional players, but don’t have our own facilities like the Cowboys or Texans. I heard from multiple players that this was well organized, in the sense we had the logistics to do what we needed to do, which was practice and build these teams.
Watching the last couple of days, I thought this worked really well. Teams looked sharp. Sure, we still have some work to do, but by and large the camp went well because logistically things were put in place that allowed us to do what we wanted to do without distraction.
Will the league go back to Houston next year?
Luck: Houston might be in the only place in the country where you can pull this off. The fact that I was very familiar with the city and the local leadership was helpful, too. The driving force behind doing the centralized camp was giving teams a barometer every couple of days by practicing against each other. You need that when you start from scratch, building rosters from the first player up. That may not be the case next year.
We may have 80 percent of the team coming back from the Defenders or Wildcats or we may have 10 percent. We just don’t know. That’s one of the hardest things to predict, what kind of turnover we’ll have. If we have significant turnover, we may have to do a centralized location again. We haven’t crossed that bridge.
How did the different rules and pace of play impact the game?
Luck: I saw a play, it very well could’ve been a college kid, where a guy caught a pass, fell and wasn’t touched and got up and ran for a touchdown. That reminded me of the first NFL preseason game each year where you always see stuff like that. Guys just forget they’re not in college anymore. The one thing that was most important to me and my football folks was the 25-second clock. Plays were getting called in, communicated, they got to the line of scrimmage and the ball was getting snapped. In all four scrimmage games, we averaged 173 plays. There is going to be one or two delay of game (penalties), which isn’t the worst thing in the world. By and large, players were cognizant of the rules because they’ve been working on them since early December.
What did you think the impact will be of the multiple PAT options?
Luck: It’s my favorite diversion from the norm. I think it adds strategy to the game. It’s a fascinating question for a coach: You score a touchdown and what do you do? Do you go for 1? Do you go for 2? Do you go for 3? It depends on time of game, depends on how you score. One coach told me if you score on a defensive touchdown because of the immediate shift in momentum, he might go for 3 because he’s got a team on its heels a little bit and might want to stick the dagger. That might be the right strategy. It might be the wrong strategy. I think that’s going to be fun.
My sense is teams might start off going for 1, but maybe not. They have the data that we’ve provided them: Plays from the 2-yard line have a 50-percent success rate, plays from the 5-yard have a 30-percent success and plays from the 10-yard line have a 10-percent success rate. Anytime there’s more strategy in the game, I think it’s good. And fans like to second guess the coach.
Is there a scoring range that the league would prefer to see?
Luck: I was part of West Virginia’s first Big 12 game against Baylor as the AD and it was 70-63. It was an NFL off week and my son Andrew came to that game, and I could look over and see him shaking his head. Even quarterbacks want a defensive stop now and then. I don’t think we want that. More important than the total number of points is the closeness of the game. I think in a perfect world if you’re in the 20s – 28-24, 31-24 – those are games where you score points. Fans want defensive plays as well. I know there’s not a number we’ve targeted.
What trends will the league follow closely this season?
Luck: One is going to be number of plays. The NFL is right around 170 per game. We ended up at 173 for these four games. That’s a little bit misleading from the NFL side as you have 6-7 of those 170-some-odd plays be kickoffs into the end zone. In our book that’s not a play. We’d like to be in the 160-170 range. We’ll obviously be tracking game time. We’ll be tracking administrative penalties – offsides, anything before the snap. We’re trying to eliminate those. What we’re looking at as a league is different than teams. They’ll be looking at tendencies. We’ll be looking at the overall presentation of the game. We’ll be looking at things like how many teams are actually huddling. Making the game safer is also a priority. The game had to change in the right direction. Not only brain health, that’s important, but safer for the most traditional orthopedic injuries which are more common.
There is this vocal minority saying the NFL is getting soft. That’s absolute nonsense. I played the game, my kid played the game, I was a college AD. You do feel responsible for injuries that happen in football. You want to make the game safer. Anyone who wants a return to the 1970s blood-and-guts football is wrong. People who are in responsible positions in the football community from the NFL to XFL to college to high school to Pop Warner want to make the game safer at every level. We’re trying to do our part.
When it comes to fan experience, how do you judge the TV product vs. the stadium experience?
Luck: The first priority is let’s play good football. TV might want to do X, Y and Z, but how does that affect the game? That’s critical. Television is right after that because the vast majority of our fans will be watching it on TV. Behind that is the gameday experience in stadium. We want to be very affordable – $20 tickets in the lower bowl – so that’s important. It’s the product on the field and make sure it works for television.
Considering a case like BattleHawks safety Kenny Robinson, who still had college eligibility remaining, has the league discussed an age limit or minimum years out of high school regarding potential XFL players?
Luck: We’re not subject to the NFL’s eligibility requirements, which is three years out of high school. Theoretically, we could sign a high school senior or sign a kid who’s a freshman in college. There’s nothing legally prohibiting us from doing that other than local labor laws. If you’re 18, you can basically work. That’s something we’ll look at going forward. This year, with the exception of Kenny who had unusual circumstances, we haven’t spent any time talking to kids that would be outside of that group of players that are NFL eligible.
There are a lot of things happening in college athletics that could change things. The field is wide open for us. Arguably, we wanted to get the best 560 players possible for our training camp, and there are more really talented players who have spent four years in college and three or four years in the NFL than a high school senior.
How will the league evaluate coaches? Say a team starts 0-7, how will those decisions be made?
Luck: They’re made the same way I made them when I was running NFL Europe. It’s the same model with a centralized league with no local ownership. What we as the league have to do is step in the shoes of local ownership. What would local ownership do if you’re in Houston or Tampa and you start 0-7? Did injuries happen beyond a team’s control? Were six of those seven losses in one field goal games? There were coaches I fired in NFL Europe. I’m hesitant to say you have to win 20 percent or 30 percent of your games. You have to look at all the factors.
What’s been the feedback from broadcast partners ABC/ESPN and FOX?
Luck: The two days of scrimmages were important for them. They had their commentators in the booth and on the sideline. It was an important walk through for them. I was able to spend a long time with (FOX analyst) Joel Klatt, for example, and for him it was the first time he was able to take a deep dive into the rules and looked at it as a former quarterback. The feedback has been good.
How much of an emphasis was placed on quarterback play?
Luck: We decided we wanted to get two really solid players at the quarterback position for each team. Based on what I saw, we did that. I’ll be shocked if any team has the same quarterback through Week 10 just given the nature of the game, the fact that it’s a startup and we have some good defensive players coming off the edge.
Has the league thought about expansion in future seasons?
Luck: It’s about No. 65 on our priority list. Obviously, we hope people do well in our current markets. There were a number of cities that expressed interest in the XFL. We wanted to start with eight. We’ll see how it plays out. Expansion is not something we talk about at the league at all. Let’s start the season off as well as we can and play good football. If cities start to knock on the door that’s great.