Tucson Sugar Skulls running back Shadrach Thornton pumps up his teammates during a game against the Sioux Falls Storm.

Arizona Rattlers head coach Kevin Guy approached Iowa Barnstormers defensive coordinator Marcus Coleman for a handshake at midfield after a game in 2018.

Guy hinted to Coleman that a head coaching opportunity could pop up, and it would have Coleman’s name smeared all over it. Guy had planted the seed for Coleman to become the head coach of the Tucson Sugar Skulls, one of the Indoor Football League’s new expansion teams in 2019.

“We believed in Tucson and we thought it was a great market to put the product in Tucson,” Guy said.

It wasn’t Coleman’s first time in Tucson. He played collegiately at Texas Tech and was the starting defensive back in the 1995 Copper Bowl at Arizona Stadium. As for the weather, the Sugar Skulls coach was accustomed to dry heat and monsoon storms after living in Lubbock.

Coleman enjoyed coming to Tucson for golf getaways, so joining the community wasn’t difficult for him, unlike establishing the new team’s presence in a city that had struggled with professional franchises.

The Sugar Skulls finished their inaugural season 7-8 and made history by becoming the only expansion team in IFL history to appear in the postseason. Tucson lost to the Sioux Falls Storm 50-47 in the first round last Sunday.

“We fell a little bit short, but I’m proud of the guys for how they played,” Coleman said after the season-ending loss. “When you’re playing a team like Sioux Falls in their home building, you expect that. It’s always going to be a tough, tight game. That’s just how it is.”

The Sugar Skulls are confident about what they could accomplish in the immediate future. Tucson’s first year in the IFL had several storylines that augur a bright future not only for the Sugar Skulls, but for the league.

Tucson acquired quarterback Matt Behrendt from the Arizona Rattlers after a friendly scrimmage in February. He and Jake Medlock gave the Sugar Skulls a two-quarterback system that got the team off to a 3-1 start.

Getting off the ground

Fourteen players lasted the entire season in Tucson from opening camp in February to the final game against Sioux Falls. Four of them were Tucsonans: defensive end Robert Metz, offensive linemen Antonio Rosales and Alex Rios, and cornerback Cam Gaddis.

The Sugar Skulls featured a potpourri of former Power Five college athletes and first-year players itching for a chance to play professional football.

After a friendly scrimmage against the Rattlers in February, Tucson acquired quarterback Matt Behrendt and defensive tackle Michael Kluge from its in-state rival. A week later, the 2018 IFL passing leader Jake Medlock packed up his belongings and drove 28 hours from Florida to Tucson after he was cut by the Jacksonville Sharks of the National Arena League. Behrendt brought championship experience as a dual-threat quarterback at Division-III Wisconsin-Whitewater, and Medlock’s rocket arm and veteran leadership offered a unique dynamic.

The two-quarterback system helped Tucson start the season 3-1, with the only loss coming to the Rattlers, who would finish the season undefeated for the first time in franchise history. Behrendt was the initial starter and won IFL Offensive Player of the Week honors after scoring eight touchdowns against the Bismarck Bucks in the home opener, but Medlock was sprinkled in.

Forgetful April

The month of April was certainly the darkest stretch for Tucson in 2019. The Sugar Skulls’ winless month made the playoffs look like a very distant possibility.

“I wouldn’t say it hurt us more than I thought, but I knew it was going to come down to us winning some games at the end, which isn’t always a favorable position,” Coleman said. “But there’s still an opportunity there.”

The schedule didn’t make it easy, with a pair of road games against Quad City and Nebraska, along with home matchups with the two best teams in the IFL, Arizona and Iowa. With the exception of Quad City, none of the games were blowouts and Tucson either led or was tied with their opponents in the fourth quarter of every game in April.

For one of the most successful figures at the indoor football level, Guy, a first-year owner, had to remind himself that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

“April was very frustrating for me,” he said. “I had to keep telling myself this is Year 1.”

Young Sugar Skulls fans play catch with the game officials in the moments before kickoff against the Barnstormers in their game at the Tucson Arena, Saturday, April 27, 2019.

Showing promise

April showed Tucson was capable of going toe-to-toe with the IFL’s best, but it was simply a matter of finishing games. The Sugar Skulls won their next three games to return to a winning record, before losing to the Rattlers just before a bye in the first weekend of June.

Tucson entered the home stretch at 6-6, and took the Rattlers to overtime in the teams’ fourth meeting of the season. The Sugar Skulls blew a lead and lost on a two-point conversion, 50-49.

A week later against Quad City in the regular season finale, Tucson held on to a three-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter despite losing linebacker Zach Allen and defensive tackle Keith Jones Jr. to injuries. The Sugar Skulls nearly had another second-half collapse, but won the game and punched their ticket to the IFL playoffs.

More expansion teams coming soon?

Tucson’s success sent a message to the IFL. Currently the league has 10 teams. Cedar Rapids, Green Bay, Iowa, Quad City, Bismarck, Nebraska and Sioux Falls each are in the Midwest, and of those clubs, the closest (Nebraska) is just under 1,200 miles away from Tucson.

The Sugar Skulls played Arizona and San Diego four times each in a 14-game season. Maybe Tucson’s first year will allow the league to welcome in new teams, whether in the form of an expansion team or other franchises from arena leagues.

“We’re working on some different things to try and grow the league,” said Guy, who’s also in charge of the IFL expansion committee.

Per Zennie Abraham of Oakland News Now, Cedar Rapids owner Roy Choi plans to bring a team to Oakland, California, to play at Oracle Arena, the former home of the Golden State Warriors. That move would give the IFL 11 teams and provide the Western region four teams along with San Diego, Arizona and Tucson.

“The league should be encouraged by what we did,” Coleman said. “We didn’t finish with a 10-win season, but we were competitive in every game and it was an exciting brand of football. The league should be encouraged because this was the first year and it’s only up from here.”

Making adjustments

The Sugar Skulls are in their reflection stage right now, combing over the pros and cons of Year 1 in the IFL.

“It was successful because Tucson got behind it, and obviously we still have a lot of work to do, and we want to continue to grow,” Guy said. “I was very proud as a first-year owner in the league. You have to give a lot of people credit because a lot of work was involved.”

Two adjustments have already been made for 2020: Executive director Mike Feder retired, and the franchise lowered ticket prices. The franchise will replace Feder over the summer. As for the tickets, single-game prices will be $10, but the season tickets are the most noticeable difference. Lower sideline corner season tickets at Tucson Arena dropped from $315 to $154, while the upper sideline corners were reduced from $175 to $84.

“We want to reward our fan base,” Guy said. “This is a family game. We want moms and dads to bring their kids to the game.”

Another change that could happen in 2020 is when the season starts. The Sugar Skulls’ season opener against San Diego was March 3. Folks in Tucson tend to be focused on UA basketball around that time, whether it’s the NCAA Tournament or most recently the Wildcats’ WNIT championship run.

To attract more fans to Tucson Arena during games, “we’re looking into pushing the season back and starting mid-March,” Guy said.

With bye weeks included, starting in the third weekend of March could result in the season carrying over into late July or even the first week of August, just as the UA football team begins preseason camp.

Regardless of the potential changes, the Sugar Skulls hope to maintain the momentum into 2020.

“Tucson did an excellent job in coming together to support us, the organization and the players,” Coleman said. “They showed up when we needed them, and we hope they continue to do that in the future.

“We’re at a good starting point and the foundation has been laid, so hopefully we can build on that next year.”

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