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Cover Story

Flying High

2/10/2016

The Iowa Barnstormers begin its second season in the Indoor Football League (IFL) with high spirits and higher expectations. After an inaugural IFL season that saw the team finish with a 6-8 record, second-year coach Joe Brannen has restocked his defensive line, secured a top-flight quarterback and is taking aim at the playoffs.

“Last year we were truly an expansion team into the league,” said Barnstormers Vice-President John Pettit. “And nobody wanted to play us by the end of the season. We brought in 25 guys who had never played in this league, and we won six of our last eight games.”

Since resuming play in the Arena Football League’s (AFL) AF2 league in 2008, finding the consistency to win games has posed a problem for the franchise. One major reason is financial, as Des Moines was consistently one of the smallest markets in either the AF2 or AFL, which made securing top Arena League talent a difficulty. As a result, the Barnstormers have put together just one winning season since resuming play and have seen double-digit loss totals in four of the last five seasons. But while the heady success of the Kurt Warner/Aaron Garcia seasons may feel like distant memories, life in the IFL is likely to be very different.

For starters, Des Moines jumps from one of the smallest markets in the league to one of the most attractive. Wells Fargo Arena is the largest capacity stadium in the league by nearly 5,000 seats, and the Des Moines metro is on par with the largest IFL markets like Spokane, Washington and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. With less separation between the largest and smallest markets, fighting for the services of top IFL talent is more competitive, which helps level the playing field. Indeed, the Barnstormers are already reaping the benefits of this competitive balance with the signing of new quarterback Donovan Porterie, who was one of the league’s top passers last season in Green Bay.

Past rivals Lebron Daniel, formerly with the University of Iowa; Aaron Wimberly, formerly of Iowa State University; and Brion Carnes, formerly with the University of Northern Iowa, are now teammates on the Iowa Barnstormers.

Past rivals Lebron Daniel, formerly with the University of Iowa; Aaron Wimberly, formerly of Iowa State University; and Brion Carnes, formerly with the University of Northern Iowa, are now teammates on the Iowa Barnstormers.

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But perhaps even more important in the development of this year’s Barnstormers team are the philosophies of the franchise’s leader on the sidelines, Brannen.

Putting the “Iowa” in Iowa Barnstormers

Brannen is an Iowa guy. He graduated from Colo-NESCO and played his college ball at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. He quarterbacked the Barnstormers during their 2008 campaign in AF2, and when he transitioned into coaching — even while he was winning the Lone Star Football League title with the San Angelo Bandits — he kept his radar on one job in particular.

“This job is what I’ve been working for,” he said. “I played here in 2008-09. I grew up watching Warner play, and it was my dream to play for (the Barnstormers). I was coaching down in Texas but had my eye on this job. When they called and said it was open, I jumped on it.

“It’s a true blessing to be back home coaching where my career started. Hopefully, we’ll win a bunch of games, and I can stay here for a long time.”

“One of the main goals when we brought (Brannen) in as our coach is that we wanted to bring back the tradition of the Barnstormers,” Pettit said. “No matter what league we’re in, we’re going to be the Barnstormers. We wanted a local coach who knew the game, who knew Iowa.”

But Brannen is not alone in his Iowa ties.

“When he was assembling his coaching staff, it was important that those guys knew what the goggles meant,” Pettit explained. “These guys bleed the black, gold and red.”

From former Iowa Hawkeye and Barnstormer fullback Rodney Filer, to former Hawk and Barnstormers wide receiver/defensive back Tim Dodge, one look at Brannen’s coaching staff will reveal a list of men with strong Iowa ties and a wealth of AFL experience.

“We’ve got guys on our staff that the players can look to and say, ‘They’ve played the game; they’ve been here,’ ” Brannen said.

But coaching can only do so much. Ultimately, it is the level of talent on the field that will win or lose ballgames, and for most of their time in the AFL, the Barnstormers just did not have enough of it. Even last year’s first foray into the IFL started slowly, as the team adjusted to the subtle changes of the new league, and Brannen struggled to find a quarterback he could count on.

“We rotated through a couple quarterbacks last year, so that was our biggest need (in the offseason),” he admitted. “So we went out and signed Donovan Porterie.”

Porterie was named Second Team All-IFL last season with Green Bay, a campaign that saw him average more than 190 yards a game and throw for 55 touchdowns. This year he will match up with fellow Second Team All-IFL wideout Brady Roland (55.3 yards per game, 14 touchdown receptions) to form one of the more potent combinations in the league. The improvements do not stop there.

“We also went out and revamped our entire offensive and defensive lines,” Brannen continued. “O-line play wasn’t bad for us last year; it was just a consistency issue. We had some guys get banged up throughout the season, and it wasn’t until week nine that we had the same three guys for consecutive weeks. Brett Park, who played at Drake, is coming back as one of our nose guards, then we went out and added some speed to the offensive and defensive lines.”

That speed comes in the form of players like Ryan Smith and Tim McGee, men who will attack the edges of the offensive line, while 2015 First Team All-IFL linebacker Javicz Jones (72 tackles, 50 assists) will move to defensive back where he’ll team up with Matt Goldsmith (five interceptions) to help give the secondary some additional punch.

All in all, the Barnstormers return 16 players from last year’s squad, including seven who played their college ball at Iowa schools. As the team finishes up training camp, those players will be under increased scrutiny.

“We’re obviously leaning on (the returning players) to try and establish the culture in the locker room,” Brannen said. “Last year, we came in basically from scratch. Now this year we’re able to look at what we had last year and say, ‘OK, what do we have in camp this year that’s better?’

“Everything is an open spot. If you were a running back last year, it’s not guaranteed to be your spot this year. It’s a short training camp, so every snap matters, and if you’re not going to come out and compete for your spot, you’re not going to compete on Saturday nights.”

From a fan standpoint, the front office believes that having talented players who also have an attachment to the state and its fan base will help foster a connection between the state and its team.

“We have guys from Iowa State, Drake, Grandview, all across the state,” said Assistant General Manager Matt Swim. “These are guys who people are going to recognize and be able to connect with. You can come to a game, and instead of being a Hawkeye fan or a Cyclone fan, you can be a Barnstormers fan and cheer for these guys you know.”

“We’re proud that we have players from Drake, Grandview, UNI, Iowa State and Iowa,” Pettit added. “These guys appreciate playing in Iowa, and we appreciate having them.”

What it adds up to is a roster of players who have an affinity for the state of Iowa and who bring in enough talent to make the team competitive. It then falls to Brannen and his staff to turn that potential into actual wins.

Getting fans into the game

Winning football games is not the only aspect to being a Barnstormer. On-field success might be the end goal of every franchise, but at the end of the day none of it matters if people are not interested in seeing the product. Arena Football understands that better than most sports, as the seemingly rotating door of expansion and defunct clubs will attest. In a sport where profit margins are razor thin, making sure fans are engaged and connected with their home team is paramount.

“We have something going on every game,” Swim said. “With our schedule having eight home games, we have to make it an event every time someone comes out. We need to make sure that when people come to a Barnstormers game, it’s something they remember and they want to come back to.

“Last year we introduced our ’90s Theme Night. That was a lot of fun, and this year we’re expanding on that, and we’re going to have a motorcycle ride to the stadium. We’re calling it ‘Ride Back to the ‘90s,’ and we’re expecting as many as 4,000 bikes.”

A big part of the ownership group’s ethos is to remain committed to the history of Arena Football in Iowa. While on-field success has been a fickle mistress in Des Moines, the Barnstormers have a rich history. Originally owned by Arena Football inventor Jim Foster, the Barnstormers were home to arguably the sport’s greatest success story in quarterback Kurt Warner. The cardinal, black and gold color scheme and airplane-themed uniforms became instantly recognizable, and in a 2008 Yahoo poll, the team’s goggle-printed helmets were named one of the 10 best designs in the history of professional football.

That deep connection to Arena Football’s history is one of the reasons the team has kept the name and iconic look throughout the various iterations of the sport in Des Moines. Last year, the team routinely drew around 6,000 fans per game, and the front office believes it can build upon that through a combination of exciting play and community involvement.

“There’s not a team that’s out in the community more than we are,” Pettit said.

He cited the team’s efforts to raise money for local causes like the Animal Rescue League (ARL) and various charities throughout central Iowa, as well as the many functions and events players make appearances at throughout the season.

“We’ll also be working with Make-a-Wish this year, trying to help them recoup some of the money they lost with the floods this winter,” Pettit added. “We’ve got some kind of major fund raising opportunity every week.”

“We like to believe that we’re more than just a football team — we’re a part of the community,” said team co-owner Jeff Lamberti. “Our owners are local, and we do this because we believe it’s good for the community. For that to happen, we want coaches and players out there doing charity work. You don’t always get the press or accolades for that stuff, but we don’t care, because that’s not why we do it.

“It’s not something we have to do; it’s something we want to do.”

In addition to the various charitable promotions, the Barnstormers game-day experience centers around fan interactivity. The team wants home games to feel more like a party than any other sporting event around.

“Nobody has more (going on) than we do, because we have no stoppage,” Pettit said. “At any time, there’s music playing, things happening in the stands, on the board and the play on the field. Every other sport tries to emulate the things we do, but they can’t, because we don’t have to stop until the final whistle. By the end of the game, the players are exhausted.”

Iowa Barnstormers Offensive/Defensive Line Coach Dean Picotte runs players through drills during training camp at the Game Ready Training Center in Johnston.

Iowa Barnstormers Offensive/Defensive Line Coach Dean Picotte runs players through drills during training camp at the Game Ready Training Center in Johnston.

“It’s more than just a football game,” Lamberti added. “It’s an exciting brand of football with lots of scoring and everything else that’s going on inside the arena. We want (fans) to go home saying, ‘That was a lot of fun,’ — and not just because of the football.”

With a long history in the sport and an ownership group committed to putting a quality product on the field, 2016 could be the year that the Iowa Barnstormers finally get things figured out and return to the team’s mid-’90s glory days. With a defense that was one of the league’s best last season, and with a new, high-powered quarterback on offense, this Barnstormers team could be poised to put the rest of the league on notice.

“We were essentially an expansion team last year,” Lamberti said. “But we saw the progress that was made, and in our minds we really should be a playoff-contending team every season, starting with this one.

“We’ve got the level of talent and great coaches that will make the Iowa Barnstormers a contender every year and a place other teams really don’t want to come play,” he said. “And we want fans to go home with the feeling that this team is going to make Iowa proud and really bring back the best of the traditions of the Barnstormers.” CV

“When he (Joe Brannen) was assembling his coaching staff, it was important that those guys knew what the goggles meant. These guys bleed the black, gold and red.”

— John Pettit, Barnstormers vice-president

Iowa Barnstormers 2016 Schedule

Feb 20 at Colorado
Feb 26 vs. Green Bay
March 11 at Wichita Falls
March 26 at Billings
April 9 vs. Nebraska
April 16 vs. Spokane
April 24 at Green Bay
April 29 at Nebraska
May 7 vs. Colorado
May 21 at Cedar Rapids
May 27 vs. Sioux Falls
June 4 vs. Cedar Rapids
June 11 at Sioux Falls
June 18 vs. Wichita Falls
June 25 vs. Cedar Rapids

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