The new Arena Football League team in Baltimore announces its coach for the 2017 season. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
On Wednesday morning, Omarr Smith took the lectern at the arena in a city he had never visited and said he was humbled to be named the first head coach of a franchise that does not have a name, logo or roster.
Progress can seem incongruous for Baltimore's Arena Football League team, but then, that's life in the sport, where the fields are smaller and the scores are bigger. Smith's last position was with an AFL franchise that folded after his one season on the job. His boss acquired his new team just a month ago. Behind him inside the Royal Farms Arena lobby was a black backdrop featuring two corporate logos, the AFL logo and the word "Baltimore," in all caps, generic.
In the half-hour ostensibly devoted to Smith's hiring, all but a few minutes were dedicated to hyping the arrival of an indoor football league whose membership is less than a third of its 2011 total. There was talk of Royal Farms Arena's home-field advantage and how the AFL is like a "video game come to life." There were highlights and season-ticket prices. There was also a new coach being asked what he'd like the team to be called.
"The name is not important to me," Smith said. "What's important to me is the guys we put on this roster, the staff we put in place and the product we put on the field."
Unlike Baltimore, Smith is not a newcomer to the AFL. The opposite: He is, in fact, enshrined in its Hall of Fame, a four-time ArenaBowl champion as a defensive back and three-time winner as a coach. As Baltimore's team prepares for the start of its inaugural season this spring, he offers an unusual perspective, having come from a franchise that played its last game this past summer.
After serving as defensive coordinator of the Arizona Rattlers — now in the Indoor Football League — and then as assistant head coach of the San Jose SaberCats — now defunct — Smith, 39, was named head coach of the Los Angeles Kiss in November 2015. The team had been featured in an AMC reality series and was owned by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, co-founders of the rock band Kiss, as well as music manager Doc McGhee.
In October, two months after the Kiss made its first playoff appearance in the franchise's three-year history, the organization's roster was liquidated. Two other AFL franchises folded. The Rattlers and another team transferred elsewhere.
"I learned a lot about myself, about dealing with people, about business and about how to run an organization," Smith said of the experience. "It's definitely helped me and prepared me for this situation, continuing forward as a head coach and trying to become a better head coach and a better people person. That experience in L.A. was huge, going through the ups and downs and understanding that, hey, I know how to run the team, and dealing with adversity and all of that kind of stuff."
He called Baltimore's infrastructure and commitment to building from the ground up "second to none," though that process is closer to the ground than most; tryouts for the team have yet to be held. Wednesday's news conference fell exactly a month after Monumental Sports & Entertainment announced that Baltimore's expansion franchise would be joining the Washington Valor in the AFL, giving the league five teams in 2017. It had 18 five years ago.
Ted Leonsis, majority owner of MSE, the Washington-based sports and entertainment company that also owns the Washington Wizards, Washington Capitals, Washington Mystics and Washington's Verizon Center, told The Baltimore Sun that he has "patience and belief, and I know that the community will work with us and the partners will work with us. They'll enjoy and fall in love with AFL football."
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young welcomed team and league officials to Baltimore at the news conference, and Leonsis said Mayor Catherine E. Pugh has been supportive of the team's efforts.
Still, the former AOL executive acknowledged that to "fill this building up," as he expects, the franchise needs to start with the basics: "We need help in selling tickets." Season-ticket memberships are on sale for as low as $8 per seat per game, and team officials touted a ticket-exchange program and special inaugural-season jerseys.
Just what will be on the jersey should be resolved next month. Leonsis said MSE's attorneys are vetting a list of potential names for the team. He hopes to have one cleared by the new year.
"We'll do a little bit of focus-group testing," he said, "but we got to move fast."