Winning Ways in a Losing League
On a chilly October day, the Houston Energy took on the Austin Rage. The sky was dark and the game was mean. But by the end, the Energy's 47-14 victory gave them 17 straight wins and their second Women's Professional Football League championship.
"We were due to lose," says Houston head coach Robin Henry. "And I don't like losing."
They've had spectacular successes at Dyer Stadium -- although dire is also an apt description for the Energy's situation. About 1,700 fans turned out for the initial game, but later crowds dwindled to between 500 and 800. "It got worse and worse," says team owner Robin Howington. Limited advertising funds hurt promotional efforts, leaving some supporters unaware of even the game schedules. "If we don't get corporate sponsors, there won't be a Houston Energy," she says. "We're not gonna make it."
Players thought back-to-back championships would be enough to lure sponsors, says running back Stacy Agee. "Everybody wants to be around winners." But potential backers said their money had gone to higher-profile pro sports: the NFL Texans, MLB Astros, WNBA Comets or NBA Rockets. Howington says team reps visited sports enthusiast Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale eight times, without success. "We can only raise so much money ourselves," Howington says.
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The WPFL fielded an 11-team league last year, but the Web site now lists only four teams: the Energy, the Rage, the Missouri Prowlers and the New England Storm. Part of the shrinkage came because some teams were simply too far apart to be bused to visiting stadiums and couldn't afford airfare. Howington says that after recruiting efforts in Texas, Arizona and Oklahoma, there should be seven franchises to start the next season.
However, two seasons show some signs of stability for a league that some initially called a joke (see "No Sissies Allowed," by Wendy Grossman, September 28, 2000).
Skeptics included their own coach.
Henry says the Energy's original head coach, former Oiler wide receiver Haywood Jeffires, recruited him to make practices hard and "run the girls off" who weren't tough enough. Jeffires himself left after the third game -- the team's only loss -- because of "management conflict" that no one wants to get into on the record. Henry, a 40-year-old sheet-metal worker and former Pearland High assistant football coach, was elevated to the top spot.
"We are straight, basic, old-fashioned football," he says. "I've seen everybody trying to get too fancy. Most of these girls, all they know of football is what they've seen on TV. Even though they know what to do in a complex offense or defense, they really don't understand why they're doing it."
That's why he ran the same standard defense and offense all year. "Boys, they grow up playing football, so they're more involved in the game," says quarterback Shelley Squires. "We're having to start from step one and go. It's going to take time to develop the mentality and the skills that the guys have grown up with."
After an initial year with a squad of 40 newcomers, Henry had 27 seasoned players return to help break in the 13 rookies. He expanded the offensive sets and defensive schemes, adding tactics such as linebacker blitzes.
"It's like athletic chess," says Kristin Anderson, backup quarterback and psychology professor at Houston Community College. "It's very strategic and very physical."
Hooters girls volunteered to cheer but lasted only three games. "It was raining and they didn't want to get wet, so our cheerleading coordinator let them go," Howington says. "She thought it was kinda wimpy."
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