Heat Skating on thin ice
One minute you're a hero, the next you're a goat.
That's athletics in a nutshell, a fact life for those who want to be a part of it.
Buoyed by owner Kevin Wells, the Southern Oregon Heat entered the inaugural season of the National Indoor Football League with dreams of bringing a new brand of sports entertainment to the Rogue Valley.
What has ensued has been mostly nightmares for Wells and those involved with the Heat.
Five coaching changes, a handful of league disputes and financial instability have provided the headlines for a team laboring with a 1-9 record and more subplots than an Aaron Spelling mini-drama.
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At the start of the season, Heat owner Kevin Wells was seemingly everywhere.
These days, Wells insists he's not hiding out, he's just devastated by the turn of events in his life.
What began as an ambitious side project to his other businesses has turned into a textbook "worst-case scenario."
Combining an overly-optimistic approach with a lack of guidance and a declining product was a recipe for disaster for the former owner of Pasta Express and Scandals, a Medford nightclub that features nude dancing.
"I don't own the club any more; I don't own my restaurants. I don't own anything," says Wells.
To wit, Wells says he has lost his house and has had to move into a two-bedroom apartment with four-year companion Carrie and her 5-year-old son, Julian. Wells says the three are currently living off her salary as a bartender at Scandals.
All because one of the Rogue Valley's biggest football fanatics wanted to bring a professional franchise to Southern Oregon.
"I can honestly say I have pulled every skill or past experience in my life to make this thing get off the ground," he says. "The only thing I didn't have was super, super deep pockets."
Wells, 35, paid $25,000 to ensure Southern Oregon's spot in the NIFL. His original budget was set at $375,000 for the season, but he pared that down to $300,000 to ensure that the Heat could finish the season.
Had he been able to meet that budget, Wells says, he and his team would have skipped merrily into next season.
The problem is, the budget ballooned to $400,000 and Wells' bubble burst.
"If I had stuck to my guns and followed business practices, we'd be in much better shape than what we are now," he says. "We probably could have survived with about $20,000 to $25,000 ballooning, but the $100,000 just killed us."
Through Week 11 of the NIFL, Wells says he is about $120,000 in debt, with local vendors in the hotel, advertising and printing fields mostly in need of payment.
"It adds up quick," says Wells. "When you're talking $500 here and $600 there, stuff adds up very quickly, and it's something we've never been able to head off."
NIFL President Carolyn Shiver said the league would provide enough financial support for the Heat to finish the season. Shiver estimated the cost of financing the Heat over the final five weeks at $50,000 to $70,000.
Shiver said old debts and vendor payments rest on Wells' shoulders.
Also resting on his shoulders is the feeling that he has let everyone down.
"What's really killing me right now is the fact that a lot of guys have really worked hard to help get this on besides me," says Wells. "To not be able to step up and finish things like I said I would do for them is the toughest part. I really try to do the things I say I'm going to do. That's the way I was raised, and not to be able to do those things is extremely hard on me."
Wells entered the season prepared to take a small loss this year, but that was to be offset by proposed revenue sharing for the original 18 NIFL teams.
Wells says the league built into its bylaws a grandfather clause that provides the original 18 a percentage of the $210,000 fee currently being charged to each of seven new franchises expected to enter the NIFL next season. The 18 teams would each get about $125,000, says Wells, but that money is in an untouchable escrow account until next season.
That carrot-on-a-stick is what made Wells hold on to the Heat, even when he knew he was fighting an uphill battle.
Making matters worse for an owner focused mainly on the end of the season was an outside marketing firm Wells says that didn't hold up its end of the bargain and coaxed him into increased spending.
Wells says it was his fault for divvying up his time among business ventures and not paying total attention to the Heat. But he also shifts some of the blame to High Five, a marketing, promotions and consulting group based in Seattle.
Wells says he had a $220,000 revenue plan for High Five to bring in comparable sponsorship monies and boost attendance. He says he told High Five he would need half of that amount to keep the Heat afloat, but his return was $45,000.
Michael Laffey, High Five's vice president of marketing and promotions, was unavailable for comment.
Laffey had acted as the front man for the Heat, handling on-field giveaways, etc., during early home games until Wells and High Five parted ways in mid-May.
Also hurting the Heat's budget this year was flagging attendance at the Inferno. Wells says an average of 1,500 fans would have helped his team break even, taking into account the price of admission and an estimated concessions figure per person.
The Heat has built a base of about 1,200 loyal fans, most of whom are season-ticket holders or won tickets through promotional giveaways.
"Some of the community support has been great, some has been not-so great," says Wells.
Wells doesn't know what's next.
He still owns the Heat, but for how long depends on financial assistance from the league and/or the introduction of new investors willing to help him right the ship.
Shiver has said the league would like to keep Wells involved as an owner, and that is his No. — hope as well.
Regardless, the 35-year-old is at a crossroads in his life.
"It's something I didn't want to put my family or my friends through," he says, "but I guess I am starting over. I wish I knew what else to say. I just don't have the answers."
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A chance to possibly move up the professional football ladder or simply return to the game they love helped lure dozens of Rogue Valley players to the Southern Oregon Heat.
Earning $200 per game was considered a decent payoff for the bumps and bruises each figured to endure in a game played on artificial turf surrounded by 4-foot-high plastic dasher boards.
Cramming 16 players into a 50-yard long and 28-yard wide field was bound to be electric. Little did the players know their wallets would be hit harder than any body part.
"We didn't pay all of them, but we paid some of them that we could," says Wells.
Players like Mike Morrell have yet to see a penny for their efforts.
Some, like David Douglas, have received a paycheck or two in 10 weeks of work.
Others didn't wait around long enough to see if they'd get paid.
Somewhat surprisingly, those still in the fold like Morrell and Douglas have nothing but sympathy for Wells and his predicament.
"If he was rolling around in a Lexus and living fat, then there would be a lot of resentment there," says Morrell, 29. "But he's lost more than most of us can even imagine."
Douglas says the $200 amount wasn't as important to him as the principle behind the agreement made between owner and player.
"It's discouraging," he says. "I feel like I've paid my dues and worked my butt off trying to get this going. Unfortunately, you can't squeeze blood from a turnip.
"I don't doubt Kevin's work ethic at all. He's tried his hardest, and I've had no gripes about him at all. He's tried to do what's right and hasn't tried to rip people off on purpose. There's just been too many hands in the pot."
Those hands clamoring for paychecks multiplied once out-of-town players were brought in. Soon, rumors among original players began about how the new guys were getting paid, which didn't sit well with many of the holdovers.
For his part, Wells says, that was not the case.
"Guys from out of town got less money than the guys here locally did," he says. "It was just the perception that made it look worse."
For Morrell, the money never has been a prime issue.
"The football thing is more fun for me," he says. "The way I looked at it is that the money would just compensate me for my time and having to use vacation days from my work."
In the early part of the season the Heat practiced Monday through Thursday and some weekends for about 21/2 hours per day.
These days, the team gathers once, in part simply to determine who could fill the roster for an upcoming game.
Morrell and Douglas place much of the blame on co-head coach Larry Jobe, who was brought to Medford to be a guiding force for the Heat but instead ruffled too many feathers with bold but sometimes pointless maneuvers.
Wells charged Jobe with upgrading the Heat's talent level, which more often than not meant substituting local players with out-of-town prospects - sometimes the night before a game.
"You can put a bunch of world-class athletes on that field, but if there is no cohesiveness and direction, then you're just running around accomplishing nothing," says Morrell.
Jobe, who is no longer with the team, says he was only following instructions from Wells.
"It's one of the byproducts of the game," he says of the roster moves. "When your owner tells you to find football players and do whatever you can to win football games, that's what you do."
Jobe upgraded the Heat at the outset of his one-month stay, but continued dealings outweighed their results.
"It went way too far to where there was no rhyme or reason to why we were bringing guys in," says Wells. "It got out of hand and it wasn't handled right, but once again, I'm going to blame myself because I washed my hands of it and let the coaches handle all of that."
Morrell says Jobe failed to let some players know they wouldn't be suiting up until game day.
"He just really didn't do things the right way," says Morrell. "It seemed a little disrespectful, and it wasn't really handled with any kind of tact."
For his part, Jobe says the players' feelings were the least of his concerns.
"Athletics at this level, you're past fun," he says. "It's a job."
Douglas and Morrell view their role with the Heat more as a side venture, one they're not willing to give up just yet.
"It's not just the loyalties to Kevin," says Morrell, who has known Wells since 1995. "At the beginning of the season I made a commitment to 30 guys. I wouldn't feel good about myself and the friendships I've made just to give up. That to me is what's driving me to finish the season out."
Douglas' season came to an end Friday when he broke his ankle playing basketball. Even with all the turmoil this season, he says, all the positives outweighed the negatives and he would give it a go again next year.
"It's probably the best football I've played in my career," says Douglas, 27. "To be able to do that against the talent-level we're talking about has been a joy for me."
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With the recent departure of Jobe, the only face remaining in the spotlight is that of head coach and offensive coordinator Eric VanderWegen.
The 26-year-old has seen more than his share of hardships this season.
His starting quarterback duties were stymied by a torn pectoral muscle.
His head coaching duties were an early-season afterthought, sliced in half with the introduction of Jobe.
His career resume faces the prospect of a one-win season.
The fourth person to be named Heat head coach this season, VanderWegen may be the only cog of the team able to escape ridicule.
"He's cleaning up a lot of messes, mine and Jobe's," says Wells. "He's stuck in a bad spot, and I'm the first one saying you cannot blame this kid for all the things that have gone on. He hasn't been given all the tools to be successful."
Ever the dutiful employee and head coach, VanderWegen has remained quiet on the team's trials and tribulations.
"I've definitely learned a lot of lessons," says VanderWegen. "Sometimes they say failure is the best lesson, and if that's true I've learned a lot this year."
With players frustrated over lack of payment or lost roster spots, fielding a team has been the chief concern the past few weeks for VanderWegen. The Heat traveled to Utah last week with 17 players; about 20 made Saturday's venture to Alabama. Twenty-three players are allowed to suit up in the NIFL.
"It's been tough," he says. "You know what you should be doing is working on a game plan, and instead you're trying to fill roster spots. It's not the most effective use of my time."
Having to call up potentially jilted players or wary newcomers has also put VanderWegen directly on the firing line for complaints waged about aspects he's had little or no control over.
"That guy has gone through hell and back," says Wells. "He's taken a lot of blame for a lot of things publicly for this team because he's the head coach. I really think Eric has done a lot for this team. I don't think I put him in a good spot early in the season, but he's put his heart and soul into this."
Through it all, VanderWegen has remained loyal even though Wells says he hasn't been paid in a month beyond rent and utilities at an apartment provided by the owner.
And still he plods on, willing to stand up and make the best out of a bad situation.
"I still love the coaching part of it and plan to continue with it," says VanderWegen. "When we get out on the field, we're playing football and it's about the pure sense of the game, there's nothing better."
Unfortunately for most involved with the Heat, this season has rarely been about football.