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Commanders' Riley relishing heavy task of building another new team

Mike Riley was head coach of the San Antonio Riders when they played in the World League of American Football in the early 1990s.

San Antonio Commanders training camp

Site: Benson Stadium '66' Stadium, Central Catholic High School campus

Last day of camp: Wednesday, Jan. 30

League affiliation: Alliance of American Football

First game: vs. San Diego Fleet, Saturday, Feb. 9, 7 p.m., Alamodome

Head coach: Mike Riley

General manager: Daryl Johnston

Local players in camp: Running back Aaron Green (Madison High School/TCU), cornerback Darryl Morris (Warren High School/Texas State), wide receiver Josh Stewart (College Station/UTSA), quarterback Dalton Sturm (Goliad/UTSA); wide receiver Carl Whitley (Roosevelt High School/Abilene Christian); Joseph Zema (Melbourne, Australia/Incarnate Word.

Ticket information: (210) 944-0504

Team website: https://aaf.com/san-antonio-commanders

Notable: The Commanders went through their 18th of 22 training camp workouts on Thursday. The players have Friday off and return to practice Saturday . . . Thursday's workout ended the third week of camp for the Commanders, who still have 75 players on their roster. AAF teams will pare their rosters to 52 for the regular season on Jan. 31 . . .  The Commanders are one of 10 teams in the Alliance of American Football. The other nine teams, with the head coaches in parentheses, are the Atlanta Legends (Kevin Coyle), Arizona Hotshots (Rick Neuheisel), Birmingham Iron (Tim Lewis), Memphis Express (Mike Singletary), Orlando Apollos (Steve Spurrier), Salt Lake Stallions (Dennis Erickson) and San Diego Fleet (Mike Martz). The Commanders will compete in the Western Conference with Arizona, Salt Lake and San Diego . . . Each AAF team will play a 10-game regular season. The top two teams in the Eastern and Western conferences will advance to the playoffs, with the championship game scheduled for Sunday, April 28, in Las Vegas . . . All eight AAF teams are having their training camp in San Antonio. Here are the camp locations for the other seven teams: Arizona (Dragon Stadium, Southwest High School), Atlanta (Farris Stadium), Birmingham (Gustafson Stadium), Memphis (Warrior Stadium, Cornerstone Christian School), Orlando (Benson Stadium, University of the Incarnate Word), Salt Lake (Comalander Stadium), San Diego Fleet (Heroes Stadium).

SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio Commanders head coach Mike Riley has been this way before. He knows how to build a football team from scratch and handle the challenges of playing in a start-up league.

Riley coached the San Antonio Riders in the fledgling World League of American Football for two seasons in the early 1990s before the WLAF folded in 1993. He and his wife, Dee, liked San Antonio so much that they continued returning to the city every year since he took the Riders’ job in 1991.

When the opportunity arose to be the head coach of San Antonio’s franchise in the Alliance of American Football, the country’s newest pro football league, Riley couldn’t resist coming back to the city he fell in love with 28 years ago. More importantly, he couldn’t pass up the chance to be a head coach again.

“I really enjoy working with this team,” Riley said after a workout at the Commanders’ training camp. “It looks like we’ve got a good assortment of talent out here, for sure, throughout our lineup. I feel good about that.

“But the hard part is I have no idea how to assess it against the rest of the teams. This whole thing is a beautiful – and I use that word perfectly, I think – mystery as to how this is going to look when we start competing against people. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The past seven months have been a blur for Riley, who was named the Commanders’ head coach in June. Besides hiring his coaching staff, Riley has worked closely with general manager Daryl Johnston and director of player personnel Bob Morris to put together a team.

The Commanders, who ended their third week of training camp Thursday, kick off their 10-game regular season against the San Diego Fleet on Saturday, Feb. 9, at the Alamodome. The Commanders scrimmage the Atlanta Legends on Monday at the Alamodome and end camp Wednesday. The scrimmage will be closed to the media and public.

Credit: Photo by Antonio Morano (bit.ly/XR79FT) / Special to KENS5.com
Commanders head coach Mike Riley, standing shoulder to shoulder with some of his players during a recent workout at training camp, has extensive experience as a coach in the pro and collegiate ranks.

For all the differences in the game and the world itself in the past 28 years, it still could be 1991 all over again for Riley and his wife.

“It does feel like déjà vu because we are so familiar with the city,” Riley said of his return to San Antonio. “We love the city. We love the area and are very, very excited to have a football team here again.”

Riley, 65, has extensive experience as a coach at the collegiate and pro levels. He was head coach of the San Diego Chargers for three seasons (1999-2001), and was assistant head coach of the New Orleans Saints in 2002. He also has been head coach at Oregon State twice, as well as Nebraska. He was assistant head coach for only six months in his third stint at Oregon State when he was hired by the Commanders.

Passionate about the game and its intricacies, Riley’s best assets as a coach are his ability to teach and connect with his players.

“Mike’s a heck of a coach,” said Bill Bradley, who coaches the Commanders’ cornerbacks and was on Riley’s staff with the Riders. “He works well with the players.”

While building a team from the ground floor is an arduous task in any era, Riley is relishing the opportunity to put the pieces together one more time.

“The one thing is, the time for preparation in the first year is pretty short,” he said. “There was no offseason program. We had a couple of days of a minicamp to kind of meet some of these guys, most of them for the first time.

"Then you’re into a month-long process of a training camp and then the season. It’s a short period of time, but I think the way it’s been set up and the players we have and the time we’ve had, we’re hoping to make it the best, most competitive football product that we can.”

Credit: Photo by Antonio Morano (bit.ly/XR79FT) / Special to KENS5.com
Carl Whitley, a Roosevelt High School graduate who played college football at Abilene Christian, goes through a drill at the Commanders' training camp.

Co-founded by Charlie Ebersol, a TV and film producer and director, and veteran football executive Bill Polian, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the AAF will provide players who don’t make it to the NFL a second chance to extend their careers. While not affiliated with the NFL, the league could become a training ground for players with the potential to play in the league.

“Everybody would like to move and play in the NFL, or have played and want to get back,” Riley said. “There’s that part of it. The other part is very simple. These guys don’t want to stop playing the game. Gosh, I recognized that back with the San Antonio Riders.

“We had John Vitale, who was one of our all-time best guys playing center for us. And he was not an NFL center. He was a 6-footer, but he loved football. Played coach (Bo) Schembechler (at Michigan), and (was) a tough a guy, was great for our team. Absolutely great. We really appreciated having him. That was kind of his story.

"I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of different reasons (players are in the AAF), but I think there are some common denominators about why the guys are in this league and what they can get out of it.”

Slowly but surely, the Commanders are becoming a team. But they’ll remain a work in progress well into the season, as will all the other teams in the AAF.

“I think that this is a whole bunch of new people, coaches included, that are really together for the first time,” Riley said. “Only through time and trust, and going through all the parts physically, mentally, that go into football, only then can you really start molding that thing that’s called a team.

“But it’s kind of fun to see it all take shape and relationships form. We would love to build that camaraderie as a team.  The other part of it is we’re going to have some anguish still ahead of us in having to cut players.”

The Commanders, who have 75 players in camp, will pare their roster to 52 for the regular season on Thursday.

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