King Kaufman's Sports Daily

College football turns pro: The AAFL hopes to cash in on collegiate passion and fill the gridless days of spring.

By Salon Staff

Published July 2, 2007 4:00PM (EDT)

Got a few bucks? Why not start a new pro football league?

The All-American Football League is holding tryouts Monday and Tuesday at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. But unlike the United Football League, discussed here last month, and that handful of other upstart pro leagues now confined to history's dustbin, the AAFL, which plans to begin play next spring, claims it's not going to try to compete with the NFL.

"It's very, we think, high-level, triple-A football," says Gene Corrigan, a league board member. Corrigan is the former commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the former athletic director at Notre Dame, Virginia and the University of Washington and Lee.

That background is a clue to the AAFL's gimmick. The league aims to be a professional version of college football, with teams playing in college football stadiums, or at least in cities and towns where football is king and spring football is prince. One requirement for players to suit up: They have to have their college degree.

"The board of directors wants it to taste and look and smell and feel and everything that college football is, that's what they want this to be," former University of Florida receiver Travis McGriff told WCJB-TV in Gainesville. McGriff is acting as a league spokesman, though he says he also hopes to play.

"It's a great opportunity for a lot of young people who love the game and want to continue to play it and be able to make a halfway decent living with it," Corrigan says.

He says the league was the brainchild of former NCAA president Cedric Dempsey and his next-door neighbor in La Jolla, Calif., who had season tickets for college football -- at the University of Georgia. The idea Dempsey and his neighbor, entrepreneur Marcus Katz, had was to tap into that kind of passion and fill the void in the lives of those people who spend the winter, spring and summer waiting for the leaves to fall and the penalty flags to fly.

With Katz as the financial backer, Dempsey called his connections and assembled a board of directors made up of former college sports heavyweights.

"Ced Dempsey called us," Corrigan says, "and said, 'You know, I've got this neighbor who I think might be nuts, but I think you guys have got to come out here and at least talk about this.' And we've been talking about it for a couple years now."

The AAFL will use college football rules, Corrigan says, though it hasn't been determined if it'll play on Saturdays when a proposed 10-week schedule begins in April.

The league has an agreement with the University of Florida for a team to play some games in the Swamp, with other games in Tampa, Jacksonville or Orlando. Another team could end up associated with Florida State, Corrigan says, and there are teams set for North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. The league can start playing with a minimum of six teams, he says, though the goal is eight.

"The original idea was to have all of these teams be playing in a college stadium," Corrigan says. "That may happen, it may not happen. They could all use the extra money. We all know the stadiums sit there, and they're only used for five or six games a year, maybe seven. But some of the problems the schools have with parking and that kind of thing, they don't want to face that again during the springtime."

Corrigan says the AAFL hopes to have a team in every state someday, but that at the outset it'll concentrate on the football-mad Southeast, hoping to build from there. Another hurdle is that universities "want to be sure we're going to do it before they say, 'Yes, we're going to make a deal with you,'" Corrigan says. This week's tryouts are an important step in the process.

"When we started out, all we had was a sketchy idea of where we might go with all this," he says, "and now here we are at the point where we're getting something done."

The AAFL is hoping to feed off the energy and loyalty that fans have for college football. The team names figure to echo those of colleges, with the team in Gainesville, for instance, being called, simply, Florida.

"If we try to call them the Gators, I don't think they're going to buy into that," he says, referring to the university. "But Florida is the name of a state. There's no problem using that name." He says the league hopes to use college bands as well.

I ask him if this might end up being the future of college football -- professional teams associated with the university, so that fans could be true to their school without the charade of the "student-athlete," with all the attendant cheating and chicanery so prevalent in college sports.

"Gosh, I think that's a little bit of a stretch," he says. "I think those of us who have been involved in this thing for such a long time have pretty high ideals of what we want it to be. What we want it to be is something that's a healthy opportunity for young people following their college career. It gives them a chance to continue to play, to make a little money off of the game, and that's it. And hopefully the towns where these teams are will enjoy it."

In fact, the college-degree requirement is only partly an outgrowth of the idealism of a bunch of former university officials. It's also a business decision: The AAFL wants to coexist with college football.

"We want this association with the colleges," Corrigan says, "and if they see us as people who are, if you will, giving opportunities to kids to just leave college without a degree, then it isn't going to work for us."

Corrigan says the AAFL isn't in the market for owners to buy teams, figuring the league will own the teams at first, and eventually the clubs will offer shares to the public so that fans can own them in the same way the Green Bay Packers are publicly held. He also says the AAFL isn't chasing a big-money TV deal. Regional cable is the goal at first.

It's a more modest plan than that of the UFL, which is looking for big-money owners to join Mark Cuban, who has committed to a team and is talking brashly about going head to head with the NFL starting in the fall of 2008. Corrigan says he's not worried about the other, newer new league.

"It'd probably be better if that weren't out there, but we've been working on this thing longer than they have, I believe, and we're ready to go," he says. "But you get Mark Cuban in there, he's a mover and a shaker. He gets things done. We'll see which one runs down the field faster."

This week's tryouts in Orlando are by application and invitation only, and they'll end up with a non-contact scrimmage Tuesday evening that's open to the public. Open tryouts are slated for September. Prospective players who have their college degrees should keep an eye on the AAFL Web site.

Or just start your own football league. It's all the rage.

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