Fear of losing players contributed to decision
By Adam Candee
<candee@lasvegassun.com>
LAS VEGAS SUN

An emotionally detached assessment showed Jim Ferraro that he wanted to fire Frank Haege as the Gladiators' head coach. The perceived danger of losing current and prospective players because of Haege, combined with the owner's distaste for the team's "sloppy" play during the past two seasons, made it easy for Ferraro.

But the owner's personal respect for Haege made it hard to pull the trigger.

"You look at it all and the decision was not really hard at the end of the day," Ferraro said Friday, speaking publicly for the first time since Haege was fired on July 28. "It was just hard for me to do it."

Along with a long evaluation process that Ferraro said could not have happened while the team focused on winning games during the season, that respect led to the two-month wait after the season's end to fire Haege.

Ferraro is in town to conduct interviews with the three finalists to replace Haege: Gladiators assistant head coach Ron James; New Orleans defensive coordinator Kevin Porter; and Indiana interim head coach Mike Wilpolt. Interviews begin tonight and continue Tuesday, with Ferraro and general manager Dan Dolby hoping to select someone by Friday. Ferraro recently returned from a long trip out of the country, which slowed the process of hiring a new coach.

After three middling seasons that produced a 25-21 record and a division title, but no playoff wins, Ferraro entered the offseason intent on evaluating Haege's situation after signing the coach to a three-year contract extension during the 2003 season.

The most distressing conversations Ferraro had, he said, were with people both inside the organization and around the league indicated that some free agents might avoid Las Vegas and that some current Gladiators might try to get away from the team if Haege remained the head coach.

He became more disturbed by the lack of support he found for Haege from both players and management.

"I didn't have anyone who objected to it," Ferraro said of firing Haege.

No players have spoken out against Haege. Talking the day after Haege's firing, Gladiators quarterback Clint Dolezel -- the team's centerpiece acquisition last offseason -- expressed no reservations about the coach.

Dolezel did not mourn for long, though, phoning Dolby to vouch for Sparky McEwen as Haege's replacement. McEwen, who worked with Dolezel in Grand Rapids as the offensive coordinator, came off the Gladiators' finalist list Friday when he accepted the head job with the Rampage.

Ferraro was disappointed in both the Gladiators' preparation and performance leading to an 8-8 record in 2004 after he spent up to the $1.7 million salary cap to upgrade the roster, citing continuous penalties and blown fourth quarters to Colorado, Chicago and Los Angeles as examples.

"On paper, it was such a good team that it never should have happened," Ferraro said. "The worst-case scenario for this team should have been 10-6."

He continued, "The bottom line is there was too much crap out there. Two years of 8-8 in Vegas is enough for me."

Contacted Sunday, Haege reiterated that the only reason Dolby gave him for the firing was change.

"They just said they were going in another direction," Haege said, passing on further response to Ferraro's comments.

Both Ferraro and Dolby have repeatedly expressed a desire to upgrade the "professionalism" of the organization, a statement echoed by Porter and Wilpolt in recent phone interviews. Haege's shirt-slamming, headset-tossing tirade during the Gladiators' March 14 home game against Arizona did not help in that regard.

"I didn't like it," Ferraro said of the incident.

Ferraro also dismissed theories that the Gladiators waited until Arizona let go of Danny White and that White's asking price was the only reason a deal was not reached. Haege earned a $110,000 base salary in 2004.

"I don't think it would have worked," Ferraro said of White, who reportedly will be named to lead the expansion Utah franchise this week at the Arena Football League board of directors meeting Tuesday in Las Vegas.

Ferraro said he is willing to keep spending on talent to give the Gladiators a top-flight roster and he is pleased with the nucleus of players under contract for 2005. Now he just wants a coach, he said, to set an example for work ethic and preparation.

"I'm here to win," Ferraro said. "I'm not here to screw around. We're not running a nursery school."