Panthers open for business

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY -- Like a page out of the script from "The Wizard of Oz," the Albany Panthers' long-awaited introductory news conference featured a cast of characters who've all been working hard behind the scenes during the last few months in an effort to bring professional indoor football back to Southwest Georgia.

And on Friday, the curtain was finally pulled back.

"Good morning Albany, Leesburg, Moultrie, Camilla, Dawson, Tifton, Sylvester and all the surrounding counties," began Panthers GM Will Carter, who was flanked by team owner Rod Chappell. "I know the name of the team is the Albany Panthers -- and we'll play our home games here, but this is Southwest Georgia's football team."

And just like that -- six months removed from the folding of the South Georgia Wildcats and the af2, following five up-and-down years in Albany -- the Panthers of the Southern Indoor Football League had landed.

"I know you've all read the things in the paper -- are we gonna be here, are we not gonna be here?" said Chappell, who is the president and CEO of a music entertainment company called Grassroots Production based in Dallas. "Well ... we're definitely here."

Among the many items for the Panthers to address during the introduction Friday was the naming of its first head coach, Lucious Davis, who was signed to a one-year contract. Chappell said Davis was the one candidate who possessed all the "qualities that put him ahead of the threshold" compared to the other applicants.

"One thing I will say about coach Davis is this: He doesn't just want to win -- he wants to win right now," said Chappell, who inked a five-year deal with the city.

Davis and Carter were the only familiar faces on the football side on hand Friday, having both worked for the Wildcats before the team went under -- Davis as the defensive coordinator last season and Carter as the vice president. Other new front office personnel who were introduced Friday included Carter's director of community relations, Elizabeth Faircloth, and Carrie Council, director of sales and marketing.

Both women are Albany natives and Council has two years arena football experience, having also previously worked for the Wildcats.

Additionally, the team unveiled its new logo -- a sleek purple and black design adorning the head of a black and white Panther that was rendered locally by Farris Screen Printing -- and divulged who will round out the coaching staff.

"I've got (former Albany State and Wildcats lineman) Andre Slappey as my line coach and (former Albany State kicker) Patrick Cuff handling (defensive backs and receivers)," said Davis, who was a former star wideout himself at New Mexico State, holding the school's all-time receiving record before it was broken this past season. Davis has four years of head coaching experience at the high school level in Houston, plus seven as an arena football assistant.

Added Davis: "As for offensive coordinator, I'll be handling that -- because that's what I was known for before I took the job (as defensive coordinator) with the Wildcats. And for right now, defense will be coached by committee."

As for the primary ingredient of any football team -- the players -- there weren't any to introduce on this particular occasion.

And because the Panthers were the last franchise to join the six-team SIFL, Davis addressed concerns that his club's late start to the season would leave it with the bottom of the barrel of talent to choose from.

"Right now, I've got 15 guys who have (verbally committed) to come to Albany to play," said Davis, adding that a number of the guys he has in mind are former Wildcats players, like Cecil Lester, Demetrius McCray, Jason Marshall, Mike Lane, Eric Turner and Clenton Rafe. "These are my guys. Guys who can play and have been waiting on (this team to be formed). We hope to get them in here as soon as we can and get this thing going. I want our first practice to be Feb. 13."

The SIFL season begins March 20 for most teams -- although Albany opens with two consecutive byes and won't kick off until April 3 against the Columbus (Ga.) Lions on the road.

"From what I hear, they're going to be one of the best teams," Carter said of the Lions. Plans call for a third Georgia team located in Augusta to join the league in 2011.

Carter also said that the Panthers' schedule -- while admittedly a bit odd to begin a season with two off weeks -- is one that he's happy SIFL president Thom Hager worked out for the franchise, considering Albany's late start.

"I don't sleep right now," Carter joked about the hours he's put in to get the team to the point it was Friday. "I'll be going, going, going until the day we kick off. We've got a lot to do."

Hager was unable to attend Friday's news conference, and no members of the SIFL were on hand to see its new team get ushered in.

Representing the city were Commissioner Christopher Pike, who is also Albany's mayor pro-tem, and Assistant City Manager West Smith.

"As everyone knows, arena football is very important to the city of Albany," Pike said. "These events that we have that occur bring everyone in the community together and we're just so honored to have the Panthers come on board in such a great fashion and we look forward to great things from them. And you have the great support of the citizens and the city of Albany."

Smith, who was one of the central figures in working out the details to bring pro football back to Southwest Georgia, admitted there were many obstacles that were overcome.

"I think we have come a long way," Smith said. "As you all know, it was a challenge losing a team and then getting another right back. But in the last week particularly as it has finally come to fruition and this deal became a real thing ... I have seen a real commitment by the staff of the Albany Panthers. I have seen a commitment by the citizens of Albany. And I have seen the commitment of the city managers of Albany (to make this happen).

"And I think that's the ingredients you need for a successful team. ... It's something we should all be really proud of."

Put Chappell on that list. He pledged a winning first season and, asked how confident he was his team would succeed, responded, "Extremely. I wouldn't have done it if I didn't think that."

And those were the words Pike said he, his fellow city leaders and the Southwest Georgia community hope to be hearing for the next five years.

"If you're not first, you're last," Pike said in his closing thoughts at the news conference. "So, we want y'all to (go out there and) put a first-class team on the field."