Albany, Louisiana owners one win from seeing hard work pay off

Photo by John Millikan

Photo by John Millikan

ALBANY -- Albany owner Rod Chappell hasn't missed a Panthers game all season.

Louisiana owner Thom Hager? He wouldn't dare miss a Swashbucklers showdown -- although for very different reasons.

But tonight, Chappell and Hager -- also the SIFL's president in charge of all 16 teams in the league -- will be on the same field, with the same hopes and dreams, battling it out for the same pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: a championship ring.

"When we played Louisiana in the first game this year and we came back to beat them on that last-second field goal (30-27), I turned to (Panthers GM Will Carter) and I told him that this was the team we'd be playing for the championship in July," Chappell said Friday.

"And here we are."

The road to the SIFL Championship game has been a different one for both owners -- Chappell, a Dallas businessman who now lives in Atlanta to be closer to the Panthers, put his team together in less than two months a year ago, while Hager's franchise has been established for some time and is one of the cornerstones of the upstart league that's in its third year.

So how does Hager -- a jack of all trades, including careers as a musician, TV sales rep, radio station manager and pro sports marketing guru -- feel about his latest and greatest venture/success story as both an owner and president of arguably the nation's fastest growing indoor football league?

"Let me just put it this way," Hager began on Friday with a laugh, "I wouldn't recommend it to anybody. It's tough to own a team, and run a league that your team is in. It's really a terrible conflict of interest wearing two hats like that. I try to keep the two jobs separate as best as I can, and hopefully (the other teams and owners in the league) feel I've done a good job of that. I think I have."

Hager said he has been torn about the issue for some time and actually tried to sell the Swashbucklers before the start of the season, but several potential buyers fell through. He said Friday, however, that this will be his last year at the helm of the Louisiana organization after finally securing a new owner last month.

"(The new owners are) a great group of guys, and I'm turning the keys of the Ferrari over to them Aug. 1," Hager said. "Which is great for everyone, especially me, because now I can just focus on continuing to help the league grow. Doing the two jobs is two completely different sets of duties, and honestly, it fries my brain trying to keep up with it."

But one thing Hager has been keeping diligent tabs on all season is the steady rise to the top of the SIFL by the Albany Panthers, who were voted the league's "Franchise of the Year" last season, despite falling short of winning it all in a semifinal loss to -- you guessed it -- the Swashbucklers. Hager said Friday that he wishes he "could clone Rod Chappell and have four of him -- because that's just how good an owner he is."

"I'm so excited for Rod and (head coach) Lucious (Davis), and Will and that whole team because they really scrambled last year to get their team together and almost won it all," Hager said. "That's a testament to their integrity and hard work as a group, as well as a testament to what a great character guy Rod Chappell is. He's also a great businessman and he succeeds where others fail -- and that's one of the reasons he's been so successful as the owner. He also surrounds himself with great people to implement his ideas, and I've been really impressed by him."

Chappell, who is the president and CEO of Grassroots Promotions -- a full-service marketing strategy firm -- has been equally impressed by Hager's efforts. Chappell said he and Hager stay in constant contact about league matters and he admires Hager's desire to make the SIFL into something even greater than it already is.

"He's a great guy, and he's worked hard to make the SIFL what it is. It's his dream, his passion and there isn't a negative thing I can say about him," Chappell said. "He and I talk all the time and, in fact, he was the one sending me updates the other night when (Louisiana) played Houston (in the semifinals). His team deserves to be here just as much as we do."

Both Hager and Chappell said they didn't have a friendly wager on tonight's game -- the way governors of states or opposing team owners often do for a championship duel -- but Hager said it was a "cute idea" and Chappell added he planned to bring up that possibility when the two meet before the game at 7:30 p.m. today at the Albany Civic Center.

And if there's one thing you can count on, it's Chappell being among his players before kickoff.

"I haven't missed a game all year -- home or away. In fact, I moved to Atlanta this year to be closer to the team," Chappell said. "And after a long, tough season, being here (tonight), I have extremely high emotions because it's really good when you plan things, and they happen the way you want them to. There's been a lot of hard work and dedication put into this organization, and -- while things moved quickly last year -- I knew given time, we would be a success.

"Last year, we came close to pulling it off and we didn't quite finish what we wanted to do, but with one full year of planning under our belts -- and good people like Lucious and Will working around the clock -- it's made all the difference. We're more refined and resilient this year than we were last year, and even the games where it looked (bleak) for us late, we never quit. That's what I really like about this team. And now we feel like we owe it to the city of Albany to bring home a championship."

Chappell won't deviate from his pregame routine, which he sticks by for every contest.

"I'm not a go-to-the-locker-room-and-give-a-pep-speech-kind-of-guy, but I will meet with the guys before their final practice and then go down on the field after the game and congratulate them -- win or lose," he said. "And typically, if we win, we'll all go somewhere afterward to celebrate. Of course, we hope (tonight) is one of those occasions."

Hager and Chappell both admitted Friday that even being on the big stage this evening with a chance to celebrate a league title -- which would be the first for Albany, but the second for Louisiana, which won it in 2009 -- is a bit of surprise given that each franchise was the underdog in its respective semifinal playoff game and had to win on the road in a hostile environment. Albany (12-2) beat rival Columbus after the Lions handed the Panthers two straight loses in the regular season, while the Swashbucklers (10-4) toppled a previously unbeaten Houston team -- and did so without their starting quarterback Ben McLaughin. McLaughlin left Louisiana after the first playoff game to pursue an opportunity to play for Team USA in a worldwide football tournament in Austria.

"I'm not surprised either of us are here, but I'm certainly surprised at how it happened -- us beating Columbus on the road and Louisiana winning without its starter," Chappell said. "But like I said before, I told Will after that first game of the year against Louisiana that I had a feeling we would meet each other again."

Hager agreed, adding: "I'm most surprised by how much we beat Houston by (15 points), but I give all the credit for that to my brilliant coach, Darnell Lee. We knew that Houston was preparing for Ben, but they had no gameplan (for backup QB and starter in that game) Sammy Knight (a WR/DB). That was the edge we had, and it worked out. Now, we just have to wait and see if the same thing can work (against the Panthers)."

Neither owner wanted to make a prediction about the outcome of tonight's game, other than it will be a good one. However, Hager just hopes it's a better showing than last year's title showdown against Columbus when the Lions stomped the Swashbucklers, 68-13.

"If it weren't for the fact we're going up against a great coach like Lucious Davis, who always has a bunch of tricks up his sleeve, I'd feel a lot more confident, especially since I feel we're more prepared than we were last year when Columbus cold-cocked us," Hager laughed. "I will say this, however: It won't be a blowout either way, and I can see a field goal deciding it. It's going to be a great game."

Just like the first one.