Despite rumors that the franchise is headed elsewhere, Buffalo Destroyers owner Mark Hamister said he is strongly committed to keeping the Arena Football League team in Buffalo. But Hamister is not ready to give that same level of commitment to Destroyers coach Ron Selesky.
Two weeks after the Destroyers failed to qualify for the postseason for the second time in three seasons, a candid Hamister had a mini-implosion, saying that the results were inexcusable.
When asked if Selesky is definitely returning for the 2004 season Hamister replied, "I can't say that, no.
"Change is in the wind," Hamister said, "because I will not accept a plan that does not include some level of change in the way that we do things in order to get a better result."
He also made it clear that his first option is keeping the 5-year-old franchise in Buffalo. The Destroyers' five-year lease agreement with HSBC Arena expires this year and Hamister is scheduled to meet soon with arena officials to discuss renewing it. But if he can't come to terms on a new lease, Hamister said he will explore other options, and that could include relocation.
"I'd rather not get into the speculation game," he said. "I know what my primary objectives are, and my primary objectives are to reach a mutually satisfactory arrangement with HSBC Arena for lease
renewal and to continue to grow and expand the Buffalo Destroyers here in Buffalo. If that doesn't happen, do the alternatives come into play? Sure they do, as in any good business. I'll worry about those when the time comes. . . . My preference is that the team stay here in Buffalo."
Upper management has been meeting recently to discuss strategies for marketing and ticket sales in Buffalo, and Hamister on Tuesday passed out memos with a header that read: "Stay in Buffalo. Play in Buffalo. Succeed in Buffalo."
Hamister did confirm that he's seeking investors to offset some of the franchise's costs, including some backers based outside of Buffalo, but he's months away from broadening his investment group. Rumors have been circulating for months that Hamister was actively seeking to move the franchise -- first to Florida and more recently to Columbus, Ohio -- which he denies.
"First and foremost, I've received offers or inquiries every year, even before we were in the league, to move the franchise to another city," Hamister said. "That's a regular thing. I field one or more every single year."
As for the Destroyers' on-the-field prospects, Hamister said evaluations of Selesky and his staff will be completed in the next week to 10 days. Hamister's annoyance with the team's 5-11 performance this season is unmistakable. If Selesky is retained, the fact that Hamister is speaking publicly intensifies the pressure on the staff for next season.
"In all fairness to the people involved, I'm in the middle of the review process with the head coach and the others in the organization, but I think one thing I can say is that the fans can expect that I'm not going to stand for doing the same thing next year," he said. "That will not be acceptable to me, so I think the fans can expect in the next couple of weeks that they're going to start seeing announcements from somebody in the organization about what we're going to do to change and get better."
After the Destroyers back-doored their way into the postseason in 2002 and coach Ray Bentley resigned, Hamister expected an improved product with the hiring of Selesky, who came in with a reputation as a keen evaluator of talent and a sharp offensive mind.
"I was expecting a .500 or better ballclub," Hamister said. "We've had a history the last three years of winning six out of 14 games and being one game short of being a .500 ballclub, so I was expecting two things: being a .500 or better ball club -- which, given the expansion and the number of teams meant eight or more games -- and I was expecting to be solidly in the playoff hunt. We did not take a step forward, we took a half a step or so backwards, and that's totally unacceptable and disturbing to me."
The Destroyers had the second-best defense in the league last season, and the owner definitely wants to retain defensive coordinator Weylan Harding, who has been praised throughout the league for his innovative schemes.
"I certainly hope that Weylan Harding is back on our staff," Hamister said. "I hope he wants to stay here because he did an outstanding job. He, and the defensive players, pulled their end of the weight and did exactly what we asked them to do. He's the only one in my mind that I can say that for sure, but that's not to throw anyone else under the bus except to say that since the offense performed so poorly that we have to do some re-engineering with the offense."
Buffalo ranked last or next to last in nearly every major offensive statistic. Part of the problem was injuries at quarterback as the team played six players: Jeff Loots, Chris Sanders, Tim Carey, Bob Bees, Charles Puleri and Kevin Mason. Not only did Loots miss most of the season, but Carey (groin injury) and Mason (neck) were sidelined for the season shortly after being named starters. Yet Hamister seemed particularly puzzled by the staff's inability to sign a high-quality backup prior to the season. To remedy the problem, Hamister said it is imperative that the team signs two quality quarterbacks in the offseason.
"Injuries are only an excuse for performance when you don't do the right thing and give yourself backups," Hamister said. "Our No. 2 quarterback has to be just as much of a starter as the starter, and I want to see two great quarterbacks in our camp next year."
Apparently, Hamister is willing to pay the money for quality quarterbacks. Hamister said the Destroyers were approximately $40,000 under the salary cap last season and the coaching staff has full authority to spend up to the cap.
"What I'm saying to them is that with regards to how we allocate the money underneath that cap, I want two starting quarterbacks in camp," Hamister said. "This is an offensive game which requires you to have a prolific passer under center, and I want two of them."
Hamister is upset because he had at least one quality starter, Dallas quarterback Jim Kubiak, who was released two years ago under Bentley. Kubiak finished the regular season with a league-record 4,762 yards in leading the Desperados into the playoffs. Last year, the Destroyers started Fred McNair, a steady, if not spectacular quarterback throughout his career, but he was released by Selesky in favor of Loots.
"Twenty-twenty (hindsight) is great, but if it had been my decision I'd be kicking myself right now as to why Kubiak isn't still here," Hamister said. "We've had a least two great quarterbacks in our camp and somehow in the past we've let go of those folks, and I think that's one of the things added to my personal anger and why I'm stepping up and making more demands and requirements in how we operate in the future. I don't want good players like that playing for anybody but us."