By Jason King
The inaugural season of The Alliance of American Football is fast approaching in five months, and the league’s Memphis franchise is already attracting national headlines.
This is even before the players who’ll roam the field are in uniform. What’s getting much-deserved attention is a certain figure who’ll stand tall on the sideline. Hall-of-Fame linebacker Mike Singletary—the Chicago Bears legend and one of the top defensive players in NFL history—agreed in May to become the head coach of the Memphis Alliance when AAF games begin in February. The league boasts other big names such as Steve Spurrier (Orlando), Brad Childress (Atlanta) and Dennis Erickson (Salt Lake City). But Memphis’ signing of NFL icon Singletary put his team on the map like an emphatic, successful, high-stakes blitz.
Shortly after his hiring in May, Singletary promised Memphis fans that he’d deliver “a brand of football you’re going to enjoy.” “We’re going to play fast,” he said. “And we’re going to play tough.”
Singletary exuded both of those qualities during his 11-year career with the Bears, 10 of which ended with Pro Bowl invites. His most notable season came in 1985, when Singletary flourished in Chicago’s “46 Defense,” which allowed him to go unblocked on almost every snap. Singletary recorded 161 total tackles and won NFL Defensive MVP honors as the Bears cruised to a 43-10 victory over New England in the Super Bowl. Singletary’s pregame speeches during the Bears’ playoff run that season became the stuff of legend, as teammates once became so inspired that they picked up tables and chairs and hurled them across the room before storming the field.
More than three decades later, AAF officials are hoping Singletary’s motivational skills will have a rousing impact on Memphis and players and fans, too. “It’s going to be a team effort,” Singletary said during a May interview with “The Jason & John Show” on 92.9 FM in Memphis. “It’s about making sure we have an offense that’s moving fast and getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. And at the same time, when we’re running the ball, we’ve got to make sure we’re getting the ball down the field and complementing the pass, creating a balance.”
Singletary, 59, was just weeks removed from accepting the head coaching position at Trinity Christian Academy—a private high school in the Dallas suburb of Addison—when AAF officials contacted him about the Memphis job in March. He said the involvement of longtime Indianapolis Colts president and general manager Bill Polian immediately caught his attention and made him believe the league will not only succeed, but thrive. Polian is the AAF’s co-founder.
“For Bill Polian to be involved … I had to take a step back and listen to what he was saying,” Singletary told the radio station. “He’s been around a while. He’s been a part of great organizations. He knows what’s taking bout about. For him to be involved, I knew there must be something very positive about it.”
Singletary is coaching high school ball this fall and will join The Alliance in the spring. He said he especially looks forward to coaching a Memphis’ roster comprised largely of former local college and professional players who are recognizable throughout the region.
Singletary said he’s long seen the need for a professional football team that competes in the spring.
“To have a league that complements the NFL with high-quality players and coaches, I think it’s outstanding,” Singletary told the radio station. “When you look at the game at the high school and collegiate and professional level … the real quality of the game has to get better.”
“The fundamentals of football, whether it’s the receiver catching the ball and tucking it away, whether it’s the running back holding the ball high and tight, whether it’s the way we tackle, face up and being able to drive our legs… all of the little things of the game. Sometimes the game is moving so fast, we’re taking the quality out of the game, so I believe a spring league is an outstanding idea.”
The opportunity with The Alliance is hardly Singletary’s first foray into coaching at the professional level. Singletary was in his fourth season as linebackers coach with the San Francisco 49ers when his boss, Mike Nolan, was fired after a 2-5 start. Singletary was named interim head coach and the 49ers went 5-4 the rest of the way. The strong finish earned Singletary the job on a permanent basis, as he was given a four-year $10 million contract. The 49ers went just 8-8 under Singletary the following year, and they were 5-10 when Singletary was let go with one game remaining in the 2010 campaign.
Singletary said he’s hoping the lessons he learned as an NFL head coach pay dividends with The Alliance. “It was an absolute honor to be a head coach for the 49ers,” he told the radio station, “but there were some really hard lessons to learn. As a head coach, I need to make sure I create the vision that allows guys to follow. Coaches first, then players.”
More than anything, Singletary said he’ll be unquestionably better prepared. And determined.
“I don’t want to be a good coach,” he said. “I want to be a great coach.”