AAF 2019: Moose Johnston, Mike Riley and the Commanders bring pro football back to San Antonio
Perhaps no market in the new AAF has had its heart broken more than San Antonio
Mike Riley still has a house in New Braunfels, a town about 30 miles northeast of San Antonio where in the summertime you can float on the lazy Comal River with a cooler full of beer right by Schlitterbahn water park. On nice evenings, he and his wife, Dee, would mosey on over to Gruene Hall, a local, historic concert venue, to catch a band.
He bought the house nearly three decades ago, when he was the head coach of the San Antonio Riders from 1991-92 in what was the World League of American Football, another now-defunct pro football league. Since then, he's coached at five different stops in the college and NFL levels, including stints with the (formerly) San Diego Chargers, Oregon State, and most recently Nebraska.
Riley left, but he never really left.
"Man, it's a great city," Riley, whose son still lives in nearby Austin, Texas, said of San Antonio. "And Austin's a great city. Our kids liked it and our grandkids like it."
So when Riley got the call from AAF co-founder Bill Polian in May of 2018 to return to San Antonio to coach one of the alliance's new teams, the Commanders -- Polian worked with Riley as a personnel director for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL -- the longtime coach couldn't say no for a chance to return to a place he still considers home.
"This probably isn't gonna cross our plate again," Riley said to Dee.
Unlike Riley, pro football has left San Antonio. Many times. Sometimes before it ever actually arrived.
There were the aforementioned Riders, a team of all of two years, which was later replaced by the San Antonio Texans of the CFL. Both teams folded before ever taking off. The San Antonio Talons of the Arena Football League bested both of them ... by competing for three seasons.
Then there was the city's on-again, off-again flirtation with the NFL in the form of a handful of preseason games and a brief sanctuary for the New Orleans Saints in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Last but not least, there were the "San Antonio Raiders" -- too soon? -- a dream that never materialized more than kicking the proverbial tires.
The AAF kicks off this weekend so Ben Kercheval joined Will Brinson on the Pick Six Podcast to break down everything about the new league, and you can listen here:
Through most of the drama has stood the Alamodome, the city's landmark sports arena just off the highway, which continues to go through renovations to keep it up to date. During Riley's first stint in San Antonio, the Alamodome was being built with the hope that "they," a pro franchise, would come.
They never did, at least not for any extended period of time.
"They've had it," said Commanders general manager Moose Johnston, "and then it was gone."
Now it's back in what the AAF hopes to be for good. The Commanders' first game will be broadcast across most of the country on CBS on CBS All Access.and it can be streamed on
The AAF taps into cities it feels will embrace pro football. There's a reason so many of them are in the southern part of the U.S. The entire Eastern Division is made up of teams in SEC markets: Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis and Orlando. As a stop-gap between college and the NFL, Polian has hammered home the value local players and coaches have in the regional market.
Riley is an example of that value from his days with the Riders, but so is Johnston. He's one of the most recognizable names not just for the Dallas Cowboys -- he's a three-time Super Bowl champion -- but in the entire NFL, paving the way for the fullback spot in the Pro Bowl. He and Riley bring instant cache to the start-up team, and since Johnston still lives in the Dallas area, they're both Texans, in a way.
To be sure, many of the AAF's teams fill some kind of need for a pro team. It's not just San Antonio. San Diego just lost the Chargers and will now host the Fleet. Memphis has the Liberty Bowl. Atlanta already has the Falcons and, along with Orlando to a degree, is a college football neutral-site mecca. But of the eight markets under the AAF, none have had their heart broken so repeatedly by the prospects of having a team to call its own quite like San Antonio has.
"This is a city that has wanted professional football for a long time," Johnston said. "They've been teased with it. They had some other leagues here, most recently when the Saints relocated down here after Katrina. This city really embraced them for the five weeks that they were here. The Raiders used San Antonio in that negotiating process, as a potential city to move to. So, they want to have professional football here."
The Commanders are ready to fill that void and early returns on them are promising. Vegas odds without any type of history are going to yield soft lines. For what it's worth, however, the Commanders have among the more. Westgate SuperBook put the team at 5/1 odds to win the title game in Las Vegas in April.
What seems to drive perception is that the Commanders' offense has been talked about by league personnel as one of the best in the alliance. Again: salt, grain, etc. etc., but San Antonio has a lengthy receiving corps and a do-it-all weapon in former Houston Cougars star Greg Ward Jr.
Riley downplayed his offense's consistency and potency -- to his point, installing a brand-new offense in a short amount of time tempers exceptions -- but there is a palpable excitement for what this team could do.
"We had an open house with about 800 people there and sold almost 100 preseason tickets. We've done a couple of events earlier in the fall and in the summertime, and had great turnout," Johnston said. "So, the city has really embraced us, and now it's our obligation now to be able to go out and be a very competitive team for them. They've done everything we could have asked for from a fan base."
But as eager as San Antonio is for a team, there is, understandably, some incredulousness that Johnston has encountered.
"The biggest thing they're waiting to see is, 'Okay, who are you guys? Are you going to stay here, or is this another one of those situations where we're going to buy in and then have our hearts broken again?'" Johnston said. "So, I think with the leadership that we have in this organization, with Charlie [Ebersol] on the business side, with Bill on the football side, this is sustainable, and we've just got to make sure that all eight of us put out a good product on the field so people can enjoy watching the game."
For the record: BetDSI has a prop bet for the Alamodome's Week 1 attendance at over/under 28,000.
Ironically, San Antonio might finally be able to hold on to a pro team just as Riley, who still spends part of the year in the area, finds himself in the twilight of his career. Like many coaches around the AAF, Riley enjoys calling plays and developing talent, but in the summer he'll dial it back some. He'll go to some NFL training camps, scout some talent. During the nights when he can get home a little earlier, he'll go listen to some blues music. He'll spend time with his grandkids.
And, maybe, when he does leave, he'll leave San Antonio's pro football appetite more satisfied than when he found it.
"I thought, one more kick of the can to get to call plays and coach and have a team," Riley said. "And I knew what it was gonna be like because I knew San Antonio and I knew leagues like this. When I saw the list of head coaches and I saw all that it was, like, 'okay this would be fun to be involved in.'"
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