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"They're saying that this is smash-mouth football, '60s-style football," he notes. "Well, that was running. And you see some of these draft picks, and there's a lot of focus on wide receivers. You're getting mixed signals right now."
At Las Vegas' Cimarron Memorial High School, where the Demons are holding their training camp until Super Bowl Sunday, a motley group of people have come to figure it out for themselves -- a smattering of reporters, a few locals with their kids, and a couple of Arena Football League scouts.
The team isn't getting to enjoy Sin City much: Every day it's up at 5:30 a.m., off to practice, then lunch, then another practice until 5:30 p.m., followed by dinner, team meetings, and film study until lights-out at 10:30. If the cynics happen to be right and the XFL games will be scripted, then Vince McMahon has pulled off his greatest masterpiece of deception: an extremely thorough and convincing smoke screen of practices, playbooks, depth charts, and long, dull discussions of X's and O's on whiteboards.
A week into the Vegas training camp, Jim Skipper looks a bit worn down by the pace. "It's tiring," he admits. "But you know it's coming, so you're mentally prepared for it."
Part of the stress has to do with the fact that he is working with a group of players who are in different physical conditioning, from different football backgrounds, and with different experiences. "We've got a good football team, but everybody's lacking something one way or another," he says. "Whether it's blocking ability, whether they need to bulk up a little bit -- they're just one notch below calling them NFL guys. The thing about a start-up league is that you don't have a system installed, whether it's offense or defense. That's why this training camp is so vital. But at the same time, you can't throw too much at them, physically or mentally. You have to find a happy medium." Injuries have already been a persistent problem for the team. Even before the Vegas training camp, the team lost six players; before the first scrimmage against the L.A. Xtreme in mid-January, eight more were sidelined with hip, knee, and hamstring problems.
Cheerleaders jiggling for the camera. Microphones attached to everyone and everything. Scads of out-of-shape, injury-prone football players. Two drunk fans passing out in the stands. Vince McMahon. Butter on your fingers today? For this, Jim Skipper gave up on a job with the New York Giants, who are playing in the Super Bowl this Sunday.
It's hard to imagine Skipper being thrilled with this situation. But because he's spent nearly three decades in second-banana roles, it seems fair to ask about the glass ceiling that many critics say keeps black NFL coaches out of the top positions, and whether that played a role in joining the XFL.
"It's like in life," he says, choosing his words a bit more carefully now. "Opportunities are very hard to come by. It's a part of society, not just football. It sticks out more in the NFL because of the players and all the publicity, but if you go right through corporate America, there's no difference. I know there's a lot of discouraged coaches, because they don't seem to be getting a fair shake. I don't think they're asking for handouts -- they just want an honest, true shot. Equal opportunity, that's all. And I don't think you can force anybody's hand. All you can do is hope that they become more open-minded about things. I think they're making changes, and slowly it's getting better."
And was he one of those discouraged coaches?
"I'm no different than any coach," he says. "Whether you're black or white, all coaches are coaches. You stick a dagger in my heart, I'll bleed and die the same way as if I stick a dagger in your heart." And then he stops speaking and looks at me across the conference table with a stare that seems to say, I trust we'll be changing the subject.
On Jan. 6, a small but eager crowd of people stood by the doors of Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, waiting for the gates to open. The event was a "possess your seat day" for the XFL's Las Vegas Outlaws, where fans picked out their seats and lined up for season tickets. Bribes were involved; the whole sun-baked day, incessant ads on the radio told listeners that buying Outlaws season tickets got you a free ticket to the upcoming WWF "No Way Out" pro wrestling event. So people wandered through the bleachers and only half-watched the scrimmage on the field before quickly making their way down to the end zone, where there were free hot dogs, photo opportunities with the pleather-clad cheerleaders, and a chance to get photos signed by WWF wrestlers the Dudley Boyz and the Good Father. In terms of season ticket sales, Outlaws spokesperson Trey Fitz-Gerald says, "We've doubled what any pro team's done in Vegas." Even in the curious parlance of PR flackery, that's an empty statement: Pro sports history in Vegas includes a failed CFL team, indoor soccer, arena football, and bush-league IBL basketball.