Third Time the Charm for Bandits' head coach Rik Richards
It was mid-June 2004 and Rik Richards was sitting idle. For a guy in a profession where the most action takes place during the summer months, the inactivity was cause for much agony and pain.
Rik Richards is a football coach who has made a name for himself amidst the fast-paced indoor cousin of the outdoor game. Between the padded walls, he found his calling several years ago, spending the summer months inside on the gridiron learning the intricacies and special talents it takes to play the game successfully.
But after what many considered a dismal 4-7 opening with the moved arenafootball2 franchise in Manchester, N.H., Richards was let go, setting the stage for the drama that has made the Richmond Bandits inaugural Atlantic Indoor Football League (AIFL) championship even sweeter.
Richards' first professional coaching gig came with the Bismarck Blaze of the now defunct Indoor Football League (IFL) in 2000. Moving up from his position with NAIA-member institution, University of Mary, Richards quickly made the proper adjustments to the professional indoor version of the game he loved. He helped guide the Blaze to a 13-4 overall record and a date with Peoria in the IFL Championship, leading the league in rushing and total defense.
Despite falling in his first professional championship appearance, Richards landed five of his players - as well as himself - in the 2000 IFL Pro Bowl.
Hoping to prove himself on a grander scale, Richards moved south following his successful 2000 campaign, hoping to land an IFL head coaching position. Yet, as fortunes had it, the league disbanded, again stranding the talented coach. It was then that he latched on in Charleston as the defensive coordinator for the second-year Charleston Swamp Foxes arenafootball2 team.
As the coordinator, Richards prided himself on the performance of his defense on the turf. Charleston ranked in the Top 15 in total defense each of his first two seasons as the leader of the defensive unit, including ranking 12th in pass defense while limiting opponents to just over 200 yards per game through the air. He also played a large role in the recruiting process of finding talent with which to plug into his creative schemes.
Yet, the Swamp Foxes struggled through losing seasons in both 2001 and 2002, prompting a change at the helm.
On the afternoon of October 24, 2002 - after spending the morning talking with school children about the importance of education and staying off drugs - Richards earned his first-ever professional head coaching position. As the most logical choice for the ownership group, Richards was introduced as the second head coach of the Swamp Foxes, replacing a coaching legend in Georgia-Florida Hall of Famer, Jimmy Dunn.
Richards spent the waning months of 2002 and early months of 2003 preparing for his dream - preparing to control the football operations of a team that was called his. Then, in early April, the arenafootball2 season commenced.
On April 5, 2003, Richards stepped on the turf as the youngest head coach in all of Arena Football. He was greeted with a 31-21 loss in Norfolk, Va., in a game where his defense created three turnovers - two interceptions and a fumble, scoring on the latter. But a lesson was learned by the first-year head coach - when you're in charge, you are responsible for everything. And that included an anemic offensive performance by former West Virginia quarterback, Major Harris, as the Foxes only managed 124 yards of total offense on 38 plays (3.26 yards per play).
Things didn't get any easier for the Swamp Foxes as Charleston dropped its first three games, all of which came on the road by a combined tally of 94-61.
But the resilient Richards and staff rebounded. In the home opener on April 26, 2003, the Foxes survived a last minute rally by the Birmingham (Ala.) Steeldogs, recovering an onside kick attempt at the 16-yard line to secure Richards his first win, 38-37. As he embraced his offensive coordinator, Tony Wells, the duo was doused with the water cooler, splattering ice and liquid to the turf in the North Charleston Coliseum.
The rebound continued during the 2003 season behind af2 Rookie of the Year, Johnny Turman. The Foxes' offensive production soared from a 26th ranking after Week 1 to as high as fourth in Week 13, concluding the season ranked 7th in total offense. Defensively, the Swamp Foxes were a rock, leading the af2 in total defense for nine consecutive weeks and finishing fourth overall and with a league-best +21 turnover margin. The ball-hawking Foxes picked off 34 passes during the season and recovered 16 fumbles to keep the hopes of a first-ever playoff appearance alive entering the final week of the regular season.
Ironically enough, Richards concluded his inaugural season as a head coach pounding the former tenant of the Richmond Coliseum - the Richmond Speed, 43-13, using a remarkable defensive effort. His scheme created three interceptions and limited the potent Speed offense to 90 yards through the air in a game that is dominated by throwing the football.
But, despite winning six of their final eight games, including the final three-in-a-row, the Swamp Foxes, missed out on the af2 playoffs, crippled by the trio of early season losses. Charleston's af2-member would not line up for another kickoff following the finale on July 26, 2003 and Richards was a head coach with a winning record, but without a team.
It was then, in the fall of 2003, that Richards took a gamble - a 1,000-mile trek northward to interview with the Manchester Wolves. Again, as irony would have it, the successful meetings concluded in Richmond, Va., with Dr. Eric Margenau, who owned the Richmond Riverdogs UHL hockey team and part of the Wolves franchise.
After being given his release from Manchester, Richards moved back to his home in Charleston, S.C., and began the long process of searching. He took odd jobs to keep the bills paid, maintaining his love of football. With his pride of being able to sniff out talent, Richards worked part-time on the side scouting with the Scouting Bureau out of Celebration, Fla., a contact in which he made while the head man with the Swamp Foxes.
In February of 2005, with practically all hopes of landing a summer indoor football coaching position lost, Richards received a call from Andrew Haines, founder of the first-year Atlantic Indoor Football League. There were six teams with only five head coaches - and Haines and the Richmond Bandits' owner, Michael Taylor, were in need of an experienced coach.
Richards fit the bill.
The last team to announce a leader, Richmond finished off the regular season with a share of the AIFL championship. And after surviving a scare from the third-seeded Johnstown Riverhawks, the Bandits, were Erie, Pa., bound with a shot at the inaugural Governor's Cup and AIFL Championship.
During a pre-game speech last Saturday night, Richards told his current team of being in the championship game with the Blaze. He fleshed out the agony he felt during the sluggish start that the squad he assisted endured and coming up short in the title game. He referred to it as coming an inch within collecting his dream, then having it drift away while he stood helpless.
Richards had his Bandit players close their eyes and envision playing the perfect game, doing their job and meeting their assignments.
Then they took the field.
Amidst boos, jeers, and the adversary of playing on the road in the same building as their only loss of the entire year, the Bandits took the early lead, 7-0 on a sluggish, yet effective, opening drive. But just as if it were a reoccurring nightmare for Rik, the Erie Freeze proceeded to rattle off 21 unanswered points and grab the 21-7 advantage and put the Bandits back on their heels.
But little-by-little, Richmond inched back in, cutting the deficit to seven, then tying the contest. With just seconds on the clock before halftime in a tie game, former VMI Keydet Quesuan Wigfall, who was put in the prime position by the specially designed defensive coverage, picked off the AIFL League Most Valuable Player, Dave Dinkins, and returned the theft 52 yards for a score, giving Richmond the halftime advantage.
In the locker room during the break, the last second heroics went much further. Not only did it give Richmond the lead at intermission, but it has seemingly lifted the burden of a lethargic start from the shoulders of the players and staff.
The Bandits proceeded to rack up a total of six interceptions - one more than the MVP Dinkins had thrown all season long - en route to the capturing the championship.
After the final interception, with time dwindling in the game, Richards returned to a jubilant Bandit bench. Trying to hold back a smile through a face of concentration, he paced the back-and-forth as the final seconds ticked off the clock and immortalized the Richmond squad in the AIFL history books. He was reflecting upon the season. He was calculating his overall record as a head coach - 24-15. And he realized that he had accomplished his dream - earning a championship trophy and a championship ring at the professional level.
For head football coach Rik Richards, the third time as a head coach was his charm. He and his Richmond Bandits are the only, first-ever Atlantic Indoor Football League Champions.
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