Dan Levy Q&A: Swarco Raiders and the State of American football in Europe

Daniel Levy is more than an American football coach. His drive to travel the globe and seek out the most interesting and dynamic football circumstances has led him to his current role as head coach of the Sada Cruzeiro Futebol Americano (formerly the Belo Horizonte Eagles) in Brazil, and taken him to the Austrian Alps when he met with his European football guru, Shuan Fatah.

Levy is staunch advocate for the growth of American football internationally, and he has touched 10 different countries on three different continents as a player, coach, and consultant. These last few months Levy taken a whirlwind trip around Europe meeting with friends and mentors about the growth of our favorite game.

American Football International chatted with Levy about his trip and specifically his time in Innsbruck with Swarco Raiders Coach Fatah.

AFI: What was the purpose of your visit to the Swarco camp this weekend?

Levy: My purpose was really two-fold. First, I wanted to get an inside look at the operations side of the program. International football is a different sort of beast, and the majority of teams are kind of improvising and scraping by, relying on a lot of volunteer coaches and managers and not really focusing on the importance of football operations. The Raiders are known for having a very professional setup, and even though I already had an idea of what set them apart from other teams in Europe, I wanted a first-hand look at their football program that I could relay to the rest of the international football community.

My secondary motivation was really personal. I’m a coach, still young, still pretty early in his career. My goal as a Head Coach is to build something, and I think that Coach Shu is one of if not the best examples of someone who has managed to build an exemplary football program in Europe. My interview with him was as much for myself as it was for the readers. It served to validate my beliefs and potentially challenge them, and to provide me with a case study that I could take back to my own management team at Sada Cruzeiro so we can begin working to emulate in Brazil what the Raiders have accomplished in Europe.

Dan Levy in Innsbruck. Photo: Marta Dębska

AFI: Tell us a little bit of your background with that program and with Shuan Fatah.

Levy: My only real background is that I’ve been a fan of their work. I had spoken to Coach Shu a number times casually prior to my visit, but this was my first time meeting him. When you see that a team is winning a lot of national championships, a lot of Eurobowls, competing against and beating the top international teams including NCAA programs from the USA… you start to research them. So I’ve been following Shu and the Raiders really since he got there. It was an honor and pleasure to finally sit down with him in person. Awesome dude.

AFI: What do you think helps Swarco stand apart from the rest of Europe?

Levy: I think it’s their attention to detail. A symptom that you find in many European teams is that even when they manage to get something done, they miss a bunch of details. “We found an apartment for the imports, but there’s not any kitchenware.” “We rented the meeting rooms, but there’s no white boards.” “We have a projector for the film session, but there’s no USB cord.” Little things like this.

It goes back to operations. These guys have a support staff. Managers walking around during practice with water bottles and transporting equipment to and from the practice field. They have infrastructure that is well-maintained and exclusively theirs. They have a full staff of experienced coaches. They are a well-oiled machine with big accomplishments, rather than a social club with big ideas (and no follow-through).

AFI: How important do you think programs like Swarco are to the ‘identity’ of American football overseas?

Levy: They’re incredibly important because they legitimize the international game. When you see that a team in Europe beat a college football team from the U.S.A., your eyes open. When you check out one of their broadcasts and see it being played in Tivoli stadium, see the fans, the coaches and the athletes, your perception changes. So many international teams and even leagues operate with a sort of “club mentality.” The Raiders bring professionalism and legitimacy that acts as a counterweight to that. They show to the casual observer that there really is legitimate football outside of North America.

AFI: How is this IFAF split and IFAF Europe controversy affecting the program?

Levy: I don’t think it’s really affected the Raiders directly all that much. But the impact it’s having on Europe is felt by everyone. As international coaches, we are all advocates for the growth of American football, and right now the organization that is supposed to lead the way in this mission (IFAF) is actually the biggest thing holding it back. As Coach Shu himself said, it is killing football in Europe. While this isn’t going to immediately impact how a team like the Raiders does business, the broader implications for the entire European football community are what’s most disturbing.

AFI: What are you impressions on the quality of the infrastructure and personnel?

It’s the best I’ve seen in Europe. Better than some college programs. They have offices on site in an Olympic stadium with their practice field right outside the back door. Their coaching staff–not just Shu, but Lee Rowland, Kyle Callahan, Dan Morrison–that’s a great group of minds.

I kind of break it down like this when it comes to football in Europe. There is a very small handful of what I’d call Tier 1 programs. These are the professional setups, with the infrastructure, the coaching staff–all the bells and whistles. The Swarco Raiders. The New Yorker Lions. Maybe a couple more German Football League teams like the Dresden Monarchs and the Frankfurt Universe.

The 2nd Tier is the “good European setup.” In my experience, I consider the Anonca Dolphins to be a prime example of this and probably a lot of the other Italian Football League teams. Good teams who keep their promises and have a community around them of former players and coaches and junior parents who care about your experience, but simply don’t have the budget for the infrastructure and a professional setup.

The 3rd tier is those teams who Shu and I alluded to in our conversation. Teams who do care but are managed by a substitute teacher. Where the president is the guy “doing the job nobody else wants to do.” They struggle to attract sponsors, don’t have a strong organizational structure… maybe they know where they want to go but have no idea how to get there.

The 4th tier is the teams you want to avoid. The dishonest team who mistreats their local players, mistreats their imports, and do not show much concern for honoring their promises. These are the teams that are bad for international football. Unfortunately I ran into this exact situation for the first time in my career in Warsaw last year, but I would rather not talk about that.

Ultimately, I learned a lot from my visit with the Raiders and my conversation with Coach Shu, and I think a lot of other teams, managers and organizations could as well–no matter which tier they fall into. The more that teams aspire to be great organizations from the management down to the players… well, that’s only going to make football better and bring more advocates to the game we all love.

John McKeon is a former professional and collegiate American Football player and coach now living and working in New York. His goal is to spread news, information, and opinion on the global growth of the sport he loves.