The Program: A Conversation with Europe’s Top Coach Shuan Fatah

Editor’s note: This weekend, Austria’s Swarco Raiders under head coach Shuan Fatah, will face the Prague Black Panthers from the Czech Republic with head coach Daniel Levy, in a Central European Football League game. This is the first time these two coaches will face each other. Last year, Levy conducted an in-depth interview for AFI with Shuan Fatah which turned into a fascinating, wide-ranging conversation about football in general and developments in the game in Europe.

There is something different about the Swarco Raiders Tirol.

Actually, there are many things that differentiate arguably the top American football program in Europe from its continental peers. From the breathtaking backdrop of the Austrian Alps and their NCAA-level facilities to the on-site offices buzzing with decades of professional coaching experience—all of which represent luxuries that 99% of teams in Europe will never know.

But that is not what I am talking about.

There is something else very different about the Swarco Raiders Tirol. You feel it when you step onto the practice field—a football atmosphere unlike anywhere else on the continent.

Relaxed, yet focused.

Energetic, yet tranquil.

Players who are equal parts hungry and humble, and practices that are both professional and fun.

Frankly speaking, this is the closest I have come to an NFL atmosphere in Europe. Players and coaches who are engaged and focused, yet able to smile, laugh, and converse during warmups or between practice reps without ever breaking stride or succumbing to even the most minor of disruptions. This is a culture unique to a team at this level, where a degree of discipline and confidence has been achieved that few international teams will ever understand.

The Swarco Raiders aren’t just a football team. They are a football program.

“When I came here, things were not like what you see now,” says Shuan Fatah, the Head Coach and architect of the Raiders program. “When we started here, I was coaching out of containers. I wasn’t here,” he adds, gesturing at the impressive office space around him. “I was down by the river at a shabby grass field. In the winter they would close down the toilets, so I would have to run over to McDonalds anytime I needed to take a piss.”

Shuan was hired by the Raiders in 2011 after very successful championship-stints with the Berlin Adler in the German Football League and the Berlin Thunder of the NFL Europe before that. He is arguably THE best coach in Europe—a feat made even more impressive by the fact that he is German national coaching an American sport.

“If you need some more light you can just hit that button next to you,” he says to my photographer, grinning ever so slightly. She follows his instructions, retracting the electronically powered blinds and revealing a breathtaking vista of the Austrian Alps. This is the view from head man’s office.

I cast a sidelong glance in his direction. “Now you’re just showing off.” We both laugh as he closes the office door behind him and we take our seats at the conference table. The atmosphere in Shuan’s office is a reflection of the Raiders practices—relaxed yet professional.

Our conversation continues as he reminisces about his early years. After a short playing career in Germany, Shuan became a pioneer of sorts among European coaches—one of the first and only EU citizens at the time to coach college football in the United States. The conversation winds and meanders as he credits the various mentors and acquaintances who shaped his path during his three-year stint at Nicholls College, referring to those years (1996-1998) as his coaching apprenticeship.

Daniel Levy: So how did you get started with the NFL?

Shuan Fatah: I was back over in Germany coaching for the GFL, and Wes Chandler calls—(NFL) Hall of Famer—and he has the new gig in NFL Europe for the Berlin franchise. And somebody told him that there’s a Berlin guy actually over there coaching. And since I was the only guy with U.S. experience in Europe, he says, that’s the guy I want because he knows how camp goes, he understands the grind—

DL: He understands practice structure 

SF: Exactly. He lived it. Anybody else I can get is a guy who only did it in Europe. You know? And he was a smart guy, I think (laughs). And good for me because I could go home to my hometown as a professional coach in a professional league.

DL: What year was that?

SF: December ’98. My first season was in ’99. I was there until 2004 and then the NFL hired me as the Manager of International Football Development. I was there for two years in management, and then in 2007 I joined the Hamburg Sea Devils as a running back coach. I was happy to go back to coaching—

DL: That’s your passion.

SF: Yes. And then I went back there in ’07, and we had a great season. Won the World Bowl. Then not too long after they told us the league (NFL Europe) was over.

DL: What was your first thought when that happened?

SF: It’s a funny story because we had actually just landed in Cancun, Mexico for an NFL camp. So we wake up in the morning and go to breakfast and our boss lines up in front of us—I still have my coffee in my hand—and he told us, (The NFL) decided yesterday that you’re all let go. You’re done.

DL: Was the writing on the wall?

SF: Every year.

DL: Every year?

SF: Every year. But it was still kind of a shock when it happened, even though you kind of always knew that it might happen. I have to say though, I was pretty smart—

DL: Oh yea?

SF: (laughs) Listen, and you tell me. I don’t know why exactly I did it—if it was subconscious or what—but I started coaching with the Dresden Monarchs after the NFL Europe season ended that July. They were 1-11 before I arrived and almost dropped down (to division GFL2). They had to play a relegation game, and I get involved and we win that game and stay (division GFL1). Then I get fired (from the NFL) and I realize that I’ve got nothing.

DL: Shit.

SF: So the Monarchs give me the head coaching job for the next season, which is a full-time gig.

DL: Damn. Good thing you started early.

SF: Exactly. Now… it’s not like I planned for it, I just for some reason decided to get into it (coaching the Monarchs). It may have been Him (points to the sky), but to this day even my wife says that it was just luck.

DL: Right place, right time.

SF: Yes. So I had a smooth transition. I think my contract in the NFL stopped in November and I had a new gig in the GFL in December. Full-time which was important to pay my bills. Tough job, 1-11 the year before. We went 6-6 my first year, into the playoffs and beat everybody once.

DL: Everybody?

SF: Opening game against the New Yorker Lions. In Braunschweig. Reigning national champions. We go in there and win 19-14.

DL: So that was your statement game?

SF: That shocked the league.

DL: How the hell could this happen?

SF: My team, now—they believed anything I said.

DL: Oh yea (laughs). They were bought in.

SF: (laughs) Bought in!

DL: Whatever you want us to do.

SF: Probably one of the most exciting seasons I’ve ever had. I’m very proud of that year. People think it’s all about trophies—

DL: It’s not.

SF: That year for me was one of the best.

DL: Shifting gears and talking about the things that we take pride in as coaches—talking about trophies. I always say that my goal as a head coach, by the time I’m finished, is to have more rings than I have fingers to wear them on.

SF: (laughs) Yea.

DL: So my goal is basically to be Shuan Fatah—

SF: (laughs) I got my box. I think it’s 16 or 17.

DL: I hope I can lose count too one day.

SF: (laughs) I think it’s 16.

DL: So I have 15 more to go. As a coach, I have to ask what your secret is.

SF: Honestly? I think… I would say I’m street smart because I just keep doing what works. I have a lot of creative minds over there (in the coaches’ offices), but running the program—What are we doing when? Having my staff meetings. Revising my coaching manual every year—What do I believe in? What is our philosophy? How do we conduct ourselves? How do we run camp? This is something I am never going to change unless someone shows me something that works better.

DL: You’re not gonna just jump on the new trend.

SF: I don’t jump on the boat like everyone else does—

DL: And there’s a new trend every year—

SF: There is.

DL: And if you’re just always adopting whatever the latest fad is, you’re gonna lose who you are.

SF: Yes. Exactly. You’re going to get lost in all of this noise. And it’s not that we’re not up to date. I spend hours studying. I look at clinics. I have my network of good coaches who I trust and can turn to. As long as I’ve got that, I’m good.

DL: So let’s get to the heart of it, and this is really the question on my mind and I’m sure a lot of other coaches as well. What is the secret at the program level? For instance, we are building a program with my team in Brazil (Sada Cruziero). We won a championship this past year. We are well-financed and ambitious at the management level. I see Europe—a team like the Raiders—as our role model.

SF: Sure.

DL: You really have less than a handful of teams in Europe with programs like this (the Raiders) or something similar to this. Obviously, money helps, but why is it that ya’ll can do it but other teams can’t make it happen? What is it that you do differently?

SF: Part of being a Head Coach is that you have to inspire people and you have to bring ideas. And you have to make sure that you explain them to the management. We have a great management team here and they listen. I realized very quickly that all I have to do is express my ideas and explain to them why it’s necessary and they do it. Now we have a good budget and that helps, but it’s not like we can really use it all because of restrictions in the Austrian league (AFL). Especially when it comes to players.

DL: But you can on infrastructure.

SF: Yes. And like I said, it wasn’t like this when I got here. I had a vision for this team, this program, and I told the management. I spent hours sitting down with them. We had some Oakland Raiders guys coming over—Willie Brown, Hall of Famer. And we had a hard time hosting him because I can’t meet him in a container where there’s no toilet. You know what I mean?

DL: Oh yea.

SF: So I just told the management that where we were going—and the program was growing fast—that the infrastructure had to come. They understood and they put the money to good use, and we got the offices. And then the next step was to get a better field. We were losing players to season-ending injuries because our field was terrible. And don’t get me wrong, the team won some championships and had some success before I got here.

DL: But it still was just a team. It wasn’t a program.

SF: Exactly. It was kind of a patched-up thing. There was success, but for that success to be sustainable you have to have roots. You have to grow and build and that all starts with infrastructure. And we’re still not where we want to be. We’re getting a new practice field in 2018. And now we’re talkin’ business. I don’t know if I’ll still be here—

DL: (laughs) I don’t think you’re going anywhere.

SF: Well you know how it is. A couple of down seasons and things change. But the point is that we are entering a new era. We are already pretty good, and that field is just going to really take us to the next level like it did with the Vienna Vikings. After they got their facilities, it pushed us and the rest of Austria to catch up.

DL: To become more professional.

SF: Yes.

DL: So on that topic—professionalization of international football. I was unfortunately part of a league that was trying to professionalize football in Brazil. This was 2013. Of course it folded. Then you had the NGL this past year in Australia—

SF: Were you involved with that?

DL: (laughs) Oh no no no. I had already learned my lesson. I had a few friends who had signed there and I kind of tried to caution them against it. Just like in Brazil, when it folded it messed up a lot of peoples’ plans and lives. And this is bad for international football.

SF: Of course.

DL: It makes people gun shy. It made me jaded after I was burned by it. I said, nobody is ever going to professionalize international football. But then as you start to distance yourself, you kind of ease back toward the idea. And my belief is… it can’t start at the league level. Nobody can come into Europe or Brazil and say, I’m going to start a new professional league. Unless it’s the NFL, of course.

SF: Right.

DL: But some hedge fund manager can’t come in and say, I’m gonna start a new league in Europe. It has to happen at the team level. Like what you are talking about… when Vienna (Vikings) got their field. Now you have a sense of urgency to do the same. Or you look at what New Yorker has done in Germany. Now you have Frankfurt. You have Ingolstadt. So my question is, do you think that in the future football will once again be professional in Europe?

SF: I’m not sure. I think there’s too many parties involved that don’t want it to be professional. I also still think the game is in very infant stages when it comes to management. Not every team has management like we have—

DL: Very few—

SF: Or like the New Yorker Lions or the Dresden Monarchs. Those are the teams that I know are managed very well. But then you have other teams that are managed by substitute teachers—

DL: Or the backup offensive tackle is the team president.

SF: Exactly. And I’m not saying that that is always a bad thing, but most of the time these people have no real business experience. And you expect them to compete with the Samsung Frankfurt Universe?

DL: Not gonna happen.

SF: So I don’t know. The whole idea behind the Big6 was to find a common ground between the best teams, put them all on one table and to create a great European league. That’s what we (the Raiders) do now with the Battle 4 Tirol. We look at it as we have a conference and a non-conference schedule—that’s how I explained it to my board.

DL: Like college teams.

SF: Yes. How can we get better games for our fans and bring in teams that they don’t know? Because it gets boring. Every year we play the (Danube) Dragons. Every year we play the (Vienna) Vikings. I lose players because they’re tired of the schedule.

DL: They’re tired of playing the same teams.

SF: And the Big6 is the same idea. But—

DL: It’s still just Austria and Germany.

SF: Exactly. There’s no Spanish or Italian team you can travel to (in years past). So I know this (Battle 4 Tirol) is more games and more stress, but we want to schedule as many games as we can against non-Austrian teams. And our players agreed to it. So now we get the Helsinki Roosters here to play. Last year we had a U.S. college team come play us—

DL: Ya’ll beat them didn’t you?

SF: We did. Elmhurst College from Chicago. And this year we will have another college coming. And the goal for next year… we want to schedule two U.S. colleges to come play us. And I think that’s going to make us better.

DL: And the management bought into this.

SF: They bought in. It’s all a matter of money. Obviously you have to have a stadium. It’s expensive to rent. And we support the teams who come up here, with overnight stay for at least a night and a dinner. So you have to calculate it. But we have the money here to do projects like this. We got record numbers of spectators with the Battle 4 Tirol. More than the Eurobowl and for half the cost.

DL: So who needs the Big6, right?

SF: I still believe the Big6 is a great tournament and can be a really, really great tournament because it is the Eurobowl, it is the crown. We are a very competitive team and we will eventually go back. It’s just that right now we have to pursue what is best for us. The way the regulations are set up right now, they are very much in favor of the German teams. And the other teams from other countries that joined this year will figure it out soon.

DL: Because the regulations on players for their national leagues are stricter than the Big6’s?

SF: Right. What other national league besides the GFL (German Football League) allows five American imports per game? Nobody. Everywhere around Europe actually they’re reigning in imports but this tournament keeps it at five. For us, we can locally only carry two Americans but I’ve had to carry three extra. Do you know how much money that is?

DL: That you’re spending on guys who aren’t playing every game.

SF: And in Austria we don’t do this 500€ under the table stuff. You hire those guys.

DL: They’re on a work visa. Taxes are being paid.

SF: All of it. So we’re talking about 50-60,000€ a year just for three guys. So we tell them (the Big6) that this is really difficult for us and ask if they can meet us in the middle. But they don’t. And look at the tournament now.

DL: Do you have an opinion on IFAF (International Federation of American Football) and what’s going on over there?

SF: (sighs) I don’t know. It’s just very difficult. I don’t really know all of the background information and what’s going on. I think that there’s a lot of hurt feelings—

DL: A lot of egos.

SF: A lot of hurt egos involved. And right now I don’t know if football is the main driving force behind it. It’s power. And the thing with some of these small arguments, it’s been going on for years—with some of these guys at the forefront of it, for decades.

DL: It’s like a blood vendetta.

SF: For a decade they are fighting! And it’s just really, really hurtful and is killing football in Europe. And I don’t know the background—who’s right, who’s wrong, and who said what. I just think that it’s a shame that we can’t all sit down for the sake of football.

DL: It’s disappointing—

SF: It is disappointing.

DL: It’s disappointing at a deep level.

SF: And now it gets to the point where competitions will be forbidden. There’s teams from Sweden that can’t compete somewhere. There’s teams from Germany that can’t play Austrian teams. There’s those secret memos going around—you can’t play him, you can’t play him. There’s teams like us who try to find substitutes (for the IFAF tournaments) and create international competitions. And you saw the article, now this is going to be under threat by some guy who thinks we shouldn’t do that. They think that it’s better to not have any games—

DL: Than to have those substitute tournaments.

SF: Yea, and I just don’t get it. This is wrong, and they need to solve it very quickly. It’s gone on for too long.

DL: And this was your impetus for moving from the Big6 to the CEFL (Central European Football League)?

SF: We told them—we said we want to compete, we want to do this, but money-wise this is just draining us. And I think there’s some people sitting there thinking that just because we have a good sponsor that there is this open bucket of money that we can just reach into.

DL: Nobody wants to waste money.

SF: They don’t understand that the people running this program, on the business side, that are so successful… guess why they are so successful! Because they understand what wasting money is, and they’re not gonna do that. And for somebody to say, you’re rich, you can do it, just shut up and go with it—

DL: That shows how incompetent they are at management.

SF: Exactly. They should foresee the problem and say, you know what? That’s pretty tough for the Austrian teams because they have national rules that really put them in a bind. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that if you keep three full-time guys on the payroll—and they really only play three games (in the Big6)… If we didn’t have the Battle 4 Tirol, those guys would only play three games—

DL: So they would be here for six months to play three games.

SF: Three games. And we did this for two years. We did it!

DL: That’s a tough sell too.

SF: It is. You don’t get the best out there. And then some of these teams say, you just don’t want to compete. Work harder. There’s players from those other teams in Germany who say that we are cowards for not playing them. They don’t understand that this is money that they will probably never make in a year that we are spending on one guy… and we have three of them. That pisses me off.

Shuan Fatah coaching the Berlin Thunder in NFL Europe

DL: Sure.

SF: They don’t get it. And it’s not healthy for Europe. Who is going to compete there (in the Big6)? You know, Poland just restricted their imports.

DL: Cut it in half.

SF: So a Polish team will have a hard time to compete in the Big6. And don’t give me, yea, line up and play. Yea, you can do that if you have zero restrictions and a Platinum American Express—

DL: Easy for you to say.

SF: It’s easy for you to say. You should be quiet. You should be the guy who doesn’t say anything because you are working from a position of power. My father taught me that—that if you are in a position of power, don’t rub it in. Just be quiet and appreciate that you are privileged to be where you are.

DL: That you don’t have the issues that the other guys have.

SF: But that’s how it is. Everybody is just looking out for themselves and that’s the problem in Europe.

DL: That’s the problem everywhere.

SF: And we (the Raiders) are not just thinking about ourselves. We initiated the coversation with the CEFL, and we know that when we play in the CEFL, we may not be able to play everyone on our roster, but that’s OK. That’s good for football. And our management is really good about that. When there’s a team in the AFL that has issues, that’s never a good thing. We have had meetings where we look for ways where we can help. It’s not just about us.

DL: It’s a different mentality. That Austrian football, European football, Brazilian football—whatever it may be… this is a small boat that we’re all in. And we’re in it together.

SF: Yep.

DL: If we start fighting… the boat’s gonna sink.

SF: Exactly. And it’s difficult. With the Big6, if you look at it… Braunschweig (New Yorker Lions) are gonna keep winning that thing. And they’re a good team, with a good coaching staff, so don’t get me wrong. They have to work for their success too. But a good coach I know said, everything is in play for Braunschweig to be successful. And that’s not their fault. It’s just how it is. Everything in the Big6 is geared toward Frankfurt (Universe) being in the final with Braunschweig. And if you have a league where the outcome is that predictable—

DL: That’s not good.

SF: No it’s not. And we’ve had the same issue in Austria. But only since the drastic changes to (import) regulations. Before that, you had Graz (Giants) as the 2008 (AFL) champion; Vienna (Vikings) in 2009; (Danube) Dragons in 2010; (Swarco) Raiders in 2011… and after 2011 they changed the rules and you had the Vikings three times and now us twice. We have good Austrian players, but since I’ve been here we’ve been in every Austrian Bowl. And that’s not a good thing.

DL: Why do you think it’s happening like that?

SF: Well, if I am running a league, I would look at the issue and say, why is this happening? And the solution can’t just be, well let’s cut the imports—

DL: That’s not the root of the problem.

SF: No! But that’s what they think. They think that these teams are just winning because of the imports. How about checking if they have a junior program? Do they have—

DL: Grass roots initiatives—

SF: Grass roots initiatives. Does that team have deep roots or is it all just shallow and superficial? And now you have to help them. Help them to find good imports. Imports who are going to be character guys. Imports who are going to help coach and are worthy of their investment. If you have a Talib Wise, a Kyle Callahan or a Sean Shelton—those guys are so influential to what we are doing here with the kids. They are heroes for our juniors. And then you read about teams saying, yea, we don’t need imports.

DL: Right?

SF: How can you voice that opinion? How can you say that when you have no idea what an impact a good quality import has? And obviously there are some bad apples out there.

DL: But that’s not a representative group.

SF: No. Not at all. And then you look at a league like Poland, cutting down the imports. Now you have to look at, who replaces that import? It’s a Polish guy. Now if you have a top-dog team like the (Wroclaw) Panthers, they will replace him with a pretty good Polish guy.

DL: Probably one of my guys from 2016.

SF: (laughs) Exactly. Now take the second-to-last team. They also have to replace that import… probably with a guy who wouldn’t even play for the Panthers. So you tell me, is it a good thing for the smaller teams not to have imports? I totally disagree. They will be the difference makers and the ones to make everyone around them better… and now they have a chance. If you cut imports, you’ve just helped the big teams.

DL: You’ve just made them stronger.

SF: Look at Braunschweig (New Yorker Lions). If they would change the rules in Germany now just to two imports, then they would replace them with German national team players. But the Dusseldorf Panther or the Hamburg Huskies? They would probably replace them with a local Husky guy who has never been on the national team. You tell me who’s gonna win that game.

DL: And the top teams are still going to have money to spend. So now you’re just opening up a market for the best local players to leave their teams.

SF: Exactly. And now the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. But imagine if one of these weaker teams got a Talib (Wise) in his prime—or whoever, a great guy you had. Another big difference maker. With those two guys… now they can compete with the bigger teams.

DL: Or at least have a chance.

SF: They have a chance. And it also starts with having a full-time guy (head coach) versus a part-time coach. A part-time coach is working half the day and then he has to compete with me or you or (Troy) Tomlin with the New Yorker Lions—we’re sitting here all day.

DL: Exactly.

SF: I just, I don’t know how he’s ever—

DL: He’s going from his 9-5 job, straight to practice… practice planning during his lunch break—

SF: Tough. Really tough.

DL: It is tough. I can’t imagine how anyone can coach part-time and not constantly feel like they’re under the gun.

SF: Especially first division, anywhere in Europe.

DL: You can’t be banker who coaches or a bartender who coaches. If you want to win. You have to be a coach, first and only.

SF: If you want to win a lot, you have to be a coach.

DL: You know, talking about imports and coaches… and going back to Brazil, we have an issue… I think I was the only import head coach in the league this year. And it paid off. We were a team in our first year of national competition, and we won the thing. And to me, there are some good Brazilian coaches, but they haven’t been mentored. And teams are spending all of their money on bringing import players. Probably what Europe was doing—

SF: In the ‘80s. That was Germany in the ‘80s—

DL: Exactly, 20 or 30 years ago. And in a lot of ways, that’s where Brazil is right now in terms of development. So when you were in Germany at that time, what was the spark that changed that mentality to, we gotta get coaches in here. We’ve gotta get full-time guys. We’ve gotta get guys who’ve coached at a higher level to bring that knowledge here.

SF: I don’t know… this is an interesting question because that still hasn’t caught up with many of the teams—as funny as it is. We’re in 2017 and you still got teams in Germany that just bring players. But for me it was in Berlin, I think in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that they started to bring quality guys in. And there were a bunch of young guys, like me, that just took advantage of it and gravitated to those teams who were bringing in great coaches.

DL: Someplace where you could grow and be mentored.

SF: Exactly. And the management started to see—like Berlin (Adler), it was never the biggest team, we never had big guys, but we won championships. And in all of the pictures, you look at them and you see these skinny guys in pads. But you look at the sidelines—

DL: And you saw some dudes.

SF: You saw some dudes. You saw coaches standing there who had 50 years of experience between them. And the other teams didn’t. And the teams thought they could cut corners—bring in some imports, find some big dudes and let’s keep the young German guy who has coached for two years and just kind of let him organize and manage it all. And they got outcoached.

DL: It’s so critical.

SF: It is. And we talked about coaching trees the other day at lunch. I’m actually a branch of Bob Griffin who was here in ’91. And he taught us a lot as a program. But I don’t really know when exactly Europe or Germany began realizing the importance of coaching. They do here (at Swarco) obviously. But I still see some GFL teams where—

DL: It hasn’t clicked.

SF: No. I see all those import players.

DL: But then you look at the staff.

SF: (sighs) It’s limited.

DL: Import players are important. Like you said. But I always explain it as, an import player’s job is to come in and be the best player he can be. A coach’s job is to make everyone on the team the best player they can be.

SF: Exactly.

DL: An import may mentor guys.

SF: But it’s not his job to be the coach.

DL: I think a lot of teams in Europe—and certainly in Brazil—think, oh this guy played college football. He can come in and teach us everything.

SF: No no no.

DL: Outside of some very rare cases, that player hasn’t learned how to plan and structure practices. He hasn’t broken down film and built gameplans—

SF: Very seldom.

DL: But that’s not his job.

SF: You’re making a really good point here. Everybody has a role. An import player has a very important role, but that role is not to run the program. He is a mentor. He is a leader on the field. He can show the speed and the tempo and the intensity needed to play the game the right way.

DL: He’s an example.

SF: Yes. And a coach is totally different. He has to understand the little things within the team.

DL: The details.

SF: The details. He has to create leadership. He has to develop guys and be able to put them in the right position to be successful… to create an environment where they can be successful. Who creates that environment? It’s not the player. He can’t create that environment. He plays and serves as a role model to the local guys—

DL: The coach is the guy who has to bring the vision.

SF: You know the reason why we won three national championships in a row in Berlin—in the 80s—is because we had such great coaches. My first real coach was Billy Brooks. That was the first time I learned a playbook and watched film on other teams. 99% of teams in Germany weren’t watching film at that time—

DL: Or even knew how to watch film.

SF: Not the right way. We were advanced in Berlin. We had great coaches and that’s why we won.

DL: And you know the other thing that a coach brings that an import player doesn’t? Decisions.

SF: Yes.

DL: You know we got to the playoffs this year, and we’re preparing to play teams bigger, faster and more experienced than us. You already know that these games are gonna come down to the wire.

SF: Oh yea.

DL: We go and win the quarterfinals 14-6 and the semi-finals 14-12… and there’s probably a couple of decisions in there where, if they go the other way, I’m 16 rings behind you and not 15.

SF: (laughs) That’s it.

DL: I always say, it’s not a head coaches job to always make the right decision. But it’s his job to make the decision.

SF: Don’t flinch.

DL: Exactly. Make the decision and let your players make you right.

SF: That’s it.

DL: If they believe in you, they will make you right. But you can’t freeze up when the game is on the line.

SF: If you’re decisive, you give them a chance to win the game. A good guy told me that there’s 100 ways in football to win. Don’t get caught up in the doubt. Just do it and live with it. And exactly like you said, if they believe in you, they will make you right. If your players believe in what you are doing, they will make you right.

DL: Exactly.

SF: And that’s how you win at New Yorker Lions stadium, 19-14, after you were 1-11 the season before.

DL: Exactly. You’re decisive. Your guys believe.

SF: And you don’t flinch. That’s right at the top of our plan here, our philosophy. That’s how we win games here.

DL: We could talk about this for hours, but I’m gonna switch gears and go back to the CEFL.

SF: Sure.

DL: Wroclaw Panthers. I played them twice last year. First time they just beat the shit out of us.

SF: (laughs)

DL: 44-2, something like that. When we got them in the playoffs we were able to play them a little closer. But looking at what they’ve done—and what I hoped to do with Warsaw (Eagles), what I signed on for but the situation was just too unstable—my vision was to be Swarco one day. But OK, let’s look closer to home first, look at what Wroclaw’s doing. Nick (Johannsen) was in his second or third year—

SF: Second year.

DL: And they’re really building a program there. Do you feel like that’s something Nick learned here?

SF: Nick is a really good coach. I had to play him for years up here (when he was with the Graz Giants). But honestly, the other guy bringing the vision over there is the team president, Kuba (Glogowski). Before Nick even got the job I was there for a camp, and I talked to Kuba. And they had the exact same situation we were just talking about—imports were coaching the team. And, OK, they were having some success. But I remember sitting with him at a Polish restaurant, with the Polish food—

DL: Perogi—

SF: And the beer—

DL: (laughs) Oh yea.

SF: And he said, this is the best beer in Poland right here. So Kuba is sitting right next to me. Young guy. He likes rap and hip hop so we were already on the same page. So we started talking and I told him what I thought—beautiful city, professional presentation, but I said, as long as you rely on players to coach you, you won’t be successful down the road.

Photo: GEPA/Amir Beganovic

DL: Exactly

SF: And then Nick was just the right guy for the job. Tough dude, likes to run the ball and play power. They’ve got big dudes and it was exactly what they needed.

DL: He’s an OL dude too.

SF: Yea, he wants them to impose their will on you.

DL: That’s the first thing I noticed on film with them. The thing that separates them from every other team in Poland is what they do up front. Their guys are so gap sound. They’re big, they’re athletic, and they move your ass off the ball.

SF: They just maul you.

DL: Yea.

SF: And Nick did that here in Austria too. And what he brought was that understanding of what he needs for his system to be successful because he was very successful here. He’s gonna build a monster there. I know in the CEFL some teams can compete with them, but I don’t know about Poland.

DL: It took them a couple of years of getting to the championship and losing. But even those first two years, they still seemed pretty dominant.

SF: Lost against the Seahawks or something like that.

DL: Yea, Gdynia. Even though they still would beat them in the regular season. You know, Micah Brown was there (with Gdynia) in 2015 so when we were preparing for Wroclaw I tried to pick his brain a little. And he said that when they played them during the regular season that year, Gdynia lost by combined score of like 66-3 in those two games. But then they go and they beat them in the final.

SF: Yea.

DL: So they were there, they were pretty dominant, just there was something missing when it came time to finish. But then this year, they beat us 28-17 in the semi-final, then smoked Gdynia 55-14 or something like that in the final.

SF: They were meant to win it this year.

DL: Exactly.

SF: They’ve got some good things going on. With Nick and Kuba and the rest of the management. That meat factory that sponsors them. And then they just got that new stadium. But to me it was foreseeable because Kuba has been doing a great job for a few years now.

DL: After being there I can confidently say they are a level above every other team in Poland. And Gdynia runs a good ship too. They’re organized and professional and use their resources intelligently. But I think Wroclaw’s trajectory is climbing a much steeper curve more rapidly. They’re going, and I think this year they’re gonna outgrow the Polish league.

SF: They’re moving in the right direction.

DL: I don’t see how they lose a game this year. Except against ya’ll, maybe, in the CEFL.

SF: Well we’ll see. We’ve lost a lot of guys this year. But we just want to play them. They’re the Polish champion, IFAF Europe champion. It’s gonna show us where we are.

DL: It’s gonna be a great game, and I think it’s gonna tell them just as much about where they are and how they stack up in Europe.

SF: It’s gonna be a good game.

DL: I gotta ask: is your job the best (coaching) job in Europe?

SF: Oh I don’t know. I think the New Yorker Lions job is pretty good.

DL: Braunschweig doesn’t have this view though.

SF: (laughs) No this is definitely a top notch job. If you factor in everything—with the management and all the other things—for a coach, this is probably the best job. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d want to be. (Points to the mountains) this is pretty cool, isn’t it?

Photo: Florian Schellhorn

DL: So to wrap things up: future of football in Innsbruck; future of football in Austria; future of football in Europe?

SF: We want to be the first American football team in Europe that regularly schedules games with NCAA teams from the U.S. And not just one like everybody does. We want two, maybe three on the schedule. We want to give our fans—who are the greatest fans in Europe—a taste of the U.S. brand of American football. We want to be the bridge between the cultures, and for our player stop be able to sit down and say, this is a U.S. college, and they are playing MY Raiders.

DL: And have that culture kind of rub off on your guys in the process.

SF: I’d like for this to be like a little college campus here. Our lifting facility (weight room) is brand new, all new racks. It’s in the Olympic Center. It’s the same company that supplies the football teams for Penn State and the New England Patriots that supplied our equipment.

DL: This isn’t some patchwork operation.

SF: No. This is the real deal. We have the stadium and the offices here. We’re getting the new field. And this is gonna be the Swarco Raider campus. So that’s what I’m looking forward to in the future.

DL: What about football in Austria?

SF: They’re moving in the right direction. They’ve expanded the league. The smaller teams have taken on the challenge. They’re doing all the right things, and I think the league is going to stabilize itself. I’m not sure about the import regulations, but we just ride with the wave. I’m done fighting with them about it because of all things I told you. But the league is stable and there’s some good coaching going on, and I hope this will carry over into the National Team where I’m the Head Coach. The federation in Austria is well-run and is doing a great job.

DL: And Europe?

SF: I just hope that it gets resolved really quickly because there are just too many opportunities right now. The NFL is looking to come back to Europe. There’s millions of dollars involved. Maybe it’s time to get new faces in there (with IFAF). Maybe it’s time to get new visionaries in there and create a completely new federation. I don’t know if that’s the way to go, but if they keep doing things the way they are now, how are we ever going sit everyone down at one table?

Daniel Levy is currently serving as the Head Coach of the Sada Cruzeiro Futebol Americano (formerly the Belo Horizonte Eagles) in Brazil, whom he led to an undefeated, championship season in 2016--the Eagles' very first season of national