Kevin Guy has had to rebuild the roster three times since he came to the Rattlers in 2008 as head coach and general manager.
But here he is, on the brink of breaking Danny White’s record for most franchise coaching wins, putting together four championship teams, including one in Arizona’s first season in the Indoor Football League last year.
His current team has the league’s best record (9-1) and with a win at home Sunday against the second-place Iowa Barnstormers (7-2), Guy will enter the franchise record book with the most all-time wins (142).
“You always hear there are all kinds of football players out there,” Guy said. “There is. But can they play?”
The Rattlers have rebuilt the roster three times since 2008 but have four championships since 2012Richard Obert, azcentral sports
The Rattlers’ roster was rebuilt in 2008 with the end of the Sherdrick Bonner era at quarterback. It was rebuilt again in 2010, the Arena Football League reboot year after it went bankrupt and didn’t play in ’09, with the start of the Nick Davila era at QB. And again, the Rattlers rebuilt the roster last year when they left the pass-oriented AFL, said goodbye to Davila as a player, and joined the IFL.
“In 2011, it was the first year that we had a chance to build on what we did the year before,” Guy said.
The Rattlers came one play away from winning the ArenaBowl in 2011. They then went on a run of three consecutive ArenaBowl championships, came a play away from reaching the ArenaBowl in 2015, then got to the ArenaBowl again in 2016, when they lost to the Philadelphia Soul, before breaking into the IFL.
The key, obviously, is recruiting. And Guy’s ability to hire people who know how to evaluate talent.
Assistant coach/assistant general manager Jeff Jarnigan helped find linebacker Justin Shirk out of Pennsylvania, where he played in an indoor-offshoot league and tore it up. Shirk was a 6-foot, 240-pound middle linebacker at Bloomsburg University. He was working as a trainer at a health club when Jarnigan called during the middle of last season.
Rattlers LB Justin Shirk talks about why he came back at media day
The next thing, Shirk was driving non-stop from Pennsylvania to Arizona and became the run-stopping, quarterback-sacking, season-changer on defense that led the Rattlers to their first United Bowl title, beating the team that had owned the league, the Sioux Falls Storm, at its place.
“(Jarnigan) said he had seen my college highlight film, back in Bloomsburg in 2014,” Shirk said. “The transition of going into the IFL, they needed a more athletic linebacker to take care of the run. They liked how I played football.
“You can’t really beat this, especially being from Pennsylvania. Most of the days are cloudy and overcast. It’s quite depressing. You come out here and you see sun 90 percent of the time. Although you don’t see too many lakes or oceans around here, there are plenty of pools to cool off in. The Rattlers have a storied tradition. It’s great to be a part of that.”
So how does it work to build a roster that competes for championships?
First, Guy has to be good at hiring staff he can trust, coaches and evaluators who have keen eyes for finding hidden gems.
They work together, each member watching film on the same player.
Then, they rank them.
“But we don’t share information,” Guy said. “What that does as a head coach, it helps me on what strengths and weaknesses they have.”
Jarnigan oversees player personnel. He collects information and puts it in front of Guy, who evaluates and makes a decision.
“We’re looking for versatile players, guys who can play multiple positions,” Guy said. “We’re also looking at, ‘Are they good special-teams players?’ The reason for that is, we’ve had 46 players sign NFL contracts. They’re not looking for those players to be their first- or second-round picks. If they make the roster, they’ll be on the bottom of the roster and will be on special teams. That helps us recruit even more, looking for guys who are good special-teams players. Jarnigan coaches special teams. That’s why I have him overseeing player personnel.
“When I get to my desk, they weed out who can’t play. It’s a process.”
During the interview process with the players, the Rattlers are looking for:
Then, Guy asks these questions:
“We want to get them focused on where you are trying to go in this career,” Guy said.
Aside from playing ability and athleticism, Guy looks for character and intelligence.
“I feel like I’ve never worked a day in my life,” Guy said. “I really enjoy what I do. It doesn’t feel like work. I don’t want to deal with bad character guys. They have to have intelligence. Can they process information? Do they have the size and speed for the position they play? Do they have the athletic ability for the position they play?
“These are all steps they go through in the evaluation. When you’re breaking them down, you do homework, call their college coaches. If they were in an NFL camp, you call someone from the organization if they know about them.”
Guy said there have been times when he heard bad things about a player, but once he brought him in, he never had a problem with him.
“We lay out expectations,” Guy said. “I never met a player who doesn’t like structure, organization and discipline. That is where the culture comes in. Accountability. When I have a player that leaves here and starts a career after football, I have businesses calling for a job reference. I tell them when they call me, ‘Number 1, if you can work for the Arizona Rattlers, you can work any 9-to-5 job in the world because you’re going to be held accountable here.'”
When the season ends, even after another championship, Guy assumes nobody is coming back and he attacks recruiting with that mindset.
“I tell them if you win the championship, I will give you the opportunity to compete for a spot on the roster,” Guy said. “I don’t promise they will make the team. We go at it relentlessly, attacking it to find the best available out there.
“Every team in this league or any league have star players. It’s your role players that are going to help you win a championship. Everybody can’t be the star. But everybody can be a star at the role we give them. When they buy into that, that’s how you build a team that is going to compete for championships.”