07/14/2011 6:15 PM
For this edition of Beyond the Wall, AFL communications sat down with Cleveland Gladiators Head Coach Steve Thonn. Thonn has been involved with the Arena Football League for over 20 seasons. Thonn has five years of playing experience in the AFL, playing with both the Chicago Bruisers and Albany Firebirds. Thonn started his coaching career in Houston and made stops in Dallas, Georgia and Grand Rapids. He became the head coach of the Cleveland Gladiators in late 2009 and finished the 2010 season at 7-9. This season, Thonn and the Gladiators and 9-7 and one win away from an East Division title. The Gladiators face the Pittsburgh Power on NFL Network’s “Arena Football Friday”.
Editor: This is your second season with Cleveland. How have you liked your time there? What brought you there in 2010?
Steve Thonn: I really do enjoy my time here in Cleveland. I love being here. The city is great and the fans have been great as well. We really get great support so I really enjoy being here. I got a call from Jim Ferraro in November 2009 and the team was looking for a coach back then. So I came out here in December and interviewed with Jim and they offered me the job and I took it. The process was pretty quick back then.
ED: This is a big game against Pittsburgh. How have the preparations been coming along? What is it going to take to get a victory at home?
ST: The preparations have been going very well. We got that last game out of our system early in the week. We watched film and made some corrections. The attitude has been very upbeat and we have been playing a lot better at home. Our guys are anxious to get back home and play in front of the home crowd.
ED: How much does it help playing at home? What has the crowd been like this season in the “Q”?
ST: The crowd has been great. They have been into it and very loud this season. They have supported us very well and I think that our guys, around halfway through the season, really liked playing at home. I think we have a pretty big advantage when we are at home.
ED: You attended Wheaton College, where you played football, basketball and baseball. What was your experience like playing all of those sports? Which one did you enjoy the most?
ST: I actually went to college to play basketball. That was kind of my first love. I knew I had to go to a small school to keep playing. I went to play basketball and I did play baseball as well. But I really began to miss football. I didn’t think I was going to miss it as much. So in my second year, I ended up playing football again. I actually liked playing all three sports because it kept me going all the time. Plus, I didn’t have to work out for the other sports. I just got to play and had a lot of fun doing it. I was very busy but I think it helped me stay organized and use my time better because I was so active with all of the sports. I actually probably like basketball the most. But I probably had the most success at football. We had a new coach come in the last two years and we were throwing 40 to 45 times a game, so it was a blast those last two seasons.
ED: You then went to the AFL and played with the Chicago Bruisers and Albany Firebirds. What was that experience like? Was it difficult getting accustom to arena style?
ST: It was different but it was a change for everybody because the League was just starting. We didn’t have 10-year veterans who had already been playing arena ball. It was new to everybody. We were all learning at the same time and were on the same learning curve. It took a while to change, but as a receiver I also thought that it was a bit easier to adjust. Back then there was no zone defense, so it was only man-to-man. The routes were a lot easier and the game was a lot of fun. My experience was great with those teams. I thought that if I could just play this game for two or three years, that would be great because it was so fun. I figured I would move on with my life after that though. 22 years later, I am still here. Albany was also a lot of fun. I went up to Albany, not really sure if I wanted to keep playing. I ended up having a great experience out there. Mike Hohensee was actually my offensive coordinator during my time in Albany. It was a great experience because they love the game out there.
ED: How has the League changed since you were playing?
ST: The game has evolved a little bit. All of the rules are basically the same, but the schemes have changed a bit. The football X’s and O’s have changed, with a lot more screens and things that you didn’t see in the beginning of Arena Football. Other than that, I think just popularity has gone way up. Back then, no one knew anything because the League had just started. You were really just trying to sell the game of Arena Football back then. Now, everyone pretty much knows Arena Football. They might not know all of the rules, but I think the overall popularity is way bigger now.
ED: You then became the Head Coach of Houston. When did you decide you wanted to be a coach? What was your first head coaching experience like?
ST: I knew I wanted to coach right away. I really felt that I would be a High School basketball coach for the rest of my life. Arena Football just opened the doors though. When I got done playing, I knew it was good decision to get out because I was getting hurt and just knew it was time to stop. I knew I really wanted to coach. A lot of opportunities opened up in Arena Football. I got offered a job in Albany, and then I went to Connecticut and just kept getting job offers from there. I figured that I had to pursue Arena Football a lot more then High School or college basketball. I kept moving along and eventually got the head job in Houston in 1997. I have stayed with it ever since.
ED: You then went to Dallas and introduced Will Pettis to the League. What was that experience like? When did you know he was going to be that good?
ST: I went to Dallas in 2003 and it was the team’s second season in existence. It was great. Having a quarterback like Jim Kubiak was awesome. I had a lot of fun working with Jim. It was his first season as the backup quarterback. It was fun having him take over and he was such a student of the game and was a lot fun working with him. We also had great receivers and Will came in as a rookie that season. They had some veterans on their team, but you could tell that Will was a pretty special player on offense and defense. Back then you were going both ways, so we had to find out pretty quick how we were going to get the ball to Will Pettis.
ED: You then became the offensive coordinator for the Georgia Force and reached the ArenaBowl during your time there. What was that time like?
ST: Georgia Force was just flat out fun. The Force is a great organization. The Falcons and Arthur Blank took care of us very well down there. It was just a great experience. We ended up going to the ArenaBowl, but we didn’t win it. That season was a lot of fun because we had a lot of good players. The overall experience was very positive.
ED: Then you became the Head Coach of Grand Rapids. You guys scored 956 points, which was second in the League. What was that season like?
ST: It was a little different because we were kind of like an expansion team. It took a while to get all of the pieces in place. We kept making changes and putting in different lineups. Once we got set up with James McPherson at quarterback and the same group of receivers, we got on a roll. We scored a lot of points and had some crazy games where a lot of things went right. At the end of the season, the playoffs really started with three games to go. If we didn’t win, we weren’t going to get into the playoffs. We won three-in-a-row and won two playoff games, so getting that hot at the end of the season was one of the best and fun times I have ever had as a coach.
ED: Your team became the first team in AFL history to post four +80 point games in a season and scored the second most points in a single game (92). How were you guys so effective on offense?
ST: I think that it was a couple of things. First of all, you have to get lucky. We had everything go our way, kind of like the game against San Jose this season. It’s not always just offense though. You are getting balls off the bar; you’re getting turnovers, and pretty much everything. The offense was also playing very well in those games which helped. You also have to get as many possessions as you can. Usually there are about 11 or 12 possessions in a game, but we were getting around 13 or 14 possessions because the games were getting so crazy. We were having a lot of opportunities to score. I think the guys took it as a challenge because once we got it; they wanted to keep doing it. I think we knew that if we got on a role, we could keep it going and get 80 points again. They all had that mentality going into it.
ED: You have been known as an offensive coach because of your success. How have you been able to be so successful on offense in the arena game?
ST: I have had good quarterbacks all the way through my coaching career. I had Clint Dolezel, Jim Kubiak, Matt Nagy, Chris Greisen and Jim McPherson who were all very good. Usually you can find a good group of receivers in this game. I just try to take bits and pieces and steal stuff from different coaches. I will look at other team’s film and if I like it, I will incorporate into what I do. I think it’s a little bit of having good players, taking bits and pieces from other people’s schemes and putting it all into my scheme. It has worked for me. Not so much this season, but it has worked for me throughout my tenure. There is no real magic to that type of offensive success. I think the biggest thing is that you have to keep attacking and never hold back. It is a lot easier in the arena game because the defense is so limited on what they can do. You don’t have to worry about 20 different blitzes and so many different coverages. Basically, the linebacker blitzes in this game. Everything within the X’s and O’s is a little bit easier in Arena Football.
ED: Last season you had a group of veterans on Cleveland (Ben Nelson, John Dutton, etc.). What has it been like this season with a rookie quarterback in Kurt Rocco?
ST: I don’t think it was difficult to teach him the game; it’s just that he got thrown into the fire right away. You take a Clint Dolezel who sat on the bench his two years in Milwaukee. Chris Greisen, who played in the NFL, sat on the bench for two years before playing in the AFL. James McPherson was able to learn from Greisen. Kurt Rocco has picked everything up very fast. He’s very smart and picked up the game extremely quick. He just got thrown into the fire so quick. A lot of other great quarterbacks had a chance to watch and learn for a season or two and practice. I think Kurt has done a great job and I know he has been up and down this season. Some people want to say that he has had some bad games, but if those people were thrown into the mix right away for the first time on an arena field, I think they would have suffered too. Overall, I have been happy with Kurt and I believe that he has become more consistent as the year has gone on. Last week, we didn’t protect for him at all, so you can’t put anything on Kurt for that game. I am expecting Kurt to finish off strong in these last two games. I think he can be a very good quarterback in this League for years to come.
ED: Living in Cleveland, what do you and your family like to do for fun?
ST: I just try to relax. When practice is over, you just try to get your mind off of football for a while. Sometimes you just can’t and watch more film. I usually just try to get my mind off of football and maybe try to do something in the afternoon. I do like watching TV so I am a bit of a couch potato. I like to play golf, watch movies and just try to relax.
ED: Thanks for joining us this afternoon and good luck against Pittsburgh tomorrow night!