Monthly Archives: March 2015

Q & A with New Orleans VooDoo General Manager, Brandon Rizzuto

Q & A with New Orleans VooDoo General Manager, Brandon Rizzuto

by Bobby Autin

2015 is the beginning of a new era for the New Orleans VooDoo. Ever since the VooDoo returned to the AFL in 2011, to say they have struggled, is somewhat of an understatement.

The overall record the last four seasons is an abysmal 19-53, or a winning percentage of .264. Something had to change, and change fast.

That’s exactly what happened this off season, when the VooDoo cleaned house, and started from scratch.

I recently had a chance to discuss these changes, with new General Manager, Brandon Rizzuto. If you have followed the VooDoo in the past, then Brandon’s name may sound familiar. Rizzuto was Vice President of the VooDoo from 2011-2012. His time between leaving the VooDoo, Rizzuto has served as, Assistant Athletic Director of Communications at University of New Orleans (UNO).

In this interview, Rizzuto discusses why he returned and his future plans with the VooDoo.

I know you were in the college realm, working as an Assistant Athletic Director. What made you decide to come back to the VooDoo?

When our ownership group called, I was excited about the opportunity.  After over a week of back-and-forth and talking short-term and long-term goals and plans, I thought it would be best to come back to The Graveyard.  I experienced the highs and the lows in my two seasons; 2011 was a disappointment, and 2012 was possibly the most fun I’ve had in my career.  When I thought about coming back, I thought about building on 2012, re-capturing that feeling of having a competitive football team and a lively fan base behind us.

How would you rate the off season for the VooDoo, and why?

Honestly, B-minus.  I believe that hiring Dean Cokinos as head coach will turn the fortunes of the franchise on the football field.  Dean and I talked extensively before I agreed to comeback, and we agreed that we were going to do this together; we agreed that if him and I were united that we could change the culture here – not just on the field, but off the field as well.  Hiring Dean, along with some key staff members in our front office will only help us as we move forward.  Though sometimes I am impatient, I do realize that Rome wasn’t built overnight – or in five months since I took the job.  However we are getting there, and I know that the VooDoo Nation will be behind us as we build this thing.  I don’t think it would be healthy for us to give ourselves anything over a B-minus at this point; we’ve had a good offseason with some fresh air and new blood pumped into the organization as whole, but we have to keep improving in all phases.

With teams like Jacksonville, who have added a lot of depth (and more recognizable names). How do you feel we will match up with them?

There are a lot of great teams in the AFL, and Jacksonville will most definitely be a title contender this season.  They will have an advantage with their veteran-laden team.  There are so many big names in Jacksonville and they should be favored to win it all this season.  We will be the opposite; we will have a lot of rookies and younger guys on our roster, which is to our advantage as we will be the wildcard coming into the season – just like in 2012. Jacksonville at home to start the season will be a great gauge in our progression as a football team.  As the saying goes, if you want to beat the best, you have to play the best, and we are looking forward to playing the best on March 28th.

What have you learned in your time in the college realm, that will benefit you and the franchise moving forward?

Well, one of the things I have taken from my college stops is that you can stretch the dollar and press the penny as long as you have a hard-working mindset, a good staff, and live out your job every day.  My time at Nicholls State was exactly that; we didn’t have the biggest budget; we didn’t have all of the fancy equipment, facilities, etc., but we prided ourselves in that, and when we did have success against universities and colleges that did have everything and anything at their disposal, it made that success that much better knowing that.  It was like we were always playing the role of David going up against Goliath; in sports, David loses to Goliath the majority of the time, but when David has his day, it’s a great day!  All the personnel that we have added to our staff – coaching and front office – and the players to the roster all have some “David” in them – including me.  All of us have something to prove, and we all know failure is not an option.  I can only speak personally for myself, but being only 30 (the new 20, by the way) I am aware that there are skeptics out there, and that is fine.  I have something to prove because of that and I like that; I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Not to be to cliché, but when you walk into a burning building, you find out quickly who is with you and who is not; I have a solid staff, a lot of diehard fans, family and great group of friends that are following me into the fire and are determined to help me put it out.  That means something to me and I can’t thank them enough.

How do you feel about the team moving from the South Division, over to the East?

To be honest, Coach Cokinos and I talked about this a lot as it was happening, and we are just happy and looking forward to strapping up and playing football.  The division we play in is important as far as the postseason is concerned and we understand that, but Coach Cokinos and I are excited to put on the pads and tackle someone other than ourselves for a change – whether it’s a Jacksonville or Cleveland, we are just as eager as you are to get between the walls and start 2015.

With the size of the league currently, is there anything you would like to see changed with the schedule?

I only speak for the New Orleans VooDoo, but I believe that the scheduling is fine as is.  We are happy where we are at and look forward to battling through the American Conference.  The National Conference will have an equal amount of competition and the way the schedule is set up, playoffs will be that much more intense and the best teams from each side will be in ArenaBowl.  I believe that; I believe that the schedule is setup for a great season, postseason and championship.

Is there anything different, people can expect in The Graveyard this season? (Such as in-game entertainment, giveaways)

We are working towards building a more fan-friendly game experience, while keeping some of the elements of previous years that we have had positive feedback from.  Obviously not having Jason Coffel with us on game days and running the show is a huge loss for us, and his shoes won’t be easy to fill. However we are working hard every day to have a great show for our fans.  There are some things that we are working to accomplish and build tradition in The Graveyard.  Stay tuned!

The team announced a new online merchandise store. What are some of the more interesting items available for fans to purchase, that you may not see, all the time?

The online merchandise store was one of three initiatives I suggested to our ownership group that was desperately needed, along with a makeover on our website that was mobile friendly and apps for smart phones.  So far, two of the three have launched and we are excited to complete the trifecta with the apps later this month.  As far as the store, it is the only store of its kind in the AFL with over 1,000 items to choose from, including customizable replica jerseys, hats, flags, teddy bears, home and office gear, and all of the t-shirts that you can buy.  The same items that you see on the site will be available for purchase at our games, so if there is someone out there wanting to physically see the merchandise before buying, we will have them at our games.

If they were to make a movie about the VooDoo franchise, who would play the role of Brandon Rizzuto?

That is a tough question.  As you can imagine, I don’t watch much movies these days as VooDoo and the VooDoo Nation is my top priority.  I don’t think one of those “pretty boy Floyd” types like Brad Pitt or Ryan Gosling would do my character justice, and if I had to pick someone I would say Jonah Hill would be a good fit.  My management style holds everyone accountable – even myself – in the stressful environment of working in sports.  With that said, I believe that you have to love your job and one of the ways to love your job is to have fun each and every day while working.  Whether that is having an intern poker night in the office or taking a few minutes to go outside and just throw the football around to take a break; you have to somehow balance the stressful conditions with comedic relief and I think that Jonah Hill could capture that.

Tell the fans, something interesting, they may not know about you.

I enjoy talking long walks on the beach and getting caught in the rain!  Just kidding…sort of; I would say that I am just a normal guy trying to make a career out of a dream, and my dream has always been to work in sports.  To be here today and have the opportunity to be the General Manager of the New Orleans VooDoo is me living out that dream, and I have made it here by working extremely hard, sacrificing more than anyone will ever know, and with the help of many great people along the way.  I am sure many can identify with that, and identify with me chasing a dream.  I don’t take it lightly; I know in the last five months we have overcome some obstacles since I started back and I know there are many more that lie ahead.  It’s not going to be easy; I knew that coming in, and that challenge excites me.  It’s easy to sit back and complain, whine and pout about what could be or could have been; it’s hard to roll up your sleeves, take a risk, be positive and work hard to fix what’s broken.  I choose the hard way as it is the most rewarding.  After all, my parents always told me I was hard-headed, so why stop now at 30!

Outside of being super-serious with this interview, I would add that I love music; like, I really love music.  I go through different phases daily and weekly.  One day it might by Lil Wayne or the original Hot Boyz, the next it will be Bob Seger and Alicia Keys, and then the next will be Andrea Bocelli…then the next it will be Bone Thugs-N-Harmony with a side of Dierks Bentley and Dave Matthews Band.  It’s unpredictable, and you would be hard pressed to find a song that I don’t know.  Seriously; I am addicted to music! When I hear someone say that they don’t like or that they don’t listen to music, I don’t understand how they live.

As you have read, many new and exciting things are going on throughout the VooDoo organization. Season tickets are available to purchase, for as low as $99, by calling 1-888-277-5526. I am not sure how the win/loss record will look, but the organization is on the up and up. There is an excitement for the first time, in quite some time, for this team.  So there’s only one question that remains, Do You VooDoo? I do!

2015 Jacksonville Sharks Season Preview

2015 Jacksonville Sharks Season Preview

by Erik Watkins

2015 will continue Jacksonville’s move into uncharted waters. For the first time since their inaugural season in 2010, the Sharks do not enter the season as South division champions. Also, Jacksonville has had arguably their biggest offseason ever, looking to improve on an offense that struggled throughout the 7-11 season.

After 2014 saw both Aaron Garcia and Bernard Morris come and go, Jacksonville knew their first task was to find a quarterback, as R.J. Archer signed a deal with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks in February. They landed that signal caller in Tommy Grady, who spent last season with Pittsburgh, leading them to a 15-3 record while throwing for 4,717 yards, 115 touchdowns, and only 17 interceptions. With Lee Chapple returning as the potential backup, the quarterback conundrum could be solved once and for all after a couple of rocky seasons.

To complement Grady’s Arm, the Sharks landed Joe Hills from division rival Tampa Bay and Anthony “Tiger” Jones from Philadelphia, who combined for 71 touchdowns for their respective teams in 2014. This adds an extra bit of speed to complement Jeron Harvey’s size and Jomo Wilson’s power. Whether they can replace the likes of London Crawford (Physically Unable to Perform) and Jeff Hughley (Refused to Report) will be seen, but if the offense can fire on all cylinders, there’s potential for being one of the top five, if not the best, in the league.

On defense, the biggest loss was Front Five defensive anchor Aaron Robbins, who left for hated rival Orlando in free agency. Not to be outdone, the Sharks boosted their offensive line with Donte Rumph, Joe Sykes, and Caesar Rayford. The question now is what to do with five linemen. Will Coach Les Moss decide to use at least one of them in a Robbins-type hybrid role, or will they shift full time to the linebacker spots?

The floor: 8-10

Looking at the schedule, there are at least seven winnable games as a worst case scenario. New Orleans hasn’t really improved, and Tampa Bay could join the Predators in nipping at the Sharks heels in the revamped three-team South division. Looking at a season sweep of the VooDoo and beating the Storm at home is four games in the books. As another worst case, Orlando could pull out their broomsticks, sending the division title back to Orlando.

Winning two of three against the Soul and splitting the games against the National Conference means that a wild card could be in the works (assuming four teams per conference still make the playoffs, it would be four out of six). From there, Jacksonville could be one and done come playoff time.

The ceiling: 14-4

If the offense can live up to what it looks like on paper, there may be no one in the American Conference who can stop them, and they could compete with Arizona for being the best in the league. If that holds, and the defense is at least a semblance of the powerhouse that it has been over the years, then Jacksonville can win the division running away. Again, the National Conference schedule is a little daunting, but hosting expansion Las Vegas and paying a visit to the silver turf of LA makes that a little easier. Having one, potentially two, playoff home games would make the road to ArenaBowl XXVIII if the other conference contenders pan out as expected.

Players to Watch

Honestly, there are at least five to choose from on this list, but the most important is Tommy Grady. In their history, the Sharks have seen their fair share of both good and average quarterbacks, from Hall of Famer-to-be Aaron Garcia to Omar Jacobs and Bernard Morris to Kyle Rowley. The only common thread is, because of trades and injuries, a lack of consistency. When there’s been one main man to turn to, Jacksonville has more than held their own, and Tommy Grady will look to be that man for 2015. If he can keep his Utah and Pittsburgh form this year, he’ll insert himself into the conversation for MVP.

It’s up to Jacksonville to restore the order and take back the South division, and they’ve put themselves in a good position to do so. Now, it’s time to get on the field and make it happen.