If the Crush's roster came together easily enough, the coaching staff proved more troublesome. Golic originally asked friend and former Browns teammate Handford Dixon to lead the team, but the commitment proved too time-consuming for the longtime real estate agent. An interim coach with semi-pro experience was brought in, but he eventually washed out. With the start of the season looming and the coach's office empty, the team's defensive coordinator, a former college and arena football player named Dontez Howard, was handed the reins.
And the biggest challenge he's faced so far?
"Women," Howard deadpans at practice. Riding under the joke is the reality: He's tasked with essentially cramming a lifetime of football knowledge into a couple of months. Although he's still a star cornerback with the semi-pro Cleveland Cobras, here, Howard says, he hasn't been tapping his reserves of field smarts so much as his experience teaching local youth football.
"We had to teach them from the ground up, starting with the basics," he says. "Women tend to be smarter than guys, so they pick it up a lot quicker. You don't have to repeat yourself, but you have to be patient."
The coach enjoys an easy rapport with his players, big-grin bantering on the sidelines before practice gets under way. Once the players have strapped in and stretched, Howard carefully runs them through simple drills and then moves on to the playbook. When plays start coming apart over shoddy execution, he slows down the flow and re-teaches the basics.
But tonight, as the sky starts spitting rain and cold wind rakes the sidelined rows of players and spectators, the Crush are fluid on the field — and fast. Unlike the heavy foot of a lot of pigskin action that takes place below the upper echelon of the professional and college ranks, there's a whip-crack energy to their movement. But what now looks like the regular — if unsexy — ball-snap and smash-up of football will be a completely different sight in a week, when the lingerie comes on and the Crush toe the line against experienced competition. That's the change Howard is trying to prepare his flock for.
"My big thing right now is if you can't be physical, it's not the sport for you," he says. "You're going to get hit. You're going to hit. I want them to be ready."
I think that's the last thing anyone is thinking about," says Melissa Miller, a Crush linebacker and tight end. The question referred to whether the team's national cable debut might be fraying any nerves.
Same goes for Amber Barrick, a 25-year-old buxom blonde center and linebacker who answers the question by throwing three fingers at the ceiling. "I'm just thinking about that W."
A handful of Crush players have come to Golic's restaurant on the Friday prior to opening day. It's billed as a fan meet-and-greet, but tonight the room is empty except for a few patrons and the players hunched around a table off to the side of the bar. The flat screens are showing tonight's LFL matchup, and one that's particularly important: Next week's Crush opponent, the Baltimore Charm, is hosting the Orlando Fantasy.
Packaged for TV masses, the lingerie is hard to miss. After a while, the relentless skin and parading busts lose some of their eye-popping power, and you end up watching a fast-paced, high-scoring matchup, with most plays ending in pile-ups against the arena walls. On most runs, there's no small amount of pushing and shoving, even after the whistle blows. When the MTV2 cameras pan across the Baltimore crowd, most of the seats seem to be filled — though the hometown fans aren't getting much of a game. The Fantasy is barreling through the Charm defense on the way to a 36-12 victory.
For Cleveland, pulling together a crowd will be key. A week out, the players say ticket sales for the first game have been "steady." Ultimately, whether fans come out to the season's two scheduled home games for the football or for the T and A doesn't matter much – just as long as they come. Golic says the league wants to make sure the LFL is in a town that wants them. "That translates into showing up to games, which translates into ticket sales, which translates into dollars.
"These girls are looking forward to going out there," he adds. "They understand the importance of football in Cleveland. We feel like we're going to fit right in."