Hammond focuses on fundamentals

AMERICAN FOOTBALL: World League restarts today with London Monarchs taking a long-term view as their head coach explains to Matt Tench
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The Independent Online
"Bobby Hammond? He's downstairs," his assistant said, as she went off to fetch him, leaving me in what passes for a waiting room at the London Monarchs spartan south London headquarters.

"Bobby Hammond? He's upstairs," the lean athlete, sporting a Monarchs sweatshirt said, soon afterwards. Was he sure, only we had just been told...

"Oh yeah, I know he's up here," came the reply, before he disappeared out of the door.

Minutes later the reason for such certainty became apparent. The man in the sweatshirt was not the player I had assumed, but Hammond himself. It was not the first time the Monarch's head coach had been mistaken for one of his charges, and he clearly enjoyed the illusion. "I'm not your typical coach, and I like that," he said with a chuckle.

At 43 Hammond could pass for 10 years younger. It is 11 years since he made a living as a running back in the NFL, but the signs of decay are depressingly slight.

Broadly speaking, head coaches can be divided into two categories: the screamers, and the teachers. Hammond, emphatically, is the latter. A choice based on experience. "As a player I did not like someone screaming at me. I responded well to people who were teachers. That's the way I motivate."

By choosing him to lead the London franchise in the revamped World League of American Football, the NFL appear to be looking to the long term, and Hammond is already talking about his plans a year hence.

In the league itself, which returns after a three-year break with an all-European cast, the Monarchs will be joined by five other teams, including the Scottish Claymores.

Hammond was appointed by the NFL last autumn, when he was tight ends coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, a position that put him at a disadvantage. While rival head coaches were evaluating talent, he was working for the Eagles until their season ended in December.

Clearly handicapped at the World League draft, you sense Hammond is not as content with his squad as he would like to be. Having worked with them for a month now - three weeks in Atlanta, before arriving here seven days ago - Hammond did not exactly describe them as the new Dallas Cowboys.

"There is still plenty of work to be done," he said. "I think it is going to be a growing process, and there will be some growing pains because I'm not sure what kind of team I have yet."

His confidence can hardly have been increased by the Monarchs' last performance, a thrashing by the Claymores in the final scrimmage game in Atlanta. Hammond is quick to play down the significance of that display, pointing out that the Monarchs won the previous encounter, and that he was more concerned in avoiding injuries. He concedes, though, that it may have acted as a much-needed "wake-up call for this team".

What is also clear is that a rivalry has already developed between the Claymores and the Monarchs, fuelled in part by Larry Kuharich, the Scottish team's former head coach, who definitely qualifies as a screamer. The sacking of Kuharich this week, five days before the Claymores opening fixture, served as a reminder as to the precarious nature of Hammond's profession, but he takes an upbeat view of his task. "I wouldn't be here if I wasn't confident I could do the job," he said.

Although results are all-important, Hammond sees himself as something of a pioneer, and in trying to woo more enthusiasts, is anxious to cut down on the mistakes that marred games last time around. To do this, he has simplified his game plan to concentrate on fundamentals. At the same time Monarchs fans can expect to see the ball in the air much of the time.

His offensive thinking is heavily influenced by Bill Walsh, the former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and now a consultant to the league, and probably the greatest teaching head coach of the last two decades.

With a West Coast offense being installed, attention will inevitably focus on Brad Johnson, the team's starting quarterback, who was back-up to Warren Moon at the Minnesota Vikings last season, and a player in whom Hammond has considerable faith. If Johnson is to play the role of Joe Montana, that of Jerry Rice looks like going to the wide receiver, Larry Wallace, who is expected to recover from a hamstring injury in time for today's opener in Frankfurt.

Hammond also says he is impressed with the progress of the British players on the 44-man roster, and with Victor Ebubedike in particular. Ebubedike, at 29 the doyen of British players, is a back-up running back, but may see more action than during his previous stints with the Monarchs.

Despite the World League's low profile in the States, Hammond had no doubts about taking the London post. "Never. I was excited, I was elated, and at the same time I was nervous. I knew it was going to be a great opportunity."

Nor did he change his mind when Ray Rhodes, the 49ers defensive co-ordinator and a former team-mate at the New York Giants, was appointed as the Eagles' new head coach shortly after the 49ers won this season's Super Bowl.

Hammond, like Rhodes, is black, which is another way in which he differs from the typical head coach. More than 60 per cent of NFL players are black, but only two of the 30 head coaches are black. He is also the only black head coach in the World League. On this issue, however, Hammond was a typical head coach, and did his best to avoid any controversy.

To the question as to whether blacks get a fair deal in the NFL, he replied, "I won't answer the question. It's not an issue for me. I can't speak for the masses. I have not picked up any flag for black head coaches."