Jan. 21, 2013
By JONAH ROSENBLUM
Derek Stingley has been through some dark moments in his coaching career.
In 2008, he was slated to serve as the defensive coordinator of the New Orleans VooDoo. Instead, he went from the sideline to the sidelines as he awaited the Arena Football League’s rebirth. Unsure of his future, or the League’s, Stingley found his life without meaning.
“When the League shut down, I didn’t know mentally how to take that,” Stingley said. “I didn’t think I was ready to lead men again because everything I thought was right was gone when the AFL shut down. ‘What do I do now? This is all that I know.’”
When the League returned, Stingley ultimately got his dream job, serving as the head coach of the VooDoo, but that quickly went in the wrong direction. Stingley was dismissed after New Orleans started its 2011 campaign with a 2-12 record, including a 0-8 mark in the Big Easy.
“That was a learning experience for me,” Stingley said. “Things just didn’t go the way I expected them to. It was such a learning experience where I’m just happy that I had the opportunity to coach down there and to coach for a team in New Orleans.”
Once again, it didn’t take Stingley long to recover. He said that he began receiving calls within days from teams looking to make Stingley their new defensive coordinator. One of those calls came from Pittsburgh, where Stingley would team up with and eventually succeed head coach Chris Siegfried.
“I came to Pittsburgh to try to help Coach Siegfried win a championship,” Stingley said. “Let me say this, I wasn’t prepared to become the head coach because I came to Pittsburgh as the defensive coordinator and just to be that. I wanted to be the defensive coordinator under Coach Siegfried for years to come.”
Stingley’s hopes were high when he arrived in Pittsburgh. The Power had two former af2 Head Coaches of the Year in Siegfried and Stingley on the sideline. Siegfried, who as an offensive coordinator helped Aaron Garcia and the Jacksonville Sharks to a 12-4 record and the third-most points in the American Conference in 2010, would take care of the offensive side of the ball. Stingley, a former All-Arena defensive back, would take care of the defense. It was the perfect setup. In fact, before he agreed to stand at the helm of the VooDoo, Stingley had considered coming to Pittsburgh as Siegfried’s defensive coordinator. One year later, the two veteran coaches were finally united.
“He’s the offensive guy, I’m his defensive guy,” Stingley said. “We’ll be unstoppable. In the af2, he won championships, I was fighting always to get to the championship game, and there was a much better relationship that we thought was going to last for much longer than it did.”
Their vision was never realized. Their partnership was cut short after the Power lost eight of their first 10 games in 2012. Shortly after a loss to the winless Kansas City Command, Siegfried was out and Stingley was in as the Power’s head coach.
“No one likes to see someone lose his job,” Stingley said. “You understand the hurt because you’ve been through what they’re going through, but there was still business at hand that had to be done. There were still games to be coached and games to be played.”
The Power were fortunate to have a man with extensive AFL experience ready to take over. Stingley already had a record of success in the af2, leading the Macon Knights to the postseason before compiling a 30-13 record in three seasons with the South Georgia Wildcats. In 2008, he earned af2 Head Coach of the Year honors, ultimately paving his way to the AFL.
“I wasn’t ready to become the head coach, but there was no problem with stepping back into the role,” Stingley said. “Once a head coach, you’re always a head coach. I thought I would just jump right back on the bike and start riding. It wasn’t like I had to take a deep breath or anything. For me, it was like, ‘Let’s move on,’ because I’m accustomed to doing this, I’m okay with doing this.”
Under Stingley’s watch, the Power navigated stormy waters to finish a 3-5 in their final eight games of the 2012 season. While a losing record is little to celebrate, Stingley says his team’s attitude was something to proud of.
“They fought,” Stingley said. “Even to the last game – we lost at Jacksonville – those guys in the locker room were pretty upset after the loss.”
Stingley can appeal to players as a former All-Arena standout himself. He led the Albany Firebirds to an ArenaBowl championship, earned First-Team All-Arena honors in 1999 and was named to the 15th Anniversary Team as the team’s defensive specialist in 2001.
“It’s kind of easy to talk to players,” Stingley said. “I know I’m so far out of being a player myself, but I don’t feel that far removed, so I can talk to them as if I’m talking to a friend.”
Defensive back Chris LeFlore said he could sense that comfort.
“Definitely, he has a great relationship with his players,” LeFlore said. “It’s not just about football. It’s about life and how to accept yourself and how to have great character. I’ve definitely grown under him and the team has as well. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does in a full season as the Pittsburgh Power head coach.”
After a tumultuous first year in Pittsburgh, Stingley said that he is looking forward to far more stability in 2013. In particular, he said that he expects to see far more stability in Pittsburgh’s secondary.
Coming into last season with a relatively inexperienced defensive backfield, Stingley decided to call the game from the sideline, allowing his defensive backs to simply react to what they saw on the field. This season, Stingley said that he expects his defensive backs to be able to do their own checks on the field.
LeFlore said that he should be far more comfortable within the Pittsburgh defense as he returns for his second year under Stingley.
“He knows what kind of player I am and I know what kind of coach he is,” LeFlore said. “There will be no surprises. Look for a very promising year.”
LeFlore will be joined by Sergio Gilliam, who posted 150 tackles, 26 pass breakups and 15 interceptions during his two-year stint in Kansas City. These pieces give Stingley faith in the future.
“With the checks I do, those guys will catch on, no problem,” Stingley said. “Sergio has been around the game since 2007, I believe. He’s there making plays all up and down the field. He’s a guy that, oh goodness, he’s an interception machine, and I can’t wait to coach him.”
Stingley said that he is convinced that he has what he needs to succeed in Pittsburgh.
“I’m at a place now where the support staff is much stronger,” Stingley said. “There are people in the organization put in place to make sure things are run smoother to where my job as coach is just to coach. There are facilities that are top notch that helps make my job a whole lot easier. We have so many people that are doing the little things that in my opinion mean everything. All I have to do is motivate and coach and put the guys on the field that I want on the field. That’s what makes me a much better coach than in 2011, to be honest.”
The one player that Stingley is still hoping will return is PJ Berry, one of the League’s most dynamic players, who Stingley coached in New Orleans and Pittsburgh. Berry also played under Stingley in the af2, to the point where the two have spent nearly half a decade together.
“My thought is that he will be coming back; at least, I hope so,” Stingley said. “You give him the ball and special things happen. Him and I, we kind of know what one another is thinking. You don’t even need to say it.”
Berry followed Stingley to Pittsburgh. LeFlore said that Stingley was a large part of why he came back to Pittsburgh this offseason. It’s a remarkable loyalty built out of a simple philosophy, according to Stingley.
“The talent speaks for itself. I’ve always believed that,” Stingley said. “If you want to play, if you really want to showcase your talent, if you really want to be an Arena Football player and you have the ability, come play for me and you’re going to get that opportunity. Those are the things that they hear from me. It’s genuine and it’s real.”