SAN ANTONIO, TX – MARCH 31: Daryl Johnston general manager of the San Antonio Commanders walks off t… – Edward A. Ornelas, Stringer / Getty ImagesSan Antonio Commanders head coach Mike Riley watches his team warmup during an Arizona Hotshots at S… – Chris Covatta, FRE / Associated PressSan Antonio Commander’s fans stunned after a touchdown by Arizona Hotshots Tim Cook (20) during the … – Carlos Javier Sanchez / Contributor
Slide 1 of 4: SAN ANTONIO, TX – MARCH 31: Daryl Johnston general manager of the San Antonio Commanders walks off the field after an Alliance of American Football game against the Arizona Hotshots at the Alamodome on March 31, 2019 in San Antonio, Texas. The Arizona Hotshots won 23-6. (Photo by Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images)
When Daryl Johnston agreed to become the general manager of the San Antonio Commanders, he was told he had two years to build a sustainable product.
Alliance of American Football co-founders Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian consistently said the league’s targets were growth and quality rather than marketing hype and overnight success. Johnston said the mandate to himself and the rest of the AAF was to produce football that appealed to fans and gave the NFL an option to add a developmental arm.
Johnston said the league’s executives, coaches and players delivered their end of the equation, but those at the very top of the Alliance were unable to hold up their pledge. Two weeks after the AAF suspended operations with two games remaining in its inaugural season, Johnston and others within the San Antonio organization remain uncertain how the league fell apart so quickly.
“I know that some of the people have come out and said we were lied to. I think that is strong,” Johnston said. “I guess ‘misled’ would be a fair word. When you tell people that you have two years to put this together, and you don’t make it through your first season, then yeah, I guess that word does fit.”
Johnston and Commanders team president Vic Gregovits said they have had almost no contact with the league since news of the shutdown broke April 2.
Gregovits said he learned the league was suspending operations when his son texted him after seeing a report online. A leaguewide email later that afternoon was the only official confirmation, telling all staff that April 3 would be their final day.
As rumors circulated April 2, Gregovits said he gathered the nearly 20-person business staff a few times to keep them apprised of any developments. Months earlier, he hired them under the pretense that “we had a runway to make this happen, and it was going to be longer than six months.”
“It was certainly disheartening from the standpoint that a lot of people had given up other jobs to come work with us, and we had sold them the vision,” Gregovits said. “We thought we had a three- to five-year window, and so it was sad from that standpoint. For a lot of them, it was their first jobs out of school or early in their career.”
Johnston learned the news from Polian during the league’s weekly conference call April 2. When the call was finished, Johnston immediately shut down the Commanders’ practice that was in progress, fearing how any serious injury would be handled going forward.
Johnston said everyone was in shock. Through the year, he and Commanders coach Mike Riley had aimed to be as transparent as possible with the players about potential pitfalls facing the league. The players signed three-year contracts, and the assistant coaches also were expecting a stable foundation.
“I would hope that at some point we’ll have a little bit of closure on this, but we were told from the beginning we had two years,” Johnston said. “You had people not only on our staff, but all the staffs, who had other options than to join the Alliance. And one of the big deciding factors was we had a two-year run at this.”
Before the league’s downfall, Johnston challenged his players to “stay in the moment,” and he said he tried to maintain a similar mindset.
He said the AAF experience “was like you have ADD every day.” The process of building and managing a roster in a new league, moving through each phase of the season and from one opponent to the next, left little time for evaluating the league’s foundation.
Gregovits said he noticed small flaws and that the AAF’s infrastructure could have been more sound, but he didn’t see anything that seemed to put the league in jeopardy.
The Commanders’ name and a logo weren’t unveiled until late September. On Feb. 9, the team played its inaugural game at the Alamodome.
“There was no time to take a step back and look at anything big picture, and see if there were things, warning signs, things that you were concerned about,” Johnston said. “I don’t think anybody did this until it got right to the very end and it was official, and you start to say, ‘What happened here? How did we get to this point?’”
Johnston said he remained in San Antonio through the week of the league’s closure to clean out the team’s offices and tie up loose ends. A skeleton staff returned rented furniture and office machines, and all football equipment was moved to a warehouse the league secured months in advance for offseason storage.
Most players emptied their lockers and left the Alamodome for the final time April 2 — the day operations were suspended. They were responsible for funding and arranging their own travel home, which Johnston said is also standard procedure in the NFL.
Johnston said the Commanders were fortunate not to have any players dealing with major injuries that required continued treatment after operations were suspended. Players were living either at a Staybridge Suites hotel or in corporate housing, and Johnston said they moved out without issue or added expenses.
“It was not an ideal situation,” Johnston said, “but we tried to handle it as best we could.”
The Alliance left hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt in San Antonio dating back to January’s leaguewide training camp.
More than half of the nine local hotels used by the AAF are still owed money. The Alliance also has a $253,836 balance at the Alamodome and owes North East Independent School District $47,000 for the use of two stadiums. UIW also is owed an undisclosed amount for the use of its stadium and field house.
Johnston and Gregovits said all accounting was handled at the league level, and the existing debts did not lead to any friction for the Commanders organization during the year.
“We thought everything was trending in the direction where we were going to be sustainable, and it was disappointing to find out we didn’t have that two-year window” Johnston said.
Going forward, Johnston said he intends to pursue other front office opportunities in professional football. He held out hope through the final days that the AAF would find a new investor, or that the league would survive the last month of the season and determine ways to reduce expenses in the second year.
Gregovits said he was excited to see the crowds the Alamodome could have hosted with a full offseason to market an exciting on-field product.
Instead, Johnston said his biggest takeaway is his frustration that the Alliance never had an opportunity to grow into the first spring football success story.
“The frustrating thing for me is it’s been tried many times, and nobody did it better than we did,” Johnston said. “Nobody did it as well as we did. And we didn’t make it through our first year. And we were the best group to try this.
“So that’s the hard thing for me.”