Eight former NFL coaches and players are set to lead the NFL Alumni Academy, the NFL Alumni Association’s new player development program at the Hall of Fame Village in Canton, Ohio.
The coaches involved have extensive backgrounds in the sport, ranging from NFL veterans as players, to those with time spent coaching in the XFL and with college programs.
Headlining the list with the most NFL head coaching experience is Mike Tice, the former Minnesota VIkings head coach who also played professionally for the Seattle Seahawks, Washington Football Team, and Vikings. He also has more than 17 years of experience as an offensive line coach and coordinator.
Hall of Famer Anthony Muñoz — widely regarded as one of the top offensive lineman in NFL history — is also joining the coaching staff. Though Muñoz has yet to formally join the coaching ranks of the NFL, Academy Executive Director Dean Dalton said Muñoz is “much more experienced than you would give him credit for” based on his time running youth camps and consulting with current NFL players.
The academy is an invite-only, all-inclusive in-season training program for “NFL-ready” free-agents who could be called upon to fill NFL roster spots throughout the season when injuries hit — not dissimilar to an individual team’s practice squad — as they already have at a high rate.
The academy differs from a practice squad, however, in that players work to develop their own game and football IQ rather than simulating opponents’ for others.
“Our players are developing their skill sets. They’re working their technique,” Dalton said. “They’re increasing their knowledge of the game, and now they can parlay that into a competitive advantage when they get into a practice squad situation or a competitive advantage to allow them to earn a spot on the active roster and play on game day.”
The program has been in the works for years.
“The concept of the NFL Alumni Academy is a solution-oriented program that everyone associated with our sport and our league agrees has been missing since the beginning of football,” Dalton said. “Unlike other professional sports, where there feeder systems of developmental leagues programs, and the National Football League was, was the one league — high profile as it is — that didn’t really have any type of formal in-season development program. … So we commenced putting that program together.”
Other coaches included Jay Hayes, an NFL coach for over 20 years who recently was an XFL defensive coordinator under his brother, St. Louis BattleHawks head coach Jonathan Hayes; Steve Smith, who was an offensive line coach for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012 and for XFL’s Seattle Dragons this year; former Atlanta Falcons pass rusher and Tennessee standout Chuck Smith; former Vikings and Baltimore Ravens running back Moe Wiliams; and Jermon Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowl selection and Super Bowl champion with the New Orleans Saints. Dalton, who is a former coach with the Vikings, is also part of the group.
The academy includes a Football Diversity Development program with the goal of advancing minority former NFL players that are transitioning to coaching and other front office positions.
“Our answer to the Fritz Pollard Alliance mission, and our answer to the Rooney Rule and the Bill Walsh Minority Fellowship is to provide these opportunities for both development and opportunities for employment at the elite level of football,” Dalton said.
While the idea has been discussed for some time, the only question was where. So after exploring several cities around the country, the Alumni Association landed on Canton.
“The natural birthplace of football and the vision of the new Hall of Fame Village were just a marriage made in heaven for the NFL Alumni Academy,” Dalton added.
For Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment Company President and CEO Michael Crawford, partnering with the NFL Alumni Association just made sense.
“We have a tagline that we have in Canton, and really for the company: ‘Honor the past, inspire the future.’ It quickly for me resonated because that’s what we’re doing here,” Crawford said. “And so this is starting with a developmental academy, but the idea of a relationship with the NFL Alumni Association and the 25,000-plus members that are out there, to me, the birthplace of professional football, we had one really big component of that — which was our Pro Football Hall of Fame — why not add all of football to it? And so everybody who’s played the game or contributed or coached, or had a piece of making the game great, can now live in Canton, Ohio.”
Players will begin arriving on campus and entering a bubble-like environment on Sept. 24. They will stay in a hotel and eat from a menu of meals designed by an NFL nutritionist and implemented by local catering companies, and be privately transported from the hotel to Tom Benson Stadium on the Hall of Fame Village campus.
At the stadium, locker rooms have been converted into weight and meeting rooms that allow for adequate social distancing. All training activities will be filmed and sent to the pro personnel departments of all 32 teams everyday, along with coaches’ reports.
Coaches will be in a “modified bubble,” as some will come in and out for weeks at a time. Players and coaches will be COVID-19 tested as well as masked and socially-distanced from each other during sessions, but players will have a player-only lounge they can convene in more casually.
For the program’s inaugural year, there will be a maximum of seven offensive lineman, seven defensive linemen, and four running backs — but plans for next year include expanding to all positions. When the campus gets its Center for Performance, which includes an 80,000-square-foot field house and is expected to be completed in 2022, it will become the academy’s headquarters.
“After the cuts happened at the end of training camp, we let the dust settle and evaluate who was released and who was signed back to practice squads. And from that remaining free agent list, our personnel department — who are all NFL-experienced and NFL veterans — we grade out all the players and rank them ourselves, much like a pro personnel department does for each team,” Dalton said.
If a player gets signed and leaves the academy, the next-highest ranked player will be invited to join.
Crawford sees live content opportunities in the setup.
“COVID, of course, was impacting us a little bit this year, but you have the ability to have live events and I’ll call them pro days — but they’re not necessarily that — but watching how these kids are developed, people are going to be interested to come and see,” Crawford said. “Our intention would be to continue to think about how we leverage this live content and this developmental academy across a different business vertical, which is media.”
Fans could see something like a “Hard Knocks” or “Last Chance U” series based on the academy come further down the line.
For the coaches, the academy is an opportunity to channel their “competitive intensity” back into the sport.
“The dynamics of the relationship that you create with teammates and competitors in the game is unmatched. And so people want to maintain that connection. Our coaching staff have all lived tremendously successful and long careers in the NFL,” Dalton said. “And they like the give back park, the pay it forward part, and the helping the next generation part.”