When Todd Shell became the head coach of the New York Dragons in February of 2003, he left himself an out. A clause in his contract stipulated that if the Rattlers' head coaching position ever opened up, Shell was free to accept it and return home to his roots.
Sitting in front of a throng of local media, Rattlers players, staff members and family Thursday at America West Arena, the former Mountain View High School star exercised that option with glee.
“This is an exciting time for me because this is where I started my career," said Shell, a Mesa resident who served as the Rattlers' first defensive coordinator from 1992-94. “The opportunity to work for a great organization like this and be with my family at the same time is really a dream come true."
In accepting a three-year deal whose terms were not disclosed, Shell became the second coach in the organization's 13-year history, replacing Danny White, who went 121-55 and won two ArenaBowl titles before being fired last month.
In addition to his years with the Rattlers, Shell served as the head coach for San Jose from 1995-98 and the head coach for New York from 2003-2004. In those six seasons he compiled a 47-40 record and qualified for the postseason four times.
The players attending Thursday's press conference called Shell's no-nonsense, in-your-face style a welcome change from White's stand-offishness.
“It's like getting new fire on old wood," longtime Rattler Hunkie Cooper said of Shell. “Todd's gonna say what he needs to say but he's not gonna sugarcoat it. He's not gonna be patting you on the ass. He's the kind of guy who rewards you when you're doing well and when you're doing wrong he'll let you know."
Quarterback Sherdrick Bonner agreed.
“Todd is definitely a better communicator (than Danny)," he said. “He's always been a better communicator because he's straight-forward."
Cooper admitted White's style had created tension on the team.
“I think what became a problem was nobody really knew what (Danny) was thinking. If you know what he's thinking then you can try and respond to it. If you don't, then anything you do is wrong," he said. “Nobody's gonna forget the things Danny taught us. He's been the best for 12 years at what he's done. But now you have to more forward."
Team vice president of operations, Gene Nudo, said that Shell's familiarity with the club played a great role in the hiring.
“I knew him when he was still highlighting his hair," Nudo quipped while pointing to an old, golden-locked photo of the currently balding Shell.
Nudo was also quick to point out that Shell's three-year deal was a strong sign to Rattlers faithful that the team is not headed for another city, despite an uncertain ownership situation.
It is believed that new owner Robert Sarver and Nudo are close to finding an investor who is willing to buy a controlling interest in the team.
Shell said the length of the contract also reassured him.
“This community and this town has embraced the Rattlers from the beginning," he said. “The Rattler nation is big enough now that the Rattlers are going to be somewhere here in Arizona."
As for the club, Shell said the first order of business is to sign most of Arizona's current free agents to keep intact a team that has played in, and lost, three straight ArenaBowls.
“I'm not gonna change a whole lot," said Shell, who praised White, his old friend, for building a strong foundation. “This is a pretty good wheel here."
Cooper and Bonner are already under contract but Shell said he would also like to re-ink receiver Siaha Burley and lineman Wendall Gaines, among others.
Gaines' presence at the press conference was a good sign for those who worried that he would follow former defensive coordinator Doug Plank to Atlanta where Plank was hired last week as the Force's head coach.
Shell said he will interview several candidates to fill out his coaching staff, starting with the current Rattlers assistants.
He has not decided if he will hold the title of defensive coordinator as well as head coach, but New York assistant head coach and offensive coordinator, Lary Kuharich, is a strong possibility to fill the same role with Arizona. Kuharich is also interviewing for Shell's old post in New York. Shell also plans to talk to Dragons defensive and special teams coordinator, Derrick Chachere.