Most of what William McCarthy does is normal-coach stuff.
The head coach of the Indoor Football League's Salt Lake Screaming Eagles leads preparation for opponents. He breaks down film to identify areas for improvement. He designs certain plays for specific situations to put his players in positions to succeed.
There are, however, some aspects of McCarthy's coaching duties that are...unusual.
He won't call his team's plays, but that's not terribly uncommon. Even in the NFL, most play-calling responsibilities lie with a team's offensive coordinator. What's most unusual about McCarthy's job is that the person—well, persons—who will call the plays might not even be inside the stadium. And McCarthy won't hear the selected play over a headset, nor does he possess the ability, as "traditional" head coaches do, to overrule his play caller.
That's because the Screaming Eagles have given play-calling control to their fans. Through the Eagles' app, the fans will call the plays during the team's inaugural game on Feb. 16, taking an atypical amount of control away from McCarthy has head coach.
McCarthy hasn't always been a non-traditional coach. He started coaching high school football 12 years ago at the high-school level before moving to junior college. In 2008, he seized an opportunity to make the jump to professional indoor football and accepted a gig with a team in the now-defunct American Indoor Football league. The next year he gravitated to the Indoor Football League, where he's held various positions with teams in the state of Washington, El Paso and Oklahoma City. If such a denotation exists, McCarthy is an indoor football lifer.
"I love the fast pace of it, the way it's played," McCarthy said. "There are several different aspects. It's fun. It's still X's and O's, and you're running a lot of the same schemes you'd run in outdoor."
Last summer, McCarthy found himself surfing a job site when he came across an opening with the Screaming Eagles. It was unlike any coaching gig he—or anyone else—had seen. If selected, he would be sharing control of the team with fans through a mobile app. But first he had to get the job by impressing these fans, who would select the head coach by a vote from a list of finalists. McCarthy made it through a few interviews, one of which was live-streamed on YouTube, before he was selected.
His initial reaction to the crowd-sourced model of decision-making was, as you might expect, one of surprise.
"You step back, you're like huh? But the more you think about it, I think it's going to be a good scenario."
McCarthy is well aware that the big-picture goal for this project is to attract fans to the indoor game and, specifically, to the IFL. The Arena Football League has traditionally been the most prominent indoor football league, but the IFL scored major victories when the AFL's Iowa Barnstormers and Arizona Rattlers switched to the IFL. If successful, fan-run teams like the Screaming Eagles could draw much-needed attention to the league.
The owners of the Screaming Eagles also bought the IFL's Colorado Crush, and that team will eventually incorporate at least some aspects of the fan-involved model.
"I don't think it's a secret that indoor football is a niche sport for a lot of folks," McCarthy said. "There are a lot of folks who have never been to a game that say, 'It's not for me.' But I've met very few people that have been to a game and didn't like it. It's about trying to get people out there to see what we're all about."
As far as the technology goes, facilitating fans' film study and personnel decisions don't pose much of a problem, as there's no real time crunch involved. The real challenge will come during the season-opener against the Nebraska Danger, when the viability of fan-called plays will be tested.
McCarthy and his staff have uploaded certain plays for specific scenarios into the app. They've selected plays for short-yardage situations, 2nd-and-mediums, 3rd-and-longs, etc. (Theoretically, this prevents fans from choosing outlandish plays.) Once a play ends, a team employee will type the scenario into the app, and the corresponding play options will appear on the app's interface. It will look somewhat similar to the play-calling page on EA Sport's Madden NFL Series. Fans will have roughly 10 seconds to vote on plays, and the winning play will appear on McCarthy's iPad. He'll then relay the fan-chosen play to the quarterback, who will have to be efficient in his call and cadence; the IFL's play clock is only 25 seconds.
"It's really no different," McCarthy said without a hint of irony. "As a coach, you have your play sheet. You have a certain amount of plays for certain situations. You're taking those same plays, just instead of me making the decisions, we're going to crowd-source it."
In the case of a technology glitch, all will not be lost. McCarthy is the failsafe. If the iPad doesn't show the fans' play in time, he'll make the call. But McCarthy doesn't foresee that happening, and he's excited about the opportunity to fulfill a fantasy that football fans have entertained for decades.
"Fans are always like, 'Why did you call this? Why did you go with this play on this down and distance?' This is the opportunity to see if it's as easy at it looks or if maybe it's a bit more complicated.
"Everyone thinks they know how to call plays. This is their chance to see if they actually do."