Former Dixie Wooten team visits as No. 3 seed Tucson Sugar Skulls | sugar skulls

Dixie Wooten had two options for his Indoor Football League career path: remain the head coach of the Iowa Barnstormers or become the head coach and general manager of the Tucson Sugar Skulls, an expansion franchise.

Wooten accepted the latter, leaving a franchise he coached from 2017 to 2019, posting a 36-8 record and winning the IFL Championship in 2018 in his second season. The opportunity to make his own mark on the IFL was too good to pass up.

“That’s what brought me here. Also, being on top of the organization and having room to grow was also great, which is why I came here to Tucson,” Wooten said. “It was a step forward for me as a coach and it was also a step forward for me as a businessman.”

Wooten and the Sugar Skulls (8-6) host the Barnstormers (8-6) Saturday night at Tucson Arena for the home final. A win over former club Wooten would lock in a No. 3 seed for Tucson, most likely setting up a first-round playoff game with the Northern Arizona Wranglers in Prescott Valley. Tucson clinched a playoff bid with a 53-47 win at San Diego last weekend.

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A victory over Iowa would also mark the first triumph over the Barnstormers in franchise history. The Sugar Skulls fell to Iowa last season, 33-13, when Barnstormers quarterback Daquan Neal rushed for two touchdowns on the outing. Now a Tucson quarterback, Neal, who earned IFL Offensive MVP honors with the Barnstormers in 2019, reunited with Wooten in the Old Pueblo to lead the franchise.

Neal isn’t the only Barnstormer to join Wooten in Tucson. Offensive lineman Isame Faciane, wide receivers Jazeric Peterson and Raheem Harvey, new defensive back David Haney, defensive lineman Tony Winslow Jr. and offensive coordinator Hurtis Chinn all followed Wooten to Tucson.

Wooten spoke to The Star this week to preview a personal game for the Sugar Skulls, as well as the differences between Iowa and Tucson:

How are you approaching this week?

A: “I’m excited because we can go out there and win this football game and get the No. 3 seed. Those guys from Iowa are going to be in the playoffs. Me being a former coach, I look at it like this: When I see these guys on the pitch, I’ll remember all the good things, because we won a championship there. But at the end of the day, we want to beat them, because it’s a team that I coached.

How do you reflect on your time with the Barnstormers?

A: “It was an amazing feeling, man. The people in the organization just made me come in and do what I had to do to be successful. It was amazing. The three years I was there, we Won a lot of football games, but we touched a lot of people and I will always love Iowa. I will always love Iowa to the end.

You also met a plethora of talented players during your time in Iowa, including quarterback Daquan Neal, who won the IFL Offensive MVP award in his freshman year. What has been noticed in Neal’s growth since?

A: “I remember when I first signed him, he was from Elizabeth City State and when we first talked, he had no idea about indoor football. He started from scratch, but his potential was unreal. We got him to pull himself together, get him to understand how the game is played. Next thing you know he’s the MVP his first year in the league.

Why do you think Neal was able to adapt so quickly?

A: “His work ethic. His work ethic is unreal. I’m tough on my guys, but I also hold my guys accountable, and he loves that. He likes it when I hold him accountable and ask him to stay longer to work on exercises and things like that. He set to work, he had to succeed.

How would you compare the two franchises in Tucson and Iowa?

A: “It’s a big deal because in Iowa this organization has been around for about 20 years, so they figured out what they needed to do and they have a decent fanbase. But Tucson? Tucson is a young organization with a lot of potential. We have a large property here. We also had a large property in Iowa, but we can all grow here. We can make mistakes, improve and I think in the next two or three years – actually this year we can bring a championship here. We want to reach out to the community so we can grow and build our fan base.

“Des Moines has a huge fan base. There’s no basketball or anything else around, so they treat their indoor football team like it’s the NFL. When something happens like a radio show or an event, we have like 3,500 people showing up – and that’s just the fan base. They love the organization, but the organization has been around for so long. Heck, even Kurt Warner was their quarterback, so it’s a different situation in Iowa.

“Here, the organization hasn’t been around for 2 and a half years. It’s more like a year and a half for me. I don’t think people here understand how important it is for the community and how it’s important for Tucson to have this indoor football team, the more people understand, the more people are willing to come out.

Some coaches would prefer to stick to on-field production and the X and O of football rather than hold the title of general manager; why did you also want to be the GM of the Sugar Skulls?

A: “When you’re CEO, the bus stops with you. It starts with you and ends with you. So if you lose games or something happens, it’s your fault. If you win games, great, it’s on you. I felt like I put in a lot of work to earn that title and be at the top of the food chain with an organization. A lot of coaches just want to be coaches, and I can understand that, but the most successful coaches like Bill Belichick, like Kevin Guy or (Kurtiss) Riggs in Sioux Falls, those guys are general managers and head coaches – and succeed – because it all starts and ends with these guys.

What would it mean to beat Iowa?

A: “It’s great, because these guys are a playoff team, so it’s always good to go against a playoff team at this point in the season and come out of it with a win. That’s the best part about it.

Bonus Points

  • Tucson wide receiver Arthur Jackson IV, who is among the team’s top passers, was retired from IR this week. Jackson suffered a leg injury against the Bay Area Panthers last month.
  • The Sugar Skulls have officially released the offensive lineman Antonio Rosales, who was suspended for his ejection against the Frisco Fighters in April. The Tucson High native was originally suspended for six games for his altercation with a Frisco player, but wasn’t officially released by the team until Tuesday. Rosales was also fired from the team last season for hitting a referee during the Sugar Skulls-Barnstormers contest.
  • If the Sugar Skulls lose on Saturday, a Duke City Gladiators loss to San Diego would still secure the No. 3 seed for Tucson.

Contact sports producer Justin Spears at 573-4312 or [email protected]. On Twitter: @JustinESports

Rachel J. Bradford