Championship coach: Edgewood’s Back savoring run of indoor football success

GREENSBORO, N.C. — He never saw this career path coming until he was actually on his way.

It’s easy to see why Billy Back doesn’t have a problem with that. He feels blessed, plain and simple, with a job he relishes and a family he adores.

Home, ultimately, is where you make it. And Back, a 1997 Edgewood High School graduate and a five-time champion as an indoor football head coach, feels like he’s found something here in the Tar Heel State.

“I grew up in Seven Mile and my dad is the chief of police there. So I was lucky to live in Mayberry,” Back said. “Now I pinch myself every morning that I’m here and doing what I’m doing. But I love to get back home for Skyline Chili. It’s worth the drive to get some Skyline or Gold Star.”

He is the head coach and director of football operations for the Carolina Cobras, the 2018 National Arena League champions who are set to open the 2019 season on the road April 13 against the Massachusetts Pirates.

Back, who will turn 40 on May 3, is starting his second year with the Cobras. If you’re a football purist who doesn’t know much about the indoor game, he’s here to tell you it’s worth your time and money.

“It’s like a fireworks show that you really have to see live to appreciate,” Back said. “My grandpa hates slam dunks and those certain things, but he enjoys this game because it’s fast-paced. There’s no down time. It’s something to see even for football purists.”

There was a time when Back had never even heard of Arenaball. But then a funny thing happened. He took a stab at it and became a standout player.

Back certainly had a football-playing background and would end up seeing action in four games for Wilmington College in 1998, but he seemed more like a glove-and bat-guy on the baseball diamond.

Back’s collegiate travels took him to Indiana Tech, Wilmington, Akron and Miami University Hamilton. He went to Indiana Tech to play baseball, broke his left kneecap twice playing football at Wilmington, broke his kneecap again playing fall baseball at Akron, then landed at MUH.

His baseball career at Miami Hamilton eventually led him to its Athletic Hall of Fame.

Back played Frontier League baseball briefly. He was with the Dubois County (Ind.) Dragons for three exhibition games and played in 23 games with the Florence Freedom in 2003. He went to camp with the Freedom the following year, but got released.

When his baseball playing days were over, “I had no clue what to do. So I started playing flag football.”

It was organized flag football for adults, and while playing at a tournament in Columbus, Back was noticed by a scout and was offered the chance to attend an indoor football tryout.

“What’s arena football? I’d never heard of it,” Back said. “So I went to this workout and all these college guys that I’d heard of were there. I was just carefree. I’m making one-handed diving catches … I had one of the best days of anybody there.”

So he signed with the Dayton Warbirds of the National Indoor Football League. Back played one year with the Warbirds and then moved on to another NIFL team, the Cincinnati Marshals.

In his second season with the Marshals, he led the league in all-purpose yards as a slot receiver and kick returner.

“I still had some football skills,” Back said. “I got relaxed and just played that year.”

He eventually played with the Miami Valley Silverbacks in Troy and the Bloomington (Ill.) Extreme. Back took his last hit as a player during a 2009 Indoor Football League playoff game with the Extreme.

“It just knocked the air out of me,” he said. “I knew I was done playing right there.”

From there, he came home and was involved in the formation of the Cincinnati Commandos in the Continental Indoor Football League.

Back was the assistant general manager and director of football operations, and he had no intention of coaching. But the organization chose to make a change just before the season began.

Suddenly Back — whose football coaching history was comprised of stints at Edgewood, Middletown and New Miami high schools — was a head coach.

“I always wanted to coach high school football, but it was never in my mind-set to coach arena football,” Back said. “In that situation, I told everybody I needed some help to make it work.”

It all came together quite nicely. Back had a high-powered offensive approach that he still has today, and the Commandos went 12-0 and won the 2010 CIFL championship.

Back won three straight titles with the Commandos. He would then coach (in order) for a year with the Texas Revolution in the IFL, two years with the Nashville Venom in the Professional Indoor Football League (capturing one championship) and two years with the Wichita Falls (Texas) Nighthawks in the IFL.

Greensboro was his next stop in 2018. It was the inaugural season for the Carolina Cobras, who play in the Greensboro Coliseum. They finished second during the regular season, then won the NAL crown with playoff victories over the Jacksonville Sharks (73-48) and the Columbus (Ga.) Lions (66-8).

“Nobody thought we’d win the championship. We turned it on late in the year,” Back said. “Our owner took the entire team on a cruise to the Bahamas. It was a nice way to celebrate.”

The Orlando Predators and New York Streets are also part of the six-team NAL.

Indoor football is something of an alphabet soup when it comes to leagues and monikers. Back said the Arena Football League is generally recognized as the top indoor league, followed by the NAL and IFL, and then the rest.

Carolina draws about 3,500 fans for games at the Greensboro Coliseum. Players make about $300 per game plus win bonuses, but their housing, meals, insurance and training needs are covered during what Back calls “a five-month business trip.”

Indoor football certainly isn’t swimming in profits. Some teams do better than others, and breaking even is considered a very good thing.

Back declined to say exactly how much he makes, but said his ownership has been very generous in making him the highest-paid coach in the NAL. He feels “well taken care of.”

“I’ve been lucky,” he said. “This is something I never thought I’d be doing, but now that I’m doing it, I love it. It’s a year-round deal for me, but I work five months out of the year hard, like 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. I get to wear sweatpants to work, and I get to be around great athletes.”

The indoor game is 8-on-8 football on a field that measures 50 yards goal line to goal line, 28.5yards in width and 8 yards in each end zone. If you get pushed into or fall over the wall, you’re out of bounds. If you hit the wall on your own, you can keep going.

Fans have a decent shot at getting a football souvenir to take home. Like foul balls in baseball, footballs in the stands are fair game for fans.

“We go through 40 footballs a game,” Back said. “The front two rows are pretty much live action. You can’t be texting on your phone. You’re going to get something in your lap, either a football or a player. The saying is if a ball goes in the stands, you can keep it. If a player goes in the stands, you’ve got to give him back.

“I call it basketball on turf. It’s a fast-paced, high-energy, high-scoring game which is fan friendly. You’re really intimate with the fans because they’re right on top of you. There’s a lot of players in this game that should be playing on Sundays. It’s a stepping-stone for guys trying to get to that next level.”

There are 24-man rosters, with only 21 able to dress for each game. Back said his toughest days in coaching are cut days and Thursday dress-list days.

The Cobras throw the ball the majority of the time. Back prefers the quick-strike possibilities as opposed to focusing on a ground attack.

He likes living in Greensboro, and while Back aspires to get back to coaching outdoor football, he said it would have to be “a life-changing opportunity” to make him uproot his family again.

Back and his wife Stacie have three children: London (10), Larkin (2) and Lennox (three months).

“Stacie knows more about this than a lot of the coaches,” Back said. “She thinks she’s the director of player personnel. She’s always sending me adjustments that she thinks I should make. She cares for the guys as much as I do.”

In terms of his future, Back said he’d like coach outdoor football at the high school or collegiate level. College-wise, he believes he could take over a small program and build something or be an assistant at a bigger school.

Back is still trying to complete his Miami degree and is planning to chip away at that, figuring he’ll need that piece of paper if a collegiate coaching opportunity arises.

“Job security is the most important thing. You don’t want a fly-by-night deal,” Back said. “I would love to be on a big-time stage, but if this is as big as it gets, I’m satisfied with that. I could become a high school coach here in Greensboro. There’s some great football here. But at the present time, I want to win another championship in the NAL. That’s what I’m focusing on.”

Billy Back’s Coaching Record

Here are the year-by-year coaching results for Billy Back, who has a career record of 93-35 as an indoor football head coach:

2010 — Cincinnati Commandos, 11-1, Continental Indoor Football League champion

2011 — Cincinnati Commandos, 12-0, Continental Indoor Football League champion

2012 — Cincinnati Commandos, 12-2, United Indoor Football League champion

2013 — Texas Revolution, 5-9, Indoor Football League

2014 — Nashville Venom, 12-2, Professional Indoor Football League champion

2015 — Nashville Venom, 8-5, Professional Indoor Football League playoff semifinalist

2016 — Wichita Falls Nighthawks, 10-5, Indoor Football League playoff qualifier

2017 — Wichita Falls Nighthawks, 11-6, Indoor Football League

2018 — Carolina Cobras, 12-5, National Arena League champion

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