By Will Hammock
DULUTH - When the Georgia Force called Gwinnett home, the community offered its enthusiasm. But the Arena Football League franchise lacked one key factor to pay back the fans - success.
The teams, then coached by Marty Lowe, went 8-8 in 2003 and 7-9 in 2004 in its two seasons at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. Now that the Force is coming back to the suburbs, a decision that was officially announced Wednesday, the club offers a much better product on the field.
Georgia has won 33 games, second-best in the AFL, over the past three seasons with three playoff appearances. Last season it was 14-2 and won its second Southern Division championship in owner Arthur Blank's three seasons at the helm.
"Early on the atmosphere was unbelievable but we didn't win," said Force defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Bob Kronenberg, who is entering his seventh season with the team. "Even the year we made the playoffs we didn't win here (in Gwinnett). We didn't win many home games. ...If we take that record we had at Philips and bring it here, it's going to be unbelievable."
Force officials at Wednesday's press conference to announce the move echoed the same opinion that they preferred the cozy atmosphere of the Gwinnett arena. It's roughly 4,000 seats smaller than Philips, but it has more seating close to the field and it should be filled on most occasions.
"Ask any of our players, any of our coaches, most players despise going to Orlando, Fla., because that's perceived to be the loudest arena in arena football," Force head coach Doug Plank said. "There's no reason why the Gwinnett arena can't be perceived as the loudest arena in arena football. It makes a difference. It gives you an edge and gives you an opportunity to rattle the opposing team."
Kronenberg has been around the franchise long enough to see the pros and cons of both arenas. He agreed with Force president Dick Sullivan's statement that the Gwinnett venue is the perfect size and setup for an AFL team.
He said the players will enjoy the atmosphere in Gwinnett, both on the field and off it.
"I'd say 90 percent of our roster lives at Sugarloaf or further north," Kronenberg said. "We might have a couple of single guys who live in Atlanta or Buckhead, but I'd say 90 percent live up here. In the offseason a lot of (players) have been calling me asking if we were moving and I had to tell them I didn't know for sure.
"But if there were 14 or 15 guys asking me about it, it was for a reason. They wanted to come back (to Gwinnett)."
Plank, who lives in Braselton, didn't get to see a game in Gwinnett in 2003 and 2004. He coached the Arizona Rattlers back then, but he recalls the reaction to the Force's move to Atlanta when he was hired as the Force's coach.
"All I remember is coming in here as a coach and hearing all the people in the organization lamenting the fact that we were leaving this building (in Gwinnett)," Plank said. "It wasn't that people didn't want to go to Philips, but it was a longer drive distance-wise and people were just wondering what the atmosphere would be like. If there was one attribute about this building that everybody liked, it was the tremendous atmosphere that it had when fans are here. You take an organization and put winning with it here, it's going to make a difference."