DETROIT -- It's baaack ... and it's bigger than ever.
Not as commanding a presence certainly as the National Football League or even as global as the World League of American Football. But the Arena Football League -- or Arenaball as its more widely known -- appears to have found its own niche and is here to stay -- for a while longer anyway.
The league begins its fifth season Friday night with the defending champion Detroit Drive visiting Denver. Three more games are scheduled for Saturday night with Dallas visiting Columbus, Ohio; Orlando at Tampa Bay and New Orleans at Albany, N.Y.
The league has undergone a facelift from last season, expanding from six to eight teams. Gone are the franchises in Washington and Pittsburgh and new to the league are teams in Columbus, New Orleans, Orlando and Tampa.
The array of former NFL talent now coaching in the Arena League is a testimony to the league's growing credibility. Former all-NFL wide receiver Drew Pearson is the coach of the Dallas Texans. Dick Nolan, former NFL head coach with New Orleans and San Francisco, is Pearson's assistant.
Babe Parilli, a star in the old American Football League, is the coach in Denver and Eddie Khayat is the coach in New Orleans, with former NFL wide receiver Harold Jackson as his assistant.
The league also has a TV contract with Prime Network, a cable station. Prime is carrying a 13-game package consisting of 10 regular season games, two semifinal playoff games and the championship game.
The league also plans to return to Europe this fall for some exhibition games.
In some ways, Arenaball is a throwback to the football played 40 years ago. In Arenaball, there are only eight players to a side and each player must play both offense and defense, except the quarterback.
In this 'ironman' format, offensive linemen double as defensive linemen, running backs double as linebackers and wide receivers double as defensive backs. The field is only 50 yards long -- half the size of a regulation sized football field.
'It's a 50-yard indoor war,' says Bob Hillman, public relations director of the Arena League.
Crowds averaged about 11,000 per game last year with the championship game, won by Detroit, drawing 19,902 at Joe Louis Arena.
Detroit is out to achieve something this year few teams in any professional sport have ever achieved -- winning four titles in a row.
The Drive is welcoming back Tim Marcum as head coach this season. Marcum coached the Drive to the Arena League titles in 1988 and 1989 before leaving to become an assistant coach at the University of Florida and also assisting Mouse Davis with the New York/New Jersey Knights of the WLAF. He also coached Denver to the first Arena League championship in 1987.
'It feels great to be back,' said Marcum. 'There's a feeling of family membership here. I missed Detroit and I missed arena football.'
Marcum said he hasn't noticed many changes in the Drive since his departure. Perry Moss coached the team in 1990, but left to coach the expansion Orlando Predators.
'We've got the same nucleus here and we've added some new kids who seem to be fitting in,' Marcum said. 'I think they're going to help us.'
Among the returning Drive players is former Indianapolis Colts and Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter. Schlichter, who is also an assistant coach, was a key performer in leading the Drive to the 1990 championship in his first indoor season.
Schlichter said he was impressed by the caliber of play.
'You think of it as arena ball, not the NFL or even the World league, but sometimes you're going to have a more versatile athlete than you have in the NFL,' Schlichter observed. 'These guys have to go both ways.'
Other important players for the drive are John Corker, who has played in the NFL and was a two-time all-league linebacker in the United States Football League, and lineman Billy Harris, who made an immediate impact in his first season out of the University of Michigan.
'A lot of people don't realize how tough the level of play is in this league,' Harris said. 'Some of these guys are good enough to play in the NFL, but didn't get the breaks.'
Two Drive newcomers from major-college programs are former Michigan quarterback Demetrius Brown and ex-Ohio State defensive back Greg Rogan.
'Our league's getting better,' said Drive general manager Gary Vitto. 'Our major concern is upgrading the team with guys from major- college programs.'