Central Florida’s most exciting and innovative professional sports team, the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League (AFL), have achieved unprecedented success on the field – including 22 playoff appearances, seven division titles and two ArenaBowl championships in 1998 and 2000 – along with a rabid base of loyal fans over the years. As the Predators embark on an exciting new era under the ownership of Orlando Predators LLC – a company formed by David A. Siegel, founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts – take a few moments to relive the storied history of one of the most successful franchises in the AFL!
Early Beginnings (1991-1997)
The Orlando Predators joined the AFL, along with the Columbus Thunderbolts, as an expansion team in 1991, four years after the league was formed in 1987. The original ownership group included Davey Johnson, a former Major League Baseball player and manager of the New York Mets, as well as former National Football League player and security broker Mike McBath and former security broker Tracy Allen. Future AFL Hall of Fame member and Predators Ring of Honor inductee Herkie Walls (a former NFL wide receiver for the Houston Oilers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers) was among the initial players signed by the Predators. Perry Moss, who had guided the now-defunct Detroit Drive to the ArenaBowl Championship in 1990, was named the team’s first head coach and general manager. Moss led the team to six winning seasons in seven years and was inducted into the Arena Football Hall of Fame in 2000. The team originally played its home games at the Orlando Arena, which had been built in 1989 and also served as the home of the NBA Orlando Magic.
With a record of 3-7 during their inaugural year that included a 51-38 upset victory over arch-rival Tampa Bay Storm (the rivalry between the two teams became so intense over the years that it was eventually dubbed the “War on I-4”), the Orlando Predators failed to make the playoffs in their first season. However, in just their second season, the Predators finished the regular season with an astounding 9-1 record and advanced to ArenaBowl VI in 1992, losing to the Detroit Drive 56-38. Earlier in the season, on June 19, 1992, the Predators had defeated the Drive 50-49 in the so-called “Miracle Minute” game – scoring 18 points in the final 49 seconds (legendary wide receiver/defensive back Barry Wagner caught two touchdown passes, made two two-point conversions, recovered an onside kick and made the game-winning tackle!). A week earlier, on June 13, 1992, the Predators defeated the San Antonio Force 50-0 – recording the first shutout in AFL history. In 1993, the Predators finished the regular season with a 10-2 record and lost to Tampa Bay 55-52 in the semifinals. The following year, the Predators continued their winning ways with a regular season record of 11-1 before getting upset 36-31 by Arizona in ArenaBowl VIII.
Jack Youngblood, a former star player for the NFL Los Angeles Rams and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joined the Orlando Predators in 1995 as vice president and later president of the team. Youngblood was with the organization through the 1999 season. Even though the Predators struggled through the 1995 season with a record of 7-5, they managed to upset both the San Jose SaberCats and Iowa Barnstormers on the road to advance to their second straight ArenaBowl championship game where they lost to Tampa Bay 48-35 in front of more than 25,000 fans in the highest-attended game in AFL history. In 1996, the Predators finished the regular season with a 9-5 record that included an upset 40-39 “miracle finish” win against Tampa Bay. However, the team was quickly ousted in the first round of the playoffs with a 65-48 loss to the Arizona Rattlers. The following year, the Predators achieved a regular season record of 10-4 and lost to Iowa in the semifinals. Moss retired as head coach and was replaced by Nashville Kats offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.
Road to the Championship (1998-2000)
In 1998, the Orlando Predators initiated the “Ring of Honor” with head coach Perry Moss and fullback/linebacker Paul McGowan as the first inductees. Although the Predators got off to a rocky start with a 5-4 record, they managed to win four of their final five games, defeated Arizona 38-33 using “The Drive” in the semifinals and pulled the biggest upset in ArenaBowl history to crush top-seeded Tampa Bay 62-31 in a game that was televised nationally as part of ABC’s Wild World of Sports. Gruden made history by becoming the first individual to win the ArenaBowl championship as both a player and head coach as the Predators captured their first-ever title.
During the injury-riddled 1999 season, the Orlando Predators struggled to a record of 7-7 and snuck into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed – winning against Buffalo 48-40 in the first round of the playoffs, once again upsetting No. 1 seed Tampa Bay 41-19 in the quarterfinals and edging Iowa 48-41 in the semifinals to advance to a second consecutive ArenaBowl appearance where they were defeated 59-48 by the Albany Firebirds. Offensive specialist Herkie Walls was inducted into the Predators Ring of Honor. The Predators entered the 2000 playoffs with an 11-3 record and knocked the Storm out of the playoffs for the third consecutive year on their way to their sixth ArenaBowl appearance where they captured a 41-38 victory over the Nashville Kats for their second title.
Years of Triumph and Turmoil (2001-2013)
The Orlando Predators struggled in 2001 with an 8-6 record, qualified for the playoffs for the 10th consecutive year and suffered a first round home loss to the Chicago Rush. Head coach Jay Gruden announced his resignation to return to the field as Predators quarterback and former assistant head coach Fran Papasedero was named the third head coach in franchise history. In 2002, Papasedero led the Predators to their sixth division title and the team advanced to the semifinals of the playoffs before losing to top-seeded San Jose. Gruden set several single season passing records, including yardage, touchdowns and completions, while defensive specialist Kenny “The Glove” McEntyre was selected to the All-Arena team. During the following year, the Predators achieved a 12-4 regular season record and advanced to the semifinals where they lost to Tampa Bay. Tragically, Papasedero was killed in a car accident 10 days later. The Predators helped organize “Fran Fest,” a street party and golf tournament that raised more than 100,000 for the Fran Papasedero Memorial Trust Fund to benefit the beloved coach’s daughter.
In 2004, Gruden returned as head coach of the Orlando Predators and led the team to a 10-6 record. In addition, the Predators established the Orlando Predators Foundation to aid charitable causes. The team finished the 2005 regular season with another 10-6 record and advanced to the semifinals where they were knocked off by the Georgia Force 60-58. In 2006, after another 10-6 record, the Predators pulled a major upset in the playoffs by defeating the top-seeded Dallas Desperados to earn their seventh ArenaBowl appearance where they were defeated by the Chicago Rush 69-61. Predators defensive specialist Kenny McEntyre received the Al Lucas Hero Award in 2006 for his significant contributions to both his local community and the AFL. In 2007 and 2008, the Predators struggled with 8-8 and 9-7 regular season records respectively but managed to qualify for the playoffs both years.
Due to financial struggles, the AFL cancelled its entire 2009 season in order to develop a long-term plan to improve its economic model. However, the Orlando Predators returned for the 2010 season as a member of the new “Arena Football One” League. Former quarterback Pat O’Hara was named the new head coach of the Predators (Gruden had signed a contract to become offensive coordinator with the Orlando Tuskers of the short-lived United Football League). The team finished with an 8-8 regular season record and defeated the Jacksonville Sharks 73-69 in the first round of the playoffs. However, the team would lose to Tampa Bay in the conference championship. During the 2011 season, the Predators achieved an 11-7 record but fell to the Jacksonville Sharks in the semifinals 63-48. Bret Munsey was named head coach of the Predators for the 2012 season and the team struggled to a 4-14 record, missing the playoffs for the first time since their inaugural season in 1991. Munsey was released as head coach at the end of the season and eventually replaced by Doug Plank. The following year, the Predators finished the season with a 7-11 record and advanced to the playoffs where they were defeated by the Philadelphia Soul 59-55 in the semifinals. On August 17, 2013, the Amway Center hosted ArenaBowl XXVI, in which the Arizona Rattlers defeated the Philadelphia Soul 48-39.
A New Beginning, Return to “The Jungle” (2014- )
During the 2014 season, the Predators played their home games at the CFE Arena on the campus of the University of Central Florida and captured the South Division Championship. In July 2014, Orlando Predators LLC, a company owned by David A. Siegel, Founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts, purchased the Orlando Predators. Under the new ownership, the Predators made plans to return to the state-of-the-art Amway Center (AKA “The Jungle”) in downtown Orlando for the 2015 season. According to Siegel, the purchase of the Predators and return to the Amway Center was motivated by the opportunity to grant an already storied franchise the exposure and attention it deserves in a world-class venue. “The Orlando Predators is a great football franchise and I look forward to helping them remain highly competitive for years to come,” said Siegel. “They provide great entertainment value for value for locals and visitors alike and have been a staple in our community since they were introduced into the league over 20 years ago.”
The Predators have also partnered with the Westgate Foundation to create more community engagement opportunities. For example, the team has offered free tickets to underprivileged children and veterans (in the fall of 2014, 3,000 free tickets were offered to military veterans for the 2015 Predators home opener), and featured a special section at the Amway Center for Westgate employees. Westgate Resorts executive Jared Saft serves as President of the Orlando Predators, while ArenaBowl championship coach Rob Keefe has been head coach since 2013. Under Keefe’s leadership during the 2014 season, the team won its first South Division Championship title since 2006 and first home playoff game since 2010, and made a trip to the American Conference Finals. The Predators – who compete in the South Division of the American Conference of the AFL along with the Jacksonville Sharks, New Orleans VooDooo and Tampa Bay Storm – captured another South Division Championship title during the 2015 season.