THE AXEMEN TRIALS: After two rough seasons, Bemidji’s first professional franchise looks for answers after experiencing bumps along the way
BEMIDJI -- If there's one day to pinpoint the exact time things went from bad to worse for the Bemidji Axemen, May 8, would be a good choice. That Thursday started with the team getting on a bus for Spearfish, S.D., where they were scheduled to s...
BEMIDJI - If there’s one day to pinpoint the exact time things went from bad to worse for the Bemidji Axemen, May 8, would be a good choice.
That Thursday started with the team getting on a bus for Spearfish, S.D., where they were scheduled to stay the night at a hotel owned by one of the team’s owners, Phil Sallberg. From there they would have gone to Loveland, Colo., on Friday to prepare for Saturday’s Indoor Football League game against the Colorado Ice.
Things didn’t go quite as scheduled for the Axemen.
Then again, nothing in their first two years of existence has gone as scheduled for the Axemen.
A revolving door of owners, coaches and general managers, combined with bad play on the field, Bemidji’s first professional sports franchise has had some tough times.
And what transpired on that trip to Colorado is a perfect encapsulation of some of those issues.
“They went and picked up a bus that was almost 20-years-old,” then Axemen head coach Dixie Wooten said. “We got on the bus and we made it to Fargo, it broke down in the middle of the street.”
There were the Axemen, stuck on a street in Fargo with a game to get to about 850 miles away.
After associate head coach Lee Patten paid for a tow truck to get the bus out of the street, he started calling bus lines to get the team to Colorado. Even though it was Mother’s’ Day weekend Patten eventually found someone who could drive them to Loveland by early Saturday morning.
At least, that’s what he thought.
“Then there was a decision made,” Patten said. “(Former general manager Adam Barnhardt) got to Bemidji and called and said, ‘No we aren’t taking a bus, we’re taking vans’.”
Frustrated and exhausted, Wooten gathered the team in Fargo and gave them a choice.
If the organization was going to make a decision without discussing with the team, Wooten was going to give the power back to the players.
“If you guys don’t want to play let me know because I don’t want to waste a trip,” he said. “If you get on the vans I’m with you and if you don’t I’m still with you.”
The team decided to make the trip, but nobody informed the Bemidji Bus Lines about the last minute change of plans.
The company gave Patten a call early Friday morning, which surprised him.
“I said, ‘Didn’t anyone tell you, they are taking vans’,” he said he told Bemidji Bus Line. “I felt like I had egg on my face. Nobody communicated with me to tell me to call them.”
Almost 15 hours later, the team arrived in Colorado at 3 a.m. the morning of the game and lost its sixth-straight game by a score of 37-27.
Another coach gets the can
When the team returned, Wooten was fired and Patten was named in the interim head coach for the final four games of the season.
“There were some conduct issues that we had to overcome when the bus broke down,” first year owner Nate Coffin said. “That’s when we let the coaching staff go. There was some conduct issues that were unbecoming of a head coach.”
Patten didn’t believe Wooten’s firing was warranted.
He was with Wooten during his infamous conversation with the players and feels he did nothing wrong by giving them a choice to play or not.
“The story was Dixie told the players not to get on the bus,” Patten said. “That was false. That’s bogus, I was there the whole time and heard every bit of the conversation. What Nate Coffin says isn’t true and he wasn’t there to begin with so I don’t know where he came up with that statement.”
Regardless, Patten became the third head coach in two seasons and was 0-4 in those final four games, including an astounding 90-20 loss to Sioux Falls in the home finale and a 48-0 shutout to rival Cedar Rapids in the season finale.
Wooten, who was the team’s defensive coordinator when the team started playing in 2014, took over as head coach after Robert Fuller was fired following the team’s inaugural season.
Trouble from the start
Although Bemidji’s first foray into the world of professional football started with promise, money quickly became an issue for original owners Ross Ladehoff and Chris Kokalis.
Kokalis, a seasoned IFL owner who was and still is the owner of the Cedar Rapids Titans - first came to Bemidji in the summer of 2013 looking for local investors for a team.
Ladehoff, a Bemidji State graduate, had some interest and quickly signed on.
“I thought Bemidji was going to be stretch to begin with,” Ladehoff said via requested email interview. “There is no how-to manual for running a professional indoor football team.”
And if there is a manual for running a team in the Indoor Football League, few franchises know how to read it.
The IFL began in 2009, when the United Indoor Football League and the Intense Football League merged into one league with 19 teams.
Of those original 19 teams, two remain in the league today (Sioux Falls Storm and Colorado Ice).
In total, 41 different franchises have joined the league, and of those 76 percent have either folded or left for another league.
And only two IFL teams have been located in cities smaller than Bemidji: The Wichita Wild - located in Park City, Kan. - and the Arctic Predators, from Wasilla, Alaska. Both were in suburbs of larger metropolitan areas. Both teams no longer exist.
Ladehoff knew those odds when he got the franchise to Bemidji in 2013 but he wanted to give it a shot.
Along with Kokalis, Ladehoff finalized plans to bring the franchise to Bemidji in August 2013.
But Ladehoff soon found going into business with another person with no connection to the Bemidji area was a bad idea. The team went 5-9 in their inaugural season in the Sanford Center - not great, but decent for a first-year franchise - but their finances were in dire shape, according to Ladehoff.
“By the time the (first) season was over (Kokalis) told me that we were in the hole $30,000 and (he) was just going to leave those people out to dry,” he said in his email. “I didn’t want that so I attempted to put together a new ownership group.
“By the time everything had been signed over, the $30,000 debt was actually closer to $60,000.”
Kokalis decided to discontinue his ownership of the team and Ladehoff was left with the its debt, so he looked to the area to find more owners.
Ownership changes, challenges
Coffin, Sallberg and Dan Skaug joined Ladehoff for the 2015 season. Almost immediately, there were disagreements.
Coffin and his brother-in-law Skaug didn’t want a big share, so they agreed to 7.5 percent each.
“We jumped aboard and signed a contract, which was a different contract that was sent into the IFL,” Coffin said. “The IFL approved all of us to be 25 percent each … that is not what I signed, but that is what Ross sent into the IFL.”
The team’s struggles on the field - they started 2-2 before losing their final 10 games of the season to finish 2-12 overall - mirrored some of the internal strife in the front office.
Going into the fourth game of the season, Coffin said the team was out of money, so he, Skaug and Sallberg did a cash infusion (an investment made by a company to bailout the investee company from a financial crisis) and Ladehoff was out.
“We never had cash to begin with, it was always making it from week to week,” Ladehoff said. “It was pretty much the opposite (of a cash infusion). I loaned the team $25,000 when I notified Nate and Dan I was going to call a cash infusion. Phil called and sent me a check, Dan and Nate didn’t want to put their portion in. One solution was they would put up money throughout the season to help business run and be paid back at the end of the year.
“Adam (Barnhardt, the team’s General Manager) talked the others into giving him an ownership stake and put me on the outside looking in. I just hope that they will pay any debts that might be out there, they gave me their word they would do that.”
Barnhardt resigned from his position as GM nine days after the team’s final game.
Lingering issues, but team will return
There is at least one debt still unpaid for the owners - $1,667 owed to Wooten.
Wooten released a portion of his contract to the Bemidji Pioneer stating if fired he would still be owed two weeks pay - which he says has yet to be paid since his final game in Colorado.
When asked about Wooten’s contract, Coffin declined to comment.
Coffin did say he plans on the team returning for a third season in Bemidji.
Curtis Webb, executive director of the Sanford Center, where the team plays its home games, said there is not a deal in place as of yet for a third season, but he fully expects there to be one soon.
The first season wasn’t a good one between the Axemen and the Sanford Center, Webb noted, but the new ownership has since righted the ship with the team’s home.
“It has been a year-by-year deal since 2014, when the ownership owed us after the first year,” Webb said, referring to approximately $14,000 the Axemen had let linger following the 2014 season. The team eventually squared its debts with the Sanford Center. “That was the old ownership. I expect good things going forward.”
Coffin has vowed to continue to improve relations between Bemidji and its only professional team.
“There are a lot of things that happened around this town that I’m not proud of,” Coffin said. “The Axemen name has burned so many bridges that it’s tough that we have to ask for forgiveness twice.
“I was born and raised in this town, I have business in this town and I want this town to be done right.”