TAMPA — Lawrence Samuels is family.
Through the years, Samuels has been a fixture for the Tampa Bay Storm. The former star receiver helped them win the Arena Football League championship in 2003 — one of five titles in franchise history.
A 2013 AFL Hall of Fame inductee, Samuels now takes over as head coach of the team he spent the better part of 18 seasons with as a player or assistant coach.
The Storm open the 2014 season tonight against the South Division rival New Orleans Voodoo at 7:30 at the Forum.
“He’s like a father figure to me,” said receiver Joe Hills, who set Storm single-season records last year in receptions (133), yards (1,861) and receiving touchdowns (42). “He’s a great guy and a great coach. He gives me a good word, now and then, and also tells me when I’m not doing too good and when I’m doing excellent. So, he’s good at that.”
Former South Florida standout receiver Amarri Jackson, who returns for this third season with the Storm after catching 35 touchdown passes in 2011, also offers high praise.
“I like to say (Samuels is) like a Tony Dungy-, Lovie Smith-type coach — laid-back, straight to the point,” Jackson said. “And he’s one of those guys who doesn’t raise his voice, but he’ll pull you to the side and say, ‘If you’re not going to do it my way, then I’ll find someone who will.’ There’s no disrespect from him.
“He’s (in the AFL) Hall of Fame, so he knows this game.”
Samuels, 43, played two stints totaling 16 years with the Storm (1994-2000, 2002-10).
He was offensive coordinator last season and now takes over for Dave Ewart, who was fired after horrid play down the stretch in 2013. Even though the Storm (7-11) lost their final seven games, they made the playoffs before ending the season with a close loss to Jacksonville.
The team returns 10 players, including quarterback Randy Hippeard.
But gone is quarterback Adrian McPherson, a key player until sidelined by an injury.
The Storm failed to score more than 50 points in six of their seven season-ending losses.
“We’re focused on how to handle adversity,” said Samuels, who was MVP and Ironman of ArenaBowl XVII in 2003. “I put them in those situations, and I think as a coaching staff we’ll do a good job of handling those, too.
“We made a lot of upgrades at a lot of positions, and I feel the guys are a lot more in tune than last year, further ahead than where we were last year. I know that I have to do a good job of managing the whole team. And we’re preaching to the guys to hold up the tradition of this team and do well on and off the field.”
The Storm is undecided on a starting quarterback between Hippeard and former Jefferson High star Stephen Garcia.
Samuels kept together a core group of players from last season because of the familiarity and talent. So, now, this Storm team can become a family more quickly.
“I think we can gel faster, thanks to the continuity that we’ll see, plus the leadership factor is big for us, especially since we had just two weeks of camp,” Samuels said. “With such limited time, that will be helpful to us, to bring back so many guys that already know the system.
“But we’re excited to be back together as a team.”