Bob Stoops just won a national championship. In Texas. Coaching a Texas team. Yeah, that Bob Stoops—the longtime Oklahoma coach who led the Sooners to a national championship in 2000, dominating the Texas Longhorns and just about everyone else they played en route to an undefeated season.

This past weekend, that same Bob Stoops coached the Arlington Renegades to the championship of the XFL, which, with eight teams representing eight cities, is at least technically a national football league. Unlike in 2000, Stoops’s Arlington squad was neither dominant nor undefeated. The Renegades finished the regular season with four wins and six losses. Their only victories came against the league’s basement-dwellers—the Vegas Vipers, the Orlando Guardians (which Arlington beat twice), and the San Antonio Brahmas. But Stoops’s team snuck into the playoffs and upset the Houston Roughnecks in the first round and knocked off the DC Defenders in the title game.

Perhaps even more confusing than the sight of Bob Stoops coaching a Texas football team is that all the teams in the XFL were also technically Texas-based teams. In fact, the league’s extensive Texas connections were the reason that the XFL just concluded what may have been the best spring professional football season ever. 

Then again, that might not be saying much. Plenty of investors have tried—and failed—to make pro football work in the spring. The 1980s United States Football League (USFL) blew a lot of cash on a handful of star players, including newly minted Heisman winner Herschel Walker, but it went broke after three seasons.

NFL Europe lasted from 1998 to 2005, but it too shut down after years of financial losses. More recently, the Alliance of American Football made it through 80 percent of a season before its owner—Dallas financier and Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon—decided the league was bleeding too much cash to continue playing.

And then there’s the XFL, which is now in its third reboot. The XFL launched—the first time—as a joint production of NBC and the WWE in 2001. That league was the kind of comically absurd outfit that might have welcomed Hingle McCringleberry and his three-pump celebration. It featured teams such as the New York/New Jersey Hitmen and the Memphis Maniax. The x in the name, you see, made it edgy. Cheerleaders wore lingerie. And the rules made games needlessly violent. Instead of a coin toss to start games, the original XFL used “the scramble,” where two players from opposing teams had to chase after a football placed ten yards away. Whoever got there first won the opening possession. Sound dangerous? You bet! On the very first “scramble,” a player separated his shoulder. Not surprisingly, that version of the XFL shut down just weeks after its first championship game, where the San Francisco Demons were thumped by the Los Angeles Xtreme. X!

The XFL tried again in 2020, with the WWE’s Vince McMahon still among its owners. That league was less flashy, but we’ll never know if it would have produced a compelling season. Five weeks into the 2020 campaign, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. Games were canceled and eventually the whole season was called off. The league then plunged into bankruptcy. It returned this year after new owners bought the XFL brand name. The new ownership group consists of New York–based sports investment fund RedBird Capital Partners (not named for the southern Dallas mall), along with Dany Garcia, an entertainment executive, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is Garcia’s ex-husband and also an actor or wrestler or something.

That triad spent more than two years plotting this third inaugural season of the XFL. And Texas was the key to those plans. Garcia has said the special ingredient in the XFL’s “secret sauce” was a place called Arlington, Texas.

Yep, that Arlington. The Arlington that’s west of Dallas and east of Fort Worth and south of DFW International Airport and north of Carl’s Corner. The Arlington that is home to Six Flags and Jerry World. That Arlington was the base of operations for this XFL, and the place where all the league’s four hundred players, along with coaches and staff, trained and lived.

By basing its operations in Arlington, the XFL was able to reduce the challenges of having eight teams living and playing in eight different cities. Instead, the teams were grouped together in pairs, sharing practice facilities and hotels in and around Arlington. The DC Defenders and the St. Louis Battlehawks both went south of Arlington to train at Mansfield ISD’s Vernon Newsom Stadium. The Las Vegas Vipers and Seattle Sea Dragons went to Southlake, where they used Carroll ISD’s Dragon Stadium. San Antonio and Orlando went to Northwest ISD Stadium in Justin, which is just west of the Texas Motor Speedway. The Arlington Renegades and the Houston Roughnecks, meanwhile, coexisted at Choctaw Stadium. Each pair of teams shared trainers and lived and ate team meals together in the same hotels.

That setup cost an estimated $20,000 per player in housing and food for the season. On top of that, the XFL paid each player about $60,000, with some quarterbacks getting more, and added on a $1,000 bonus to players when their teams won a game. Spread that out among four hundred players and do some rough back-of-the-envelope math and you get a base cost for the season that’s something like $50 million.

That’s a sweet load of clams for spring football. So it makes sense that, to succeed, the XFL had to do whatever it could to keep costs from climbing much higher. The league accomplished this by basing its entire operation in a place like Arlington—and the “Dream City” was an inspired choice. Think of it this way: If someone offered you a four-month work assignment where you were required to live in corporate housing and make weekly flights around the country, would there be any better place in the country to execute that assignment than in the Hampton Inn–studded, DFW International–adjacent Arlington? Okay, well, maybe Grapevine. But you get the idea.

The Arlington setup, which the XFL dubbed “the hub,” also gave a handful of XFL players the chance to enjoy the comforts of being close to home. So too did the XFL’s choice to base three of its eight teams in Texas. The San Antonio Brahmas, which had the league’s best defense, were led by a pair of Texans—Jordan Williams, a linebacker from Paris, Texas, who was a standout at Baylor, and Delontae Scott, a defensive end from Irving, who starred at SMU. Both players were named to the “All XFL” team at season’s end.

Somehow, former Dallas Cowboys backup quarterback Ben DiNucci didn’t make that team, even though he led the XFL in both passing and high-pitched squealing while playing for the Seattle Sea Dragons (despite living not far from Jerry World, where he played for three seasons). One of DiNucci’s most frequent targets was Josh Gordon, the Houston native and Baylor star who was an NFL pro bowler during an eleven-year career that was often disrupted by substance abuse suspensions. And Seattle’s high-powered offense was coordinated by former SMU head coach June Jones.

In the ill-fated 2020 XFL, Jones coached the Houston Roughnecks to an undefeated start before the season was abandoned. The 2023 XFL put native Texan Wade Phillips in charge of the Roughnecks, who won their division, beating Arlington twice along the way. Arlington downed Houston in the playoffs after pulling off a trade for a new quarterback, Luis Perez, who led Texas A&M–Commerce to the Division II championship in 2017. Now he’s the second-ever quarterback to take his team to an XFL championship. (Make a note for your trivia night: the other was the Los Angeles Xtreme’s Tommy Maddox.)

For anyone who, like this reporter, spent the spring of 2019 watching every game played in the Alliance of American Football, and the spring of 2022 watching every game of the newly returned USFL, and this past spring also watching every USFL game, you might wonder what made this XFL season—and not those other ones—the best spring football season ever. For one thing, the XFL’s new rules were engaging, especially the overtime setup resembling a soccer shootout (teams swap three possessions from the five-yard line) and the challenge system where coaches can dispute any call or any noncall at any point in the game if they also have one timeout remaining.

But there are other reasons, too. Unlike the Alliance, which didn’t manage to finish its season last year, the XFL’s Arlington hub gave the league a financial structure that allowed it to play all its games and the championship. That’s something the USFL also did in 2022. But that season the USFL wasn’t better than the XFL—and again, Texas is the reason.

In 2022, the USFL, like the XFL, based all its players in one city—Birmingham, Alabama. No doubt the Hampton Inns in Birmingham are as lovely as the ones in Arlington. But the USFL also played all its games in Birmingham, which meant that any contest that did not feature the Birmingham Stallions was played in virtually empty stadiums, an unpleasant reminder of the worst sports days of the pandemic.

Even if a spring league is unlikely to pack most arenas, fans still matter. And even with all its players living in Arlington, the XFL managed to create home-team experiences. The league put 12,000 butts in the seats, on average, at Choctaw Stadium (despite its awful layout for football). It averaged about the same attendance at Houston’s TDECU Stadium. And it did even better in the Alamodome, DC’s Audi Field, and Seattle’s Lumen Field, all of which averaged more than 14,000 fans per game. The league lagged in Orlando and Vegas. But in St. Louis, about 35,000 people filed into the Dome at America’s Center whenever the Battlehawks flew from Dallas, sharing a charter flight with the away team.

This season, the USFL has done a little better. Like the XFL, the USFL has paired teams up, dividing them among four different cities. And yet only three of the league’s eight teams have an actual home stadium. One of the USFL’s two Pennsylvania franchises and its New Jersey franchise play “home” games in Canton, Ohio.

If the USFL returns to take on the XFL again next season (and nothing is ever certain in the world of spring pro football), perhaps it, too, should consider a Texas hub. May we suggest Grapevine?