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The Cleveland Gladiators are an Arena Football League team currently relocating to Cleveland, Ohio from Las Vegas, Nevada. The Cleveland franchise was founded in East Rutherford, New Jersey in 1997 as the New Jersey Red Dogs.
New Jersey Red Dogs entered the Arena Football League in 1997, along with the Nashville Kats and the New York City Hawks. Their ownership group, which was led by New Jersey radio entrepreneur E. Burke Ross, also included several ex-NFL players, such as Joe Morris, Carl Banks, and Harry Carson. The Red Dogs played at Continental Airlines Arena in the East Rutherford, New Jersey.
The AFL's intention was to add only New Jersey and Nashville for 1997. However, well after the awarding of the Red Dogs and Kats franchises, the owners of Madison Square Garden in New York City requested a franchise of their own, and the league granted this request. And so the City Hawks also began play in 1997. This had an impact on the Red Dogs, in that the league then prevented the Red Dogs from advertising in New York. While North Jersey itself is very populous in its own right, the Red Dogs had hoped to be the team for the entire New York metropolitan area.
Despite this setback, the Red Dogs management built a good team, which opened its history in memorable fashion. The team won 8 of its first 9 games, including a victory in their inaugural game on a last-second game-winning field goal, a thrilling overtime victory against the Albany Firebirds, a thorough thrashing of the Iowa Barnstormers, and also one game in which they scored a then-record 91 points against the Texas Terror.
The Red Dogs slumped late in their first season, losing 4 of their final 5 games to finish 9-5, then losing to the Orlando Predators in the first round of the playoffs. The Red Dogs finished 8-6 in 1998, their second season, and won their first playoff game in Albany against the Firebirds.
Hufnagel left the Red Dogs after the 1998 season for a job with the NFL's Cleveland Browns, and he was replaced by Frank Mattiace, a former defensive lineman for the New Jersey Generals of the USFL. Star Larry Ray Willis was traded to the Milwaukee Mustangs
The Red Dogs made a significant trade following the 1999 season, a trade they never got to benefit from. New Jersey sent Alvin Ashley to the Orlando Predators for wide receiver/defensive back Barry Wagner, widely regarded as the greatest player in the league's history. However, soon after the trade, the league and its players agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that resulted in several veteran players. Wagner then signed with the San Jose SaberCats.
In 2000, the Red Dogs fell to 4-10. Foggie lost his job as starting QB, replaced by Tommy Maddox, at the time a failed NFL quarterback. Head coach Frank Mattiace left the team in mid-season and was replaced on an interim basis by Kevin Guy, a former defensive back/wide receiver who had played two full seasons with the Red Dogs.
Before the 2001 season, the New Jersey team was sold to Joe Ferraro, a lawyer from Miami, Florida. Ferraro changed the team name to the New Jersey Gladiators. The new ownership appointed as head coach the ex-CityHawk boss Lary Kuharich, who had won ArenaBowl VII in 1993 with the Tampa Bay Storm, and acquired Connell Maynor from Orlando to be the starting QB.
Maynor had led the Predators to victory in ArenaBowl XIV the previous season, and was named the game's MVP. An all-around threat, Maynor had played with the CityHawks under Kuharich in 1997, but took only one snap all season as the backup to Mike Perez. Instead, the CityHawks used Maynor as a wide receiver/linebacker, and one week he even won the award for the league's best ironman.
The Gladiators reached the lowest ebb in the history of the franchise in 2001, winning only 2 out of 14 games that season. The club's top receivers attained roughly half the amount of yards that Larry Ray Willis had done in each of the franchise's first two seasons, and the rushing leader was QB Maynor himself.
In 2002, the club had another new coach, Frank Haege, who had been a Red Dog assistant under John Hufnagel. After leaving the Red Dogs, Haege went on to coach the Quad City Steamwheelers of the AFL's minor-league circuit af2. Haege's Quad City team dominated the af2 for two seasons, winning 31 of 32 regular-season games and two championships.
The Gladiators' new QB for 2002 was Jay McDonagh, who had played under Haege at Quad City. Former Red Dog Alvin Ashley was back with the club, seeing limited duty; however, this time around the main New Jersey receiver was Mike Horacek, who had starred for the Iowa Barnstormers, and has since returned to that franchise to play for the Dragons. The Gladiators' fortunes turned around, and they had their first winning season since 1998, going 9-5 and hosting a playoff game for the first time (a loss to Orlando).
The New Jersey Gladiators looked all set to go for the 2003 season. The 2003 season would be the first one to begin in February instead of April, and it would be the first one in which the league's games would be televised weekly by NBC.However, with only weeks to go before the start of the season, owner Ferraro moved the team to Las Vegas. The move came as a shock to the team's fans, as the Gladiators were sending out ticket package offers even through their last week in New Jersey.
The AFL schedules for the 2003 season had already been devised, so the Las Vegas Gladiators would play that season in the Eastern Division of the National Conference, before shifting in 2004 to the American Conference's Western Division.
The Gladiators relocated to Las Vegas, Nevada for the 2003 season and played their home games at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. This arena was also the home of a previous Arena team, the Las Vegas Sting, in 1994 and 1995. In 2007, in an effort to increase attendance, the Gladiators moved to the Orleans Arena, which has a smaller capacity than the T & M Center. The move, however, did not increase the number of fans from last season. The Gladiators averaged 5,383 fans in 2007, down from a 10,115 average in 2006. The Gladiators competed in the Western Division of the AFL's American Conference.
On October 16, 2007, it was announced in a press conference that the Gladiators would be relocating to Cleveland, Ohio. Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar was announced as the public face of the team as well as the President of Football Operations. The team will play its games in Quicken Loans Arena, which also home of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers and the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters. The team has also moved to the Eastern Division of the National Conference. It will still be known as the Gladiators and retain the team colors of red, silver, and black.
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