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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bob Lutz: Old Wings ready to see the new guys succeed


It was a stroke of brilliance or an absolute no-brainer — perhaps both — for the newest professional soccer franchise in Wichita to latch on to the one nickname that could gain it instant credibility.

The Wings.

For 22 years, the Wings and Wichita had a love affair. There were rocky times, sure. But the good people of this fine city and those in surrounding communities couldn't get enough of the Wings.

Fans packed into the Kansas Coliseum for many of those seasons, especially when the Wings were a part of the Major Indoor Soccer League from 1979-92. During an seven-year stretch from the 1982-83 season through 1988-89, the Wings averaged more than 8,000 fans and topped 9,000 for average attendance twice.

Love can't be a one-way street, and the players who came through Wichita in those years returned the amore.

"The best time of our lives,'' former Wings star Chico Borja, now an assistant principal at a charter school in Plantation, Fla., said. "As a family, as a professional. Great times.''

The Wings, it might surprise you to know, were not a great franchise on the pitch. Their overall record during 13 seasons in the MISL was 304-293. After joining the National Professional Soccer League in 1992, the Wings were 189-174 in nine seasons.

But the Wings were almost always competitive, almost always a good team. They consistently made it to the playoffs. And they had a formula for being successful off the pitch, which was as important to the team's legacy as wins.

"I wanted to make sure our players were out in the community,'' said Roy Turner, the first coach in franchise history and one who spent 10 seasons on the Wings' bench. "I wanted them to get to know everybody in town so that everybody who came to our games felt like they already knew the players.''

That, as much as anything, explains why the Wings were such a box-office hit for so much of their existence.

Yes, there were a few "Save the Wings" campaigns that ultimately soured a community that had done enough reaching into pockets. The financially-strapped franchise finally folded in 2001.

But it wasn't long after that last ball had been kicked that soccer fans in Wichita started asking the same question: When will the Wings come back?

In March, they received the answer when the revamped MISL awarded a spot to the expansion Wings and new owner Wink Hartman. Soon thereafter another link to Wings' past, Wichita native LeBaron Hollimon, was chosen as the team's coach. Hollimon played for the Wings from 1992-99.

So the Wings are back.

In what form, we're not sure. During the Wings' heyday in the old MISL, the best soccer players from all over the world were on display.

Then again, most will just be happy to have the orange and blue — now orange and black — back, ready for Thursday's opener at Hartman Arena.

"I remember LeBaron coming to our games before he was even in high school,'' Borja said. "He was a regular. Kids in Wichita idolized us in those days. I hope everybody in Wichita gives this new tradition time to grow.''

Growing would come faster with colorful players such as Borja, who loved to jump on boards and celebrate with the crowd every time he scored.

Not that he expected much after finding out his MISL rights had been sold to Wichita from Las Vegas, a franchise that folded in 1985. Talk about a letdown.

Borja was hoping to end up with the Pittsburgh Spirit, but that deal didn't come together.

"My initial reaction was: 'Wichita, Kan.?' '' Borja remembered. "We lived on the west side and it wasn't as built up as I'm sure it is now. But we found out that if you could just get to Kellogg, you could go anywhere.''

The Borja family eventually moved to the east side and lived on a cul de sac, Borja said, where all the kids took up soccer because of the Wings.

"I'm not giving myself any credit for that because the Wings already had something built when I got there,'' he said. "The Kevin Kewleys and Norman Pipers and all the Danish guys who the fans loved. I just wanted to be a part of a town that loved the game.''

Turner, who still lives in Wichita and is tournament director for the Nationwide Tour's golf tournament held every summer at Crestview Country Club, is excited to have the Wings back. He's done some consulting work with the new Wings and hopes they succeed.

"I want to do whatever I can to help them make it,'' he said. "In our time, I think three things were important for what the Wings were able to do here. We had great ownership, quality players but most of all it was the fans. This new franchise has the first two of those in place, I believe. Now let's see how the fans respond.''

Time will tell. But at least they got the nickname right.

Check sports columnist Bob Lutz's blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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