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Wyoming Mustangs wrap up second year playing in Gillette

Mustangs

Mustangs defender Yaphay Harvey watches the final few seconds of the season tick off the clock during the team’s 49-40 playoff loss to the Billings Outlaws in Montana.

It’s been an up and down road for the Wyoming Mustangs since the professional indoor football team came to Gillette less than two years ago.

The team was announced in early October of 2020 and played its first home game five months later. The Mustangs enjoyed immediate success at the box offices and sold over 14,000 tickets in its first four home games inside the Wyoming Center at Cam-plex.

But as the team began to plummet in the standings, attendance dwindled as the short 10-game season dragged along. While it became clear that watching a winning team wasn’t exactly a deal-breaker for the majority of fans, the dip in attendance showed the lack of community interest in watching a pro football team stumble out to a 2-7 record in its inaugural season.

Despite the team’s last few home games having lackluster attendance, the Mustangs earned a postseason award for having the best fan base in the Champions Indoor Football League. Wyoming led the league in attendance in its first season playing in the CIF.

Keith Russ — the team’s founder with Pick Six Entertainment — promised Gillette an entertaining product both on and off the field. For those first few home games last season, Russ delivered on that promise.

But then Russ expanded his indoor football venture into two surrounding states. Russ and business partner Tel Koan announced a CIF expansion team in Billings, Montana last April and announced a second expansion team in Rapid City, South Dakota five months later.

Things really started going south for the franchise less than three weeks into the Mustangs second season. Russ and Koan owned three of the league’s eight teams going into the year and it didn’t take long for it to become overwhelming to financially balance all three.

Just one game into the team’s second season playing in Gillette, Russ sold the Mustangs to local defense attorney Steven Titus in March. Four days later, Titus and newly rehired CEO, general manager and part-owner Del Shelstad fired head coach Michael Coleman after the team’s second game of the season.

Both Titus and Shelstad claimed Coleman’s termination had less to do with the team’s 0-2 start to the season and more about the team’s culture going forward. The pair of owners promised fans and local businesses a winning product going forward and hired Curtis Williams as Coleman’s replacement to lead the charge.

Williams did do something Coleman never did in Gillette. He won a game. But after coaching the Mustangs to a 1-2 record in just three games, Williams and the Mustangs mutually agreed to part ways for medical reasons.

Less than 24 hours later, Williams invited the News Record to his hotel room and claimed he was originally fired before Shelstad offered him $2,500 in “hush money” to resign for medical reasons instead.

Cedric Walker was hired with Williams as the team’s defensive coordinator and was promoted as the Mustangs third head coach when Williams left the team. Walker coached his first game on April 23, a 38-37 win over the Topeka Tropics.

It seemed that the waves of CIF drama would end after the departure of Williams from Gillette. But less than a month after Williams resigned and/or was fired, reports began to surface around the league of Russ going weeks without paying his bills.

The Marshals — who Russ founded in Rapid City and played in their first season in the CIF this year — were evicted from their hotel in South Dakota after Russ and Pick Six Entertainment failed to pay bills for the rooms for multiple weeks, according to the Rapid City Journal.

Similar allegations arose in Billings with several players, coaches, staff and even team dancers claiming to have gone without pay for several weeks, according to 406mtsports.com.

The CIF took over operation of both teams last month. Within a week, the league approved an ownership application from Titus to buy the Billings Outlaws from Russ.

Wes Johnson and Rebecca Chapman were also approved to buy the Marshals from the group. Johnson serves as the chief operating officer for the Mustangs and owns Four Seasons Events in Gillette.

The plot twists continued to roll in as the CIF season continued along. The Mustangs somehow managed to sneak into the CIF playoffs with a 3-7 record and clinched the No. 6 seed to face Titus’ other team, the Billings Outlaws.

It would seem to be a conflict of interest of sorts for an individual to own multiple teams in one league. Going into the year, Russ owned 37.5% of CIF teams. Now with his recent purchase, Titus owns 25%.

It’s been apparent from the start of the Wyoming Mustangs that the CIF isn’t exactly beaming with proper ethics. But after seeing the team go from a community staple to the laughing stock of the CIF to somewhere now in between, what is the future of the Wyoming Mustangs?

Where it started to go wrong for Russ was his demand for expansion into other markets. Not only did he fail to pay his bills in those other markets (Billings and Rapid City), but he ended up selling the piece that started it all: the Mustangs.

Before selling the team, Russ and Cam-plex reached a three-year lease agreement for the Wyoming Center. The first season of the three-year contract was played this spring.

At the very least, the Wyoming Mustangs have a building to play in for the next two seasons. But just like last year, the team’s attendance began to suffer as the team dropped lower and lower in the standings over the last two months.

Walker will likely return as the team’s head coach next season and will have a fresh start after taking over a 1-4 team this year. But the real curiosity about the future of the Mustangs isn’t about what happens on the field, but rather, what happens off of it.

Titus will have his hands full balancing ownership between the two markets of Gillette and Billings while simultaneously trying to put out the flames of burnt bridges set before him. The key now will be to roll the momentum over from this year into training camp next March.

To the surprise of some, the Mustangs made it through a second full season playing in the CIF. And while at no point during the last four months would anyone involved say it was smooth sailing, the team survived with some dignity intact after the adversity it faced.

Mustangs fans will have to wait another eight months to watch their hometown team compete inside the Wyoming Center. And during those eight months, Titus and Shelstad will have the same amount of time to decide what the future looks like for their new professional indoor football team.

It wouldn’t be the worst idea to start with what was promised from the beginning: Winning.

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