Archive for the ‘Football’ Category
League founder Jim Foster sketched his idea for a 50-yard indoor football game on the back of a manilla envelope while watching the Major Indoor Soccer League All-Star Game at the Madison Square Garden in February 1981. Foster layered a 50-yard carpeted football field over a hockey rink and dispensed with punting, most rushing, and practically all defense. Teams would play eight-on-eight, with all players except the quarterback and kicker playing “Iron Man” football – offense and defense. Taut 30-foot wide nets placed on either side of the uprights kept kickoffs, missed field goals and errant touchdown passes in play.
Armed with an ESPN television deal, Foster launched a preview season in June 1987, featuring four league-owned franchises playing a six-game schedule. Cable TV ratings and attendance were promising, so Foster expanded the league in 1988 by selling limited partnerships to five new investors groups. The six team line-up for the 1988 season included the returning Pittsburgh Gladiators and Chicago Bruisers, along with four expansion teams: the Knights, the Detroit Drive, the Los Angeles Cobras and the New England Steamrollers.
New Jersey toy marketer and philanthropist Russ Berrie was the investor behind the Knights. A self-made millionaire, Berrie started his toy company in garage in 1963, selling inexpensive and often sentimental toys such as Fuzzy Wuzzies, Sillisculpts and troll dolls. By 1988, Berrie’s firm was a public traded company with over $200 million in annual revenue, a sizable chunk of it generated as the exclusive toy licensee of Snuggles The Fabric Softening Bear.
The Knights featured an eclectic cast of pro football castaways. Quarterback Jim Crocicchia was a Wharton School grad from U. Penn who played for the New York Giants as a replacement during the 1987 players strike, as did his favorite receiver Edwin Lovelady. Running back-linebacker Johnny Shepherd was the 1983 Rookie-of-the-Year in the Canadian Football League, and a strike player for the Buffalo Bills. Vince Courville, Derek Hughes, Eric Schubert and Peter Raeford were refugees from the United States Football League, as was Head Coach and General Manager Jim Valek, who once served in a senior executive role for Donald Trump’s New Jersey Generals franchise.
Knights players earned $1,000 per game for the 12-game season, plus a bonus of $150 for each victory. But the Knights didn’t win much. They defeated the Los Angeles Cobras twice on the road, but lost their other ten games, including all six home games at Madison Square Garden, to finish in last place at 2-10. 13,667 curiosity seekers turned out for the Knights debut at the Garden on May 9th, 1988, but the teams remaining games all drew announced crowds of 7,500 or fewer.
Following the 1988 season, Foster’s limited partnership structure fell apart. For their investment, the limited partners received operating rights to their local franchise, but little of the financial and marketing discretion typically accorded to professional sports owners. Player personnel and league marketing decisions remained the domain of Foster, the league’s Commissioner. As Foster, a former United States Football League executive, described it to Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman:
“We’ve flushed out the big ego guys. We tell ‘em ‘look, you don’t own the team, you rent it.’ That gets rid of the Donald Trumps right away.”
Tom Rooney, director of marketing for the Pittsburgh Civic Arena where the league-owned Pittsburgh Gladiators played, gave a different take on the arrangement to The Pittsburgh Press in November 1988.
“You don’t tell someone who puts in millions of dollars how to run their team. Jim Foster was naive. It’s impractical because of the way of human nature and especially the human nature of people who are worth millions of dollars. They don’t throw in millions of dollars and say ‘Jim Foster, you run the league’.”
The limited partners attempted to buy out Foster during the fall of 1988, but he refused to sell. In February 1989, Detroit Drive officials announced to the press that the 1989 season would be cancelled as a result of the dispute. Ultimately, Foster retained control of his creation but most of the limited partners departed. The Knights pulled out and shut down prior to the 1989 season, as did the Los Angeles and Providence, RI expansion franchises.
Russ Berrie passed away suddenly at the age of 69 on Christmas Day 2002. After his Arena Football investment collapsed at the end of 1988, Berrie turned his attention to the Senior Professional Baseball Association, a Florida-based winter league for ex-Major League players aged 35 and over. At one point, Berrie traded 500 teddy bears from his toy & gift company to the Winter Haven Super Sox for 48-year old pitcher Luis Tiant.
Former Knights Head Coach & General Manager Jim Valek died in 2005.
In 1996, the Arena Football League sold a franchise to ITT-Cablevision, operators of the Madison Square Garden. The New York Cityhawks attempted to make a go of it, but the second time was not the charm. The Cityhawks departed for Hartford, Connecticut in 1999 after two seasons of wretched attendance, marking the final effort of the Arena League to conquer Manhattan.
Georgia real estate develop David Berkman owned the Barracudas, along with minority partners Charles Felix and Bruce Burge. Berkman was a serial hockey investor during the 1990’s who owned, at various times, the Atlanta Knights and Quebec Rafales of the International Hockey League, the Atlanta Fire Ants of Roller Hockey International, and various East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) clubs including the Birmingham Bulls, Jacksonville Lizard Kings and the Pensacola Ice Pilots.
In the spring of 1999 Berkman and his partners made a bid to enter three indoor football franchises into a Southeastern U.S. start-up called the Xtreme Football League. Berkman’s group reserved the Birmingham, Jacksonville and Pensacola markets – all locations where they had experience operating ECHL hockey clubs.
Meanwhile, the major market Arena Football League announced plans to start its own second-tier league which would be known as AF2 and would launch in 2000. In July 1999, AF2 bought out and absorbed the Xtreme Football League into AF2. Berkman and Co. paid a $150,000 fee per franchise to enter the Birmingham Steeldogs, Jacksonville Tomcats and Pensacola Barracudas into AF2.
Former Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets defensive back Kevin Porter served as Pensacola’s Head Coach during the club’s first season in 2000.
Due to the overlapping ownership, the staff of the ECHL Ice Pilots operated the Barracudas during the summer months. During AF2’s first season in 2000, the Barracudas were a hot ticket, claiming an average of 7,294 fans per game at the Pensacola Civic Center. Attendance dropped precipitously in the next two seasons, mirroring the experience of the Ice Pilots, whose attendance fell off nearly 50% between 1998 and 2001. Barracudas attendance bottomed out at 2,768 per game in their third season during the summer of 2002.
The club folded on November 11, 2002.
Wide Receiver/Defensive Back Will Pettis made his pro debut with the Barracudas in 2002. He went on to join the first-tier Arena Football League’s Dallas Desperadoes in 2003, where he became an All-League performer. Pettis won the league’s Ironman-of-the-Year award in both 2007 and 2008, given to the league’s best two-way player. Pettis went to NFL training camps with the New Orleans Saints (2003) and the Atlanta Falcons (2005).
Downloads & Further Reading:
The Quebec Rifles entered the United Football League as an expansion franchise in January 1964. Based out of Montreal, the new franchise adopted the nickname of its local hero Head Coach, former Montreal Alouettes star quarterback Sam “The Rifle” Etcheverry. The Rifles were a geographic anomaly in the eight-team UFL, a minor league loop based in the Midwest with clubs in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia. In Canada, the Rifles were the first team to play pro football under American, rather than Canadian, rules. J.I. Albrecht served as the club’s General Manager.
The Rifles played out of 13,000-seat Delorimier Stadium, a former home of both the Alouettes (1946-1953) and the Montreal Royals, the long-time farm club of baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Royals finished the 1964 UFL season at 5-9. Running back Joe Williams led the league in scoring with 17 touchdowns. Former University of Indiana Hoosier John Henry Jackson handled the quartbacking duties as one of the early African-Americans to see significant time at the position in the pros.
In February 1965, the UFL clubs split into two factions. The owners interested in pursuing the traditional low-budget minor league model went off to launch the Professional Football League of America. The UFL’s more ambitious franchises, including the Rifles, merged with like-minded clubs from the Atlantic Coast Football League to announce the formation of the Continental Football League. The Continental League announced its intention to pursue a television contract and to compete with the NFL and the AFL for top collegiate talent. The owners hired A.B. “Happy” Chandler, the former Commissioner of Major League Baseball (1945-1951) for the same post in their new organization.
Along with a new league, the Rifles had a new home in 1965. The club relocated from Montreal to Toronto, a shift that got off to a rocky start when the University of Toronto refused to offer a lease at Varsity Stadium. The club reluctantly set up shop at Maple Leafs Stadium, a baseball stadium used by the city’s triple-A baseball team. Etcheverry did not make the move to Toronto and was replaced as Head Coach by former Alouettes assistant Leo Cahill.
Under Cahill, the Toronto Rifles went 11-3 in 1965 and earned a trip to the Continental Football League championship game, which they lost to the Charleston (WV) Rockets 24-7. The backfield duo of Joe Williams and Bob Blakely finished top two in the league in rushing, while wide receiver Dick Limerick paced the circuit with 17 touchdowns. John Henry Jackson took the snaps at quarterback again, with the exception of one October night in Charleston, West Virginia. FBI agents entered the Rifles locker room moments before kickoff and arrested the 26-year old on draft evasion charges. Charleston’s owner courteously paid Jackson’s $1,000 bond and Jackson made it back to the stadium in time to watch the final three minutes of the game.
In 1966, the Rifles got the Varsity Stadium lease they coveted and moved across town. Jackson lost his starting job to Tom Wilkinson, a rookie out of the University of Wyoming. Wilkinson passed for 18 touchdowns and earned league Rookie-of-the-Year honors. Williams and Blakely finished 1-2 in the league in rushing for the second straight year, both going over 1,000 yards. Cahill’s Rifles were a top club once again and their 9-5 record was good enough to get back to the Continental League playoffs. In the semi-final, they met the Philadelphia Bulldogs in a rematch of the 1965 title game. Once again, the Bulldogs got the best of it, eliminating the Rifles 31-14.
In April 1967, Cahill moved across town to take the head job with the dreadful Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. The Rifles signed CFL legend Jackie Parker to take over coaching duties. It was the first coaching gig for the recently retired 35-year old. But during the pre-season, Parker became alarmed at the desperate state of the team’s finances and resigned two days before the season opener.
The Rifles ownership folded on September 5th, 1967 after only two regular seasons games. Continental Football League officials met in emergency session and agreed to collectively fund and operate the team through the end of the season, possibly as a travel-only team. Now a ward of the league, the Rifles played their third and final game of 1967 on September 16th, losing 16-3 to the Hartford Charter Oaks in a game shifted from Toronto to Connecticut.
Shortly thereafter, the Continental League’s new Akron Vulcans franchise – owned by a con artist named Frank Hurn who bought the club with Chicago mob money – collapsed as well. Unable to operate two clubs at league expense, the league folded by both the Rifles and the Vulcans on September 21st, 1967.
The Rifles ran significant deficits throughout their brief history. The club lost a reported $300,000 in 1965 and $400,000 in 1966.
The Continental Football League folded after the 1969 season.
After the Rifles folded, Tom Wilkinson joined Leo Cahill across town with the Argonauts. He went on to play 15 seasons in the CFL, winning the league Most Outstanding Player award in 1974 and winning five Grey Cup titles with as a member of the Edmonton Eskimos between 1975 and his final season in 1981.
Sam Etcheverry, the man who gave the Rifles their name, was elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1969. His post-Rifles coaching career was brief, but did include a Grey Cup championship as head man of the Montreal Alouettes in 1970. Etcheverry passed away in 2009.
Rifles President Alan Eagleson introduced the player agent era to the National Hockey League by representing the teenage Bobby Orr in the mid-1960’s. As Executive Director of the NHL Players Association he became one of the sport’s primary power brokers in the 1970’s and 1980’s and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989. In the 1990’s Eagleson’s ethical and financial misdeeds as an agent and leader of the NHLPA came to light as the result of investigations by Lawrence (MA) Eagle-Tribune reporter Russ Conway and complaints by retired NHL players, including Orr. Eagleson was ultimately indicted in the U.S. and Canada on charges of fraud, embezzlement and racketerring. He served a prison sentence in Canada in the late 1990’s.
The Arena Football League awarded a Houston, Texas expansion franchise to NBA Rockets owner Leslie Alexander on October 26th, 1995. Alexander, a former Wall Street stock trader who purchased the Rockets in 1993, named the team the Texas Terror and placed them in the Houston Summit, as part of his burgeoning local pro sports empire. (Alexander would add a founding franchise in the WNBA – the Houston Comets – to his stable in 1997).
The Terror debuted at The Summit on April 27th, 1996. An announced crowd of 11,501 watched the Terror drop a low-scoring (by Arena Football standards) 36-24 decision to another expansion club, the Minnesota Fighting Pike. The Terror were non-competitive under Head Coach John Paul Young, losing their first 11 games, en route to a 1-13 record, second worst in the 15-team league in 1996. The club lost all seven of its home games, which were played before an announced average of 9,006 fans per game.
Dave Ewart replaced Young as Head Coach prior to the 1997 campaign. Under Ewart, the Terror improved noticeably on the field to 6-8, but at the box office the season was a disaster. Only 3,624 turned out for the Terror’s second season debut against Kurt Warner and the Iowa Barnstormers on May 2, 1997. Announced attendance for seven home dates plunged more than 50% down to 4,153 on average, second worst in the league in 1997.
In December 1997, Alexander and his executives scrapped the Texas Terror brand concept. The team was not resonating, for whatever reason – losing, a “statewide” identity that didn’t speak to the Houston community, or perhaps the Terror’s cartoonish, Frankenstein-inspired aesthetic which seemed about as intimidating as a box of Franken-Berry children’s cereal. The franchise continued under Alexander’s ownership and was re-branded the Houston ThunderBears.
New name, same problems.
The Thunderbears trotted out their new “Thunder Blue, Touchdown Teal and Electric Orange” colors on May 9th, 1998 at the Compaq Center. (Another offseason re-branding project…after nearly a quarter century as the Houston Summit, the personal computing giant bought naming rights to the building in late 1997.). Only 4,629 curiosity-seekers turned out to see the ThunderBears defeat the Florida Bobcats. It was the last time the would crack the 4,000 mark all season, except for a season finale outlier crowd of 9,734, a number which would seem to have all the hallmarks of a massive discounting/comping effort.
On the field, at least, the team continued to improve under new Head Coach Steve Thonn. The ThunderBears won the Central Division title with an 8-6 record, riding the arm of former East Texas State quarterback Clint Dolezel who threw 81 touchdown passes. The Arizona Rattlers eliminated the T-Bears in the first round of the Arena Football playoffs in August 1998.
Under Thonn, the Thunderbears led the Arena Football League in total offense for three consecutive years from 1998 to 2000, but the club fell back to losing records in 1999 and 2000, failing to return to the playoffs. Attendance bottomed out in 1999, when the club averaged a league-worst 3,022 fans. This included an embarrassing crowd of 1,517 for a May 1st, 1999 game against the Grand Rapids Rampage at Compaq Center – the smallest announced figure in the league’s 13-year history.
Under the circumstances, it was remarkable that Leslie Alexander hung in for as long as he did. On February 16th, 2001, on the eve of the team’s 6th season, Alexander sold the franchise back to the Arena Football League for an undisclosed sum. The league designated the now homeless T-Bears as a travel team, barnstorming across the country to gauge interest for expansion franchises for Arena Football 2, the small market developmental league. The T-Bears “home games” would be played in far flung cities such as Bismarck (ND), Charleston (WV), Fresno (CA), Lubbock (TX) and Madison (WI).
The ThunderBears finished their final season in last place in Arena Football’s Western Division with a 3-11 record. Arena Football folded the club following the 2001 season.
Forbes named former Terror/ThunderBears owner Leslie Alexander to its list of the 400 wealthiest Americans on several occasions between 2000 and 2006, with a personal net worth as high as $1.2 billion in 2006. In December 2008, Forbes named Alexander as the NBA’s best owner. He continues to own the Houston Rockets, although he divested himself of the WNBA’s Houston Comets in early 2007.
The Houston Summit/Compaq Center was rendered obsolete with the construction of the Toyota Center in 2003. The former Summit building now hosts Houston’s Lakewood mega church, whose ubiquitous pastor and self-help author Joel Osteen broadcasts his sermons to more than 100 nations worldwide from the former arena.
Former Terror/Thundbears quarterback Clint Dolezel left the team prior to the 2000 season to sign with the Chicago Bears. He was cut in training camp and returned to the Arena Football League in 2001, where he went on to establish numerous career passing records, including becoming the first player to pass for 900 career touchdowns indoors. As of 2011, he is the Head Coach of the Arena Football League’s Dallas Vigilantes.
I don’t care who’s playing. I will watch ANY football game when it’s played in snow so deep you can’t see the field markings. Add in a last minute victory celebration and the masterful play-by-play of ABC’s Keith Jackson and this long-ago clip from the United States Football League is pure pigskin bliss, even if you’ve never heard of the Denver Gold or the Chicago Blitz…
This was one of the early games of USFL – in fact it was the inaugural home game for the Blitz at Soldier Field on March 20th, 1983. The USFL was a springtime league and didn’t expect to play a whole lot of games like this one – with a wind chill of 4 degrees at kickoff and snowplows criss crossing the field throughout the afternoon.
Quarterback Ken Johnson’s last second scramble for victory over the Blitz turned out to be a rare highlight for the Denver Gold and their Head Coach Red Miller. Miller was a tremendously popular figure in Denver. The temperamental former Broncos Head Coach (1977-1980) led that team during its “Orange Crush” years, racking up 42 wins in four seasons, including the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance and three trips to the playoffs. Then, in early 1981, he rubbed new Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser the wrong way and was abruptly fired.
Miller signed on with the Gold and the fledgling USFL in 1982 and, in the absence of any stars on the roster, served as the face of the Gold’s marketing heading into the league’s inaugural season in the spring of 1983. The Gold sold more than 30,000 season tickets at Mile High Stadium. But once again, Miller had owner problems. Miller clashed with Gold chief Ron Blanding over Blanding’s penny-pinching on player personnel and team operations. Blanding fired Miller in midseason on May 19th, 1983 after a 4-7 start, including four straight losses in Miller’s final month at the helm.
Blanding became the first owner to fire his coach in the history of the young league and, less than a month later, the first owner to put his club up for sale. Although Blanding refused to say the public outcry over the Miller firing led to his decision to sell, he did cite his family’s discomfort with the public criticism of his personnel moves and low payroll.
Blanding replaced Miller with Craig Morton, the former starting quarterback on Miller’s Broncos teams. Morton had just concluded his playing career the previous fall with the Broncos and had no previous coaching experience. The Gold finished the 1983 season 7-11 and out of the playoffs.
In April 1984, in the middle of the Gold’s second season, Blanding found his buyer in Denver-area auto dealer Douglas Spedding, who also owned the city’s Colorado Flames minor league hockey franchise. Blanding acquired the Gold franchise by posting a $1.5 million letter of credit in 1982 when the league formed, then operated the Gold in the black during the 1983 season by adhering to the league’s original (but largely ignored) model of tight expense controls, solid marketing and and a roster composed of anonymous and inexpensive journeymen. The reported sale price to Spedding was $10 million dollars, meaning Blanding became one of the very few – quite possibly the only – franchise owner to get more out of the USFL than he put in.
With Craig Morton back for his first full season handling the Head Coaching duties, the 1984 Gold raced out to a 7-1 record, despite fielding another team of relative unknowns. 2nd year fullback Harry Sydney rushed for ten touchdowns. Four different Gold quarterbacks attempted 100 or more passes in 1984, with Craig Penrose, one of Morton’s former back-ups with the late 1970’s Broncos, handling the bulk of the signal calling.
Coincidentally or not, the wheels came off right around the time Spedding took over at midseason. After that 7-1 start, the Gold dropped eight of nine games, heading into the final weekend of the season with a 8-9 record and needing a win (and help) to make the USFL playoffs. Spedding, meanwhile, made it clear that he was going to be a hands-on owner. VP and General Manager Bill Roth resigned several weeks after the sale and Spedding assumed GM duties himself. Among his first decrees – front office workers would now open all of the players’ personal mail.
“I’m just saying that I want love letters from their girlfriends and other personal matters delivered to their homes, not to the office,” Spedding told a bemused press corps.
More significantly, Spedding sparred publicly with Craig Morton. Spedding attributed the club’s collapse to Morton’s less-than-obsessive 9-to-5 work habits, suggesting that Morton start putting in 12 hour days or be fired at the end of the season. The Gold won their final game of 1984 to finish 9-9, but failed to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Spedding fired Morton on June 27th, 1984 and then embarked on a public flirtation with Houston Gamblers offensive coordinator and run-and-shoot offense innovator Darrel “Mouse” Davis. Trouble was, the Gamblers were still active in the USFL playoffs. Spedding got his man a few weeks later, but USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons later revoked the Gold’s 1985 1st round draft pick and slapped the team with a $50,000 fine as a penalty for tampering with Davis.
Under the spendthrift Blanding in 1983, the Gold were the only team in the USFL to turn a small profit, while leading the league in attendance with a reported average of 41,735 fans per game. The 1984 Gold, under the dual managements of Blanding and Spedding, lost approximately $2 million as announced attendance declined almost 20% to 33,953 per game. Worse news was coming. In August 1984, the USFL owners, following the lead of New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, voted to move to a fall season beginning in 1986. Spedding had owned the Gold for all of four months and now his top-drawing spring football franchise was staring at a head-to-head fall showdown with Denver’s beloved Broncos. That would be suicide and everyone knew it. USFL owners in other NFL markets began a series of relocations and mergers to position themselves for fall football in 1986. Spedding stayed put…for now.
Despite the August 1984 vote, Spedding, like Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett, remained a vocal proponent of spring football. In February 1985 on the eve of the USFL’s third and final spring season, Spedding told the media: “If the $15 million contract we have (with ABC-ESPN) turns around and becomes a $30 million contract – and they’re not offering us anything in the fall – we’ll play in the spring.”
Myles Tanenbaum, owner of the defending champion Philadelphia Stars franchise, had moved his club to Baltimore over the winter, in anticipation of the 1986 move to the fall, which would have placed the Stars in direct competition with the NFL Eagles. He was swift to publicly chide Spedding for deviating from the party line:
“Spedding probably will get fined for saying that,” Tanenbaum told Ken Murray of The Baltimore Evening Sun. “He’s a used car salesman in the league for one year. He probably thinks he’s learned a lot.”
Spedding’s comments underscored the fact that the fall vs. spring debate was not entirely settled, despite the league vote the previous August. While the Trump contingent argued that the league could only thrive in football’s traditional season, there was a gaping hole in this logic: the television networks had zero interest. USFL TV negotiator Eddie Einhorn resigned in February 1985, unable to make any headway with the three broadcast networks on securing a rights fee for a fall season. In fact, current partner ABC was demanding a nearly 50% rebate on the 1985 spring rights fee because the USFL had exited key TV markets such as Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington. And the impetus for leaving the NFL markets of Detroit and Philadephia had been the planned move to the fall. It was circular illogic.
Nevertheless, when the USFL owners convened on April 29th, 1985 to settle the matter once and for all, the vote was 13-2 in favor of switching to the fall, even with no hope of a network television contract. Tampa Bay’s John Bassett and Gold owner Spedding – the two clubs who had thrived in NFL markets during the first two springs – were the only dissenting votes.
The Gold opened their third – and presumably final – season of spring football at Mile High Stadium on March 10th, 1985 against the Portland Breakers. With tickets sales flagging, the Gold announced it would offer a full refund to any fan unsatisfied with the product on opening night. Gold minority partner Barry Fey, a concert promoter who devised the promotion, reportedly expected the money back guarantee would produce a Mile High crowd of 40,000 to 50,000 – the kind of support to which the team was accustomed in 1983 and, to a lesser degree, 1984. Instead, an all-time franchise low of just 17,890 turned out. Despite a 29-17 Gold victory, a crowd of 1,484 fans endured boos and catcalls from their fellow spectators and long lines to collect $22,000 worth of refund checks on the way on the way back to their cars.
“I think this is the first and last money back guarantee you’ll see from the Denver Gold,” General Manager Rich Nathan told the press. “It’s one thing to think about giving money back to people. It’s another thing to stand here and watch it happen.”
The next home game two weeks later was even worse, with a new record low of 13,901 in the house for a 16-2 victory over the San Antonio Gunslingers in beautiful weather. But the Denver faithful who stuck by the Gold were rewarded with an exciting high scoring club for the first time in three seasons. Mouse Davis transformed the plodding Gold offense as promised. The big fullback Harry Sydney, who had keyed the Gold’s grind it out offense for two seasons, was shipped out to Memphis. As he had done with the Houston Gamblers in 1984 and the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, Davis implemented the run-and-shoot, surrounding a mobile quarterback (in this case a platoon of Vince Evans and Bob Gagliano) with a squad of quick, shrimpy wide receivers l(Leonard Harris, Marc Lewis and Lonnie Turner) who ran short precise routes and racked up big reception totals. Although infamous as a pass happy scheme, Davis’ Run n’ Shoot had traditionally produced big numbers for its single set back running backs as well, who ran a lot of draws and were expected to catch passes out of the backfield. In the Gold’s case, Davis made a star out of Bill Johnson, a rarely used benchwarmer for the Gold in 1984 who exploded for 1,261 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns as a second year player in 1985.
The Gold finished the 1985 regular season in 2nd place in the Western Conference at 11-7, the best record in franchise history and good enough for their first ever playoff berth. The 3rd-seeded Gold should have hosted the Eastern Conference’s 5th-seeded Memphis Showboats at Mile High. But attendance in Denver had crashed 57% in 1985 to just 14,519 while Memphis drew 30,941 on average, so, in a departure from previous seasons, the league adjusted home field advantage based on revenue potential and moved the game to Tennessee. After losing their final regular season game 42-6 to the Jacksonville Bulls, the Gold came out flat again in Memphis. The Showboats routed the Gold 48-7 in the 1985 USFL quarterfinal, in what would prove to be the final game the Gold would ever play.
In November 1985, the Gold announced a move to Portland, Oregon to replace the Joseph Canizaro’s defunct Portland Breakers, who left town just a few months earlier owing over a million dollars in unpaid salaries to its employees. Unsurprisingly, Spedding found Portland’s civic and corporate leaders unreceptive to another ride on the USFL bandwagon and scrapped the planned move after a month later. The Gold finalized a merger with the Jacksonville Bulls on February 1986 which would have seen Mouse Davis take over as Head Coach in Jacksonville. But the move was rendered moot in August 1986 when the USFL “won” its $1.32 billion anti-trust suit against the NFL but was awarded only $3 in damages by the jury. Deprived of revenue from either the lawsuit or a television contract, the league suspended operations indefinitely in August 1986 without ever playing a down of fall football.
Red Miller never held another pro head coaching job after being fired by the Gold in 1983. He continued to live and work in Denver and became a successful stock broker for Dean Witter in the late 1980’s.
Several former Gold players returned to and started long careers in the NFL after the demise of the USFL, including quarterbacks Vince Evans and Bob Gagliano, wide receiver Leonard Harris, and fullback Harry Sydney, who earned two Super Bowl rings as a member of the San Francisco 49ers and a third as an assistant coach on Mike Holmgren’s Green Bay Packers staff.
Douglas Spedding passed away in November 2007 at the age of 72.
Sources & Further Reading
On September 1st, 2000, Canadian communications giant Rogers Communications moved into professional sports ownership, agreeing to purchase 80% of the Toronto Blue Jays from Interbrew SA for $112 million. Rogers brought in former Toronto Sun publisher and CEO Paul Godfrey to run the club as Blue Jays President.
Meanwhile, Godfrey’s 27-year old son Rob Godfrey had sports ambitions of his own for Toronto. Godfrey and partners Ronnie Strasser and Keith Stein approached Arena Football League (AFL) Commissioner David Baker in the summer of 2000 about the possibility of acquiring an AFL expansion franchise for Toronto or purchasing and relocating an existing club. Baker and his staff brokered the purchase of the nomadic New England Sea Wolves franchise for a reported price of approximately $7 million. Toronto would be the fifth stop for the luckless franchise, which traced its history to the formation of the short-lived Cincinnati Rockers (1992-1993), and subsequently failed in two separate stints at the Hartford Civic Center and in a demoralizing two-year run at Madison Square Garden in New York. Just five years earlier, the moribund franchise sold in a league-brokered fire sale for only $200,000.
The Godfrey group’s purchase of the Sea Wolves received preliminary approval during Arena Football League governors meetings at Arena Bowl XIV in Orlando in August 2000. In early September, just as Rogers Communications bought the Blue Jays and Paul Godfrey took over the baseball club, Rogers also agreed to take a reported 51% majority stake in the Toronto Phantoms Football Limited Partnership. League officials and team execs introduced the Phantoms to Toronto at a press conference on October 17th, 2000, marking the first expansion of the Arena Football League outside the United States.
The Phantoms derived their name from a not-so-frightening source: co-founder and minority partner Ronnie Strasser’s Toronto-based Phantom Industries, North America’s third largest manufacturer of women’s hosiery. Nevertheless, at least two people found Arena Football’s arrival in Toronto quite terriying: Canadian Football League President Jeff Giles and Sherwood Schwarz, owner of the CFL’s struggling Toronto Argonauts. The Phantoms’ April-August schedule would overlap by two months the the Argos’ June-November outdoor season at Skydome. In addition, the two clubs would spent the winter months competing for the same local sponsor and season ticket accounts.
“I’m disappointed in the arena league because they said they wouldn’t do anything to harm or hurt the CFL,” Giles told Canadian Press in October 2000. “I think it is extremely naive to say that it (arena football) won’t hurt the CFL.”
The Phantoms debuted at the Air Canada Centre on April 14th, 2001, a 61-54 loss to the Buffalo Destroyers in front of an announced crowd of 10,023. The Toronto Star did few favors for the new franchise with its inaugural game coverage, published under the nasty headline “Obscure Phantoms Kick Off”. Star beat writer Mark Harding used his story lead to cast doubt on the club’s attendance figures.
On the turf, the 2001 Phantoms posted an 8-6 record with a mostly unheralded roster. Former University of Southern California quarterback Pat O’Hara, a two-time Arena Bowl winner with the Orlando Predators, led the team offensively, along with Offensive Specialist Damian Harrell, a Sea Wolves holdover. In the postseason, the Phantoms defeated their divisional rivals the New York Dragons in the Wild Card round before falling to the Nashville Kats in the AFL quarterfinal.
Any fears that the Phantoms would sink the Toronto Argonauts and the CFL at the box office proved unfounded. The Sherwood Schwarz-era was a dark time for Toronto Argos fans, but the damage was largely self-inflicted. The Phantoms announced attendance of 48,448 for an average of just 6,921 over seven home dates. The figures ranked 16th out of 18 AFL franchises in 2001, better only than the New Jersey Gladiators and the Florida Bobcats and worst among AFL markets that returned for the 2002 season.
The 2002 Phantoms got off to a 5-5 start before dropping their final four games to finish at 5-9 and out of playoff contention. Attendance remained flat at 6,975, which ranked 14th in the 16-team league. In September 2002, the Phantoms owners dropped out of the league after 24 months.
Phantoms President Rob Gregory cited several factors in the decision in a September 2002 Sports Business Journal article, including larger than expected losses, the unfavorable exchange rate between the Canadian and U.S. dollar and the impending move of the Arena Football League’s 2003 season to a February (instead of April) start to accomodate the league’s new national American broadcast television contract with NBC. The Air Canada Centre already had three winter season tenants in the NHL’s Maple Leafs, NBA’s Raptors and the Toronto Rock of the National Lacrosse League, which made attractive home dates scarce as the AFL became a winter/spring sport to appease its broadcast partner.
The Arena Football League never returned to Canada after the failure of the Phantoms. The original AFL folded and filed for bankruptcy in 2009 after 22 seasons. A group of former AFL owners subsequently bought the name out of bankruptcy in November 2009 and re-launched a modestly budgeted, lower profile version of the league in the spring of 2010.
Rob Godfrey joined his father Paul in the Toronto Blue Jays front office and worked his way up to Senior Vice President of Busines Operations before departing in 2006.
Downloads & Links:
“Toronto is new haunt for AFL Phantoms” Canadian Press, October 18, 2000
“Obscure Phantoms kick off; Announced crowd of 10,023 on hand for 61-54 loss to in inaugural season as the first Arena Football
League team in Canada”, Mark Harding, The Toronto Star, April 15, 2001
“AFL goes 1-1 in off season”, John Lombardo, Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal, September 30, 2002
“Godfrey ready to leave Jays?” Perry Lefko, Sportsnet.ca, October 22, 2007
The National Football League announced plans to back a developmental spring football league in 1989. The defunct United States Football League popularized (to a degree) the concept of springtime football from 1983 to 1985, before flaming out in a burst of hubris, red ink and failed anti-trust litigation against the NFL. The NFL’s spring concept, run by long-time Dallas Cowboys exec Tex Schramm, would place spring football in second-tier U.S. markets as well as large European cities, Montreal and possibly Mexico City. 26 of the 28 NFL clubs contributed $800,000 each to launch the league with a start date of March 1991. The Chicago Bears and Phoenix Cardinals declined to participate. The remaining NFL owners held the majority of the league’s stock but would not directly operate the clubs. Franchise operating rights would be sold for each market.
Under Schramm’s direction, the World League of American Football (WLAF) began announcing member cities in the spring of 1990, despite the fact that local ownership had yet to be firmed up in each market. The WLAF announced San Antonio, Texas on April 28th, 1990. The league struggled to locate ownership in some cities, but in San Antonio there were two competing bidders. Gavin Maloof, former President of the NBA’s Houston Rockets and son of the late New Mexico beer and banking baron George Maloof, Sr., headed one bid. San Antonio attorney Larry Benson, younger brother of New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, headed the other bid, a 15-member syndicate called Texas Football, Inc. which also included Dallas Cowboys coaching legend Tom Landry and his son, Tom Jr.
Schramm was fired by NFL officials in October 1990 and replaced by Minnesota Vikings executive Mike Lynn, a strong proponent of local ownership for WLAF clubs. The San Antonio franchise went to Benson’s group in mid-November 1990, while Maloof ended up with the WLAF’s Birmingham franchise. Benson became majority owner and managing partner with a 45% stake in the club. In addition to Benson’s group of 15 individual investors, two local corporate investors – Valero Energy Corp. and the United States Automobile Association – stepped up and bought 10% ownership stakes in Texas Football, Inc.
Stadium considerations fueled the competing interests for the San Antonio market rights. Construction crews broke ground on the 65,000-seat Alamodome in November 1990 and the building projected to open in time for the WLAF’s third spring season in 1993. In the meantime, the Riders intended to play at at Alamo Stadium, a 50-year old Works Progress Administration facility managed by the San Antonio School District (SASD). Alamo seated only 23,000 and had played host to San Antonio’s previous failed pro football franchises, the San Antonio Wings of the World Football League (1975) and the San Antonio Gunslingers of the United States Football League (1984-1985).
The Riders had a challenging relationship with the SASD from the start. The district refused to allow the sale of beer at WLAF games and also blocked the Riders’ ability to display beer advertising in the stadium. In return, Riders ownership scrapped plans to fund $235,000 in renovations to the building. In June 1991, SASD officials announced plans for a 65% rent increase on the Riders for the 1992 season, raising the per-game rate from the $12,000/game paid in 1991 to an estimated $19,600/game for the 1992 season. The relationship would last for only one season.
WLAF player salaries were strictly controlled. On the low end, kickers earned $15,000 for the 1991 season, while quarterbacks earned a base salary of $25,000. All other positional players earned $20,000 base plus incentives. The Riders featured a handful of NFL vets, the most experienced being seven-year veteran cornerback Bobby Humphery formerly of the New York Jets. But the WLAF was not a league for aging players on the back side of 28, as previous NFL competitors such as the WFL and USFL had often been. Most Riders were former late round draft picks, developmental squad players and training camp cuts, still with youth in their favor and looking to stay on the radar of NFL personnel departments.
The Riders debuted at home on April 1st, 1991 with a 10-3 loss to the Frankfurt Galaxy before 18,432 fans. The WLAF’s international flavor was on display early as Willie Nelson’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner was followed by Der San Antonio Liederkranz’s performance of the German national anthem in honor of the visiting team (which was composed almost entirely of Americans).
The Riders played their second home game just six days later on April 7th, a 10-3 victory over the Sacramento Surge. Only 6,772 turned out, surprising WLAF President Mike Lynn, attending his first WLAF game in a U.S. city. “I am somewhat mystified at why there aren’t more people here,” Lynn told The San Antonio Express News.
The first season drew to a close in June 1991 when two of the WLAF’s European teams – the Barcelona Dragons and the London Monarchs – met in World Bowl I at London’s Wembley Stadium before a crowd of 61,108. The success of the European clubs in the standings was mirrored off the field. The four European clubs plus Montreal occupied the top five spots in WLAF attendance figures, each averaging at least 29,000 fans per game. Of the five American clubs, only Maloof’s Birmingham Fire averaged over 20,000 fans. San Antonio finished 9th in the ten team league with average attendance of 14,853 for five games at Alamo Stadium. USA Network, in the first year of a four-year $18M cable rights deal, hoped to average a 3.0 Nielsen rating for American broadcasts, but achieved only a 1.2. ABC was similarly disappointed in their network ratings.
In October 1991, NFL voted on whether to continue operations of the World League for the 1992 season. Media estimates pegged the inaugural season losses at approximately $15 million, inclusive of operating losses of the ten franchises, as well as the capital contributed by each NFL franchise. Low television ratings were also a concern, with both ABC and USA requesting adjustments to their deals due to low ratings. The WLAF franchise owners themselves had little say in the matter, but had to put marketing and other decisions on hold as the NFL tabled the vote for more than a month. For their part, the Riders claimed a relatively modest operating loss of $250,000 for the 1991 season, despite low attendance.
After the NFL approved a 1992 season in late October, the Riders immediately announced plans to move to 16,000-seat Bobcat Stadium on the campus of Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. The team still intended to return to San Antonio proper in 1993 to play at the Alamodome. In the meantime, they would pay $16,000 rent per game in 1992 with dramatically improved lease terms over the Alamo Stadium deal – the Riders could sell & advertise beer in San Marcos, and for the first time they would participate in parking and concessions revenue.
The Riders debuted at Bobcat Stadium on March 22, 1992. 10,698 fans turned out to see the Riders dispatch the Montreal Machine 17-16, courtesy of 123 yards rushing from new arrival Ivory Lee Brown. The move to Bobcat Stadium hurt the Riders season ticket base, which dropped approximately 30% from 7,000 in 1991 to 5,000 in 1992. Among the U.S.-based World League clubs, only the Orlando Thunder had fewer season tickets holders in 1992. The Riders were much improved on the field under returning Head Coach Mike Riley in 1992. The team finished 7-3, although that would prove not quite good enough to land a playoff berth.
In August 1992, Benson pegged Texas Football, Inc.’s two-year operating loss from the Riders at approximately $750,000, although it’s important to note that the true cost of running the franchise was heavily subsidized by the NFL. And therein lay the rub. After a second year of big losses and small ratings, the World League’s NFL governors pulled the plug on the World League on September 17, 1992. The NFL hoped to return to international spring football in the future, perhaps as soon as 1994, but perhaps not with American teams at all.
“The World League was very successful in Europe and we feel that an international focus instead of one in middle-sized America is the way to go,” NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue told The New York Times.
After the World League folded, Larry Benson and Sacramento Surge owner Fred Anderson pursued memberships in the Canadian Football League. In mid-January 1993, both owners received conditional expansion franchises – the first two CFL clubs set to play outside Canadian borders. The old names and marks belonged to the NFL, so the clubs took on new names – the San Antonio Texans and the Sacramento Gold Miners. However, just two weeks later the Texans backed out of the CFL, angering Anderson and embarrassing CFL Commissioner Larry Smith, a champion of U.S. expansion. Benson’s football operation was dead.
1991 Riders quarterback Jason Garrett of Princeton went on to play more than a decade in the NFL as a back-up quarterback, including eight seasons and two Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys. After retiring in 2004 he became a highly respected assistant and coordinator and is today the Head Coach of the Cowboys.
1991 Riders starting right tackle John Layfield went on to a long career in professional wrestling, best known as WWE Smackdown champion JBL. He is one of two high profile wrestlers to come out of the WLAF, along with former Sacramento Surge defensive lineman Bill Goldberg AKA Goldberg.
Pro football finally came to the Alamodome in the fall of 1995 when Benson’s old WLAF comrade Fred Anderson relocated his money-losing Sacramento Gold Miners franchise to San Antonio. The Texans played one playoff season in the dome in 1995 before the CFL pulled the plug on its U.S. experiment and retreated to Canada. The New Orleans Saints also played games at the Alamodome during 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Otherwise, it has never been used for pro football.
The NFL did return to international springtime football in 1995 with the creation of NFL Europe. NFL Europe revived the three European WLAF clubs – the Barcelona Dragons, Frankfurt Galaxy and London Monarchs – with the addition of more Western European cities. No North American clubs were considered for membership. NFL Europe operated for 13 seasons, shutting down after the 2007 campaign.