World Football League - A Brief History
As I see it, I stand to profit by more than a million dollars from the formation of my league.
Gary L. Davidson officially launched the World Football League at Chicago, October 2, 1973. It had been four years since the other two pro grid leagues, the 50-something National Football League melded the 10-year old American Football League into a 26-team superpower. In Davidson’s sports memoir, Breaking the Game Wide-Open, his view for another football league had been a necessity. Or as he put it more succinctly, the lords of Sunday afternoon had "become arrogant and fat. We’re ready to take on the big boys now," declared Davidson.
Davidson, a 39-year old attorney from Newport Beach, California who was born in Missoula, Montana, had previously been involved in the early stages of two other sports league challengers: the American Basketball Association (1967-1976) and the World Hockey Association (1972-1979). He had been president in both leagues, although his tenures lasted just over a year.
Of course, sports’ pundits quickly dismissed Davidson’s latest scheme as another enterprise filled with foolhardy investors, fast-buck artists all going out for the biggest marks this side of P.T. Barnum: the gullible sports’ fans dollar. The soon-to-be departing WHA president dismissed the criticism, noting that the new league would bring more jobs for players unable to crack an NFL or CFL roster, offer cheaper rates for franchises than the NFL’s $16 million price tag, and would revolutionize scoring with new offensive rules guaranteed to eclipse the field goal addictions crimping most NFL contests.
At the Chicago press conference, five "founding fathers." Representing New York was Robert Schmertz, a self-described "sportsman" who owned the NBA Boston Celtics and WHA New England Whalers. Howard Baldwin, 28, and a former hockey prospect, headed the Boston Bulls (changed from Bulldogs at the 11th hour) charter. Baldwin and Schmertz knew each other well; both co-owned the Whalers. Another WHA associate, R. Steven Arnold, led the Tokyo faction. Ben Hatskin, owner of the Winnipeg Jets who lured Bobby Hull from the NHL Chicago Black Hawks, took Honolulu, Hawaii. Nick Mileti, the Godfather of Cleveland sports teams, owned interest at one time or another in the baseball Indians, NBA Cavaliers, and WHA Crusaders. Mileti didn’t want to challenge the loyalty of NFL Browns’ fans, thus the Godfather settled in Chicago.
Wealthiest of the WFL owners was a 34-year old Canadian movie producer John Bassett Jr. headed a team in Toronto called the Northmen. Bassett, a former tennis prodigy, owned the WHA Toronto Toros. His father, John Sr. reigned as patriarch of the North; he owned both Toronto newspapers, the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) both radio and television, and before selling his shares, in 1973, John Senior owned majority interest in the Canadian Football League Toronto Argonauts. The younger Bassett not only owned the Toronto territory for the proposed WFL, but Bassett himself considered starting up a new pro football league before running into the WHA president that summer of 1973. "What do I think of Gary Davidson," commented Bassett in Breaking the Game Wide Open, "I think he’s an opportunistic, handsome son of a bitch."
Davidson too owned a franchise. He had a crib ready for Philadelphia, Pa.
The Godfather of Cleveland sports teams didn’t last too long in the WFL as Nick Mileti sold his majority shares to Thomas Origer. Origer, a multi-millionaire of buildings in the Chicago area and self-professed football nut, bought the rights of the Chicago WFL franchise from Mileti for $440,000. Introduced by Gary Davidson as the Windy City’s newest pro football owner, Origer built apartment complexes in and around Chi-town. An aspiring player growing up, a heart ailment prevented Origer from fulfilling his football dream until the WFL arrived. He christened them the Chicago Fire.
An ailing Ben Hatskin dropped out of the Honolulu franchise. Danny Rogers, a one-time collegiate basketball star and manager of a sales firm, got a rebound and shot a three-pointer bringing in Christopher B. Hemmeter and Sam D. Battistone. Hemmeter developed hotels and restaurants in Honolulu and Sam Battistone, president of Invest West which he controlled several Sambo restaurant franchises, became owners of The Hawaiians. Larry G. Hatfield, operating a computer and Graphics Company in Jackson, Mississippi, as well as a owning a trucking firm became a millionaire by the age of 30. The boyish Hatfield, a fellow member with Gary Davidson at the Balboa Country Club, founded the Anaheim-based Southern California Sun.
Along with the founding fathers, the remaining cast of teams was filled in. Detroit became the eighth team to join the WFL roster, December 13, 1973, with a multi-racial group of 33 professionals including doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other businesspeople. Leading the Michigan pack was Louis R. Lee, at 28 year old African American headed the Detroit entry as its president. Francis P. Monaco ran a series of medical laboratories and was a co-owner of a sports-themed restaurant with Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus. In November 1974, Monaco added the World Football League to his business portfolio. As owner of the fledgling Jacksonville-based Florida Sharks, Fran Monaco named his wife, Douglas, as team vice-president.
William Putnam, a former Navy underwater demolition expert, worked as an executive vice-president of Jack Kent Cooke Enterprises, then co-founded the NHL Philadelphia Flyers. The Atlanta businessman left the Flyers to co-find the NHL 1972 expansion Atlanta Flames, and also owned a piece of the NBA Atlanta Hawks. Emerging to virgin territory for pro football in Birmingham, Alabama, Putnam encouraged Carol Tygart Stallworth, a barmaid and secretary whose husband operated several Ryder Trucking companies, became part owner and president of the Birmingham Americans. Industrialist E. Joseph Wheeler was a 48-year old Baltimore resident looking to give the NFL an alternative in the D.C. area, by founding the Washington-Baltimore entry whose nickname was changed from Capitals to Ambassadors.
"Yeah, we’d be back to a bidding war, but there are plenty of players available," reasoned the WFL founder. "I figure we’d go in 1974, right away our first year we’d probably use mostly rookies out of college and guys cut from the pros and maybe a few names who have played out their pro option .Right now, I’m jazzed for it. How about you?"
Ownerships of World Football League teams changed more often than a chameleon. Gary Davidson held rights to Philadelphia and thought he found a buyer in Harry Jay Katz, a Philadelphia businessman, but later reveled that Katz’s father held the purse strings and the younger Katz deep in debt attached to a string of lawsuits. Naturally, Katz was dropped for consideration.
Ken Bogdanoff, a 25-year old unemployed lifeguard, approached Davidson about buying the Philadelphia franchise. The $600,000 price tag deemed too high; the league was willing to take a $50,000 down payment while Bogdanoff could find more investors, but he had just $25,000 on him. The lifeguard didn’t become a WFL owner, though Davidson did let Bogdanoff represent Philadelphia at the WFL collegiate draft.
On February 18, 1974, the WFL’s creator and the Board of Governors converged in Chicago for a series of meetings, announcements, and entry changes. Steve Arnold got the green light to move out of Memphis, Tennessee to Houston, Texas. Howard Baldwin merged his Boston Bulls with Robert Schmertz’s original New York franchise. The Bulls galloped to New York and on March 5, became the New York Stars. Baldwin’s Boston deed, including its draft list went back to the league. The Boston draft list and its rights eventually landed in Portland, Oregon when a month later became the WFL’s 12th and final franchise: Portland Storm.
Actually, a Houston accountant, John Rooney, claimed to be the proprietor of the Portland franchise from Boston. Rooney even hired two people to run the Northwestern franchise: at 28-years old, Steve Erhart-who eventually became an officer with the United States Football League in the 1980s-was brought in as Portland’s general manager. Ralph Goldston, a star and coach in the Canadian Football League and at the University of Colorado, would have been the first black head coach in nearly 50 years. Neither hiring came to pass, however, as the league retracted from giving Rooney the Portland franchise, stating that the accountant never officially owned the team. 10 days later, John Rooney walked away from the WFL with his tail between his legs.
Perhaps the WFL franchise that went through the most character changes than David Bowie was the Washington Ambassadors-Florida Blazers entry. That club went through four cities with three nicknames in a short timeline of five months.
Founded by Baltimore businessman E. Joseph Wheeler, Jr. of Wheeler Industries, a marine biology contractor company, he intended his team would play in Annapolis, Maryland. When the Citadel declined to offer a lease, in spite of a stadium that had no lights and could only seat 24,000, Wheeler made a half-hearted attempt to play in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, knowing it was unlikely that the Colts-whose owner threatened moving the franchise out of Baltimore if they did not get a new facility-would allow another competitor from playing there.
Joe Wheeler really wanted to play in the District of Columbia’s Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, operated by the Armory, though the NFL Washington Redskins had exclusive rights to play there. The Washington-Baltimore owner made waves in the Capital dailies, claiming the Redskins were stonewalling him on obtaining a lease at R.F.K. But Wheeler picked on the wrong person to pick a fight with in the press. Edward Bennett Williams, a famed Washington lawyer with a who’s who of clients and well connected in the Beltway, demanded that Wheeler show his financial statements. Calling his bluff, Wheeler reluctantly refused to do so.
Washington Capitals Incorporated was the WFL’s Washington-Baltimore corporate name, but the club had trouble finding a suitable nickname. Initially, the team was going to be named the Washington-Baltimore Americans, but the Birmingham entry already snapped up that moniker. Capitals might have been a great choice had the NHL’s D.C. expansion team not chosen it. To solve this problem, the Washington-Baltimore club held a "Name the Team" contest. A New England Patriots fan won $1,000 for the name, Ambassadors. The Baltimore part of the name was gently dropped and the team was now known as the Washington Ambassadors.
To give the WFL club some needed publicity, Wheeler offered a head coaching and general manager position to fading football legend John Unitas of the Baltimore Colts. But Johnny U. declined, stating he already had a commitment to play for the San Diego Chargers. Wheeler pulled off a coup by bringing in a disciple of George Allen’s Over the Hill Gang Washington Redskins, John "Jack" Pardee. Pardee, a 15-year linebacker with the Los Angeles Rams and Redskins, took advantage to be a first-time head coach and general manager. The Pardee hiring turned out to be a bigger bonus than the eventual Florida Blazers expected.
Meanwhile, Joe Wheeler continued to harangue Williams for usage of R.F.K. but the Redskins boss stood tall to the Ambassadors’ owner. One month of fruitless negotiations and empty threats forced Wheeler’s hand, thus on April 12, 1974, just under three months before kickoff, the Washington Ambassadors moved slightly southbound to Norfolk, Virginia, renamed as the Virginia Ambassadors. As in the nation’s capital, Wheeler promoted the team like a scheming politician in an intense election. He intended to upgrade 26,000-seated Foreman Field with lights and a capacity to over 50,000. He claimed that over 50,000 season ticket pledges had been collected.
The Norfolk city fathers were unimpressed with Wheeler’s many boasts. Said one Norfolk official: "Wheeler had everything to offer expect one thing, money."
At around the same time Joe Wheeler pursued an elaborate palace in Norfolk, an ambitious Rommie Loudd attempted to bring an NFL franchise to Orlando, Florida.
Loudd played linebacker in the American Football League’s Los Angeles Chargers and Boston Patriots during its early days. After a stint in the minor league Boston Sweepers, Loudd was hired as the first black assistant coach with the Patriots, in 1966. Impressing the Boston club so well with his hard work and skillful promotion of the team, Rommie was promoted to the Patriot front office as player personnel director. After leaving the Patriots, he headed to Florida in hopes of becoming the first minority owner of a National Football League expansion franchise for the city of Orlando.
Unlike the citrus cities of Jacksonville, Miami, and Tampa Bay that had adequate capacity sizes from 46,000 to 72,000 seats, Orlando lacked the proper facility to house an NFL team. Tiny, skeletal Tangerine Bowl held just 14,424 fannies, made out of wooden planks.
Opening night, July 10, 1974, five WFL openers in Birmingham, Chicago, Memphis, Orlando, and Philadelphia attracted more gridiron fans than expected. Over 188,000 give or take some freebies.
The Bell, who only sold roughly 5,000 season tickets, outdrew the baseball Phillies, 55,534 to 33,000. 53,231 came out for its first ever regular season pro football game at Legion Field, against Southern California Sun. The Chicago Fire celebrated its grand opening at Soldier Field with a grand balloon, fifty hot-stepping Firettes’ cheerleaders, and a rock band that played Light My Fire to an announced crowd of 42,000. Elvis Presley, the King of Rock n Roll, was among the 30,122 that greeted the orange-clad Southmen, who went on to deflate the visiting Detroit Wheels.
The seven-week old Florida Blazers, with traffic tie ups, attracted just 18,625. Next night, in sweltering Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl, the hometown Sharks outdrew them all, as 59,112 roared in approval as the silver and black killer fish stopped the New York Stars, 14-7. It didn’t all go swimmingly, of course. A lightning strike blew a transformer, enveloping the Gator Bowl in darkness. The game was delayed for 10 minutes.
Though attendance struck surprise in the pro football community, even NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle feigned surprise at the massive numbers at the WFL box office, the only real disappointment was a lack of scoring. Trumpeting the new league "wide-open offense," the WFL averaged a skimpy 13.8 points per game. But by the third week, NFL reject quarterbacks George Mira of Birmingham and John Huarte of Memphis, along with passing rooks Matthew Reed and Danny White respectively fired up its offenses by engaging in an aerial scoring circus that ended with the Amerks outgunning the Grizzlies, 58-33. Wiffle pyromania had yet to catch fire with the geriatric Houston Texans; though in first place after five games, the Texans racked up just 34 total points.
In July the WFL had seemed to be the success story of 1974, but in early August that perception changed when it was revealed that Philadelphia and Jacksonville had inflated its attendance to ridiculous proportions. Papergate gave the new league its first taste of bad publicity when officials from The Bell admitted over 100,000 out of 120,000 tickets were given out for free or on extremely discounted prices. Actually, paid attendance in Philadelphia’s first game was just 13,800 while the second game, a TVS Thursday nighter against the New York Stars with 64,179 on hand, a measly 6,200 had paid. The Sharks of Jacksonville gave out 44,000 ducats to its Florida faithful.
August filled with hot, humid days and sultry nights as the WFL continued play. As the NFL players and owners called a tension-filled truce on its players’ strike, WFL attendance decreased in many of its cities, but demand was evident with three of its Central Division teams.
The unbeaten Birmingham Americans, at 8-0, averaged over 43,000 fans per game while the Chicago Fire, winners of six of eight, drew over 44,000 at Soldier Field for one game. Tied with the Firemen, the 6-2 Memphis Southmen had easily demolished The Hawaiians, 60-8. Only the financially malnourished Detroit Wheels still hungered for its first win, though the Motor City club came close to victory a couple of times with rival Birmingham. It didn’t help the Wheels focus on football with canceled practices and rumors swirling that the franchise may detour to Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Stars of New York, after two tough losses, had won five straight before falling to Houston at the Astrodome. Another bizarre chapter of WFL lore was written when John Matuszak, the 6-8, 280-pound linebacker went AWOL from the NFL Houston Oilers and signed a multi-year contract with the WFL Houston Texans. "The Tooz" took to the field as Federal Marshals and attorneys for the Oilers arrived at the dome. Matuszak lasted with the Texans for "seven plays," which included sacking Stars quarterback Tom Sherman before the gendarmeries produced and handed the Tampa product a restraining order, preventing Matuszak from further performing. He waved the document to the small crowd of 10,000 and sat on the Texan bench for the remainder of the game. A judge declared that Matuszak could not join the WFL until his NFL contract concluded, making him eligible to rejoin the Texans until 1978.
On October 8, 1974, WFL Commissioner Gary Davidson announced that two franchises: the Detroit Wheels and Jacksonville Sharks’ games were "suspended" then disbanded officially three days later. "Present financial ownerships were unable to be financially solvent," said Davidson in a statement. Teams scheduled to play the Wheels and Sharks (Chicago and Florida respectively) would play each other instead.
The Florida Blazers, taken over by the league October 4 before an injunction by team managing general partner Rommie Loudd in court, were spared Detroit and Jacksonville’s fate because of its 10-4 first place record.
The WFL was down to 10 teams.
Playoffs were expanded, again, to eight teams, which meant that 80% of the leagues’ teams, regardless of a losing record, would qualify for the World Bowl. Five of the clubs, Shreveport, Portland, Philadelphia, The Hawaiians, and the Chicago Fire possessed losing records. With Jacksonville out of the picture, the title game would be held at the site of the team with best record of the two participants. Birmingham and Memphis seemed to be the favorites in that regard.
Offensively, running backs J.J. Jennings of the Memphis Southmen and Tommy Reamon of the Florida Blazers were neck and neck for the WFL rushing title. Tony Adams led the league in passing while Tim Delaney of The Hawaiians led Shreveport’s Rick Eber in double digits in pass catches.
A showdown between Chicago Fire owner Tom Origer and league founder Gary Davidson ended in Origer’s home turf, with Davidson quietly resigning from the WFL. A smiling Origer came out of the meeting, announcing that the Fire would finish the season, though he reneged on that promise when he refused to fly his team on the final week of the season to play Philadelphia. Although official league press releases told of the founder joining its expansion committee and as an official of the Southern California Sun, Davidson later admitted in Sports Illustrated, in 1994, he walked away from the WFL for good.
The WFL Board of Governors hoped for Memphis’ John Bassett as its new leader, the Southmen owner demurred. Bassett wanted to control things behind the scenes. Nearly a month after Davidson’s resignation, the WFL elected a new commander in chief: Christopher Hemmeter, The Hawaiians co-owner, November 22, 1974. Hemmeter informed the Governors that he was going to implement a new financial plan to save the league.
Meanwhile, many of the remaining teams were suffering problems similar to the two dead teams. Players from the Portland Storm, without paychecks for six weeks, were so poor, according to one team official that local citizens bailed out the squad and its families from starving by donating food and other supplies. A $26,000 delinquent laundry bill from New York when the team was the Stars, caught up to the present Charlotte Hornets’ franchise as sheriffs’ deputies impounded the Hornets’ helmets and equipment. Even stronger teams in Birmingham, Chicago and Southern California began failing on its payments.
Despite the problems swarming the league, the changes did help some new cities get noticed as major league and players formerly with Houston and New York performed better in their Shreveport and Charlotte surroundings. Fullback Jim Nance had been used sparingly while as a Houston Texan, but averaged 93 yards a game in Louisiana. The Steamer won four of eight games after going a dreadful 3-7-1 in Texas. One of their biggest scoring strikes came against the faltering Birmingham Americans when the boats torpedoed the Amerks, 31-0. It had taken six games for the ersatz Texans to score than many points.
Don Highsmith, released by the Oakland Raiders, rushed for over 10 touchdowns in front of larger crowds at Charlotte’s American Legion Memorial Stadium than trying to find the end zone at Gotham’s darkened bat cave at Downing Stadium on Randalls Island. Unfortunately, the Hornets had fallen on hard luck by losing its last four games, and five of their last seven. Two of the WFL’s Western Division weak sisters: The Hawaiians and Portland Storm, punching bags in the first half of the season, dominated stronger teams in the second half. The Storm upset both Birmingham and halted Memphis’ 11-game winning streak. The additions of quarterbacks Edd Hargett and Randy Johnson helped Hawaii go 7-3 after a porous 2-8 start.
World Bowl I was supposed to be the crowning achievement of the WFL’s maiden season. Instead, it was the final chapter of a cruel season that faced two teams practically on welfare.
Hosting the championship game at Legion Field in Birmingham was the Americans, who owed its players and coaches five weeks back salary. Opposing Florida Blazers held a considerable edge over the 15-5 wildcard; the Blazers unpaid since September 6. Nevertheless, it was surprising that the Americans chose to walkout of practice. "I’ve seen some bad days in pro football, but this was the worst," groaned Birmingham coach Jack Gotta. The walkout lasted only 24 hours when the team relented after its owner, Bill Putnam, promised to deliver championship rings if they play and win.
An announced crowd of 32,376 showed up for the WFL title bout. Not only was attendance disappointing, but it was later revealed that the majority of the crowd had purchased the $3 cheap seats and the league inflated attendance. According to a Birmingham bank, only 22,076 gate receipts were counted and just over 20,000 of them paid. "There they go screwing us again," fumed Blazers coach Jack Pardee, January 2, 1975 after he demanded an investigation in shortages of payoffs from the December 5, 1974 title game. He was hired by the NFL Chicago Bears, December 31, 1974, as its new head coach.
The game started auspiciously enough when Blazers’ back Tommy Reamon scored an opening touchdown although he fumbled after breaking the plane. But officials, getting barraged with complaints all season on their dubious calls, nullified the touchdown and awarded possession to Birmingham. "The officiating is worse than not getting paid," snarled the Blazers’ Billy Hobbs. Though the faux-turnover did not account for any points for the Americans, it deflated the Florida squad enough as Birmingham scored two touchdowns for a 15-0 first-half lead. Matthew Reed’s lone Action Point would make all the difference in the victory for Alabama.
Birmingham carried a 22-0 lead as the fourth quarter got underway. Immediately, Orlando struck for their first touchdown, a second, and a quick 76 yard punt return for a third score. Suddenly, the Blazers trailed by a single point, 22-21. But that how it ended as the Americans rank out the clock. As the gun sounded, officially ending the World Football League’s disastrous first season, the Blazers spoiled things a bit by stealing the game ball as Birmingham defenders pursued them in hot pursuit. Neither team had been paid in weeks and months, but here they were fighting over palomino gold and orange-striped pigskin.
The day after the Birmingham Americans became champions of World Bowl I, authorities armed with a warrant, seized the team’s uniforms and equipment. "So what," shrugged owner Bill Putnam, "they’re just uniforms." That same day, repo men arrived to clean out the Americans’ office furniture. Two months later, what was left of the Florida Blazers franchise was sold piece meal at an Orlando courthouse. Stanley Shader bought most of the remains. "I buy distressed merchandise," quipped Shader who kept an autographed WFL football.
WFL 1974 lost an estimated $20 million. At the time it was financially the worst sports venture disaster in the 20th Century. (Though some argue the 1980s United States Football League did far worse.) Of all the teams, Memphis lost the least, approximately $700,000, though the Southmen did support, according to its owner John Bassett, assisting "five teams out of hock."
The remaining teams lost between $800,000 and $2 million on average. The Hawaiians took a bloodbath of $3.2 million. The New York Stars-Charlotte Hornets had $2.5 million in debt and only $94,000 in assets. Detroit and Jacksonville both lost roughly $4 million, with the Wheels blown out for $2.4 million and 133 creditors. Philadelphia rang the death knoll at $2 million while Portland, Southern California, Florida and Birmingham were in arrears of over a million dollars.
Whereas last April 1974 many National Football League stars and reserves were flocking to the new league; by January 1975 a majority of those "future" WFL stars had retreated back to the NFL.
Oakland Raiders star quarterback Ken Stabler was able to get out of his contract with the financially-troubled Birmingham Americans, for failure to make bonus payments. A Birmingham judge declared the WFL pact nullified and void. L.C. Greenwood washed his hands of the Americans and signed a lucrative contract with his old club, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Craig Morton didn’t want to play in Shreveport, though he had been traded from the Dallas Cowboys to the New York Giants, October 23, 1974. Nonetheless, Morton preferred to stay a Giant than a Steamer.
Charley Harraway, Paul Robinson of the Americans, Leroy Kelly of the Chicago Fire, Don Maynard, and Don Trull of the Steamer, and Hornets’ players Gerry Philbin, John Elliott, and George Sauer, retired from pro football.
Even the WFL’s "home grown" stars and coaches abandoned them for the NFL. One-third league MVP, quarterback Tony Adams, requested a release from Southern California. Adams later signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. Southern California Sun released its three stars: running backs James McAlister and Kermit Johnson, and guard Booker Brown as they declared themselves free agents last November because the Sun missed a timely payday. Hawaiians’ quarterbacks Norris Weese and Randy Johnson opted for the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins respectively.
The damaged new league’s biggest loss came out of Orlando when Jack Pardee, the Florida Blazers WFL Coach of the Year, was hired as head coach of the Chicago Bears. Pardee took his entire Blazers staff and a few refugees with him, including WFL star tight end Greg Latta.
Rising from the ashes of WFL 1974, a "new" World Football League emerged at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, April 16, 1975. Inside the ballroom of the famed hotel, league president Chris Hemmeter introduced some of the stars, including the Miami Three of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield; Calvin Hill, now with The Hawaiians, and John Gilliam, who had originally signed with the Hawaiians, but chose to stay in the mainland with the reformed Chicago Winds.
The World Football League began its second (or as far as New League Incorporated was concerned, first) season with some returning teams and some newly named ones in old WFL markets. The World Bowl 1974 champion Birmingham Americans were no more, in its place the renamed Birmingham Vulcans; World Bowl runner-ups, the Florida Blazers left Orlando for good and merged with the semi-pro San Antonio Toros to reincarnate as the San Antonio Wings. The Chicago Winds replaced the burnt-out Fire while the Jacksonville Express replaced the defunct Sharks and the Portland Thunder-like the long gone Storm, a last-addition to the WFL club roster. Missing in action for New League Inc., perhaps for good, Detroit and Houston; the Wheels was the only team not replaced, and New York was expected come back in 1976 in refurbished Yankee Stadium.
For 1975, only two ownerships: Memphis and Philadelphia remained from the start of last season.
Gone also was the mustard-stained, orange striped football that fluttered in its first season as well as the split, seven-and-a-half overtime set up. Instead of playing the entire OT string, the first team that scored first would be declared the winner. If neither team scored during the 15-minute fifth quarter, then a tie would be declared. The oft-malfunctioning Dickerrod had been junked in place for the standard measuring chains.
Former NFL stars were now new WFL stars. Miami Three of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield reported with the Memphis Southmen; Daryle Lamonica suited up for the Southern California Sun, Ted Kwalick joined Philadelphia, Calvin Hill The Hawaiians, and John Gilliam played in the Chicago Winds lineup. Ben Hawkins, a star receiver with the Philadelphia Eagles before being traded to the Cleveland Browns, then cut, joined the WFL Bell.
A number of homegrown WFL stars, including co-MVP running backs Tommy Reamon and J.J. Jennings rejoined with newer teams; Reamon staying in Florida, but with the Jacksonville Express now and Jennings going to the Philadelphia Bell. A cadre of NFL veterans who jumped to the WFL as futures who ended up joining their respective teams midway into the WFL 1974 season, came back for another season in the World, including quarterback Edd Hargett, going from The Hawaiians to the Shreveport Steamer, and Hawaiians running back Vin Clements.
But other NFL big stars and some of last year’s WFL stars opted to cancel their future deals and stay or sign with NFL teams instead. Ken Stabler got his Birmingham Americans 1976 contract voided in a Birmingham court, staying with the Oakland Raiders; L.C. Greenwood, Frenchy Fuqua, Curly Culp, and Craig Morton among others stayed in the NFL. One-third MVP and WFL leading passer of ’74, quarterback Tony Adams of the Southern California Sun, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. Greg Latta, starring tight end of the WFL, joined his Florida Blazers head coach, Jack Pardee, going to the Chicago Bears. Birmingham Americans team MVP, wide receiver Alfred Jenkins signed with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
Some of the 1974 WFL members, such as Portland kicker Booth Lusteg, and three New York-Charlotte Stars-Hornets stars, Gerry Philbin, John Elliott, and George Sauer, retired.
The WFL’s decision to hold exhibition games came out with mixed results. On the one hand, the pre-season games were a chance to preview the improvements the league had made, plus to showcase some of its changes, and introducing former NFL stars, Csonka, Kiick, and Warfield as well as USC collegiate heroes Anthony Davis and Pat Haden.
The drawbacks included squandering monies that might have served better for struggling teams down the road. Coloring the players’ pants proved to be a laughable eyesore to fans and an affront age to players embarrassed in these ridiculous outfits; fortunately to all involved the cinemascope-colored pants were dutifully discarded. Attendance for the exhibitions barely drew in the teens for most of the teams, although the Southern California Sun attracted 24,000, including 14,000 last-minute buyers to witness the Tom Fears led Sun cream the star-laden Memphis Southmen, 47-16.
In late July, the league lost two coaches from last season. Discouraged by the throngs of empty seats in Philadelphia’s Franklin Field, plus much infighting with Bell ownership led to Ron Waller resigning from the team; Chicago’s situation was dire.
Failing to sign Joe Namath had brought sales for Winds’ season tickets to just 1,600 and its first exhibition at Soldier Field, against Jacksonville, attracted just over 2,000, the league intervened to correct the troubled Winds by-unfairly-firing head coach-general manager Babe Parilli. Reluctantly, Leo Cahill left a secure future with the Grizzlies to take on a task akin to being hired to pilot the Titanic. New head coach Abe Gibron, permanently exiled from the Bears, had just 48 hours to get acquainted to his new Chicago club before they placed Birmingham in the opener.
Opening week commenced July 26, 1975, at the tail-end of the WFL’s exhibition season with a regular season game between the San Antonio Wings at home at Alamo Stadium against the Charlotte Hornets.
The hybrid of the defunct Florida Blazers and the minor league San Antonio Toros surprised the more experience Hornets roster, 27-10. Ex-Detroit Wheel Billy Sadler and Chicago Fire stand by, quarterback John Walton, upended Charlotte who turned over the ball four times. A crowd of over 12,000 attended the Wings opener. It was a great first step for an expansion franchise that had been destined to go 0-18 in its first season. For the Hornets, it was a real embarrassment, which had yet to win another regular season game since they shut out the defunct Chicago Fire last October.
On September 2, 1975, the Chicago Winds was expelled by the WFL Board of Governors when two investors decided to pull its $175,000 deposit. The Winds had barely blew a breeze compared to the more successful Fire in popularity; the first Chicago team drew an average 27,000 per game, while the reformed Winds attracted just over 5,000 fans in its only two home games at Soldier Field. Team leading receiver John Gilliam had enough of the WFL and went back to the Minnesota Vikings, as did quarterback Pete Beathard; both players declining to go the Philadelphia Bell, opting to return to the NFL instead.
The remaining 10 teams struggled for fan support.
Hard times forced the Shreveport Steamer to layoff its GM, Al Lange, leaving head coach Marshall Taylor additional duties as GM; the team ordered him to shave off 20% of its payroll by releasing its highest paid contracts. Leading tackle Ron Rydalach saved them the trouble by quitting the team in a huff. "We have enough money to survive just two weeks," admitted the Steamer coach. Attendance remained murky in Charlotte, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Portland, and Southern California. Only Birmingham and Memphis drew the required 17,000 in the Hemmeter Plan in order to break even.
Bad publicity and the catastrophic rubble of the first WFL carried over into the reformed WFL of 1975 as sinking attendance-never going over 17,000 per week affected its 10 teams. Although players, coaches and front office staff were getting their paychecks on time, a new round of debts totaled over $10 million, averaging a paltry of 13,371 per game. The WFL began to lose players. Paul Costa quit the Portland Thunder, declaring playing for the $500 a game minimum wage "just wasn’t worth it."
On Wednesday, October 22, 1975, the 10 general managers of the WFL convened on a telephone conference call, with league administration. They had finished by 3pm for a final vote that was obvious to those involved: whether to continue for the remainder of the season, or fold. Although who had voted to go on or call it a day was never officially released. There had been wide debate in the press which teams had decided to end it or carry on.
The end result, regardless, was obvious.
The vote was 6 to 4 to fold, thus ending the two-year odyssey of the World Football League.
Most scribes had reported that Charlotte, San Antonio, Shreveport, and Southern California to continue while Hawaii, Jacksonville, Memphis, Philadelphia, and Portland pulled the plug. Other say Jacksonville wanted to stay on. Nonetheless, the expiration of the WFL immediately put 380 players, numerous coaches and other staff out of work.
NOTE: This page was written exclusively for the World Football League Website by Chuck Gardner.
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