1975 WFL Team Pages
The Hornets ended their 1974 campaign surrounded by uncertainty. The former New York Stars had left the ghost of empty stadiums behind them as they moved to Charlotte, North Carolina and greener pastures. The Hornets averaged 20,000 fans a game for their final four games of the 1974 season, but debts and the $1.2 million price tag that Upton Bell agreed to pay former Stars owner Bob Schmertz began to put a strain on the financial stability of the team. When the '74 season ended the Hornets didn't have adequate investment capital to keep the team solvent. Bell decided to end the season and secure new investors rather than risk even more losses at the gate, despite the Hornets qualifying for the WFL playoffs with a 10-10 record.
Days after the World Bowl in Birmingham, WFL Commissioner Chris Hemmeter announced that all ownership groups interested in fielding a team for the 1975 season were required to deposit $650,000 into a league account to ensure solvency. This directive was the driving force behind the "Hemmeter Plan," and would guarantee the league could meet its financial obligations. Owner Upton Bell looked to 1975 with optimism but realized he had to secure investors in the community to keep the Hornets in the league. 1974 ended with the team in debt despite averaging over 19,000 fans in Charlotte, and the Hornets were forced out of the WFL playoffs simply because they couldn't afford to play. A January 15, 1975 deadline was issued to all ownership groups by Hemmeter to organize enough capital to secure their place in the World Football League. Despite meetings with civic leaders and potential investors, on January 15th, the Hornets failed to reach the $650,000 goal. During a press conference Bell told reporters, "We are looking at an alternative to private investment and will have to make a decision on this very soon." On January 20th, Bell announced that the Hornets would offer a public sale to raise enough funds for the season. $100 shares will be sold with a goal of $1.5 million. The Hornets gained approval from the WFL for the plan and was given a deadline of February 15th to raise the required capital. Bell told reporters, "If we get 300 investors of $5000 each, we can make our goal." In a gesture of support, Charlotte Mayor John Belk announced he would contribute his $11,000 salary to the team.
On February 19th, WFL Commissioner Chris Hemmeter traveled to North Carolina to get a first hand look at the situation. Hemmeter told reporters from various news agencies that he felt Charlotte was one of the WFL's strongholds due to the performance at the gate in 1974 and was concerned that the Hornets would not be involved in 1975 due to lack of local investment. Don Bryant, Charlotte Chamber of Commerce President, announced his plans to organize local businessman to raise the needed investment. On March 4th, Bryant invited Hemmeter to a meeting of about "100 to 140" interested investors - only 29 showed up. Hemmeter extended the WFL deadline to March 31 to allow Bell and Bryant more time to raise the needed funds. Bryant and H.E. Pollack organized a steering committee that eventually raised $755,000 in cash and commitments. The investment, although far off the goal set by the league and Upton Bell (initially they hoped for $1.5 million), was promising. The Hornets began to receive support from area businesses and to assist in the effort the WFL lowered its requirement for the stock sale to $1.1 million, leaving the team only $345,000 short. Hornets owner Upton Bell told the Charlotte Observer, "If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times. The Hornets are not a sound business investment; I think these figures take away any of those objections." Bell, Bryant, Pollack and new alternate governor Richard Thigpen then invited 200 companies to a meeting for a Hornets sales pitch. Only two showed up. Despite the setbacks, North Carolina National Bank invested $10,000 in the Hornets. On March 31st Bell announced the stock drive had failed to reach the required investment, but during a WFL meeting on April 15th the Hornets are voted into the league despite missing their capitalization goal. Many reporters claimed the league allowed Charlotte into the league to cover up the WFL's overall financial uncertainty. Regardless of the facts the Hornets were officially in the World Football League.
With the financial obligations settled, Bell hired head coach Bob Gibson, formerly of the Memphis Southmen, and Gibson brought in assistant coaches; Tom Beer, Lindy Infante, Herb Paterra, Jim Vechiarella and Joe Clark to run the team. The Hornets secured quarterback Tom Sherman, running backs Don Highsmith and Lewis Jolley, guard Larry Butler, defensive tackle Greg Lens, linebackers Tom Chandler, Jere Brown and Marty Huff, and defensive backs Larry Shears and Jeff Woodcock. The Hornets held training camp at Gardner-Webb College and prepared for their upcoming exhibition game against Calvin Hill and the Hawaiians.
Charlotte traveled to Honolulu, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to face the Hawaiians for their first exhibition game of the 1975 season. On the island, the Hornets ran into a steamroller in the form of former NFL All-Pro running back Calvin Hill. Hill ran through and around the Hornets as the Hawaiians routed Charlotte 32-14. It wasn't a glorious beginning to a season of hope for the Carolinians. Bob Gibson told reporters, "This is a tough way to get started. We did nothing on defense. Hill ran straight at us and we didn't do a thing about it." Gibson focused on the team's exhibition the following week in Greensboro, North Carolina against the Chicago Winds.
A crowd of 2,231 awaited the Hornets at Groves Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Team owner Upton Bell tried to expand the Hornets fan base by scheduling a game outside of Charlotte. Under the blue skies the teams warmed up in front of a sparse crowd. On the field the teams clashed and played a close game. The Winds featured former NFL All-Pro wide receiver John Gilliam and quarterback Pete Beathard. The Hornets managed a 22-21 win on a last minute 47 yard pass from quarterback Brian Dowling to rookie wide receiver Randy Cobb. The Winds were driving at the very end, but their drive stalled in Charlotte territory as the Hornets won their first of the WFL exhibition season.
In Charlotte, many of the players and front office personnel eagerly awaited the beginning of the WFL regular season. Hornets coach Bob Gibson was pleased with his teams' effort against the Chicago Winds and the coaching staff seemed upbeat about the play of the defense. Quarterback Brian Dowling had played well but starter Tom Sherman was injured, and running back Don Highsmith was showing the form he had in 1974 after coming over as a free agent from the NFL and signing with the New York Stars. As the team went through its two-a-day practices, Gibson planned out the playbook for the San Antonio Wings.
A chartered jet carrying the Charlotte Hornets landed in San Antonio, Texas on July 26th as the Hornets faced the expansion San Antonio Wings. The Wings featured many former ex-Florida Blazers and would prove to be a tough rival. On the field, 12,375 fans watched as former Detroit Wheels running back Billy Sadler ran for two touchdowns and quarterback Johnnie Walton scored another as the Wings defeated Charlotte 27-10. For Hornets coach Bob Gibson it was a tough loss. The Hornets lost four fumbles, three turning into San Antonio scores, and starting quarterback, Brian Dowling, passed for 178 yards and was intercepted twice. The Hornets suffered a whole hearted defeat, and with the preseason performance head coach Gibson and his staff worried.
On a mild August night, Charlotte traveled to Memphis, Tennessee. For Coach Bob Gibson it was sort of a homecoming, since he had started his career with the Memphis Southmen. The Hornets were surrounded by the media hype that was becoming traditional for the Memphis Southmen and their "hired guns" (Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield). As all eyes focused on the "Big Three" the Hornets erupted for an 11-0 halftime lead over Memphis. Kicker Pete Rajecki nailed a 25-yard field goal and Brian Dowling passed 8-yards to Kreg Kapitan for a touchdown. A pass from Dowling to Kapitan was also good for the Action Point. In the third quarter the Hornets would again crumble. Dowling was pressured into hurried passes, and the Southmen countered with Larry Csonka hauling in a 10-yard pass from john Huarte to cut the lead to 11-8. Then with 19,729 fans on their feet, John Huarte found a wide open Paul Warfield in the end zone to take the lead 15-11. In the fourth quarter, with the Southmen defense holding Charlotte at bay, Jim Kiick rammed his way up the middle of the black and gold Hornets defensive line as Memphis finished off Charlotte 23-11. In the locker room the Hornets defensive leaders, Marty Huff, Greg Lens, Tom Chandler, Jere Brown and Jeff Woodcock searched for answers to the team's self-destruction. Larry Csonka had just ran wild for 112 yards and the Hornets were helpless to stop him. Charlotte was now 0-2 in the WFL's Eastern Division.
With the World Football League fighting against the odds, the Hornets traveled home to the familiar surroundings of American Legion Memorial Stadium. In the front office, Upton Bell, Governor of the team, stood looking concerned with the discussions he was having with ticket manager Guy Bingham. It was two o'clock and only 3,000 tickets had been sold for that's night game against the San Antonio Wings. The gate would have to be bigger if the team were to survive. Bell realized that the team needed about 14,000 a night to break even and that was still being hopeful and keeping costs at a minimum.
As game time drew near, a crowd of 8,447 mulled around the stands of Memorial Stadium. Bell told reporters, "This is a small miracle. I didn't even think we would have 5,000 here tonight - we only had 3,200 sold at three o'clock." The crowd, although small, was loud and behind the hometown team as quarterback Tom Sherman, returning from an injury, led Charlotte on a drive that was capped by a Don Highsmith one-yard touchdown run to bring the Hornets within 17-8 at halftime. In the third quarter the Wings defense limited Charlotte's possession time and kept the team off the scoreboard, and added a field goal of their own (a 37 yard boot by Luther Palmer) to make it a 20-8 ball game going into the final minutes of the third quarter. The hometown fans fell silent.
In the huddle the Hornets rallied around the veteran leadership of Tom Sherman. Sherman guided the Hornets down field using his scrambling and option passes to Lewis Jolley and Kreg Kapitan. Then Sherman sparked the Hornets with a 53-yard pass to Lewis Jolley to move to the Wings 11 on the final play of the third quarter. The start of the fourth quarter saw Sherman handing off to Jolley who rumbled up the middle to the San Antonio 5-yard line. Jolley then spun regaining his footing and crashed into the end zone for a touchdown. Charlotte cut the San Antonio lead 20-15. Sherman then hit tight end Ray Parson for the action point and the Hornets trailed 20-16. Pete Rajecki added a 37-yard field goal later to make it a 20-19 game and set the stage for a rallying Charlotte battle-cry.
Under the North Carolina stars, and the yellow glow of the stadium lights, Tom Sherman scrambled left away from pressure and threw an amazing 57-yard bomb to Danny Whyte who hauled in the pass over his shoulder without breaking a stride into the end zone. Sherman then hit wide receiver James Thompson for the Action Point to give the Hornets a 27-20 victory. The 8,447 fans erupted, as did Bob Gibson and the Hornets bench. The team had their first win of the season, and was now 1-2 in the standings. Charlotte owner Upton Bell stood on his feet at the sidelines screaming wildly. It had been a drastic change of emotion since three o'clock and now the Hornets had their first win of the 1975 WFL season.
In a steamy Hornets locker room Gibson told reporters, "When we were down by two touchdowns and the game was getting into the late moments I had some concern. We made no great halftime changes. There was no magic formula. Because of the heat we played more men and they played well. We got some breaks and made the most of them."
The Hornets were 1-2 and on August 30th, the Hornets landed in Jacksonville, Florida to play the new Jacksonville Express. The entire state of Florida was being pelted by heavy rains, as the field resembled flood conditions. Players went sliding and splashing like cartoon characters as both teams tried to adjust to the elements. Charlotte scored on the first possession of the game marching 65 yards in 10 plays as Don Highsmith rammed one yard for the touchdown for a 8-0 lead. Then the Hornets got a pass interference call in the end zone which set up Lewis Jolley's one yard run and suddenly Charlotte led 15-0 at the half. The Hornets controlled the ball on the ground sending Jolley and Highsmith into the line, and then sending Tom Sherman wide on quarterback options. Despite the pounding rain Charlotte cruised to a 25-0 lead on Pete Rajecki's 26-yard field goal and Sherman's 9-yard touchdown pass to Jolley. In the end the Hornets were unstoppable and defeated Jacksonville 33-14, sending home 16,428 disappointed Express fans. The Hornets had improved to 2-2 on the young WFL season.
The Charlotte fans continued to support the team and the return of Tom Sherman and the team's two-game winning streak caused for high hopes. On a rainy night in Charlotte, an estimated crowd of 10,500 (reports had the attendance closer to 8,500) turned out to see the Hornets play their nemesis the Philadelphia Bell in a driving rain storm. Both teams sloshed in the rain and mud. Sherman, and his counterpart Bob Davis, were limited to handing off to allow the running backs to plow through the elements. Hornets running back Don Highsmith broke around the Bell left side and galloped into the end zone for the game's only touchdown. Charlotte won 10-0. Don Highsmith rushed for 99-yards and was named the WFL's week 6 Player of the Week.
On September 14th the Hornets traveled to Anaheim, California. Charlotte won the game beating the Southern California Sun 30-22. The Hornets defense had an impressive goal line stand as time ran off the clock, sending 11,123 Sun fans home in disbelief. The Hornets record was now 4-2 with a four-game winning streak.
Charlotte played the following Sunday in Birmingham. The Vulcans defeated the Hornets 22-16 in front of 18,500 WFL fans. The Hornets winning streak was over after the heartbreaking loss in Birmingham.
Then under perfect skies, over 17,000 Hornets fans sat in the stands of Memorial Stadium to watch Charlotte take on the Southern California Sun in a rematch. Running back Anthony Davis charged up the middle from seven yards out with 13:16 remaining in the game to put the Sun ahead for a 24-17 win over the Charlotte Hornets. For the sixth time in the 1975 season Anthony Davis cracked the century mark rushing for 101 yards on 22 carries. Davis also finished with seven receptions for 109 yards for a total of 210 yards. The Sun defense held Charlotte running back Don Highsmith to 36 yards on 25 carries, and intercepted five passes to end Charlotte drives.
In November of 1974 the Hornets traveled to Shreveport and lost the game 19-14, and had their uniforms confiscated after the game by the local sheriff's department after the team failed to pay its laundry bill in New York. This time the Hornets outcome was different as Charlotte defeated the Shreveport Steamer 39-14. Tom Sherman had his most impressive game of the season as he completed 17 of 20 passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns. The Hornets defense and special teams helped in the victory as well. Safety Randy Rhino intercepted a pass from Steamer quarterback D.C. Nobles and ran it back 84-yards for a touchdown. This was a WFL record until week 12, when San Antonio Wings safety Joe Womack returned an interception 96-yard for a touchdown. Womack's touchdown was also against the Shreveport Steamer. The Hornets final score came from defensive end Denis Turner as he blocked a punt from Dave Strock and ran it 10-yards for a touchdown. The Hornets had snapped a two-game losing streak and now their record stood at 5-4 in the Eastern Division.
On October 12, 1975, the Hornets came home to American Legion Memorial Stadium to host the Jacksonville Express. The Hornets erupted for 19 second quarter points, highlighted by a circus catch by wide receiver Lee McGriff that opened the way for a Pete Rajecki 21-yard field goal as Charlotte took a commanding 22-15 lead. A crowd of 7,750 fans roared with delight. For McGriff the win was special due to the fact that he was cut by the Express personnel director Kay Stephenson. "all I wanted to do was play," said McGriff, whose leaping 15-yard catch for a first down paved the way for a third period Hornets field goal. "Although I made it until the next-to-last cut with Dallas, I played in only two exhibition games with the Express. I was really hurtin' for playing time." The Hornets won the game 39-14.
The following Saturday, October 18th, the Hornets were in Philadelphia to take on the Bell. WFL Commissioner, Chris Hemmeter was on hand, as a guest of Bell owner John Bosacco. Ticket sales were a season low for the WFL. Only 1,293 fans were in attendance. A damp and rainy night had seen many Philly fans stay home and watch the Stanley Cup champion Flyers on TV. Charlotte fans were unable to view the Hornets telecast. An engineers strike prevented TV crews from setting up needed equipment to broadcast the game back to Charlotte.
The Hornets, unable to show any offense trailed the Bell 10-3 at halftime. Pete Rajecki kicked a 27-yard field goal with 1:37 left in the first period for their only score. The Hornets had rushed, 17 times for minus -2 yards in the first half. Reserve running back Molly McGee had a 43 yard scamper in the fourth quarter. This set up a Don Highsmith 4-yard touchdown run. McGee's run helped the team final rushing total of 66-yards. Highsmith finished the game with 16 carries and minus -2 yards. Quarterbacks, Tom Sherman and Brian Dowling completed 12 of 36 passes, and were intercepted twice.
"We got no offense at all," Gibson said. ""When you can't move it at all, you've got to say it was a plenty poor performance. I don't think we blocked a soul, and they manhandled us on the offensive line. We didn't have complete concentration. When you get the ball in your bosom and drop it after cuddling the s.o.b. it's just a lack of concentration."
"The offense showed complete ineptness and the defense looked like shit yet only gave up 18 points. I was surprise our tackling was lousy. That's the only reason they ran well. Really, the poor defensive tackle was the only thing wrong on that end."
"It was our worst over-all performance of the season." The Bell defeated the Hornets 18-10.
The Hornets defense intercepted Bell quarterback Bob Davis three times. Randy Rhino got his third interception of the 1975 season, cornerback Larry Shears (his fifth) and linebacker Marty Huff (his second). Rhino also had nine unassisted tackles and four assist from his safety position. Rhino came up from his safety position to the line of scrimmage to tackle Bell running backs.
Claude Watts set a Philadelphia Bell rushing record with his 136 yards on the ground, on 25 carries. John Land who used to own the team rushing record ended up with 93 yards.
On October 22, 1975, the Charlotte Hornets ran through various practice drills at their new practice facility at Gus Purnell Day Camp. Head coach Bob Gibson, preparing his team for a home game against the Hawaiians, was called off the field for a telephone call from owner Upton Bell. When he came back he called the team together. With the players around him, Gibson said, "Go ahead and sit down. This is going to be a long break." All the players knew what had happened. Their world, the World Football League had died. Gibson told reporters, "I honestly didn't think that it (the league folding) would come. I felt that the big money people in the league had too much at stake to let it happen." Bell, Gibson said, relayed "just the basic facts." That was it." He just told me that the league was finished and that they'd decided to fold the league and that we weren't one that was in favor of folding. We voted to continue. We were very desirous to continue the league and had the financial backing to do so,"
Bob Gibson further told reporters that evening, "We just didn't have the kind of attendance to make it go. When I was (first) afraid we were in trouble was when 7,000 for the Jacksonville game (on October 12th). We didn't get the support. I feel the unfair press certainly contributed. Some of the stories taken as gospel helped the demise of the league."
The Charlotte Hornets locker room (the camp's day kitchen) was a mound of dirty practice uniforms, adhesive tape, wooden benches (used to view game films). A film screen hung on the wall and old newspapers were taped over the windows to give the players privacy. The room echoed an eerie silence. Equipment manager Bob Lambert and assistant trainer Tom Wilkinson stood in the aftermath. It was the second time their team had folded. In 1974, both had worked for the Florida Blazers when that team went bankrupt. As the two left the room, on the wall was taped an article from a Birmingham newspaper, the headline read, "Yes, Virginia, The WFL Plays Good Football."
NOTE: The Charlotte Hornets team page was written and researched by Jim Cusano and Richie Franklin.
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