World Football League (1974-1975)
Born: 1973 – WFL founding franchise
Folded: October 22, 1975
Stadium: Anaheim Stadium (47,000)
Team Colors: Magenta & Orange
World Bowl Championships: None
Back in the mid-1970’s, the NFL held its college draft at the end of January. As the 1974 draft loomed, headlines swirled around the formation of the World Football League, an upstart rival intent on starting play in July. The WFL was the brainchild of Gary Davidson, a serial sports entrepeneur who also had a hand in the creation of the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association.
The impact of the WFL wasn’t clear yet in early January. Many clubs were still seeking investors and hopping from city to city in search of stadium leases and community support. One club that got an early start was the Southern California Sun, based in Anaheim. On January 14th, 1974 the Sun hired former NFL Hall-of-Famer Tom Fears as Head Coach. The WFL held its inaugural college draft eight days later on January 22nd. Then, on the eve of the NFL draft, the Sun and the WFL fired the first shot across the bow of the NFL.
On January 28th, 1974 the Sun signed three prized NFL prospects in UCLA running backs Kermit Johnson and James McAlister and USC tackle Booker Brown. Mike Trope, a 23-year old former USC student with no legal or business degree, represented the trio. The previous year Trope landed 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers of Nebraska as a client, set up a bidding war for Rodgers’ services between the San Diego Chargers and the Montreal Alouettes and eventually delivered the wideout to Montreal in return for the richest contract in Canadian Football League history. For his Sun clients, Trope negotiated three-year $350,000 contracts for skill players McAlister and Johnson and a three-year $225,000 deal for lineman Brown.
In April 1974, the Sun made national headlines again, signing Oakland Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica to a futures contract set to begin in 1975. Lamonica was part of a stable of NFL stars including Ken Stabler (Birmingham), Calvin Hill (Hawaii), Craig Morton (Houston) and the Miami Dolphins trio of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield (Memphis) that signed agreements to jump to the WFL after playing out their NFL contracts. The NFL stars were both lured by the large contracts on offer from WFL owners and repelled by the restrictions of the “Rozelle Rule“, a measure which effectively chilled free agency in the NFL and was often challenged in court by NFL players.
The World Football League debuted on July 10th, 1974. Crowds in excess of 50,000 turned out in Philadelphia and Birmingham. The Sun made their home debut on July 17th, 1974 against the Hawaiians at Anaheim Stadium. A season-high crowd of 32,008, including a reported 20,000 season ticket holders, watched the Sun race out to a 23-0 lead after three quarters. The magenta-and-orange clad Sun then held off a furious 4th quarter rally from the Hawaiians, prevailing 38-31.
The early attendance numbers were eye-popping, but it didn’t take long for the WFL to start springing leaks. Tax figures leaked to media in several cities revealed that actual paid attendance for early season games was massively inflated with free ticket giveaways and falsifications. The poster child for this was the Philadelphia Bell, who were forced to acknowledge that only 6,200 people had paid for tickets to their July 25th game. The Bell announced attendance of 64,719 for the event. In September, the WFL’s major market clubs in Houston and New York City abruptly relocated in mid-season to Shreveport and Charlotte respectively. At least they finished out the season. The Detroit Wheels and Jacksonville Sharks both folded without completing their schedules.
The Sun were not immune to the financial shenanigans. In September, Sun owner Larry Hatfield was indicted by a federal grand jury on bank fraud charges relating to false documentation on several loan applications, including a $365,000 loan sought for the Sun. The Sun finished the 1974 season at 13-7 but management failed to make the final player payroll of the regular season on November 15th. By this point, the front office had worked nearly a month without pay. The unpaid Sun players held a vote on whether to play the scheduled playoff quarterfinal on Thursday, November 21st against The Hawaiians. Like the Florida Blazers, who hadn’t received paychecks in 12 weeks, the Sun players voted to go ahead and participate in the playoffs. As it turned out, not all of the Sun players were on board with this decision.
After consulting with Mike Trope, Sun offensive tackle Booker Brown and 1,000-yard rusher Kermit Johnson decided to boycott the playoff game. Trope’s other client, James McAlister, missed the game due to injury. The Sun lost to the Hawaiians 32-14 before 11,430 at Anaheim Stadium, the smallest home crowd of the season. Afterwards, Sun defensive tackle Dave Roller vented to the press: “If management had done their part, we would have gone all the way. You can’t win if you can’t concentrate. And you can’t concentrate if you don’t get paid.”
The hits kept on coming for the WFL in December 1974. The Birmingham Americans defeated the still-unpaid Florida Blazers 22-21 in the first and only World Bowl at Birmingham’s Legion Field. Minutes after the victory, the Americans uniforms and equipment were seized by sheriff’s deputies for auction on behalf of an unpaid creditor. Blazers owner Rommie Loudd was arrested on charges of failing to pay $40,000 in ticket sales taxes to the state of Florida. In California, Sun owner Hatfield pleaded guilty to one count in his federal fraud trial and received probation and a fine.
Hawaiians owner Christopher Hemmeter began work to re-organize the league as a new entity – New League, Inc. – to play a 1975 season. In April 1975, Hemmeter revealed the eleven member clubs of his new World Football League. Many of the original cities remained but with new ownership and, in some cases, new team names. San Antonio was the only new market to join the league.
Remarkably, Hatfield was able to hang on at the Sun, in spite of his and the team’s financial issues. He also had a new backer in Sam Battistone, a California restauranteur and owner of the NBA’s New Orleans Jazz. Battistone had been a part-owner with Hemmeter in the Hawaiians during the 1974 season. Now he became the primary owner of the Sun, infusing new capital and retaining Hatfield as President & General Manager.
Many of the NFL stars who signed futures contracts with WFL clubs in 1974 began looking for the escape hatch. Ken Stabler of the Oakland Raiders went to court and extracted himself from his deal with the insolvent Birmingham Americans. Stabler’s teammate Daryle Lamonica, however, still had a deal in place with the Sun and arrived for the 1975 season as the team’s presumptive starting quarterback. Unlike the rest of the WFL, the Sun pursued several stars from the 1975 college class, landing the University of Southern California backfield tandem of quarterback Pat Haden and the tailback and Heisman Trophy finalist Anthony Davis.
The courtship of Davis meant the return of old friend Mike Trope, Davis’ former USC classmate-turned-agent. The New York Jets selected Davis in the 2nd round of the NFL Draft in January. Trope’s previous trio of high-profile Sun rookies – Booker Brown, Kermit Johnson and James McAlister – all declared free agency and departed for the NFL after the Sun failed to meet their final payroll in 1974. But Trope was willing to let bygones by bygones. After the Jets offered a three-year deal worth $150,000 in base salary and signing bonus, Trope inked Davis to a five-year contract with the Sun reportedly worth $1.7 million plus a silver Rolls Royce.
The Sun opened the 1975 season on August 3rd, defeating the Portland Thunder 21-15 on the arm of third-string quarterback Mike Ernst. The announced crowd of 14,362 at Anaheim Stadium did not get to see Lamonica or Haden, who both suffered training camp injuries. The quarterback position, expected to be an embarassment of riches for the Sun, turned out to be unsettled all season. Haden saw most of the snaps, but left the team in September by previous agreement to pursue his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. Lamonica, meanwhile, never shook off a pre-season hernia injury and appeared sparingly in only two games. Lamonica skipped a Sun road game in Shreveport in September and officially confirmed his retirement several days later, walking away from a reported $500,000 contract.
Anthony Davis, meanwhile, was the unparalleled star of the WFL’s 1975 season. In 12 games, he racked up 1,200 rushing and 18 combined touchdowns, on the ground, through the air and via kick return. He almost certainly would have been tagged as the league’s MVP had the chronic financial problems of the WFL not interceded first. On October 22nd 1975, the exhausted owners threw in the towel, terminating the league and the remainder of the schedule in mid-season.
Sun President Larry Hatfield told The Los Angeles Times that the club lost an estimated $3 million during the 1974 and 1975 seasons. According an Associated Press postmortem in November 1975, the Sun sold approximately 6,000 season tickets for the 1975 season, a substantial drop from the reported 20,000 season tickets the team moved in 1974. The Sun offices shut down in late October 1975 without issuing season ticket refunds for the five home games that remained unplayed.
In December 1975, former Sun players Jack Connors and Eric Patton earned headlines by picketing outside Sam Battistone’s home, attempting to collect the remainder of their unpaid salaries. Connors and running back Gary Dixon also filed a $500,000 class action lawsuit on behalf of 26 Sun players seeking to collect unpaid salaries from Battistone and Hatfield.
After the demise of the WFL, Sam Battistone brought Larry Hatfield along as an investor in the NBA’s New Orleans Jazz. In 1979, Battistone and Hatfield were the prime movers behind the franchise’s move to Salt Lake City, Utah.
1974 Sun quarterback Tony Adams, an unheralded rookie out of Utah State, passed for 3,905 yards and 23 touchdowns in 1974 and was named one of the WFL’s “Tri-MVPs” for the season. Adams went on to play in the NFL and the Canadian Football League from 1975 to 1980. In 1987, Adams became one of the more improbable replacement players during the NFL strike, quarterbacking the Minnesota Vikings in three replacement games nearly a decade removed from his last appearance in the NFL.
Mike Trope took Anthony Davis to the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL in 1976 and landed another million-dollar multi-year deal for his client. Davis was unproductive in Canada and left after one season. He later played three unremarkable seasons in the NFL from 1977 to 1979, and gained a few carries for the Los Angeles Express of the USFL at the site of his past glories, the Los Angeles Coliseum, in the spring of 1983. A 2010 Los Angeles Times article revealed that Davis has fallen on hard times after football.
Southern California Sun Memorabilia
Former Sun Head Coach Tom Fears, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, passed away on January 4, 2000 at the age of 77.