Born: November 29, 1990 – WLAF founding franchise.
Died: July 1991 – The Skyhawks cease operations.
Stadium: Carter-Finley Stadium
Owner: George Shinn
Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina received a charter franchise in the NFL-sponsored World League of American Football (WLAF) on November 29th, 1990. The Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks were the latest addition to the North Carolina sports empire of George Shinn, owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets and two minor league baseball clubs in the region.
With the WLAF, the NFL co-opted the spring football concept attempted by its defunct antagonist, the United States Football League, from 1983 to 1985. NFL owners collectively underwrote the overall endeavor – with the exception of the Chicago Bears and Phoenix Cardinals,who wanted nothing to do with it – but franchises were also made available to local investors like Shinn.
The World League was an odd mash-up of big league pretensions and minor league economics. The NFL secured national television contacts with ABC and USA Network and also used the league to extend its brand into Europe with franchises in Barcelona, Frankfurt and London. On the field, the league was intended as a developmental league for players on the fringes of the NFL – training camp cuts, taxi squad players and third string quarterbacks. The anonymous players left most American fans – particularly national TV viewers – unimpressed, although the league proved quite popular in Europe.
Shinn tabbed long-time pro quarterback and former NFL Most Valuable Player (1969) Roman Gabriel as the Skyhawks’ Head Coach. Gabriel had a previous business relationship with Shinn, serving as President of his Charlotte Knights and Gastonia (NC) Rangers minor league baseball franchises for the previous few summers. His coaching experience included brief stints as an offensive coordinator in the United States Football League in 1983 and 1984.
Like all WLAF teams, Gabriel’s roster was a hodge podge of low-round recent NFL draft picks mixed with a few oddball imports from the league’s “Operation Discovery” program, meant to introduce foreign athletes to American football. Courtesy of Operation Discovery, the Skyhawks featured pro football’s first (and last) Soviet players, Vladimir Georgiev and Oleg Sapego, along with a never-used Norwegian running back and an Australian punter.
Former Michigan State signal caller Bobby McAllister took most of the snaps at quarterback. The best known name for local fans in North Carolina’s Research Triangle region was former Duke University All-American receiver Clarkston Hines. Although he graduated as the NCAA’s all-time leader in touchdown receptions, Hines slid to the 9th round in the 1990 NFL Draft and his season with the Skyhawks turned out to be his only taste of the pro game.
The Skyhawks debuted on March 23rd, 1991 on the road with a 9-3 loss to the Sacramento Surge. This would prove to be one of the team’s most competitive performances of the year. In week two, the Orlando Thunder blew out the Skyhawks 58-20 in Florida. Raleigh-Durham lost all ten games in 1991, including five losses by 20 points or more.
On May 20th, the Skyhawks lost 20-14 to the Orlando Thunder at Carter-Finley Stadium to drop to 0-9 on the season. The turnout of 4,207 on a rainy Monday evening was the smallest in the World League that year. Owner George Shinn told The Raleigh News & Observer after the game that the club would likely fold or relocate after the season.
Five nights later that Skyhawks closed out the season with a 28-7 home loss to the Birmingham Fire, wrapping up a “perfect” 0-10 season. The crowd of 16,335 was the Skyhawks second best of the season, but the team’s announced average of 12,753 over five games was the worst in the 10-team WLAF.
In June 1991, Shinn Sports, Inc. reportedly opened discussions with Jim Speros, a former Clemson University football player turned business executive, about selling the team. The conversation went nowhere and Speros ended up purchasing a Canadian Football League expansion franchise for Baltimore two years later. George Shinn formally returned the Skyhawks franchise to the World League of American Football on July 17th, 1991, effectively terminating the franchise. The WLAF replaced the Skyhawks with a new franchise in Columbus, Ohio, known as the Ohio Glory for the 1992 season.
A 1992 St. Petersburg (FL) Times profile of George Shinn estimated the Skyhawks’ financial loss at $1.5 million for a little less than a year in operation.
Former Skyhawks assistant coach Jim Popp later became General Manager of Jim Speros’ Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League in 1995 and then relocated with the club to Canada when the Stallions became the Montreal Alouettes. Popp has forged a remarkable resume with Montreal, helping to engineer eight Grey Cup appearances in a single decade between 2000 and 2010. He has also served two interim stints as Head Coach of the Alouettes.
As the Skyhawks were plummeting to Earth, Jerry Richardson was putting together an expansion bid to bring the NFL to Charlotte. The Skyhawks misfire in an NFL-sponsored league led some observers to speculate that it would undermine Richardson’s bid, but ultimately it had no lasting effects and Richardson’s Carolina Panthers debuted in 1995.
The NFL shutdown the World League of American Football in September 1992 after two seasons of low TV ratings and financial losses. The NFL re-launched the World League in 1995 as a Europe-only developmental program. The league was re-branded NFL Europe in 1998 and lasted another decade. After the 2007 season, the NFL closed down the league for good.
==1991 Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks Results==
|3/23/1991||@ Sacramento Surge||L 9-3||Program|
|3/30/1991||@ Orlando Thunder||L 58-20||Program|
|4/6/1991||vs. Barcelona Dragons||L 26-14|
|4/15/1991||vs. San Antonio Riders||L 37-15|
|4/20/1991||@ Frankfurt Galaxy||L 30-28|
|4/28/1991||@ London Monarchs||L 35-10|
|5/5/1991||vs. New York/New Jersey Knights||L 42-6|
|5/13/1991||@ Montreal Machine||L 15-6|
|5/20/1991||vs. Orlando Thunder||L 20-14|
|5/25/1991||vs. Birmingham Fire||L 28-7|