Canadian Football League (1995)
Born: 1995 – CFL expansion franchise.
Died: November 30, 1995 – The Mad Dogs cease operations.
Stadium: The Liberty Bowl
Owner: Fred Smith
The Memphis Mad Dogs were a one-year wonder in the Canadian Football League (yes, Canadian) and part of the CFL’s epic failure to expand into the United States between 1993 and 1995. The Mad Dogs arrived just in time for the final season of the CFL’s three-year American misadventure in the fall of 1995.
Federal Express founder and CEO Frederick W. Smith (pictured at right on the team’s 1995 media guide) led the Mad Dogs ownership group, which acquired the franchise for a reported $3 million expansion fee. The CFL franchise was something of a consolation prize for Smith and the City of Memphis. Smith was part of a group of investors, led by cotton king and former Memphis Showboats owner Billy Dunavant, that tried to land an NFL expansion franchise for Memphis in 1993. The proposed NFL team would have been named the Memphis Hound Dogs, due to the participation of the Elvis Presley Estate in the investor group. But Dunavant & Co. lost out to Charlotte and Jacksonville and when Smith brought the CFL to town a little more than a year later, it felt like sloppy seconds to many area football fans.
On the positive side, Memphis did have a strong pro football track record. The Memphis Southmen (AKA Grizzlies) of the mid-1970’s World Football League drew strong crowds to the Liberty Bowl, in spite of the spectacular dysfunction of the league they belonged to. That club also made national headlines by luring a trio of stars – Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield – away from Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins in 1975. The mid-1980’s saw the arrival of the Dunavant-owned Showboats, a popular franchise in the United States Football League. The Showboats launched the Hall-of-Fame pro career of University of Tennessee defensive end Reggie White. During the USFL’s final season in the spring of 1985, the Showboats averaged more than 30,000 fans per game at the Liberty Bowl. But the USFL folded in 1986 after a failed anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL and an aborted move to the fall. As with the WFL a decade earlier, Memphis lost a strong football franchise when its league collapsed around it.
The Mad Dogs re-assembled parts of the USFL brain trust to try and re-capture the Showboats’ buzz. Charismatic former Showboats Head Coach Pepper Rodgers – equal parts promoter and coach – returned as Head Coach and minority partner of the Mad Dogs. Ex-Showboats front office executives Steve Ehrhart and Rudi Schiffer returned in key positions. The team even signed 35-year old quarterback Mike Kelley, the Showboats back-up quarterback in 1984-85. Kelley hadn’t played a down of football in eight years, since suiting up as an NFL replacement player during the 1987 player strike.
On the field, the Mad Dogs assembled a formidable defense, keyed by two-time CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player Greg Battle and perennial CFL All-Stars Tim Cofield (DE) and Rodney Harding (DT). The offense ranked near the bottom of the league, but featured a couple of notable names in starting quarterback Damon Allen and sparingly-used 34-year old running back Gary Anderson, a former 1,000-yard rusher in both the USFL and the NFL. Allen had a mediocre season for the Mad Dogs, passing for only 11 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. But he would go to play 23 seasons in the CFL, retiring in 2007 as the all-time leading passer by yardage in professional football history (at the time) with 72,381 passing yards.
The Mad Dogs greatest legacy is likely the discovery of wide receiver Joe Horn, an unheralded community college player who previously kicked around a few other CFL training camps without latching on. Horn was a 1,000-yard receiver for the Mad Dogs in 1995, and attracted the attention of NFL scouts. The Kansas City Chiefs drafted him in the 5th round in 1996. Horn went onto a 12-season NFL career, earning four Pro Bowl appearances with the New Orleans Saints between 2000 and 2004.
The Mad Dogs debuted at the Liberty Bowl on July 7, 1995, losing their second game of the season 31-13 to the British Columbia Lions. A disappointing crowd of 14,278 turned out for the inaugural game in the 62,000-seat bowl. A few late summer games cracked the 20,000 barrier, but by the team college football started up in September, attendance plummeted down to around 10,000 per game.
The Mad Dogs played their final game on October 26, 1995, a 25-13 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos before an announced crowd of 12,078 at the Liberty Bowl. A little over a month later, Fred Smith threw in the towel, folding his club barely ten months after its formation. Published accounts at the time pegged his losses at anywhere from $3 million to $6 million. The four other CFL franchises followed suit, with the Birmingham Barracudas, San Antonio Texans and Shreveport Pirates also folding, and the popular Baltimore Stallions club relocating to Montreal due to the Cleveland Browns transfer to Baltimore.
- Damon Allen
- Gary Anderson
- Tim Cofield
- Rodney Harding
- Joe Horn
This December 1995 Bloomberg Business Week article provides a good contemporary account of the demise of the CFL USA experiment.