I was at the very first game in March of 1983, two months before I graduated from high school. I watched the very last game (the 1985 playoff loss to Oakland) on TV in the dorm at college. And I was a radio sportscaster who reported <Bandits owner> John Bassett’s death, the trial verdict and the demise of the USFL in 1986.
The thing about the Bandits that still resonates today was how much FUN it all was. (That was even their marketing slogan: “All the Fun the Law Allows.”) They were colorful, they threw the ball all over the place. They burned a guy’s mortgage during a halftime promotion. They had cheap tickets. They were real outlaws.
And they WON. Right from the jump. Remember, the Bucs had made the playoffs three of the previous four years after that horrid (7-37) start, but the Bandits were winners and innovative right out of the gate. Then the Bucs went into that period from 1983 until Tony Dungy when they were just embarrassingly bad, so from 1984 until mid-1985, it was the Bandits that gave the folks in the Bay Area something to be proud of.
Burt Reynolds was a STAR then, and we had him involved and his then-wife Loni Anderson did that famous poster and was always visible. They were the last team to lose a game that first season (and they even did THAT big, 42-3 to Chicago). They signed Cris Collinsworth (for 1985 delivery) at the end of the 1983 season. There was, seemingly, nothing these guys could do that wasn’t better in six months than the Bucs had done in six years. Of course, they couldn’t win a playoff game – there’s still no reason they couldn’t have been in the championship game in their own stadium in 1984. That was a GREAT football team.
The cracks began to show in February 1985 as the Bandits headed into training camp for their third season. Owner John Bassett was diagnosed with a pair of brain tumors. The team traded away their major investment from the 1984 college draft, former Florida star Wayne Peace. Peace was due $300,000 for the 1985 season but was lodged firmly at #3 on the QB depth chart behind Reaves and Jimmy Jordan. Peace would never play another down of professional football. Worse, Cris Collinsworth finally showed up in Tampa, 19 months after agreeing to contract terms. The 3-time NFL All-Pro found a team deep at wide receiver with a gravely ill owner who was decidedly cool to his arrival. Collinsworth had accepted a $500,000 loan from Bassett in 1983 as a signing bonus but never actually signed a USFL standard player contract. The Bandits owner made it clear in the press that C0llinsworth was free to turn around and return to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Of course, it all came tumbling down. Not just the league, but the Bandits’ mystique first, even before the ill-fated move to the fall. Collinsworth was let go in training camp. The story was the team couldn’t get an insurance policy on Collinsworth’s gimpy ankle, but apparently it was actually because they could not pay his contract, despite Bassett’s wealth and leading the league in attendance over the three-year run.
If you ever see the documentary The Final Season that Mike Tollin did, you see an organization cracking apart. John Bassett’s health was in decline (he would die in May 1986) and the halcyon days were over before the 1985 season was. <Minority partners> Lee Scarfone and Tony Cunningham took over and were going to try to keep Banditball going, but it would not have been the same.
I went home for my high school reunion in 2013 and wore a Bandits t-shirt to a Tampa Bay Rays game on the Sunday. I got lots of thumbs up and comments about how cool that was and how fondly people remembered the Bandits. Three decades later, the All The Fun Allows Guys are still giving us all the memories we can hold.
==Tampa Bay Bandits Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
“All The Fun The Law Allows” – 1983 Tampa Bay Bandits highlight video
Bandits part-owner Stephen Arky shot himself to death on July 24, 1985 after being implicated in the $300M collapse of Ft. Lauderdale bond trading firm E.S.M. Government Securities. Arky was 42. The Bandits had played their final game 24 days earlier.
Bandits founder and principal owner John Bassett died of brain cancer on May 15, 1986 at age 47.
Bandits offensive lineman Ed Gantner (’83), later a professional wrestler, committed suicide on December 31, 1990 at age 31.
Cornerback Bobby Futrell (Bandits ’85) hung himself on June 1, 1992. He was 29.
Lee Scarfone, the last owner of the Bandits in late 1985 and 1986, passed away on May 28, 2005 at the age of 73.
The Birmingham Stallions of the USFL were the best and most enduring of Birmingham’s endless procession of speculative pro football start-ups. Between 1974 and 2001, eight different football teams set up shop at the city’s Legion Field. Of this bunch, only the Stallions played more than two seasons.
After a middling debut season in the spring of 1983 (9-9), the Stallions emerged as one of the top teams in the USFL in 1984 (14-4) and 1985 (13-5). Birmingham’s fortunes began to improve with the arrival of a trio of players poached from the National Football League. Stallions Head Coach Rollie Dotsch was a former offensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl champion teams of the late 1970’s. In April 1983, the Stallions lured deep threat wide receiver Jim Smith away from the Steelers. Although he arrived midway through the season, Smith quickly emerged as one of the top wideouts in the USFL and led Birmingham in receptions and receiving yards.
Shortly after the 1983 season, the Stallions persuaded disgruntled Buffalo Bills running back Joe Cribbsto jump to the USFL on a futures contract after the 1983 NFL season. Cribbs was a former Auburn star and a 3-time Pro Bowler who was still at the peak of his powers in the NFL. The Bills claimed to have a right of first refusal clause in Cribbs’ rookie contract that allowed them to retain the young tailback by matching any rival offer. Birmingham won a court battle with the Bills in the fall of 1983. Cribbs would lead the USFL in rushing as a Stallion in the spring of 1984.
The third key signing of offense was another one of Rollie Dotsch’s former compatriots from the Steelers. Quarterback Cliff Stoudt started most of the 1983 NFL season for Pittsburgh after Terry Bradshaw went down with the elbow injury that would ultimately end his career. The Steelers won the AFC Central with a 10-6 record, but Stoudt’s 21 interceptions and a late season collapse earned the quarterback the undying enmity of Pittsburgh fans. Stoudt signed with the Stallions in January 1984 two weeks after quarterbacking the Steelers in a blowout playoff loss to the Los Angeles Raiders. When the Stallions opened the 1984 USFL season on the road at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium a couple of months later, more than 50,000 fans showed up to heckle Stoudt and pelt him with snowballs. (The USFL’s Pittsburgh Maulers franchise would never draw more than 25,000 again).
Fairly or not, Stoudt was maligned in Pittsburgh. But he excelled as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the USFL. In 1984, he threw 26 touchdowns against only 7 interceptions with a passer rating of 101.6. In 1985, he would toss 34 touchdowns (2nd only to Houston’s Jim Kelly), 20 of which went to former Steelers teammate Jim Smith. Stoudt was also supremely durable, starting all 36 Stallions games plus playoff contests in 1984 and 1985.
Although the Stallions were 27-9 across the 1984 and 1985 seasons, they never could top their nemesis, the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars, in the postseason. The 1983-1985 Stars were arguably the best pro football team assembled outside the NFL since the AFL-NFL merger, appearing in all three USFL title games and winning two of them. Birmingham lost to the Stars in the Eastern Conference championship game two years in a row in 1984 and 1985.
Trouble struck in the first month of the 1985 season. Up to March 1985, the Stallions were one of the USFL’s most stable franchises. Owner Marvin Warner was a developer, banker and former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland with a personal net worth in excess of $100 million in the early 1980’s. Warner owned an Ohio savings and loan called Home State Savings Bank. Home State Savings was the largest investor in a Florida securities firm call ESM Government Securities that came under federal fraud investigation in 1985. When word leaked of Home State’s exposure to ESM’s collapse, it sparked a run on the bank among Ohioans and triggered a collapse of the state’s entire savings and loan system. Warner was forced to withdraw his financial support of the Stallions in the middle of the 1985 season. Unable to meet payroll, the Stallions were forced to seek a $1M bailout from the city of Birmingham in April 1985 that allowed the team to finish out the season.
Despite the off-field turmoil, the Stallions had another fine year in 1985 and a deep playoff run (until they ran into the Stars, of course). The Stallions expected to return in 1986 when the USFL planned to switch to a fall schedule to compete directly with the NFL. But after the league “won” a multi-billion anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL in the summer of 1986 (but was awarded just $3 in damages), USFL owners threw in the towel and folded the league in Augut 1986.
Birmingham Stallions Memorabilia
1983 Stallions Media Guide
Stallions vs. Michigan Panthers. March 7, 1983
Stallions vs. Philadelphia Stars. March 21, 1983
1984 Stallions Media Guide
1984 Stallions Pocket Schedule
Stallions vs. New Jersey Generals. February 26, 1984
Stallions vs. Tampa Bay Bandits. July 1, 1984
Stallions @ Philadelphia Stars. July 7, 1984
Stallions Pinback Button
1985 Stallions Media Guide
Stallions vs. New Jersey Generals. February 24, 1985
Stallions vs. Denver Gold. March 3, 1985
Stallions vs. Memphis Showboats. March 17, 1985
Stallions vs. Jacksonville Bulls. March 30, 1985
Stallions vs. Oakland Invaders. April 13, 1985
Stallions vs. Tampa Bay Bandits. April 21, 1985
Stallions vs. Portland Breakers. May 11, 1985
Stallions vs. Orlando Renegades. May 27, 1985
Stallions vs. Baltimore Stars. June 8, 1985
Stallions vs. Houston Gamblers. June 29, 1985
Birmingham Stallions Video
Former Stallions Head Coach Rollie Dotsch passed away from pancreatic cancer on March 16, 1988. He was 55.
Stallions owner Marvin Warner died of a heart attack on April 8, 2002 while watching a space shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral. Warner was 82. New York Times obit.
Defensive end Don Reese (Stallions ’85) died from liver cancer on September 18, 2003. Reese was 52.
Defensive tackle Charles Martin (Stallions ’83) died of kidney disease at age 45 on January 26, 2005.
Defensive end Dave Pureifory passed on March 5, 2009 of pancreatic cancer at age 59.