The Detroit Fury of the Arena Football League were a short-lived joint venture between Bill Davidson’s Palace Sports & Entertainment (owners of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons) and Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford, Jr.
An earlier Motor City entry in the league, the Detroit Drive (1988-1993), won four Arena Bowl championships and drew large crowds to the Joe Louis Arena downtown. But the Fury were unable to revive that promise at the suburban Palace of Auburn Hills. The Fury compiled a 22-41 record over four seasons of play, never finishing better than .500 under Head Coaches Mouse Davis (2001-2002), Al Luginbill (2003) and Al’s son Tom Luginbill (2004).
Detroit never really took to the team either – the Fury consistently ranked near the bottom of league at the box office. Overall, the team claimed an average of 8,152 fans for 30 home dates over four years.
Palace Sports & Entertainment folded the club on September 20, 2004 after four money-losing seasons.
Years later, former Fury staffer Dave Wiemegave an lengthy interview to Crain’s Detroit Business where he recalled the business challenges of operating the team.
Arena Bowl VII was the second and final meeting between Arena Football’s two greatest dynasties: the Detroit Drive, who played in the title game in all six seasons of their existence, and the Jay Gruden-era Tampa Bay Storm, who won four titles in six years with Gruden under center. In fact, the Storm were the only force standing between the Drive and a perfect six-for-six record in championship games. Gruden & Co. handed Detroit their only two Arena Bowl losses in 1991 and in this 1993 rematch.
The Storm took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and never looked back, winning or tying every quarter en route to a 51-31 victory. Gruden was named the MVP of Arena Bowl VII, passing for 204 yards and 3 touchdowns. Gruden, the brother of Super Bowl champion coach and Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden, ultimately won four Arena Bowls with the Storm. He later won two more as an Arena Football head coach. In 2014 he was named Head Coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins.
Another standout was Storm OL-DL Keith Browner, who recovered a fumble for a touchdown on defense and also caught a 9-yard touchdown pass. Browner, a former 2nd round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who played five seasons in the NFL, is part of the remarkable Browner family. His brothers Ross and Joey were NFL standouts during the 1980’s. Joey Browner’s son Keith Jr. and nephew Max Starks would also play in the NFL. Keith Browner was named the “Ironman of the Game” as the top two-way player in Arena Bowl VII.
Arena Bowl VII proved to be the final appearance of the Detroit Drive franchise. During the offseason, owner Mike Ilitch sold the team and the new owners relocate it to Worcester, Massachusetts where it became the Massachusetts Marauders. The Marauders lasted just one season and failed to extend the Drive’s dynasty.
The evening’s game program (above right) pictured the Arena Football League’s 1993 award winners on the cover:
The Cleveland Thunderbolts were a bottom-dwelling Arena Football League franchise that played for three seasons at the suburban Richfield Coliseum from 1992 to 1994. The Thunderbolts originated an expansion team in Columbus, Ohio in 1991. After a winless (0-10) campaign playing in small agriculture fairgrounds arena in Columbus, the team was sold to Ohio insurance salesman John Kuczek in late 1991 and he moved the T-Bolts to Cleveland.
The T-Bolts were one of the weakest entries in the Arena League in the mid-1990’s, posting an 8-26 record during their three seasons in Cleveland, including back-to-back 2-10 campaigns in 1993 and 1993. During their brief run, the team signed two big names from the world of college football. Quarterback Major Harris, a holdover from the 1991 Columbus team, played for the T-Bolts in 1992 and 1994. Harris was a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist (1988 & 1989) at West Virginia. He never played in the NFL and his Arena Football career was not ultimately that distinguished. He was one of the league’s premier rushers as a scrambling QB, but the ground attack was not a major factor in the indoor game.
The other big name, at least locally, was head coach Earle Bruce, formerly of Ohio State University. Bruce was hired to turn around the team in 1994, but ultimately produced an identical 2-10 last place finished as his predecessor Dave Whinham did in 1993. Bruce resigned shortly after the 1994 season.
The Thunderbolts were run as a family business. Team owner John Kuczek was an insurance broker from Boardman, Ohio. His son Jeff was the team’s General Manager. Early in the T-Bolts short existence in Cleveland, John Kuczek was implicated in a federal securities fraud case in Florida. Prior to the team’s second season in 1993, the elder Kuczek divested himself of ownership in the club and placed it in a trust for his grandchildren. Son Jeff continued as the front office leader of the organization. Kuczek was ultimately convicted on one count of the indictment. The day before he was due to begin serving his sentence in February 1995, he committed suicide in a Salem, Ohio hotel room.
The Cleveland Thunderbolts did not return for the 1995 season. Arena Football returned to Cleveland in 2008 with the arrival of the Cleveland Gladiators, a transplanted franchise from Las Vegas. The Gladiators continue to play today under the ownership of Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.
==Cleveland Thunderbolts Games on Fun While It Lasted==
The Milwaukee Mustangs were a popular indoor football attraction in Wisconsin’s largest city during the mid-to-late 1990’s. Although rarely in serious contention for the Arena Bowl championship – the Mustangs had only two winning seasons out of eight and never advanced beyond the playoff quarterfinals – they regularly ranked among Arena Football League attendance leaders.
During the Mustangs’ debut season in 1994, the team went winless in 12 games with former NFL signal callerJohn Fourcadeat quarterback. But the expansion team still averaged 14,231 fans for six home dates, which was third best in the 11-team league. During the 1996 season – the franchise’s high water mark with a 10-4 record – the Mustangs tied for the league lead in attendance with 15,567 fans on average for seven openings.
The Milwaukee Mustangs were owned throughout their existence by the Vallozzi family. During the Mustangs’ final season in 2001 the Vallozzi’s feuded publicly with management of the Bradley Center over date conflicts and planned renovation projects. The Mustangs closed their doors in August 2001 and blamed the closure of the team on the intractable arena disputes.
Arena football returned to Milwaukee in 2009 with the formation of the Milwaukee Iron of Arena Football 2, which was initially owned by the Vallozzi’s as well. The new franchise was unable to rekindle Milwaukee’s earlier enthusiasm for the sport, despite reclaiming the Mustangs brand name in 2011. The Vallozzi’s bailed out after the 2010 season and the Iron/Mustangs franchise shut down for good after the 2012 season.
==Milwaukee Mustangs Games on Fun While It Lasted==
The Austin Wranglers were an expansion franchise added to the booming Arena Football League in September of 2003. The Wranglers came in at the ass end of a giant speculative bubble in Arena Football franchises, sparked by investment from NFL owners and a network television contract with NBC in the early 2000’s. Original Wranglers majority owner Greg Feste and his partners – who included NFL super agent Leigh Steinberg and half a dozen then-current and former NFL players – paid a reported $16.2 million expansion fee according to The Orlando Sentinel, the third highest price ever paid for an indoor football franchise. (Other sources pegged the price tag at $12.0 million).
Feste was a controversial figure in Austin and in pro football circles. At the time the Wranglers were formed, Feste was a failed former stockbroker who ran afoul of federal regulators, a real estate developer who fell into bankruptcy and, equally briefly, an agent and financial advisor to Christian pro football players. Feste’s player representation activities and ties to an organization called Champions For Christ were the subject of an NFL investigation in 1998.
None of these activities are mentioned in Feste’s lengthy two-page bio in the Wrangler’s inaugural media guide in 2004. Instead, Feste is credited solely as the founder of FesteCapital, which portrays the 43-year old Texan as a “leader, entrepreneur and visionary” in the field of virtually everything: “consulting, realty, development, franchise management, mortgage banking, private equity, aviation services, finance and sports enterprises”.
A U.S. Magistrate Judge named Andrew Austin would later find that FesteCapital had “no assets” and existed solely to control a lease agreement for a couple of dozen private jet rentals that Feste used in the winter of 2003-04 while the Wranglers were ramping up. The matter came to the court’s attention when Feste neglected to pay for the flights.
Despite Feste’s history of failed ventures, both the Wranglers and Arena Football League Commissioner David Bakerbragged that the Wranglers expansion application was approved in record time, just over 60 days after Feste’s initial inquiry to the league office. In early 2004, Feste described his business plan to an Austin American Statesman reporter: “Buy it for $12 million, sell it for $40 million.” But unbeknownst to Feste and his partners, they’d bought in at the top of the market. The AFL’s expansion binge crested in 2003 and the league would sell only one new franchise (Kansas City for a record expansion fee of $18.0 million in 2005) before folding in 2009. Dr. Robert Nucci, a disgruntled late era owner who paid a record $18.8 million for the Tampa Bay Storm franchise in 2007, would later compare the league’s business model to a “Ponzi scheme” reliant on continuous infusions of expansion fee cash.
On the carpet, the Wranglers finished their first season at .500 with an 8-8 record, narrowly missing the playoffs. Austin claimed an average gate of 11,140 fans per game, which was just below the league average of 12,019. Greg Feste’s partners forced him out of the organization at the end of the Wranglers’ debut season. He was replaced as managing partner by Doug MacGregor, a former Dell Computers executive and Wranglers’ season ticket holder during the team’s inaugural season.
Doug MacGregor turned out to be a true believer in the sport of Arena Football and his holdings eventually grew to include not just the Wranglers, but numerous franchises in Arena Football 2, a developmental league for smaller markets.
The Wranglers endured three more money-losing seasons in the AFL. The highlight was 2006, when the team finished 10-6 and earned their only playoff appearance, losing at home in the first round to the Philadelphia Soul.
At the end of the 2007 season, the Wranglers declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy and re-organized. MacGregor continued to own the club, but pulled the team out of the Arena Football League and self-relegated down to the lower-budget Arena Football 2. The move to AF2 coincided with a dramatic crash in fan interest, as average crowds dropped from over 12,000 per game in 2007 to just 3,458 in 2008. MacGregor and his partners folded the club in September 2008.
The Austin Wranglers are the only Arena Football League franchise that ever dropped down into Arena Football 2. Both leagues went out of business in 2009, although the Arena Football League was later revived in 2010 after its name and intellectual property were purchased in bankruptcy court.
Greg Feste resurfaced in Austin as a restaurateur in 2006, but his Cheesecake Kitchen went bust the following year, leaving dozens of workers unpaid and protesting in front of his house. Mark Brunell, the former Jacksonville Jaguars Pro Bowl quarterback, born again Christian, and Austin Wranglers investor, declared bankruptcy in 2011. During Feste’s late 1990’s NFL adventures with Champions For Christ, he represented Brunell’s commercial interests. Feste later recruited Brunell into at least two failed investment schemes – the Wranglers and a group of Whataburger fast food franchises in Jacksonville, Florida.