The Cleveland Cobras were a lower-division American pro soccer club, active through the mid-70’s and into the early 1980’s. The team started out as the Cleveland Stars (1972-1974) before changing to the Cobras name in 1975. The Cobras played their home matches on the campus of Baldwin-Wallace University in suburban Berea. Cobras matches typically drew crowds in the low thousands.
The franchise was sold and relocated to new ownership in suburban Atlanta in early 1982, where it became known as the Georgia Generals. The Generals played only a single year before folding.
With the original Cobras departed, a new team organized under the Cobras name and announced plans to play a short exhibition schedule against American Soccer League opponents in 1982. The idea was to re-organize the team and apply for reinstatement to the ASL in 1983, but that never came to pass. At least one of these exhibition matches was held in the spring of 1982, but the team faded away quietly later that year, never to be heard from again.
==Cleveland Cobras Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
Cleveland-Pittsburgh isn’t just a great rivalry in the NFL. Back in the early 1980’s, the two cities had a fierce rivalry in indoor soccer, of all things. The Pittsburgh Spirit, owned by Pittsburgh Penguins boss Edward DeBartolo Sr., were relatively popular, claiming similar crowds to the pre-Lemieux Pens. Meanwhile, after several glum years at the box office, the Cleveland Force became a late-blooming hit, packing huge crowds into the Richfield Coliseum by 1983.
The Spirit-Force rivalry burned hottest during the 1983-84 season. Both clubs were virtually unbeatable at home and the two teams stayed neck-and-neck in the Eastern Division of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) throughout the winter. Together with a third Eastern Division foe, the Baltimore Blast, the trio were easily the three best clubs in the MISL.
The standing room-only crowd of 19,048 was a regular season record for the Cleveland Force and the 5th largest crowd in history for the MISL at the time. The home town fans would go home disappointed. Ian Sybis netted a hat trick for Pittsburgh and Polish defender Adam Topolski added a goal and three assists en route to a 6-4 win for the visitors.
The Force would take their revenge in the postseason. The clubs finished with near identical records. Pittsburgh in 2nd place at 32-16 (19-5 at home) and Cleveland right behind at 31-17 (18-6 at home). But in the quarterfinal playoffs, the Force easily dispatched the Spirit 3 games to 1 in a best-of-five series.
The Cleveland-Pittsburgh soccer rivalry dissolved when the Pittsburgh Spirit went out of business in April 1986. The Cleveland Force followed two years, shutting down in July 1988.
Throughout the late 1970’s and into 1980, Cobras management imported a series of foreign clubs to Cleveland. This July 1980 contest against Partizan was the last such exhibition the Cobras would ever play and it was one of the most compelling. Thomas Hatfield, in his exhaustive History of Soccer in Greater Cleveland From 1906 Until 1981, reports that Croatian protesters burned the Yugoslavian flag before the match. The crowd of 4,627 at Finnie Stadium on the campus of Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea was one of the largest in club history for the Cobras.
Cleveland State grad Walter Schlothauer spotted the Cobras a 1-0 lead in the first half. The Ohio native would go on to win ASL Rookie-of-the-Year honors at the end of the 1980 season. Cleveland keeper Marine Cano held Partizan scoreless in the first half. Partizan unloaded in the 2nd half though, roughing up Cano’s replacement, Fred Bass, with four goals after intermission.
Dzevad Prekazi of Partizan was named offensive Man of the Match, with one goal and one assist on 9 shots. Prekazi went on to become a star for Turkish powerhouse Galatasaray in the late 1980’s. He also returned to the United States briefly in the winter of the 1984-85, where he played under the name “Jeff Prekazi” with the Baltimore Blast of the Major Indoor Soccer League.
Jacob Shanee of the Cobras is pictured on the cover of the evening’s match program.
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 2001-2006 Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League represented the second revival of the classic “Barons” hockey brand in Cleveland. The original Barons played in the AHL from 1937 to 1973. When the NHL’s woeful California Golden Seals franchise moved to Ohio to play in the old Richfield Coliseum in 1976, they reclaimed the historic Barons name. But the club was a disaster and lasted just two seasons before financial insolvency forced the team to merge with the Minnesota North Stars in June 1978. To this day, the NHL Cleveland Barons remain the last franchise from North American Big Four professional sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL) to go out of business.
Pro hockey returned to Cleveland in 1992 with the arrival of the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the minor International Hockey League. The ‘Jacks enjoyed some good crowds in the mid-1990’s, but by the end of the decade the IHL was on the verge of collapse and Cleveland was one of the league’s trouble spots, drawing fewer than 3,000 fans per night at Gund Arena.
After the IHL and the Lumberjacks folded in the spring of 2001, the San Jose Sharks moved their Lexington, Kentucky AHL farm club to Gund Arena for the 2001-02 season. The Sharks brought back the old Barons identity, but the farm club used San Jose’s modern colors of teal and black.
Perhaps the Lumberjacks’ struggles soured the market on minor league hockey or maybe northeast Ohio fans just couldn’t get excited about the far away San Jose Sharks. The Barons also played very poorly, failing to make the Calder Cup playoffs in four of their five seasons. Whatever the problem, the modern day Barons failed to spark much interest in Cleveland. Through the club’s first four-and-a-half seasons at Gund Arena, attendance averaged only 3,716 per game according to The Silicon Valley Business Journal. The Sharks reportedly lost several million dollars on the Barons over the years. Midway through the 2005-06 season, San Jose management applied to the AHL to move the team to Worcester, Massachusetts for the 2006-07 season. The move was approved on January 9, 2006 and the Barons finished out the season as a lame duck team. The franchise lives on today as the Worcester Sharks.