Although the ex-Dolphins were the top headline makers in the failing WFL, it was actually a pair of anonymous holdover players from Memphis’ 1974 squad who outperformed them, at least statistically. Willie Spencer, an unusually tall running back (6′ 4″) who never played college football, outrushed both Csonka and Kiick and led the club with 581 yards on the season. And former All-Pro Paul Warfield’s modest output (25 catches for 422 yards and 3 TDs) was overshadowed by small college product Ed Marshall (31-582-9 TDs).
Spencer was pictured on the cover of this September 14, 1975 program for a Memphis home game against the Shreveport Steamer and would score the game’s first touchdown on an 8-yard run. (Csonka was on the sidelines, missing his second straight game due to injury).
This game was notable as the first professional start at quarterback for Danny White, a second year player out of Arizona State whose primary role on the Southmen was as the team punter. As a rookie in 1974, White backed up 1964 Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte and passed for over 1,000 yards, but it wasn’t until late in the 1975 season that White finally unseated the elder quarterback. With White under center, the Southmen raced out to a 26-0 halftime lead and then held on as Shreveport back-up quarterback D.C. Nobles came off the bench and threw three second half touchdowns as the Steamer mounted a furious comeback. It wasn’t quite enough. Memphis held on to win 34-23.
The World Football League folded just over a month later without completing its second season. Csonka, Kiick and Warfield all returned to the NFL. Willie Spencer and Danny White managed to latch on as well. Spencer saw limited time as a reserve back with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants from 1976 to 1978. White signed with Dallas Cowboys as a punter and Roger Staubach’s back-up in 1976. He took over the starting QB job after Staubach retired in 1980 and ran the offense for most of the 1980′s, taking the Cowboys to three straight NFC championship games but never making it to the Super Bowl.
The Memphis Americans… they arrived from Hell and they left for Sin City, but for a few years in between they were God’s soccer team…
During the late 1970′s, Memphis, Tennessee had a mediocre outdoor soccer club known as the Memphis Rogues. The Rogues weren’t especially good, nor were they particularly popular. Their summertime matches at the city’s 50,000-seat Liberty Bowl typically attracted fewer than 10,000 customers.
But in the winter of 1979-80, something funny happened. The Rogues took part in the North American Soccer League’s first indoor soccer season. The campaign was something of an experiment – only 10 of the league’s 24 clubs elected to take part. To everyone’s surprise, indoor soccer proved to be a big hit in Memphis. The Rogues nearly sold out the 9,500-seat Mid-South Coliseum and six dates. They were also good, advancing to the NASL indoor championship series. And then they were gone, packed up and sold off to Calgary, Alberta a few months later. The Rogues wouldn’t be back for another season of indoor human pinball, but their flash-in-the-pan popularity put Memphis, Tennessee on the map for investors looking to get in on the indoor soccer boomlet of the early 1980′s.
After the Rogues left town in September 1980, Mid-South Coliseum went back to its traditional role as a pro wrestling hub. There were no team sports in the building in the winter of 1980-81. Then in May 1981 retired Arizona businessman Ray Kuns and Dave Hannah, the founder of the evangelical Christian sports ministry Athletes In Action teamed up to purchase the bankrupt Hartford Hellions of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) and move the team to Memphis. Within six months, Kuns turned the team over to local owners Charles Kelley and Robert Ryan and returned to Arizona. Kelley and Ryan followed in the avowedly Christian identity of the Americans management team.
Unsurprisingly, the Athletes In Action folks weren’t big on the “Hellions” identity and the team was given a patriotic new identity and color scheme: the Memphis Americans.
Patriotism aside, the Americans best players were all foreigners. Memphis’ finest player was Stan Stamenkovic, a chain-smoking Yugoslav who scored 101 goals in 77 games during the Americans’ first two years. But Stamenkovic left Memphis after two seasons for the rival Baltimore Blast in 1983-84 and promptly led Baltimore to the MISL championship that season, while winning league MVP honors.
Other notables were German All-Star defender Helmut Dudek and Argentinean midfielder Toni Carbognani, a former Rogue who played for just about every iteration of pro soccer in Memphis in the 1980′s (and there were many).
The team’s biggest name was an American, but he didn’t play. When the team arrived in 1981, the owners hired recently retired 31-year old soccer star Kyle Rote Jr. as Vice President of Marketing & Public Relations. Rote was the best known American player of the 1970′s, thanks to his famous father (a former NFL All-Pro) and his three victories in ABC Sports’ popular Superstars competition. Rote was also a prominent Christian athlete, which tied in well with the team’s original ownership. By the team’s third and final season in 1983-84, Rote assumed the dual role of Head Coach and General Manager.
Attendance at Americans’ games never quite matched the high expectations set by that handful of Rogues’ indoor games a few years earlier. Part of that was due to the MISL’s schedule. While the Rogues had the benefit of novelty and played only six home matches in the winter of 1979-80, the Americans played 22 to 24 dates a winter at Mid-South Coliseum, which was an awful lot of soccer for a Southern football city to absorb. Crowds were middling by MISL standards and the club was sold and relocated to Las Vegas in April of 1984. The team played one final season as the Las Vegas Americans and then went out of business in July 1985.
In 1986 a third indoor soccer team arrived in town. The Memphis Storm belonged to the lower-budget American Indoor Soccer Association, but they failed to spark much interest. After two seasons, the club dropped the Storm nickname and revived the old “Rogues” identity in a last-ditch effort to dredge up some nostalgia, but that didn’t help and the Storm/Rogues franchise folded in 1989.
The Memphis Rogues were North American Soccer League (1968-1984) club that last for three outdoor seasons and one indoor campaign between 1978 and 1980. The Rogues were one of six NASL expansion teams added during a fit of exuberance in the winter of 1977-78. League investors later came to regret the expansion push as all six of the 1978 expansion clubs either folded or moved by the end of 1980.
The Rogues were notably weak as an outdoor club with a 30-62 record over three seasons, including a league-worst 6-24 record during the 1979 season. But the Rogues did find an unexpected niche playing indoor soccer. The NASL experimented with a winter indoor season in 1979-80 and the Rogues were the surprise of the league, going 9-3 and advancing to the championship series, where they lost to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Memphians, who were by and large disinterested in the Rogues’ outdoor matches at the Liberty Bowl, packed the Mid-South Coliseum to the tune of 8,200 fans per game for indoor matches. Unfortunately, the Rogues’ indoor phenomenon would last for only one winter, as the team was sold and packed off to Calgary, Alberta in September 1980.
“I flew down to Tennessee around New Year’s 1978 and met the guy who was running <the Rogues> - Bill Marcum . Marcum was from Tampa, where he helped get the NFL to expand there in 1976. He convinced a guy named Harry Mangurian , who was a horse breeder and owned the Buffalo Braves of the NBA, that he should buy the soccer team in Memphis. Marcum hired me on New Year’s Eve for the Rogues marketing and PR job, but he was drunk. When I called him a couple days later to get my airplane ticket, he’d forgotten who I was. Which gives you a hint of what was to come.
“The Rogues were out of control. In Memphis I was constantly getting calls from the police to come down and get the boys out of jail. We had a theme song called “The Rambling Rogues of Memphis“ . The theme of the song was Off the field and on the field, we’re the Rambling Rogues . The English players in particular were just wild.
“The biggest moment in Memphis Rogues history – and one of the best in soccer history, really – was when the Cosmos came to town with that All-World Cup team of theirs, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto. They came down here just expecting to beat the hell out of us. It was the Rogues first season and we were something like 1- 10 at the time.
“What the Cosmos didn’t realize was that the Liberty Bowl pitch was only 56 yards wide. It wasn’t the 70 yards that they were used to. We packed it up in the back and just played defense and frustrated ‘em. They were getting angry. We had an English player named Phil Holder who was about 5’ 6”. Carlos Alberto was so frustrated he came up kicked Phil right in the groin and got thrown out. Late in the game, we had a young kid from Chelsea named David Stride . Speedy kid with a great left foot. The key of the game was Stridey took off down the left wing, took it deep in the corner, and crossed it into the middle. At the top of the box was Tony Field who had played for the Cosmos the year before. They didn’t want him any more and we got him in a trade. He put a one-timer right in the back of the net and we beat the Cosmos 1-0. It was shocking.”
In 1980 Harry Mangurian sold the Rogues to Avron Fogelman, owner of the Memphis Chicks minor league baseball team. Fogelman ran the club for one season, but sold it to Vancouver real estate speculator Nelson Skalbania in September 1980. Skalbania moved the team to Calgary, where the franchise lasted one more season as the Calgary Boomers before folding in September 1981.
Soon after the Rogues left town, the rival Major Indoor Soccer League moved in and placed a franchise in the Mid-South Coliseum, hoping to recapture the enthusiasm from the Rogues one and only indoor season. The MISL’s Memphis Americans lasted for three seasons from 1981 to 1984.
Owners: Kevin Hunter, Dr. J.T. Davis, Ed Gatlin & Jon K. Thompson
The Memphis Pharaohs were a two-year entry in the Arena Football League. They were the first pro sports franchise to play in the infamous Pyramid Arena, a $62 million dollar white whale project that lasted a mere 15 years after its opening in 1991.
The Pharaohs joined the AFL in October 1995 as an expansion club, the growing league’s 15th franchise. The front man was Kevin Hunter, a 30-year cellular phone dealer from Mississippi, backed by his father-in-law and two other investment partners.
In March 1995, the Pharaohs signed cult legend Marcus Dupree. Considered one of the greatest high school running backs of all time ( ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary series devoted a film to Dupree entitled The Greatest That Never Was), Dupree played one tantalizing season at the University of Oklahoma before dropping out of school. He landed in the USFL as a 19-year old phenom, but wrecked his knee during the first game of his second season in 1985. In 1990, Dupree came out of nowhere to make the Los Angeles Rams as a 25-year old rookie and played two season in L.A. The signing was an odd one, since the running game is virtually non-existent in Arena Football. Dupree was not in football shape and, although he appeared on Pharaohs rosters at times during the 1995 season, he never played a snap in the Arena Football League.
The other “name” player on the 1995 Pharaohs was RB-LB Robert Lyles, who enjoyed an 8-year NFL career with the Houston Oilers and the Atlanta Falcons from 1984-1991 before moving indoors.
The Pharaohs were competitive during their inaugural season, finishing 6-6 and earning the 8th and final seed in the 1995 playoffs. The Pharaohs lost to the eventual Arena Bowl champion Tampa Bay Storm 53-41 in the quarterfinal round.
In 1996 the Pharaohs turned over virtually their entire roster, bringing a large number of newcomers with little indoor experience. The result was one of the worst teams ever seen in the Arena Football League. The 1996 Pharaohs finished o-14 and attendance crashed to 5,245 per game (announced), which was 14th out of 15 teams in the league. The Pharaohs final “home” game on August 3, 1996 was moved to Tupelo, Mississippi. Nobody showed up there either.
Three weeks later, the Pharaohs ownership group announce the relocation of the team to Portland, Oregon’s Rose Garden arena. The franchise would last three seasons in Oregon as the Portland Forest Dragons (1997-1999) and another two in Oklahoma as the Oklahoma City Cavalry (2000-2001) before finally folding.
The original ownership group hung on for virtually the entire ride, with the exception of front man Kevin Hunter. Hunter was dropped from the group in 1998 after a high profile arrest in Memphis, which embarrassed the administration of Mayor Willie Herenton, rumored to be Hunter’ s partner in an effort to acquire a Tunica, Mississippi casino at the time.
Arena Football returned to the Memphis area in 2001 with the debut of the Memphis Xplorers of Arena Football 2, a smaller-market minor league for the AFL. The Xplorers played out of the DeSoto Civic Center in nearby Southaven, Mississippi.
The Memphis Maniax were one of eight franchises during the one and only season of the XFL, a failed joint venture between World Wrestling Entertainment and NBC.
The team was mediocre on the field, finishing at 5-5 and out of the playoffs under Head Coach Kippy Brown. Memphis’ best known players were the 1994 Heisman Trophy-winning running back Rashaan Salaam and former Virginia Tech quarterback Jim Druckenmiller. Both were first round draft picks in the NFL and both are considered among the higher profile draft busts of the 1990′s.
The XFL actively courted controversy in several areas, such as some sluttier-than-usual cheerleader promos, but it isn’t clear if the league realized their team names themselves might come under attack. The league’s other Southern franchise in Birmingham, Alabama was originally set to be called the “Blast”, but was quickly changed to the “Thunderbolts” after complaints that the original name conjured memories of Birmingham’s 1998 abortion clinic bombing by Eric Rudolph and the wave of racially motivated Klan bombings during the Jim Crow era. In Memphis, the Maniax name drew the ire of mental illness advocates, including Michael Faenza, President of the National Mental Health Association. Detractors objected to the term “maniac”, to the googly-eyed lunatic in the team’s logo and to the inferred association with ax murderers. The XFL elected not to change this name, however.
WWE Chairman Vince McMahon announced the demise of the league in May 2001, less than three weeks after the playing of the first “Million Dollar Game”, i.e. the league’s championship game. Low ratings and enthusiasm from the league’s TV partners at NBC and UPN were a key factor.