World Football League (1974-1975)
Born: May 8, 1974 – The Toronto Northmen relocate to Memphis, TN.
Died: October 22, 1975 – The WFL ceases operations in midseason.
Stadium: Memphis Memorial Stadium (50,164)
Team Colors: Burnt Orange & Brown
Owner: John Bassett et al.
The Memphis Southmen (AKA Grizzlies) began life 1,000 miles to the north in late 1973 as a planned pro football franchise known as the Toronto Northmen. The lead investor of the Northmen was Toronto media scion John Bassett, Jr., whose burgeoning sports empire at the time also included the Toronto Toros of the World Hockey Association and the Buffalo-Toronto Royals of World Team Tennis. Bassett’s father, John Sr., was a Toronto newspaper and television station baron who owned part of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs before losing it to Harold Ballard in an early 1970’s power struggle.
The Northmen were to be members of the upstart World Football League, which planned to begin play in July 1974 and combat the NFL head-to-head for top collegiate & pro talent. The formation of the WFL brought (briefly) a form of limited free agency to pro football. Free agent movement was virtually unheard of in the NFL at the time thanks to the chilling effects of the “Rozelle Rule” reserve clause. But with the arrival of the WFL in 1974, NFL players were no longer indentured solely to their current teams. They could jump to the rival league for a bigger paycheck – or at least use that threat to gain some rare negotiating leverage. The new league pursued NFL talent aggressively, signing stars such as L.C. Greenwood, Calvin Hill, Craig Morton and Ken Stabler to futures contracts to jump leagues once their current NFL deals expired. Ultimately, no team would make a bigger splash in the NFL-WFL player battle than Bassett’s franchise.
On March 31, 1974, the Toronto Northmen held a press conference to announce the signings of Miami Dolphins’ stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield. All three were heroes of Miami’s legendary 1972 undefeated Super Bowl championship squad. Bassett and his General Manager, Leo Cahill, flew the trio to Toronto and floored them with an offer that Dolphins owner Joe Robbie couldn’t or wouldn’t match. $1.5 million over 3 years for Csonka, the MVP of Super Bowl XIII just two months earlier. $1.0 million over three years for Warfield. And $900,000 over the years for Csonka’s fellow running back Jim Kiick. It was a shocking coup for the World Football League and a gut punch to one of the NFL’s elite franchises. The Dolphins stars still had a year to run on their NFL contracts. The plan was for Csonka, Kiick and Warfield to join Toronto for the WFL’s second season starting in the summer of 1975.
Meanwhile, Bassett found an antagonist back in Toronto who proved a much more formidable adversary than Joe Robbie. Canadian federal minister of health and welfare set out to force Bassett out of Toronto, believing the arrival of the U.S.-based World Football League posed an existential threat to the Canadian Football League and its Toronto Argonauts franchise. Lalonde filed the Canadian Football Act with Parliament in April 1974. The act sought to protect the Canadian Football League and Canadian-born football players by keeping U.S.-based pro leagues out of Canada. Although the legislation never passed, the debate created enough uncertainty and antagonism that Bassett picked up his franchise and moved to Memphis, Tennessee on May 8, 1974, barely two months before opening night of the first WFL season.
In Tennessee, the franchise would officially be known as the “Memphis Southmen”. But locals didn’t cotton to the name too well, and colloquially the team was known as the “Grizzlies”. (You can see the duality of the team’s identity on the first season media guide cover at left).
Although Csonka, Kiick and Warfield weren’t due to arrive in town for another year yet, the Southmen/Grizzlies still had arguably the best team in the WFL during the league’s debut season in 1974. Head Coach John McVay ran a ball control offense for the most part, with 1964 Heisman Trophy winning quarterback John Huarte at the helm. A trio of running backs – rookie draft pick J.J. Jennings out of Rutgers, along with John Harvey and Willie Spencer – combined for 3,197 yards and 32 rushing touchdowns. Rookie quarterback/punter Danny White – who would later succeed Roger Staubach as starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys – saw considerable late-game action behind center in a platoon role with Huarte.
The Southmen finished 17-3 and were undeated (10-0) at Memphis Memorial Stadium. But on November 29, 1974, they were upset at home by the Florida Blazers 18-15 in the playoff semi-final. The Blazers were an insolvent franchise at the time. Their players hadn’t been paid in months and within months team owner Rommie Loudd would be charged with both tax fraud and cocaine distribution charges. The chaos surrounding the Blazers was only slightly more extreme than the turmoil enveloping the entire league. Founder Gary Davidson was expelled from the league by disgruntle owners late in the season. Several clubs relocated in midseason or simply folded without completing their schedules. Amidst it all, the Southmen were a beacon of stability. The team paid its bills and Bassett reportedly had to bail out other owners on several occasions.
At the end of the season, halfback J.J. Jennings (1,524 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) was named Rookie-of-the-Year and one of the WFL’s ‘Tri-MVPs” for the 1974 season.
The World Football League was all but dead by December 1974. Many of the teams that survived the 1974 season now faced tax liens, property seizures and myriad lawsuits. The Southmen’s arch rivals, the Birmingham Americans, defeated the Blazers to win World Bowl I, only to see sheriff’s deputies interrupt their post-game celebration to confiscate the team’s equipment. But Hawaiians owner Christopher Hemmeter took the lead to re-organize the league under a new corporation and recruit new investors. Bassett was one of only a handful of original investors who returned for the second season.
The WFL returned for a second season in July 1975 and that meant that Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield were headed to Memphis, Tennessee. To make room the Csonka and Kiick in the already crowded backfield, the team’s 1974 sensation J.J. Jennings was shipped out to play for the WFL’s Philadelphia Bell franchise. The trio of ex-Dolphins earned a cover shoot on the July 28, 1975 edition of Sports Illustrated in their Grizzlies uniforms- the first and only time that the WFL would be so honored by the nation’s premiere sports periodical.
Despite the arrival of the big stars, the Southmen seemed to take a step back during the first half of the 1975 season. Csonka battled nagging injuries and missed games. He would score only two touchdowns during his time in Memphis. Kiick had the biggest impact, scoring 10 touchdowns, but Memphis’ leading rusher was the unheralded 1974 holdover Willie Spencer. No one replaced the production of the departed J.J. Jennings.
At quarterback, 2nd year pro Danny White took over the primary role from Huarte, who accepted back-up status. White showed flashes of the promise that would make him a started in the NFL for much of the 1980’s but was still very much a developing player. By late October, the Southmen had a record of 7-4 and sat in 2nd place in their division behind arch rival Birmingham. As with the first season, the rest of the league was in chaos. The new Chicago franchise had already folded up shop after just five games. On October 22, 1975, the league owners voted to shutdown the league immediately rather than complete the 1975 season.
Csonka, Kiick and Warfield returned to the NFL. John McVay was hired as an assistant coach by the New York Giants in 1976 and brought several ex-Southmen with him, including Csonka, defensive back Larry Mallory, wide receiver Ed Marshall, offensive lineman Ron Mikolajczyk and tight end Gary Shirk.
After the WFL folded, Bassett kept some of his key staff in place to petition for admission to the NFL as an expansion franchise. A winter 1975-76 season ticket drive resulted in 40,000 pledges. But the NFL turned down Bassett’s application. Bassett responded with an anti-trust suit against the league – Mid-South Grizzlies v. National Football League – dragged on until 1983. By that time, Bassett was back in pro football as owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits of the springtime United States Football League. Memphis would get a USFL expansion franchise the following year – the Showboats – to finally replace the Southmen/Grizzlies after nearly a decade’s absence.
==Memphis Southmen Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
1975 WFL Standard Player Contract
“They’re Grinning and Bearing“, Robert F. Jones, Sports Illustrated, July 28, 1975
World Football League Media Guides
World Football League Game Programs