United States Football League (1984)
Born: July 7, 1983 – USFL expansion franchise.
Died: December 5, 1984 – Merged with Arizona Wranglers.
Stadium: Skelly Stadium
Owners: William Tatham, Sr. & Willliam Tatham, Jr.
The United States Football League awarded an expansion franchise to Fresno businessman William Tatham, Sr., his son William Tatham, Jr. and San Diego political consultant Ken Rietz on May 16th, 1983. Tatham Sr. was the former owner of the World Football League’s short-lived Portland Thunder franchise. The investors paid a $6 million expansion fee to join the springtime football league for its second season. Tatham and the USFL sought to place the club – due to begin play in March 1984 – at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium. This marked the second time in two years that the USFL attempted to plant its flag in San Diego. The new league was first rebuffed by the city’s stadium committee in 1982, when investors Bill Daniels and Alan Harmon were turned away and moved their franchise to the Los Angeles Coliseum instead.
Both USFL bids faced opposition from Jack Murphy’s three existing tenants, the San Diego Padres baseball team, the NFL’s San Diego Chargers and the San Diego Sockers of the North American Soccer League. While the Tatham group awaited a response from the City Council, the proposed club moved forward in other areas, hiring Pro Football Hall-of-Fame and longtime San Diego Chargers head coach Sid Gillman as General Manager and negotiating with Chargers All-Pro free agent quarterback Dan Fouts. But in mid-June 1983, the City Council voted 4-3 not to open lease negotiations with the USFL, leaving the Tatham group without a home.
The Tathams now looked eastward to Tulsa, Oklahoma. On July 7th, 1983, the USFL formally announced the Oklahoma Outlaws as a new franchise for the 1984 season. The move was part of an aggressive expansion campaign by the young league, which would add six new cities for its second season after beginning play with twelve clubs in 1983. The Outlaws signed a lease with the University of Tulsa to play at 40,000-seat Skelly Stadium, which also played host to the Tulsa Roughnecks of the North American Soccer League.
On August 9, 1983 the Outlaws announced the signing of Tampa Bay Buccaneers free agent quarterback Doug Williams. The Bucs drafted Williams in 1978 out of Grambling, the first black quarterback ever selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Between 1979 and 1982, Williams led the Bucs to three playoff appearances in four seasons including an appearance in the 1980 NFC Championship Game. Yet by the end of his fifth season, Williams remained one of the lowest paid starting quarterbacks in the NFL, having earned $120,000 for the 1982 campaign. He rejected a new contract from Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse to jump to the USFL.
After the Williams signing, the Outlaws seemed to stall for the remainder of 1983. The club made no other major free agent signings. 29-year old President William Tatham, Jr. fired Hall-of-Famer Sid Gillman in December and assumed the General Manager reigns himself. Tatham openly courted Washington Redskins quarterbacks coach and former University of Tulsa star Jerry Rhome for the head coaching post, only to be rejected by Rhome on January 1st, 1984, three days before the USFL’s college draft.
By this point, the Outlaws were the only team among the USFL’s eighteen members without a coaching staff, with the 1984 season opener less than two months away. The Tathams scrambled to hire longtime Pittsburgh Steelers defensive assistant Woody Widenhofer. By Widenhofer’s own account, Tatham Jr. called him at 6:00 AM in the morning on January 2nd to offer him the job. Widenhofer didn’t know who Tatham was and had to call a former Steelers colleague working in the USFL to confirm that Tatham actually owned the team. Nevertheless, Widenhofer accepted the job the next day, with one day to prepare for the 1984 USFL draft, in which the Outlaws held the #2 overall selection. Only four of the Outlaws twenty-six open draft picks made the 1984 roster and the club failed to sign either of its first round selections, Ron Faurot or Conrad Goode.
The Outlaws made their USFL debut on February 26th, 1984 taking on the Pittsburgh Maulers at wet, frigid Skelly Stadium. The 20-degree windchill depressed attendance, with Outlaws officials providing unusually specific figures to the press: 11,638 in attendance with 4,300 no-shows.
Less than a month into the Outlaws debut season in Tulsa, Owner/GM Bill Tatham Jr. announced that the club was unlikely to remain viable in Skelly Stadium. Tatham went on to claim that Honolulu, Indianapolis, Miami, Portland (Ore.) and Seattle had expressed interest in hosting the franchise, effectively putting Tulsa on notice that the Outlaws were lame ducks after only two home games.
“Bill Jr. came in to the office one day and announced to the staff that we were going to demand Tulsa build us a new domed stadium,” recalled Outlaws PR Director Gil Swalls in 2011. “My heart sank, because I knew we were heading from stability to crazy. I had no real inside knowledge about Bill’s financial status, his political skills, or his ability to pull off such a big project, but I did know Tulsa, and I was quite sure a domed stadium demand wasn’t going to fly. Maybe that was his way of moving the team. He kept talking about Oklahoma City, but I wasn’t sure if he had any real prospects there. Even though I felt this announcement was a mistake, I liked Bill and wanted him and all of us to succeed.”
On the field, the Outlaws raced to a surprising 6-2 start. Ralph Wiley of Sports Illustrated profiled the team on April 23, 1984, noting that the Outlaws had achieved their success despite a payroll of $2.1 million, second lowest in the 18-team USFL. The article also painted an unflattering portrait of the young Tatham, noting that the novice football exec “seems to revel in issuing ultimatums”. After the Sports Illustrated feature appeared, the Outlaws lost ten consecutive games to finish the season at 6-12. Williams had a poor season, hobbled by a knee injury and a weak supporting cast. Over 18 games, the Outlaws could not produce one running back who accumulated 300 yards rushing. Williams passed for 3,084 yards in 15 games, but completed less then 50% of his passes and threw 21 interceptions.
Shortly after the Outlaws season ended in early July 1984, Tatham Jr. declared the team would not return to Tulsa, again citing the deficiencies of Skelly Stadium. Announced attendance had improved from the freezing opener, totalling 189,342 for an average of 21,038 per game. Nevertheless, the Tathams projected losses of $3 million for the 1984 season. At the USFL owners meetings in August, a faction of USFL owners led by Donald Trump of the New Jersey Generals pushed through a resolution to move to a fall season in 1986, after one final spring campaign in 1985. The move, combined with the substantial financial losses of many franchises, set off a flurry of merger and relocation talks. At the same August meeting, the league approved the merger of the Outlaws with the Oakland Invaders. The merged club would remain in Oakland under the Invaders name, with William Tatham Sr. and Invaders owner Tad Taube as equal partners. But by early October, the planned merger was scrapped. The Invaders went on to merge with the Michigan Panthers. The Tathams shifted their sights to Arizona Wranglers owner Dr. Ted Diethrich.
Diethrich, a Phoenix-based heart surgeon, was an original USFL investor. Although his Wranglers club appeared in the 1984 USFL Championship game, he was approaching financial exhaustion with the league, having lost approximately $14 million between May 1982 and October 1984. Reported as a merger, the transaction saw the Tathams purchase controlling interest in the Wranglers in December 1984. The team took the name Arizona Outlaws, relocating to the Wranglers old home at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. Widenhofer and the Outlaws coaching staff were dismissed, while Wranglers Head Coach/part-owner George Allen stepped down, along with his son, Bruce Allen, the Wranglers General Manager. William Tatham Jr. remained as President/GM of the Outlaws and hired controversial long-time Arizona State Head Coach Frank Kush to coach the club.
1984 proved out to be a rough year for the Tulsa sporting scene. The city’s long-time minor league hockey franchise, the Tulsa Oilers, folded in the spring, along with the rest of the Central Hockey League. The Outlaws announced their departure in July and their fellow Skelly Stadium tenant the Tulsa Roughnecks soccer team folded in September.
Doug Williams returned to the NFL with the Washington Redskins in 1986. On January 31, 1988, Williams quarterbacked the Redskins to a 42-10 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, becoming the first black quarterback to start in and win a Super Bowl. He also became the first of two USFL quarterbacks (Steve Young being the other) to win a Super Bowl. Ironically, the game was played at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium, where the Outlaws’ odyssey began.
In early 1988, St. Louis Cardinals (NFL) owner Bill Bidwill moved his club to Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, former home of the Outlaws. When the move occurred, the terms of an unusual agreement between the defunct Outlaws and Arizona State University came to light. All fans who put $125 down towards 1986 Outlaws season tickets were offered the right of first refusal on NFL season tickets if and when the USFL folded and an NFL team came to Tempe instead. The agreement was good for up to two years from the date that the USFL ceased operations, which meant the contract was still binding when Bidwill and the Cardinals arrived in early 1988. The former Outlaws season ticket holders now controlled nearly 12,000 prime loge season tickets. Further, Outlaws officials had horse-traded with the tickets, transferring the rights to various people in lieu of payments and salaries. By the time the deal was revealed, Bill Tatham Jr. personally controlled the rights to 1,728 prime season tickets for the city’s new NFL franchise. The revelation caused an uproar in Phoenix. Tatham was investigated by the university on allegations of ticket scalping and the resulting bad publicity over the handling of ticket sales (and the Cardinals league-high pricing) helped cement negative perceptions of the Bidwills in Arizona for years to come.
==1984 Oklahoma Outlaws Results==
2011 Interview with Oklahoma Outlaws PR Director Gil Swalls
United States Football League Media Guides
United States Football League Programs