This 1975 exhibition season opener for the Southern California Sun of the World Football League (1974-1975) saw the pro debuts of a trio of former University of Southern California stars. Quarterback Pat Haden and wide receiver J.K. McKay were best friends and co-MVPs of USC’s thrilling 18-17 Rose Bowl victory over Ohio State seven months earlier. The mostly highly touted rookie star for the Sun – and the entire struggling league – was Anthony Davis, the former Trojans All-American and Heisman Trophy runner-up. Davis was featured on the cover illustration of the evening’s game program (above right).
Davis got off to a strong start, running for 62 yards on 16 carries in the first half and returning a kickoff for 70 more. (Davis’ breakout would come in pre-season week two, rushing for four touchdowns against Memphis). But Haden was the revelation this evening, coming on in the second half to relieve projected starter Daryle Lamonica, the former Oakland Raiders star who’d lost his NFL job to Ken Stabler. After a scoreless first quarter, the game turned into a barnburner with the visiting San Antonio Wings taking a 31-29 lead late in the fourth quarter. Haden engineered a game winning 97-yard drive with a few minutes to play that ended with a one-yard QB sneak into the endzone for the winning score.
Lamonica turned out to be washed up and separated from the Sun after only a few games in 1975. Haden ended up handling the bulk of the quarterbacking duties, which was rather unexpected since he had an arrangement with Sun management to leave the team at midseason to pursue a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. As it turned out, the World Football League ran out of money and shut down in October 1975, the same month that Haden left for England. Haden returned to Southern California in 1976 and latched on with the Los Angeles Rams, leading the team to three consecutive NFC West division titles from 1976 to 1978.
Memphis got most of the national media attention (including a Sports Illustrated cover) after Southmen owner John Bassett lured a trio of offensive stars – Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield – away from the Miami Dolphins of the NFL. All three were key contributors to the Fins undefeated 1972 championship team. This road game in Anaheim would be their first appearance in WFL uniforms after nearly a year of anticipation.
More quietly, the Southern California Sun signed aging Oakland Raiders quarterback Daryle “The Mad Bomber” Lamonica, who is pictured in the cover illustration of this program in the eye-popping magenta-and-orange of the Sun. The team also inked a pair of high profile rookies from nearby USC, in running back Anthony Davis, who was the 1974 Heisman Trophy runner up, and cerebral quarterback Pat Haden. (The Sun appeared to be stacked at QB, but Lamonica would get hurt early in the season and Haden left the team by earlier agreement in September to beginning his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford).
The Southmen were expected to dominate the WFL in 1975, after finishing the 1974 season 17-3 without the services of Csonka, Kiick and Warfield. But in this first showing, the Sun defense manhandled with erstwhile NFL stars, limiting the Southmen ground attack to 55 yards on 24 carries. The big story was Anthony Davis, who scored four touchdowns to lead the Sun to a 47-16 victory.
The exhibition proved to be a pretty good foreshadowing of the regular season. Davis dominated the league, running for 1,200 yards and scoring 18 touchdowns in only 12 games. The Southmen were only OK at 7-4 through eleven games. Csonka and Kiick played second banana in the Memphis rushing attack to the immortal Willie Spencer and Warfield was nowhere to be found among the league’s receiving leaders.
On October 22, 1975 the poorly capitalized league ran out of gas and shutdown in mid-season. The Memphis trio returned to the NFL in 1976 and finished out their careers in reduced roles in the late 1970’s. Davis kicked around in short stints with a couple of NFL teams and the Canadian Football League during the late 1970’s but never came close to recapturing the brilliance of his USC career or his brief adventure in the World Football League.
How does that cliche go? If the World Football League didn’t have bad luck, it wouldn’t have any luck at all. The story of Calvin Hill and The Hawaiians is a classic example. Launched in early 1974, the WFL quickly signed dozens of established NFL starters – and a few outright stars – to “futures” contracts to join the upstart league once their NFL deals expired. In an era before free agency, the presence of a rival pro football league was just about the only leverage NFL players could exercise in contract talks. Stars such as Ken Stabler, L.C. Greenwood, Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield signed deals to jump to the WFL in after their current contracts elapsed in 1975, 1976 or 1977…and then watched in horror as the 1974 WFL season came unglued before their eyes.
By the time the league staged the first and only “World Bowl” in December 1974, four of the league’s twelve cities had lost their teams. Other clubs failed to meet payroll for weeks or months at a time. The Birmingham Americans – who owned the futures contracts on Stabler and Greenwood, among other stars – won the championship game and then immediately had their uniforms and equipment seized by sheriff deputies during the post-game celebration. The gear would be sold on the courthouse steps to settle unpaid bills.
The Hawaiians were one of only three WFL clubs to stagger into the 1975 season with their original corporation and futures contracts intact. The Hawaiians had one of the biggest names to sign with the WFL in four-time Pro Bowl running back Calvin Hill, late of the Dallas Cowboys. Hill won the 1969 NFL Offensive Rookie-of-the-Year award as a first-year player out of Yale. But he was injury prone and the Cowboys hedged their bets by selecting Duane Thomas in the 1st round of the 1970 NFL draft. Thomas emerged as a star and handled most of the rushing chores for the next two seasons while Hill continued to battle leg injuries. But the mercurial Thomas grew embittered with the Cowboys and withdrew from all virtually all interaction with the team, leading to his depature after the 1971 season. Hill took back the starting job and had the best seasons of his career, posting back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons in 1972 and 1973. In the spring of 1974, he signed a futures contract with the Hawaiians that would pay him $166,000 for the 1975 season.
This eye-catching program is from the Hawaiians August 16th, 1975 home opener at Honolulu Stadium against the Southern California Sun. After waiting more than a year for their big name star to arrive, this game would mark Hill’s regular season debut in front of the local fans of Hawaii (Hill scored in a pre-season exhibition in Honolulu in July). Hill got off to a hot start, rushing for 45 yards in the game’s first fifteen minutes. Then Hill was gang tackled by Sun defenders on a short pass at the line of scrimmage and tore the medial collateral ligament in one of his knees. Hill’s season was over after three games – and only one quarter of play at home.
One week later the Hawaiians signed a high profile replacement for Hill in the offensive backfield: Duane Thomas.
Calvin Hill returned to the NFL in 1976 with the Washington Redskins and played another six seasons, retiring as a member of the Cleveland Browns in 1981. His son Grant Hill is a 7-time NBA All-Star and currently the oldest player in that league as a member of the Phoenix Suns.
Duane Thomas was released by the Hawaiians in October 1975. The World Football League folded in the middle of its second season less than two weeks later. Save for a failed pre-season come back effort with the Green Bay Packers in 1979, Thomas never played pro football again.
Back in the mid-1970’s, the NFL held its college draft at the end of January. As the 1974 draft loomed, headlines swirled around the formation of the World Football League, an upstart rival intent on starting play in July. The WFL was the brainchild of Gary Davidson, a serial sports entrepeneur who also had a hand in the creation of the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association.
The impact of the WFL wasn’t clear yet in early January. Many clubs were still seeking investors and hopping from city to city in search of stadium leases and community support. One club that got an early start was the Southern California Sun, based in Anaheim. On January 14th, 1974 the Sun hired former NFL Hall-of-Famer Tom Fears as Head Coach. The WFL held its inaugural college draft eight days later on January 22nd. Then, on the eve of the NFL draft, the Sun and the WFL fired the first shot across the bow of the NFL.
On January 28th, 1974 the Sun signed three prized NFL prospects in UCLA running backs Kermit Johnson and James McAlister and USC tackle Booker Brown. Mike Trope, a 23-year old former USC student with no legal or business degree, represented the trio. The previous year Trope landed 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers of Nebraska as a client, set up a bidding war for Rodgers’ services between the San Diego Chargers and the Montreal Alouettes and eventually delivered the wideout to Montreal in return for the richest contract in Canadian Football League history. For his Sun clients, Trope negotiated three-year $350,000 contracts for skill players McAlister and Johnson and a three-year $225,000 deal for lineman Brown.
In April 1974, the Sun made national headlines again, signing Oakland Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica to a futures contract set to begin in 1975. Lamonica was part of a stable of NFL stars including Ken Stabler (Birmingham), Calvin Hill (Hawaii), Craig Morton (Houston) and the Miami Dolphins trio of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield (Memphis) that signed agreements to jump to the WFL after playing out their NFL contracts. The NFL stars were both lured by the large contracts on offer from WFL owners and repelled by the restrictions of the “Rozelle Rule“, a measure which effectively chilled free agency in the NFL and was often challenged in court by NFL players.
The World Football League debuted on July 10th, 1974. Crowds in excess of 50,000 turned out in Philadelphia and Birmingham. The Sun made their home debut on July 17th, 1974 against the Hawaiians at Anaheim Stadium. A season-high crowd of 32,008, including a reported 20,000 season ticket holders, watched the Sun race out to a 23-0 lead after three quarters. The magenta-and-orange clad Sun then held off a furious 4th quarter rally from the Hawaiians, prevailing 38-31.
The early attendance numbers were eye-popping, but it didn’t take long for the WFL to start springing leaks. Tax figures leaked to media in several cities revealed that actual paid attendance for early season games was massively inflated with free ticket giveaways and falsifications. The poster child for this was the Philadelphia Bell, who were forced to acknowledge that only 6,200 people had paid for tickets to their July 25th game. The Bell announced attendance of 64,719 for the event. In September, the WFL’s major market clubs in Houston and New York City abruptly relocated in mid-season to Shreveport and Charlotte respectively. At least they finished out the season. The Detroit Wheels and Jacksonville Sharks both folded without completing their schedules.
The Sun were not immune to the financial shenanigans. In September, Sun owner Larry Hatfield was indicted by a federal grand jury on bank fraud charges relating to false documentation on several loan applications, including a $365,000 loan sought for the Sun. The Sun finished the 1974 season at 13-7 but management failed to make the final player payroll of the regular season on November 15th. By this point, the front office had worked nearly a month without pay. The unpaid Sun players held a vote on whether to play the scheduled playoff quarterfinal on Thursday, November 21st against The Hawaiians. Like the Florida Blazers, who hadn’t received paychecks in 12 weeks, the Sun players voted to go ahead and participate in the playoffs. As it turned out, not all of the Sun players were on board with this decision.
After consulting with Mike Trope, Sun offensive tackle Booker Brown and 1,000-yard rusher Kermit Johnson decided to boycott the playoff game. Trope’s other client, James McAlister, missed the game due to injury. The Sun lost to the Hawaiians 32-14 before 11,430 at Anaheim Stadium, the smallest home crowd of the season. Afterwards, Sun defensive tackle Dave Roller vented to the press: “If management had done their part, we would have gone all the way. You can’t win if you can’t concentrate. And you can’t concentrate if you don’t get paid.”
The hits kept on coming for the WFL in December 1974. The Birmingham Americans defeated the still-unpaid Florida Blazers 22-21 in the first and only World Bowl at Birmingham’s Legion Field. Minutes after the victory, the Americans uniforms and equipment were seized by sheriff’s deputies for auction on behalf of an unpaid creditor. Blazers owner Rommie Loudd was arrested on charges of failing to pay $40,000 in ticket sales taxes to the state of Florida. In California, Sun owner Hatfield pleaded guilty to one count in his federal fraud trial and received probation and a fine.
Hawaiians owner Christopher Hemmeter began work to re-organize the league as a new entity – New League, Inc. – to play a 1975 season. In April 1975, Hemmeter revealed the eleven member clubs of his new World Football League. Many of the original cities remained but with new ownership and, in some cases, new team names. San Antonio was the only new market to join the league.
Remarkably, Hatfield was able to hang on at the Sun, in spite of his and the team’s financial issues. He also had a new backer in Sam Battistone, a California restauranteur and owner of the NBA’s New Orleans Jazz. Battistone had been a part-owner with Hemmeter in the Hawaiians during the 1974 season. Now he became the primary owner of the Sun, infusing new capital and retaining Hatfield as President & General Manager.
Many of the NFL stars who signed futures contracts with WFL clubs in 1974 began looking for the escape hatch. Ken Stabler of the Oakland Raiders went to court and extracted himself from his deal with the insolvent Birmingham Americans. Stabler’s teammate Daryle Lamonica, however, still had a deal in place with the Sun and arrived for the 1975 season as the team’s presumptive starting quarterback. Unlike the rest of the WFL, the Sun pursued several stars from the 1975 college class, landing the University of Southern California backfield tandem of quarterback Pat Hadenand the tailback and Heisman Trophy finalist Anthony Davis.
The courtship of Davis meant the return of old friend Mike Trope, Davis’ former USC classmate-turned-agent. The New York Jets selected Davis in the 2nd round of the NFL Draft in January. Trope’s previous trio of high-profile Sun rookies – Booker Brown, Kermit Johnson and James McAlister – all declared free agency and departed for the NFL after the Sun failed to meet their final payroll in 1974. But Trope was willing to let bygones by bygones. After the Jets offered a three-year deal worth $150,000 in base salary and signing bonus, Trope inked Davis to a five-year contract with the Sun reportedly worth $1.7 million plus a silver Rolls Royce.
The Sun opened the 1975 season on August 3rd, defeating the Portland Thunder 21-15 on the arm of third-string quarterback Mike Ernst. The announced crowd of 14,362 at Anaheim Stadium did not get to see Lamonica or Haden, who both suffered training camp injuries. The quarterback position, expected to be an embarassment of riches for the Sun, turned out to be unsettled all season. Haden saw most of the snaps, but left the team in September by previous agreement to pursue his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. Lamonica, meanwhile, never shook off a pre-season hernia injury and appeared sparingly in only two games. Lamonica skipped a Sun road game in Shreveport in September and officially confirmed his retirement several days later, walking away from a reported $500,000 contract.
Anthony Davis, meanwhile, was the unparalleled star of the WFL’s 1975 season. In 12 games, he racked up 1,200 rushing and 18 combined touchdowns, on the ground, through the air and via kick return. He almost certainly would have been tagged as the league’s MVP had the chronic financial problems of the WFL not interceded first. On October 22nd 1975, the exhausted owners threw in the towel, terminating the league and the remainder of the schedule in mid-season.
Sun President Larry Hatfield told The Los Angeles Times that the club lost an estimated $3 million during the 1974 and 1975 seasons. According an Associated Press postmortem in November 1975, the Sun sold approximately 6,000 season tickets for the 1975 season, a substantial drop from the reported 20,000 season tickets the team moved in 1974. The Sun offices shut down in late October 1975 without issuing season ticket refunds for the five home games that remained unplayed.
In December 1975, former Sun players Jack Connors and Eric Patton earned headlines by picketing outside Sam Battistone’s home, attempting to collect the remainder of their unpaid salaries. Connors and running back Gary Dixon also filed a $500,000 class action lawsuit on behalf of 26 Sun players seeking to collect unpaid salaries from Battistone and Hatfield.
After the demise of the WFL, Sam Battistone brought Larry Hatfield along as an investor in the NBA’s New Orleans Jazz. In 1979, Battistone and Hatfield were the prime movers behind the franchise’s move to Salt Lake City, Utah.
1974 Sun quarterback Tony Adams, an unheralded rookie out of Utah State, passed for 3,905 yards and 23 touchdowns in 1974 and was named one of the WFL’s “Tri-MVPs” for the season. Adams went on to play in the NFL and the Canadian Football League from 1975 to 1980. In 1987, Adams became one of the more improbable replacement players during the NFL strike, quarterbacking the Minnesota Vikings in three replacement games nearly a decade removed from his last appearance in the NFL.
Mike Trope took Anthony Davis to the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL in 1976 and landed another million-dollar multi-year deal for his client. Davis was unproductive in Canada and left after one season. He later played three unremarkable seasons in the NFL from 1977 to 1979, and gained a few carries for the Los Angeles Express of the USFL at the site of his past glories, the Los Angeles Coliseum, in the spring of 1983. A 2010 Los Angeles Times article revealed that Davis has fallen on hard times after football.
==Southern California Sun Programs on Fun While It Lasted==