The Birmingham Stallions of the USFL were the best and most enduring of Birmingham’s endless procession of speculative pro football start-ups. Between 1974 and 2001, eight different football teams set up shop at the city’s Legion Field. Of this bunch, only the Stallions played more than two seasons.
After a middling debut season in the spring of 1983 (9-9), the Stallions emerged as one of the top teams in the USFL in 1984 (14-4) and 1985 (13-5). Birmingham’s fortunes began to improve with the arrival of a trio of players poached from the National Football League. Stallions Head Coach Rollie Dotsch was a former offensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl champion teams of the late 1970’s. In April 1983, the Stallions lured deep threat wide receiver Jim Smith away from the Steelers. Although he arrived midway through the season, Smith quickly emerged as one of the top wideouts in the USFL and led Birmingham in receptions and receiving yards.
Shortly after the 1983 season, the Stallions persuaded disgruntled Buffalo Bills running back Joe Cribbsto jump to the USFL on a futures contract after the 1983 NFL season. Cribbs was a former Auburn star and a 3-time Pro Bowler who was still at the peak of his powers in the NFL. The Bills claimed to have a right of first refusal clause in Cribbs’ rookie contract that allowed them to retain the young tailback by matching any rival offer. Birmingham won a court battle with the Bills in the fall of 1983. Cribbs would lead the USFL in rushing as a Stallion in the spring of 1984.
The third key signing of offense was another one of Rollie Dotsch’s former compatriots from the Steelers. Quarterback Cliff Stoudt started most of the 1983 NFL season for Pittsburgh after Terry Bradshaw went down with the elbow injury that would ultimately end his career. The Steelers won the AFC Central with a 10-6 record, but Stoudt’s 21 interceptions and a late season collapse earned the quarterback the undying enmity of Pittsburgh fans. Stoudt signed with the Stallions in January 1984 two weeks after quarterbacking the Steelers in a blowout playoff loss to the Los Angeles Raiders. When the Stallions opened the 1984 USFL season on the road at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium a couple of months later, more than 50,000 fans showed up to heckle Stoudt and pelt him with snowballs. (The USFL’s Pittsburgh Maulers franchise would never draw more than 25,000 again).
Fairly or not, Stoudt was maligned in Pittsburgh. But he excelled as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the USFL. In 1984, he threw 26 touchdowns against only 7 interceptions with a passer rating of 101.6. In 1985, he would toss 34 touchdowns (2nd only to Houston’s Jim Kelly), 20 of which went to former Steelers teammate Jim Smith. Stoudt was also supremely durable, starting all 36 Stallions games plus playoff contests in 1984 and 1985.
Although the Stallions were 27-9 across the 1984 and 1985 seasons, they never could top their nemesis, the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars, in the postseason. The 1983-1985 Stars were arguably the best pro football team assembled outside the NFL since the AFL-NFL merger, appearing in all three USFL title games and winning two of them. Birmingham lost to the Stars in the Eastern Conference championship game two years in a row in 1984 and 1985.
Trouble struck in the first month of the 1985 season. Up to March 1985, the Stallions were one of the USFL’s most stable franchises. Owner Marvin Warner was a developer, banker and former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland with a personal net worth in excess of $100 million in the early 1980’s. Warner owned an Ohio savings and loan called Home State Savings Bank. Home State Savings was the largest investor in a Florida securities firm call ESM Government Securities that came under federal fraud investigation in 1985. When word leaked of Home State’s exposure to ESM’s collapse, it sparked a run on the bank among Ohioans and triggered a collapse of the state’s entire savings and loan system. Warner was forced to withdraw his financial support of the Stallions in the middle of the 1985 season. Unable to meet payroll, the Stallions were forced to seek a $1M bailout from the city of Birmingham in April 1985 that allowed the team to finish out the season.
Despite the off-field turmoil, the Stallions had another fine year in 1985 and a deep playoff run (until they ran into the Stars, of course). The team was also set to return in 1986 when the USFL planned to switch to a fall schedule to compete directly with the NFL. But after the league “won” a multi-billion anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL in the summer of 1986 (but was awarded just $3 in damages), USFL owners threw in the towel and folded the league in Augut 1986.
==Birmingham Stallions Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
The Arizona Outlaws were a pro football team that competed in the third and final season of the United States Football League in the spring of 1985. The team emerged from the merger of the USFL’s Arizona Wranglers and Oklahoma Outlaws franchise in December 1984.
The Wranglers were a top-flight squad, coached by future Hall of Famer George Allen, and had appeared in the USFL Championship Game in 1984. But team owner Dr. Ted Diethrich, a Phoenix heart surgeon, had lost millions on the club and went looking for someone to take the team off his hands. He found his partners in William Tatham Sr. and his son, William Jr. The Tathams owned the Oklahoma Outlaws and they had suffered a nearly immediate case of buyer’s remorse after choosing Tulsa’s Skelly Stadium to host their expansion franchise in 1984. The stadium was inadequate, it rained nearly every time the team played at home in 1984, and the Outlaws lost their final ten games to finish 6-12. The Tathams would control 75% of the new club while Diethrich stepped back into quiet anonymity as a minority shareholder
The net effect of the merger was to combine the Wranglers’ stout defense of NFL veterans, built up by Allen over the past two years, with Oklahoma’s management and offensive skill players. The Tathams also made the dubious decision to re-brand the team as the “Arizona Outlaws”, eradicating two years of marketplace investment in the Wranglers identity.
Allen had already resigned his post prior to the merger. The Tathams appointed former Arizona State head coach Frank Kush to coach the team in 1985. Three of the Wranglers key offensive threats from 1984 departed the team: quarterback Greg Landry returned to the NFL. Top running back Tim Spencer departed for the USFL’s Memphis Showboats. And wideout Trumaine Johnson, one of the most dangerous weapons in the league, would sit out the entire 1985 season in a contract dispute.
What the Tathams brought with them from Tulsa wasn’t a whole lot. The main asset among the ex-Oklahomans was former Tampa Bay Buccaneers first round draft pick Doug Williams, who capably replaced Landry at quarterback. Al Williams, another Oklahoma holdover, posted a 1,000-yard season, making up for some of Trumaine Johnson’s lost production.
After a promising 4-2 start, the Outlaws went into a tailspin and missed the playoffs with a 8-10 record. Attendance took a big plunge to 17,877 per game, down from over 25,000 for the 1984 Wranglers. Nevertheless, the Tathams and the Outlaws were on board for the USFL’s planned move to a fall season in 1986. Those plans came to naught when the USFL’s massive anti-trust suit against the National Football League fizzled out in a $3.00 “victory” the summer of the 1986, leaving the USFL owners with no will or funds to continue. The Outlaws folded along with the rest of this very fun league in August 1986.
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.
==Arizona Outlaws Programs on Fun While It Lasted==