The Michigan Panthers were a very strong pro football entry in the United States Football League. A popular springtime alternative to the Lions for Detroit gridiron fans, the team was soon pushed out of business by the USFL’s decision to abandon its spring schedule in favor of head-to-head competition with the NFL in the fall.
During the league’s first season in the spring of 1983, the Panthers were one of the top-spending teams in the USFL. and put together a blend of NFL veterans and talented rookies. The offense, in particular, relied on a trio of rookie skill position players – unheralded Cajun quarterback Bobby Hebert out of Northwestern State (Louisiana), running back Ken Lacy from the University of Tulsa, and star wideout Anthony Carter of Michigan, who would have been a top NFL draft pick in 1983 had the Panthers not lured him away from the senior circuit.
The defense was keyed by NFL washout John Corker, who would terrorize the USFL in 1983 with 28.5 sacks from his outside linebacker position, and rookie safety David Greenwood out of Wisconsin (who doubled as the Panthers’ punter).
The Panthers got off to a weak 1-4 start before catching fire midway through the season. They won 11 of their final 13 to finish the 1983 season with a 12-6 record. As the wins mounted, fans began to take notice. When the Panthers hosted the Western Conference championship playoff game against the Oakland Invaders at the Silverdome on July 10th, 1983, a USFL record 60,237 fans showed up.
The following week, the Panthers travelled to Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado for the first USFL Championship Game against the Philadelphia Stars. The Panthers won the game 24-22 with the decisive play coming on a 4th quarter touchdown pass from Hebert to Carter.
The script flipped for the Panthers during the 1984 USFL season. Michigan got off to a hot start, racing out to a 6-0 record through the first third of the schedule. But in Week Six against the San Antonio Gunslingers, Anthony Carter broke his arm and was lost for the remainder of the season. The team went into a prolonged funk, losing eight of their next ten before rallying to win their final two games and sneak into the playoffs with a 10-8 record.
On June 30th, 1984 the Panthers played the Los Angeles Express, quarterbacked by future Hall-of-Famer Steve Young, in a first round playoff contest. The quarterfinal game turned into an epic battle, although fewer than 8,000 fans were on hand to watch it at the Coliseum. The Express finally triumphed 27-21 in the third overtime period, on a long touchdown run by future Detroit Lion Mel Gray. At three overtimes, the game remains the longest pro football game in history.
It was also the last game ever played by the Panthers. At the end of the 1984 season, USFL owners voted to shift to a fall season in 1986. The Panthers were against the move, not wishing to compete head-to-head with the NFL’s Detroit Lions. The business model shift set off a wave of relocations and mergers among the USFL franchises located in NFL markets. In the fall of 1984, the Panthers merged with the Oakland Invaders. Most of the top Panthers players, with the exception of John Corker, moved to Oakland for the USFL’s final spring season in 1985.
The Invaders, led by Hebert, Carter and other Michigan holdovers, returned to the USFL championship game in 1985. There they met the Baltimore Stars in what was to some degree a rematch of the 1983 USFL title game against the then-Philadelphia Stars. (The Stars were another relocation born out of the USFL’s planned switch to the fall). This time the Stars came out on top with a 28-24 victory at Giants Stadium on July 14, 1985. This was the final game in USFL history, as the league folded before staging its planned fall season in 1986.
==Michigan Panthers Games on Fun While It Lasted==
It was the final weekend of the 1984 United States Football League regular season in June 1984 and at stadiums across the league, a smiling Washington Federals cheerleader beckoned to fans from the cover of the USFL’s KICKOFF Magazine game program. But in the nation’s capital, there was little to smile about as the woeful, lame duck Federals played out the final 60 minutes of football of their bleak two-season run at RFK Stadium.
The Federals were reported sold a month earlier to Miami hotelier Sherwood Weiser, who planned to move the team to the Orange Bowl for the 1985 season. The deadman-walking state of the team along with the Feds’ pathetic 2-15 record meant 7,495 no-shows compared to just 6,386 in the stands
The Feds were seemingly overmatched against the New Orleans Breakers, who started the season 6-1 and seemed destined for relevance. But the Breakers were in the midst of the own collapse, losers of eight of their last 10 to fall out of playoff contention. Ancient quarterback Johnnie Walton of New Orleans, playing his final pro game, opened the scoring with a 73-yard bomb to Frank Lockett off a flea flicker in the first quarter. But the Federals showed some fight and opened a 20-10 lead by third quarter courtesy of a Curtis Bledsoe run and a pair of TD passes from Mike Hohensee. (In typical Federals fashion, kicker Jeff Brockhaus blew an extra point. The Feds used six kickers in just two seasons). Despite a late touchdown run by the Breakers’ Mark Schellen, the Federals hung on to win their final game 21-17, raising their miserable two-year tally to 7-29.
The Federals sale to Woody Weiser fell through in August when USFL owners voted to move to a fall season in 1986. Weiser didn’t want to compete with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in the fall and backed out of the deal. The Federals went to Orlando instead, becoming the Orlando Renegades for the USFL’s final season in 1985. The New Orleans Breakers were goners too. Although quite popular in New Orleans, the planned move to the fall ruined their viability in the Big Easy, no matter how terrible the Saints were at the time. The Breakers would move to Portland, Oregon for the 1985 season.