Lively Tales About Dead Teams

Archive for the ‘Veterans Memorial Auditorium – Des Moines’ tag

1978-1980 Iowa Cornets

leave a comment

Women’s Professional Basketball League (1978-1980)

Born: March 21, 1978 – WPBL founding franchise.
Folded: September 29, 1980

Arenas:

Team Colors:

Owners:

WPBL Championships: None

 

They can rightfully claim to be the first women’s professional basketball team ever formed in the United States.  They travelled the small cities of Iowa and beyond in a custom 1964 Greyhound bus known as “The Corn Dog”.  Team members co-starred with Pistol Pete Maravich in a box-office flop from the auteur who brought you UFO: Target Earth and Bloodbath in Psychotown.  And they were pretty good too.  During their short two-year history, the Iowa Cornets appeared in two championship series and produced one of the earliest stars of the women’s game.

George Nissen purchased the first franchise in the fledgling Women’s Professional Basketball League on March 21st, 1978 for the sum of $50,000.  Nissen was a star gymnast at the University of Iowa in the 1930’s who pioneered the manufacture and sale of the modern trampoline at his Griswold-Nissen Trampoline & Tumbling Co. in Cedar Rapids.

The state of Iowa had a unique fervor for the sport of girls basketball, although not in a form that many of today’s fans would recognize or appreciate.  School girls in Iowa and a few other Midwestern states played a variation called “six-on-six”, with three forwards and three guards.  Forwards could not cross the half court line to defend and guards could not cross the boundary to participate in the offense.  Each player was limited to only two dribbles before they had to pass or shoot.  The Cornets and the WPBL, of course, would play the more conventional five-on-five rules familiar to the rest of the nation.

“We didn’t really get “negative” reactions <to five-on-five>, but we did have to win <Iowa fans> over.  It helped that about half of the Cornets were from Iowa and our fans knew who we were,” recalled former Cornets All-Star Molly Bolin in 2011.  “I’m sure the game was slower than they were used to but we still scored a lot of points.  I think we averaged closed to 100 per game and having a few home games televised and being in the papers made people curious to see us play.”

Molly Bolin Iowa CornetsNissen wanted the club to truly belong to the entire state.  The Cornets would split their 17-game home schedule among eight different venues throughout Iowa for the 1978-79 WPBL season.  The Cornets primary homes would be the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines and the newly constructed Five Seasons Center in Cedar Rapids.  The team also scheduled single game appearances in high school auditoriums in Bettendorf, Council Bluffs, Ottumwa, Sioux City and Spencer.

In June 1978, Moravia, Iowa native Molly Bolin inked the first Cornets player contract for $6,000 during a ceremony attended by Nissen, Cornets General Manager Rod Lein (Bolin’s former college coach) and Iowa Governor Robert Ray.   Bolin was an Iowa “six-on-six” high school legend who played just two seasons of college basketball at Grandview College in Des Moines.  Cornets officials seemed confident that Bolin could adjust to the fluid five-on-five game and equally confident that the attractive 21-year old blonde would help to promote the new team across the state.

Nissen had another idea to promote his newfound interest in women’s basketball.  As the WPBL formed in 1978, Nissen invested $1 million in Dribble, a basketball comedy about a women’s team called the Vixens playing against a men’s team led by NBA star Pete Maravich.  Cornets players appeared as the Vixens and the film was shot on location in Iowa.  The film’s screenwriter and director, Michael de Gaetano, had a pair of ultra low budget horror films to his credit.  Dribble proved to be an expensive flop for Nissen – it opened in Cedar Rapids for a screening in January 1979 and then vanished, until it was released on home video years later under the new title Scoring.  (Brief clips of a few scenes featuring Maravich are available on Youtube, but they were simply too boring to post here.)

Women’s professional basketball debuted at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines with this game on December 17, 1978 against the visiting New York Stars.  The Cornets quickly established themselves as one of the best clubs in the new league, finishing tied with the Chicago Hustle atop the Midwest Division standings with a 21-13 record.  The team finished second in the league in scoring at 104.9 PPG, despite failing to place any players among the league’s top twelve scorers.  The offensive production was well distributed, with Bolin, Doris Draving, Denise Sharps, Debra Thomas and Joan Uhl all averaging in double figures.  The Cornets dispatched the Hustle in the semis before losing the inaugural WPBL championship series to the Houston Angels in the fifth and deciding match on May 1st, 1979 at Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston.

The Cornets returned for the 1979-80 WPBL season with a new dynamic – get the ball to Molly.  Molly Bolin led the Cornets in scoring with 16.7 points per game the previous winter, but in her second season she fully emerged as a scoring sensation and one of the earliest stars of the women’s pro game.  During the 1979-80 season, Bolin led the WPBL in scoring with 32.8 points per game, including a record 54 during a televised match against the Minnesota Fillies on January 13th, 1980:

The Cornets won the WPBL’s Midwest Division once again during the 1979-80 season with a 24-12 record.  They defeated the Minnesota Fillies in the league semi-finals, only to lose once again in the league championship series, this time to the New York Stars who defeated the Cornets 3 games to 1 in April 1980.  Bolin was named the league’s co-MVP along with Ann Meyers of the New Jersey Gems.

Photo courtesy of Dave Cusick

Midway through the 1980 season, Cornets founder George Nissen attempted to sell the club to a Des Moines-area disc jockey named Dick Vance.

“We all loved <Nissen>, he was such a class act and it was a tragedy that we lost him as an owner.,” recalled Molly Bolin in 2011.  “He had the team to his house for parties a couple of times and gave us all $100 cash in a card at his Christmas party which was really big bucks in 1978!  He always wanted to do things the right way and we felt he cared about us.

“<The sale> was a difficult time as we were all put in limbo.  We had our doubts about Vance at the press conference that introduced him and after that we finished the season with sack lunches and no hotel rooms on a trip to Chicago.”

The sale fell through and the Cornets spent the summer of 1980 in a state of suspended animation.  At league meetings in late September 1980, WPBL officials granted the Cornets’ request for a hiatus from the league to sell or financially re-organize the team.  Effectively, the club ceased activity at this point and the Women’s Professional Basketball League itself would follow suit after a third and final season in the winter and spring of 1980-81.

 

==Slideshow==

 

==Iowa Cornets Programs on Fun While It Lasted==

Season Date Opponent Score Program Other

1978-79

1978-79 12/17/1978 vs. New York Stars  W 99-87 Program
1978-79 2/18/1979 @ New Jersey Gems W 132-88 Program
1978-79 3/23/1979 vs. Milwaukee Does W 105-89 Program
1978-79 3/25/1979 vs. New Jersey Gems ?? Program
1978-79 3/27/1979 vs. Minnesota Fillies W 126-109 Program
1978-79 3/30/1979 vs. Chicago Hustle W 115-101 Program
1978-79 4/1/1979 vs. Dayton Rockettes w 115-84 Program

1979-80

1979-80 11/27/1979 vs. Chicago Hustle W 122-111 Program Game Notes

 

==In Memoriam==

Former Cornet Connie Kunzmann was murdered in Omaha, Nebraska in February 1981 while playing for the WPBL’s Nebraska Wranglers club.  Lance Tibke, a 25-year old nuclear power plant security guard, was convicted of 2nd degree murder and served 9 years of a 40-year sentence before receiving parole in 1990.

Cornets founder George Nissen passed away in 2010 at age 96.

 

==Downloads==

2011 FWIL Interview with Cornets star Molly Bolin

1978-79 Women’s Professional Basketball League Brochure

1978-79 Iowa Cornets Season Ticket Brochure

1979-80 Iowa Cornets Draft Selections

 

==Links==

Women’s Professional Basketball League Media Guides

Women’s Professional Basketball League Programs

###

1995-2008 Iowa Barnstormers / New York Dragons

3 comments

The inspiring story of Kurt Warner, who rose from supermarket stock boy to Super Bowl Champion and MVP over the course of five years, is one of the great legacies of the original Arena Football League (1987-2008).  Warner, undrafted out of college and later released in training camp by the Green Bay Packers in 1994, famously signed on with the Arena League’s Iowa Barnstormers in 1995.  He led the Barnstormers to the Arena Bowl title games in 1996 and 1997, before finally earning his shot at the NFL with the St. Louis Rams.  By 1999, he was the NFL’s MVP and quarterback of a Super Bowl championship team in his first season as a starter.  Warner’s fame briefly made the Iowa Barnstormers an object of cult fascination, if not quite a household brand name.

So what became of the Barnstormers?

The Barnstormers started out as an Arena Football expansion franchise in the spring of 1995.  Jim Foster, founder of the Arena Football League in 1987, owned the club, which played in the 11,400-seat  Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, dubbed “The Barn”.  Head Coach John Gregory was a long-time Canadian Football League coach.  Gregory brought in CFL vet Willis Jacox to play the role of Iowa’s Offensive Specialist – most AFL players played “Ironman” football in this era, meaning they played both offense and defense.  The offensive specialist was akin to the DH in baseball, playing offense only and returning kicks.  Gregory also plucked Warner out of the Hy-Vee grocery store aisle prior to the Barnstormers’ first season in 1995.

The team was competitive in 1995, advancing as far as the playoff semi-finals.  Gregory earned AFL Coach-of-the-Year honors (he would repeat in 1996) and the team drew terrific cowbell-clanging crowds to The Barn.  In a 2012 celebration of Arena Football’s 25th Anniversary, the league ranked the 1990’s atmosphere at The Barn as the 2nd best in the sport’s history.

The Barnstormers glory years came in 1996 and 1997, when Warner and Jacox led the Barnstormers to back-to-back Arena Bowls.  In 1996, the Barnstomers hosted Arena Bowl X before a national cable TV audience but lost to the Tampa Bay Storm 42-38.  The following year, the Barnstormers fell to the Arizona Rattlers 55-33 in Arena Bowl XI in Phoenix, in what would prove to be Warner’s last AFL game.

Warner headed the Rams and Jacox retired after the 1997 season.  But Gregory and the Barnstormers uncovered more great players in WR-DB Carlos James, offensive specialist Mike Horacek and, especially, quarterback Aaron Garcia.  Garcia would go on the set every major career passing record in Arena Football over the course of the next decade plus.

On November 1st, 2000, after the conclusion of the Barnstormers’ sixth season in Des Moines and nine months after Warner’s historic Super Bowl performance, Jim Foster sold the team to New York Islanders owners Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar.  The franchise relocated to Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum as the New York Dragons for the 2001 Arena Football League season.

The move to New York was in keeping with Arena Football’s growing ambition to become a “5th Major League”, as the league began favoring major markets over cities like Des Moines and Grand Rapids, Michigan.  In the course of a decade, Arena Football franchise valuations ballooned from $125,000 in 1990 to $7 million – the price paid by Wang & Kumar for the Barnstormers, and for another AFL franchise, the New England Sea Wolves, which also changed hands in the autumn of 2000.

Several top Barnstormers made the move from Iowa to New York, including Head Coach John Gregory and All-AFL quarterback Aaron Garcia.  In New York, the franchise also produced another future NFL star, as it had with Kurt Warner in Iowa.  In 2002, the Dragons signed WR-DB Mike Furrey, a refugee of World Wrestling Entertainment chief Vince McMahon’s defunct XFL.  Furrey became the favorite target of Garcia in 2002 and 2003.  Furrey left the Dragons partway through the 2003 season – he was leading the AFL in receptions at the time – to sign with the St. Louis Rams.  Furrey went on to play both wide receiver and defensive back in the NFL, leading the NFC in receptions in 1996 with 98 catches for 1,086 years as a member of the Detroit Lions.  In a bizarre coincidence, Furrey played college football at Northern Iowa University, just like Warner.

Back in Des Moines, a new Iowa Barnstormers expansion team was issued to play in AF2, a small market minor league spinoff of the AFL.  The new minor league Barnstormers were not able to re-capture the interest of area fans and this version of the Barnstormers folded after a single season in 2001.

The Dragons were never one of Arena Football’s top draws and the Nassau Coliseum was typically regarded as one of the league’s worst venues, much as it was in the National Hockey League.  Announced attendance averages peaked in 2005 at 11,922 per game.  By 2008, announced attendance dipped to 9,072, the second lowest figure in the 17-team league.

In July 2008, Wang sold the Dragons to Steve and Shanna Silva for an estimated $12 million.  This would prove to be the last time a franchise changed hands in the original Arena Football League.  By this time, the league was struggling under $14 million in accumulated debt.  A postseason attempt to sell a $100 million controlling stake in the league to leveraged buyout firm Platinum Equity and re-organize the league as a single-entity structure fell through in late 2008.  The league suspended the 2009 season in December 2008 and ultimately filed for bankruptcy in August 2009 after owners failed to come together on a way forward.

The Silvas were left with nothing for their unfortunately timed investment.  Another Arena Football investor who bought into the league late at the peak of the bubble – Dr. Robert Nucci who bought the Tampa Bay Storm for approximately $18 million in 2007 – later filed a lawsuit claiming that the late-era Arena Football League was little more than a debt-laden ponzi scheme that relied on constantly rising expansion fees to finance its existence.  The Silvas, for their part, got as far as announcing a new logo and color scheme for the Dragons in September 2008.  The new green-and-black color scheme would have been used for the 2009, but the league collapsed first:

##

A group of former Arena Football League owners and officials called Arena Football One purchased the assets of the original Arena Football League out of bankruptcy for $6.1 million in December 2009.   It was a long way down from the proposed Platinum Equity purchase of the AFL just a year earlier, which valued the league at approximately $250 million.

A much more budget-conscious (and non-union) reinvention of the Arena Football League debuted in 2010, with many franchises returning under their old names and, in some cases, their old investors.   The New York Dragons and the Silvas were not among them.  But the Iowa Barnstormers were.   A third incarnation of the Iowa Barnstormers joined AF2 for the 2008 season as an expansion team playing in the new $99 million Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.  The team retained the old logo of the original Kurt Warner-era Barnstormers and still practices in The Barn – venerable Veterans Memorial Auditorium.   When the Arena Football League went dark in 2009, AF2 kept playing.  In 2010, the new Barnstormers took a leap up to rejoin the new Arena Football League.

Kurt Warner retired from the NFL in January 2010.  He led two different franchises to Super Bowl appearances, starting in three and winning one.  As of 2011, he holds one of the top ten passer ratings in NFL history.

Mike Furrey played seven seasons in the NFL, ending in 2009.  He is now one of the growing number of former NFL players filing suit against the league over concussion-related health problems.

 

 

 

December 17, 1978 – Iowa Cornets vs. New York Stars

one comment

Iowa Cornets vs. New York Stars
December 17, 1978
Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium – Des Moines
Attendance: 4,231

Women’s Professional Basketball League Programs

 

Women’s professional basketball came to the state of Iowa for the first time on this Tuesday night in December 1978.  The occasion was the local debut of the start-up Women’s Professional Basketball League (1978-1981).  Iowa was the smallest market in the new eight team league, but the Hawkeye State was considered a hotbed of support for school girl basketball, or rather “Six-on-Six”, a regional variant of the sport played only by girls.  In Six-on-Six, each team featured three guards who could not cross midcourt into the offensive zone and three forwards who could not cross back into the defensive half.  Iowans packed the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines each winter for the girls state basketball tournament, which would continue to use Six-on-Six rules up until 1993.

The Veterans Memorial Auditorium was also the site of this game between the WPBL’s Iowa Cornets and the visiting New York Stars.  A crowd of 4,231 curiosity seekers turned out for the twin novelties of watching women play professionally and also by the “boy’s rules” of five-on-five basketball.

Donna Geils of the New York Stars led all scorers with 23 points.  Years later, under her married name of Donna Orender, she would become a sports executive and serve as President of the WNBA from 2005 to 2010.  But the Cornets got the lead early and held it, thanks to 20 points from Joan Uhl and 16 from center Doris Draving.  Iowa won 99-87.

Both the Iowa Cornets and the New York Stars would exist for two seasons before going out of business.  The teams played their final games against each other, meeting in the 1980 WPBL Championship Series at the end of the league’s second season in April 1980.   The Stars defeated the Cornets to take the championship.  Both teams folded later that summer.

 

==Links==

Iowa Cornets Home Page

New York Stars Home Page

###

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: