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1974-1975 Memphis Southmen

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Larry Csonka Memphis SouthmenWorld Football League (1974-1975)

Born: May 8, 1974 – The Toronto Northmen relocate to Memphis, TN.
Died: October 22, 1975 – The WFL ceases operations in midseason.

Stadium: Memphis Memorial Stadium (50,164)

Team Colors: Burnt Orange & Brown

Owner: John Bassett et al.

 

The Memphis Southmen (AKA Grizzlies) began life 1,000 miles to the north in late 1973 as a planned pro football franchise known as the Toronto Northmen.  The lead investor of the Northmen was Toronto media scion John Bassett, Jr., whose burgeoning sports empire at the time also included the Toronto Toros of the World Hockey Association and the Buffalo-Toronto Royals of World Team Tennis.  Bassett’s father, John Sr., was a Toronto newspaper and television station baron who owned part of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs before losing it to Harold Ballard in an early 1970’s power struggle.

The Northmen were to be members of the upstart World Football League, which planned to begin play in July 1974 and combat the NFL head-to-head for top collegiate & pro talent.  The formation of the WFL brought (briefly) a form of limited free agency to pro football.  Free agent movement was virtually unheard of in the NFL at the time thanks to the chilling effects of the “Rozelle Rule” reserve clause.  But with the arrival of the WFL in 1974, NFL players were no longer indentured solely to their current teams.  They could jump to the rival league for a bigger paycheck – or at least use that threat to gain some rare negotiating leverage.  The new league pursued NFL talent aggressively, signing stars such as L.C. Greenwood, Calvin Hill, Craig Morton and Ken Stabler to futures contracts to jump leagues once their current NFL deals expired.  Ultimately, no team would make a bigger splash in the NFL-WFL player battle than Bassett’s franchise.

Memphis SouthmenOn March 31, 1974, the Toronto Northmen held a press conference to announce the signings of Miami Dolphins’ stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield.  All three were heroes of Miami’s legendary 1972 undefeated Super Bowl championship squad.  Bassett and his General Manager, Leo Cahill, flew the trio to Toronto and floored them with an offer that Dolphins owner Joe Robbie couldn’t or wouldn’t match.  $1.5 million over 3 years for Csonka, the MVP of Super Bowl XIII just two months earlier.  $1.0 million over three years for Warfield.  And $900,000 over the years for Csonka’s fellow running back Jim Kiick.  It was a shocking coup for the World Football League and a gut punch to one of the NFL’s elite franchises.  The Dolphins stars still had a year to run on their NFL contracts.  The plan was for Csonka, Kiick and Warfield to join Toronto for the WFL’s second season starting in the summer of 1975.

Meanwhile, Bassett found an antagonist back in Toronto who proved a much more formidable adversary than Joe Robbie.  Canadian federal minister of health and welfare set out to force Bassett out of Toronto, believing the arrival of the U.S.-based World Football League posed an existential threat to the Canadian Football League and its Toronto Argonauts franchise.  Lalonde filed the Canadian Football Act with Parliament in April 1974.  The act sought to protect the Canadian Football League and Canadian-born football players by keeping U.S.-based pro leagues out of Canada.  Although the legislation never passed, the debate created enough uncertainty and antagonism that Bassett picked up his franchise and moved to Memphis, Tennessee on May 8, 1974, barely two months before opening night of the first WFL season.

In Tennessee, the franchise would officially be known as the “Memphis Southmen”.  But locals didn’t cotton to the name too well, and colloquially the team was known as the “Grizzlies”.  (You can see the duality of the team’s identity on the first season media guide cover at left).

Although Csonka, Kiick and Warfield weren’t due to arrive in town for another year yet, the Southmen/Grizzlies still had arguably the best team in the WFL during the league’s debut season in 1974.  Head Coach John McVay ran a ball control offense for the most part, with 1964 Heisman Trophy winning quarterback John Huarte at the helm.  A trio of running backs – rookie draft pick J.J. Jennings out of Rutgers, along with John Harvey and Willie Spencer – combined for 3,197 yards and 32 rushing touchdowns.  Rookie quarterback/punter Danny White – who would later succeed Roger Staubach as starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys – saw considerable late-game action behind center in a platoon role with Huarte.

The Southmen finished 17-3 and were undeated (10-0) at Memphis Memorial Stadium.  But on November 29, 1974, they were upset at home by the Florida Blazers 18-15 in the playoff semi-final.  The Blazers were an insolvent franchise at the time.  Their players hadn’t been paid in months and within months team owner Rommie Loudd would be charged with both tax fraud and cocaine distribution charges.  The chaos surrounding the Blazers was only slightly more extreme than the turmoil enveloping the entire league.  Founder Gary Davidson was expelled from the league by disgruntle owners late in the season.   Several clubs relocated in midseason or simply folded without completing their schedules.  Amidst it all, the Southmen were a beacon of stability.  The team paid its bills and Bassett reportedly had to bail out other owners on several occasions.

At the end of the season, halfback J.J. Jennings (1,524 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) was named Rookie-of-the-Year and one of the WFL’s ‘Tri-MVPs” for the 1974 season.

Ed Marshall Memphis SouthmenThe World Football League was all but dead by December 1974.  Many of the teams that survived the 1974 season now faced tax liens, property seizures and myriad lawsuits.  The Southmen’s arch rivals, the Birmingham Americans, defeated the Blazers to win World Bowl I, only to see sheriff’s deputies interrupt their post-game celebration to confiscate the team’s equipment.  But Hawaiians owner Christopher Hemmeter took the lead to re-organize the league under a new corporation and recruit new investors.  Bassett was one of only a handful of original investors who returned for the second season.

The WFL returned for a second season in July 1975 and that meant that Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield were headed to Memphis, Tennessee.  To make room the Csonka and Kiick in the already crowded backfield, the team’s 1974 sensation J.J. Jennings was shipped out to play for the WFL’s Philadelphia Bell franchise.  The trio of ex-Dolphins earned a cover shoot on the July 28, 1975 edition of Sports Illustrated in their Grizzlies uniforms- the first and only time that the WFL would be so honored by the nation’s premiere sports periodical.

Despite the arrival of the big stars, the Southmen seemed to take a step back during the first half of the 1975 season.  Csonka battled nagging injuries and missed games.  He would score only two touchdowns during his time in Memphis.  Kiick had the biggest impact, scoring 10 touchdowns, but Memphis’ leading rusher was the unheralded 1974 holdover Willie Spencer.  No one replaced the production of the departed J.J. Jennings.

At quarterback, 2nd year pro Danny White took over the primary role from Huarte, who accepted back-up status.  White showed flashes of the promise that would make him a started in the NFL for much of the 1980’s but was still very much a developing player.  By late October, the Southmen had a record of 7-4 and sat in 2nd place in their division behind arch rival Birmingham.  As with the first season, the rest of the league was in chaos.  The new Chicago franchise had already folded up shop after just five games.  On October 22, 1975, the league owners voted to shutdown the league immediately rather than complete the 1975 season.

Csonka, Kiick and Warfield returned to the NFL.  John McVay was hired as an assistant coach by the New York Giants in 1976 and brought several ex-Southmen with him, including Csonka, defensive back Larry Mallory, wide receiver Ed Marshall, offensive lineman Ron Mikolajczyk and tight end Gary Shirk.

After the WFL folded, Bassett kept some of his key staff in place to petition for admission to the NFL as an expansion franchise.  A winter 1975-76 season ticket drive resulted in 40,000 pledges.  But the NFL turned down Bassett’s application.   Bassett responded with an anti-trust suit against the league – Mid-South Grizzlies v. National Football Leaguedragged on until 1983.  By that time, Bassett was back in pro football as owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits of the springtime  United States Football League.  Memphis would get a USFL expansion franchise the following year – the Showboats – to finally replace the Southmen/Grizzlies after nearly a decade’s absence.

 

==Memphis Southmen Games on Fun While It Lasted==

Year Date Opponent Score Program Other
1974 8/7/1974 @ Philadelphia Bell L 46-15 Program
1974 8/14/1974 @ Detroit Wheels W 37-7 Program
1975 7/14/1975 @ Southern California Sun (exh.) L 47-16 Program
1975 7/26/1975 @ Shreveport Steamer (exh.) W 14-7 Program
1975 8/2/1975 vs. Jacksonville Express W 27-26 Program
1975 8/30/1975 vs. Chicago Winds W 31-7 Program
1975 9/7/1975 vs. The Hawaiians W 37-17 Program
1975 9/14/1975 vs. Shreveport Steamer W 34-23 Program
1975 9/28/1975 @ San Antonio Wings L 25-17 Program
1975 10/12/1975 vs. Birmingham Vulcans L 18-14 Program

 

==Downloads==

1975 WFL Standard Player Contract

 

==Links==

They’re Grinning and Bearing“, Robert F. Jones, Sports Illustrated, July 28, 1975

World Football League Media Guides

World Football League Game Programs

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October 19, 1975 – Portland Thunder vs. Jacksonville Express

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Jerry Inman Portland ThunderPortland Thunder vs. Jacksonville Express
October 19, 1975
Civic Stadium
Attendance: 8,713

World Football League Programs
28 Pages

 

This rare, colorful program comes from the final night of action from the star-crossed World Football League on Sunday, October 19, 1975.  Tales of doom and ruin stalked the two-year old league for weeks, with many singling out the struggling Portland Thunder franchise as a weak-link in the fragile confederation.  Portland was far from the only trouble spot though.  A rain-soaked WFL contest in Philadelphia the previous night marked a humiliating nadir for the league when only 1,293 fans showed up.

Portland Thunder WFLThe league said all of the right things about resilience, but in truth the owners were exhausted after losing a collective $10 million through the first 12 weeks of the planned 20-week 1975 season.  The WFL had no TV contract and minimal sponsorship, leaving teams dependent solely on ticket revenue.  The league-wide average through midseason dwelled beneath 14,000 per game and plummeted further each week as the season went on.

This final game was perhaps the finest for the Portland Thunder franchise, who came in as one of the league’s worst clubs with a  3-7 record.  The Thunder pounded away at the Jacksonville Express with 217 rushing yards on 48 carries, while attempting only 12 passes.  Former University of Wisconsin running back Rufus Ferguson led the way with 141 yards and a touchdown.  Portland also scored on a punt return and a flea flicker off a fake field goal attempt.  The 30-13 victory was the most decisive win in the Thunder’s brief 11-game history.

Three days later the league shut its doors for good, on October 22, 1975.  The Thunder finished their only season with a 4-7 last-place record.

Former University of Oregon defensive tackle Jerry Inman is pictured on the cover of the Thunder’s final program.  Inman played eight seasons for the Denver Broncos in the AFL and NFL from 1966 to 1973 before finishing his career in the WFL.  This was his final pro game.

 

==Downloads==

October 19, 1975 Jacksonville Express Roster

October 19, 1975 Portland Thunder Roster

 

==Links==

Jacksonville Express Home Page

Portland Thunder Home Page

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Written by andycrossley

May 31st, 2014 at 12:10 am

1975 Portland Thunder

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1975 Portland Thunder Media GuideWorld Football League (1975)

Born: 1975
Died: October 22, 1975 – The WFL folds in midseason.

Stadium: Civic Stadium (33,000)

Team Colors: Royal Blue, Kelly Green & White

Owner: William Tatham Sr.

 

The Portland Thunder were a doomed pro football franchise that took part in the abbreviated second season of the World Football League in the autumn of 1975.

The WFL’s debut season was an utter disaster, plagued by teams relocating and folding in midseason, bounced paychecks, epic PR blunders and an estimated $20 million in red ink.  It was somewhat surprising that a small cabal of surviving owners, led by Chris Hemmeter of The Hawaiians franchise, regrouped to stage a second season in 1975.  Even more surprising was the continued inclusion of Portland, Oregon where the WFL’s Portland Storm franchise had been one of the league’s more embarrassing efforts.  The Storm started 0-7-1 and managed to complete the season only because the players were willing to continue playing games without paychecks for the season’s final two months.  The IRS slapped a lien on the Storm and the discredited (literally) club was more or less out of business by December 1974.

World Football League Pocket SchedulesIn early 1975, Hemmeter and a few other holdovers reorganized the insolvent league as a new corporation and attempted to start over again.  A twelve-team league was put together for 1975, featuring eleven holdover cities from 1974 (plus San Antonio).  Most of the owners and investors were brand new.  Portland came back with a new identity and a new owner: Fresno-based William Tatham.   A handful of Storm players returned, despite the broken contracts and promises of the previous year.  This included 5′ 5″tailback Rufus Ferguson who led Portland in rushing during both seasons of the WFL.

But Portland had seen enough of the World Football League.  A meager 7,700 turned out at Civic Stadium for the Thunder’s regular season home opener in August 1975.  This was about half what the Storm averaged a year earlier.  In several ways, the Thunder just seemed like a chintzier knockoff of Harris’ discredited club.  Not only was the name similar, but the Thunder retained the old colors of blue and green and slapped new logo stickers on the Storm’s old helmets to save money on equipment.

By October 1975 – around the point in the season that the Storm ran into serious financial trouble the year before – the Thunder were on the verge of collapse.  The other ten WFL franchises had to take up a collection of $300,000 to keep Portland in business.  The rest of the league was in terrible shape as well and two weeks later the owners decided to cut their losses.  The World Football League shutdown on October 22, 1975 without managing to complete its second season of play.  The Thunder finished their only campaign with a 4-7 record.

Pro football returned to Portland and Civic Stadium a decade later with the arrival of the Portland Breakers of the United States Football League.  For local football fans, it was deja vu all over again.  The Head Coach of the Breakers was Dick Coury, the same man who coached the Storm in 1974.  And like Portland’s previous entries in the WFL, the Portland Breakers lasted only one season and left town owing unpaid wages to their players and debts to local businesses.

Portland Thunder owner William Tatham also got involved with the United States Football League in the 1980’s.  Tatham and his son owned the USFL’s Oklahoma/Arizona Outlaws in 1984 and 1985.

 

==1975 Portland Thunder Results==

Date Opponent Score Program Other
7/12/1975  @ Birmingham Vulcans (Exh.)  L 25-9
7/27/1975 vs. Philadelphia Bell (Exh.) L 30-21
8/3/1975 @ Southern California Sun L 21-15
8/9/1975 vs. The Hawaiians L 25-24
8/16/1975 @ Chicago Winds L 25-18 Program
8/23/1975 vs. Shreveport Steamer W 33-24
8/30/1975 @ San Antonio Wings L 22-0 Program Roster
9/6/1975 vs. Birmingham Vulcans  L 26-8
9/13/1975 @ Philadelphia Bell W 25-10
9/21/1975 vs. Memphis Southmen L 16-3
10/4/1975 @ Jacksonville Express L 32-29 Program
10/12/1975 vs. San Antonio Wings W 28-25
10/19/1975 vs. Jacksonville Express W 30-13 Program Roster

 

==Downloads==

1975 World Football League Standard Player Contract

 

==Links==

1975 Portland Thunder statistics on JustSportsStats.com

World Football League Media Guides

World Football League Programs

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Written by andycrossley

May 25th, 2014 at 7:11 pm

September 14, 1975 – Memphis Southmen vs. Shreveport Steamer

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Willie Spencer Memphis SouthmenMemphis Southmen vs. Shreveport Steamer
September 14, 1975
Memphis Memorial Stadium
Attendance: 18,003

World Football League Programs
56 pages

 

Rare program from the 1975 Memphis Southmen from the final weeks of the World Football League (1974-1975).  The Southmen got loads of press attention (including a Sports Illustrated cover story) after team owner John Bassett convinced Miami Dolphins stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield to jump leagues for the 1975 season.

Although the ex-Dolphins were the top headline makers in the failing WFL, it was actually a pair of anonymous holdover players from Memphis’ 1974 squad who outperformed them, at least statistically.  Willie Spencer, an unusually tall running back (6′ 4″) who never played college football, outrushed both Csonka and Kiick and led the club with 581 yards on the season.  And former All-Pro Paul Warfield’s modest output (25 catches for 422 yards and 3 TDs) was overshadowed by small college product Ed Marshall (31-582-9 TDs).

Spencer was pictured on the cover of this September 14, 1975 program for a Memphis home game against the Shreveport Steamer and would score the game’s first touchdown on an 8-yard run.  (Csonka was on the sidelines, missing his second straight game due to injury).

This game was notable as the first professional start at quarterback for Danny White, a second year player out of Arizona State whose primary role on the Southmen was as the team punter.  As a rookie in 1974, White backed up 1964 Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte and passed for over 1,000 yards, but it wasn’t until late in the 1975 season that White finally unseated the elder quarterback.  With White under center, the Southmen raced out to a 26-0 halftime lead and then held on as Shreveport back-up quarterback D.C. Nobles came off the bench and threw three second half touchdowns as the Steamer mounted a furious comeback.  It wasn’t quite enough.  Memphis held on to win 34-23.

The World Football League folded just over a month later without completing its second season.  Csonka, Kiick and Warfield all returned to the NFL.  Willie Spencer and Danny White managed to latch on as well.  Spencer saw limited time as a reserve back with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants from 1976 to 1978.  White signed with Dallas Cowboys as a punter and Roger Staubach’s back-up in 1976.  He took over the starting QB job after Staubach retired in 1980 and ran the offense for most of the 1980’s, taking the Cowboys to three straight NFC championship games but never making it to the Super Bowl.

 

==Downloads==

September 14, 1975 Shreveport Steamer Roster

 

 

==Links==

Memphis Southmen Home Page

Shreveport Steamer Home Page

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Written by andycrossley

January 5th, 2014 at 2:28 am

1974 Birmingham Americans

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World Football League (1974)

Born: January 1974 – WFL founding franchise.
Died: January 1975 – The WFL terminates the Americans franchise.

Stadium: Legion Field

Team Colors:

Owner: William Putnam

 

The Birmingham Americans were the first and only champions of the World Football League (1974-1975), a brash but undercapitalized effort to go head-to-head with the National Football League in the mid-1970’s, much as the American Football League had a decade earlier.

The Americans had a terrific squad under Head Coach Jack Gotta, an import from the Canadian Football League.  The Americans won their first ten games of the 1974 season.  The team then hit a rough patch in the middle of the schedule, dropping five out of the next seven, before regaining their form to finish a 15-5 regular season with a three-game win streak.

George Mira took most of the snaps at quarterback, ably backed up by former Grambling star Matthew ReedDennis Homan, a star at Alabama in the mid-60’s and former first round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys, led the Americans in receptions with 61, but the true breakout star of the offense was receiver Alfred Jenkins, a playmaking rookie out of Morris Brown University.  Jenkins caught 60 passes for 1,326 yards and 12 touchdowns.  Jenkins would sign with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons in 1975 and earn two Pro Bowl nods during his nine-year NFL career.

In the 1974 WFL playoffs, the Americans escaped The Hawaiians 22-19 in the semi-final and earned the right to host the World Bowl at Legion Stadium on December 5, 1974.  By the time of the World Bowl, the WFL was in deep trouble.  Several franchises folded during the season.  Another club, the Charlotte Hornets, decided it couldn’t afford to compete in the playoffs despite qualifying.  Neither the Americans nor their opponents, the Florida Blazers, had received paychecks in weeks and there was discussion of the players staging a boycott of the title game.

But in the end, they played and it was a great game.  The Americans raced out to a 22-0 third quarter lead before the Florida Blazers roused themselves and reeled off a furious 21 point rally late in the game.  Americans linebacker Warren Capone stuffed Blazers running back Tommy Reamon on an “Action Point” try late in the fourth quarter that would have tied the game, and Birmingham eeked out a 22-21 victory.  The Action Point was a WFL innovation, which was sort of a hybrid of an extra point and a two-point conversion.  Touchdowns were worth seven points in the WFL and an eighth point could be added by passing or running the ball in from the two-yard line.

As the Americans celebrated their championship in the Legion Field locker room, Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies burst in to seize the team’s uniforms and equipment on behalf of a local sports goods supplier holding bad debt from the team.  This proved to be the final game the Americans ever played, as their debts sunk the franchise about a month later.

The team had severe financial problems, but they weren’t result of poor attendance.  The Americans were actually very  popular in Birmingham.  World Football League attendance figures were notoriously inflated and the subject of much media derision in 1974, but there’s little debate that the Americans were far and away the most popular team in the league.  The team’s official figures claimed 39,269 fans per game for 10 regular season home games in 1974.

But other factors conspired to drag down the club, including owner Bill Putnam’s failure to secure additional local partners to join his ownership group.  Further, Putnam spent himself into oblivion in the spring and summer of 1974, paying out signing bonuses to NFL stars such as Ken Stabler and L.C. Greenwood who signed futures contracts to jump to the Americans once their current NFL deals expired.

Although the Americans were gone, the World Football League survived (barely) to stage a second season in 1975.  The WFL put a new franchise into Legion Field called the Birmingham Vulcans, which returned a number of key players and coaches from the Americans World Bowl team.  (Mira and Jenkins did not return, however).  The Vulcans played well, although the crowds dipped substantially from 1974.  The Vulcans folded in October 1975 along with the rest of the WFL, which ran out of cash and failed to complete its second regular season.

 

==1974 Birmingham Americans Results==

Date Opponent Score Program Other
7/10/1974 vs. Southern California Sun W 11-7
7/17/1974 @ New York Stars W 32-29 Program
7/24/1974 vs. Memphis Southmen W 58-33
7/31/1974 @ Detroit Wheels W 21-18 Program
8/7/1974 vs. Detroit Wheels W 28-22
8/14/1974 vs. The Hawaiians W 39-0
8/21/1974 @ Jacksonville Sharks W 15-14
8/29/1974 @ Chicago Fire W 22-8 Program
9/2/1974 vs. Florida Blazers W 8-7 Program
9/7/1974 vs. Chicago Fire W 41-40 Program
9/11/1974 @ Memphis Southmen L 46-7
9/19/1974 vs. Houston Texans W 42-14
9/25/1974 @ Portland Storm L 26-21
10/2/1974 @ The Hawaiians L 14-8
10/9/1974 vs. Portland Storm W 30-8
10/16/1974 @ Southern California Sun L 29-25
10/23/1974 @ Shreveport Steamer L 31-0
10/30/1974 vs. Florida Blazers W 26-18 Program
11/6/1974  @ Philadelphia Bell W 26-23
11/13/1974 vs. Shreveport Steamer W 40-7
11/27/1974 vs. The Hawaiians W 22-19
12/5/1974 vs. Florida Blazers W 22-21 Program

 

==Key Players==

  • Dennis Homan
  • Alfred Jenkins
  • George Mira

 

==Links==

World Football League Media Guides

World Football League Programs

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Written by andycrossley

December 8th, 2013 at 3:54 pm