World Football League (1974)
Born: December 13, 1973 – WFL founding franchise.
Died: October 10, 1974 – The Wheels cease operations in midseason.
Stadium: Rynearson Stadium
Owners: Louis Lee, Mike Ilitch, Marvin Gaye, et al.
The Detroit Wheels were a failed pro football venture that failed to complete their first and only season in the start-up World Football League during the autumn of 1974. The Wheels’ misadventures and financial problems became a point of national embarrassment for the WFL – although certainly not the only one – as the new league tried to establish itself as a reputable competitor to the National Football League, as the AFL had done in the 1960’s.
The Wheels’ problems stemmed from an overstuffed and underfinanced ownership group of 33 different investors. The group included Motown star Marvin Gaye and Little Caesar’s Pizza baron Mike Ilitch, who would later own both the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers. But neither were hands-on in the management of the club. Louis Lee was the official front man, but it seemed no one in the group was willing to make the necessary capital investment to actually operate the team once the initial franchise fee was paid. Management was unable to provide even the basic essentials of operating a football team, including scouting film for the coaching staff or laundry service and athletic training supplies for the players.
The unwillingness or inability of the Wheels’ owners to spend money also affected the quality of the team. The Wheels were unwilling to spend more than $10,000 per player, which took them out of the running for most of the NFL and Canadian Football League veterans that were signing with the WFL’s other franchises. The Wheels signed only three of their 33 college draft choices, which was the fewest in the league. During the pre-season, the team resorted to advertising an open tryout in the newspaper. 600 people showed up, but none made the team. As training camp progressed at Eastern Michigan University, one owner suggested that the team move the players into tents in a public park in order to reduce pre-season expenses.
Nevertheless, the Wheels were able to sign a handful of competent players. Starting quarterback Bubba Wyche was a CFL veteran (and the brother of future NFL head coach Sam Wyche). 24-year old former U. Michigan linebacker Mike Taylor was the New York Jets’ #1 draft pick in 1972 and had a couple of years NFL experience before jumping to the Wheels in May of 1974. Sam Scarber was a rugged fullback from the Canadian league who led the Wheels in rushing (606 yards) and later became a character actor in movies TV shows such as The Karate Kid, C.H.I.PS., the A-Team and T.J. Hooker.
The Wheels couldn’t get a lease at Tiger Stadium or at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The team ended up 35 miles outside Detroit at Rynearson Stadium on the campus of Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. The Wheels’ home debut on July 17, 1974 against the Florida Blazers drew only 10,631 fans, which was the worst opening among the league’s 12 franchises. As it turned out, the Wheels would play only 5 home games during their brief history.
The Wheels lost their first 10 games of the season. On September 11, 1974 the Wheels travelled to Orlando and shocked Florida Blazers 15-14 for the first and only win in franchise history. The Blazers, coached by Jack Pardee, were one of the WFL’s best teams and would later appear in the 1974 championship game. The Wheels lost their next three to drop to 1-13 before the club’s financial problems sunk the club. The WFL folded the team on October 10th, 1974, cancelling the six remaining games on Detroit’s schedule. The WFL itself folded a little over a year later in October 1975.
==1974 Detroit Wheels Results==
Offensive tackle Jim O’Connor died on October 29, 2004 at age 54.
Wheels Head Coach Dan Boisture died on May 18, 2007 at age 82.
Former Wheels General Manager Sonny Grandelius passed away on April 25, 2008 at age 79.
Tight end Dan Macholz died on July 3, 2012 after a bout with cancer. Macholz was 60 years old.
Defensive back Dan Lintner died on July 8, 2012. He was 61 years old.
“In Detroit, Where The Wheels Fell Off“, Mark Speck, The Coffin Corner, Vol 19 No.3, 1997
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