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1984-1985 Memphis Showboats

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Memphis ShowboatsUnited States Football League (1984-1985)

Born: July 17, 1983 – USFL expansion franchise
Folded: August 1986

Stadium: The Liberty Bowl

Team Colors:

Owners:

USFL Championships: None

 

The Memphis Showboats entered the United States Football League as an expansion club for the spring league’s second season in 1984. The USFL awarded the franchise to Logan Young Jr., heir to an Arkansas margarine fortune, in July of 1983. The following month, a Name The Team contest in The Memphis Commercial Appeal generated 21,052 entries. “Showboats” beat out “Hound Dogs” and “Mudcats” from the list of three finalists.

In September 1983, Young signed former UCLA and Georgia Tech head coach Pepper Rodgers to coach the Showboats. Perhaps the most dynamic and fun-loving of the USFL’s eighteen coaches, Rodgers would become a popular figure in Memphis during the Showboats era.

Logan Young Jr. lived in Memphis and attended Vanderbilt University. Despite this pedigree, he was an obsessive Alabama Crimson Tide booster thanks to a close family friendship with the late Alabama coach Bear Bryant. (Decades after the USFL’s demise, Young would earn a federal prison sentence for bribing a high school football coach to steer a star player to Alabama). Perhaps it was Young’s Crimson Tide fixation that led the Showboats to offer a $1 million contract to 38-year old former Crimson Tide quarterback Ken Stabler in December 1983. Fortunately for the Showboats, Stabler turned down the offer to stay in the NFL. The Snake would play only three more pro games. The Showboats would save their money for the 1984 college draft. And money was becoming an issue for Young.

Rudi Schiffer – Vice President of Marketing & Public Relations 1984 & 1985

Logan Young was a millionaire in Memphis who originally bought the team in 1983. But he fell on tough times and had to sell it and Billy Dunavant bought it from him. Billy was a cotton merchant known around the world.

The USFL held its college draft each year in January. Prior to the open draft, the USFL also held a territorial draft that allowed teams to protect the rights to players from local colleges. The Showboats claimed territorial rights to two defensive standouts projected to be NFL first round draft picks in April: cornerback Leonard Coleman of Vanderbilt and defensive end Reggie White of Tennessee.

Coleman elected to wait for the NFL draft in May. But the Showboats made national headlines in January 1984 by signing White to a 5-year $4 million contract.

Reggie White Memphis ShowboatsRudi Schiffer

We had a press conference at the Peabody Hotel to announce we had signed ReggieWe handed him a check for a signing bonus of $500,000. Here’s a kid who grew up poor and had no money and all of a sudden he’s got $500,000.

He promptly went over to a local store called Lansky’s for big and tall guys. And they locked the door behind him and the salesmen went to work. He ended up buying something like 60 or 70 pairs of white socks for $5,000. And somehow it ended up leaking out that Reggie got taken advantage of. A big story in the papers about Reggie being used and so on. So I went to Bernard Lansky, who was on old promoter himself. I says ‘Bernard, we’ve got a problem. I’ve got an idea if you go along with it and Reggie goes along with it. We need to defuse this.’

We got a radio station involved – Rock 103 – and Lansky’s gave us thousands of socks to give away. Pepper Rodgers was fine with it. Reggie’s sock size 15 or whatever. We made a big bundle of these socks that could twirl around his head as he came out of the tunnel during pre-game introductions. And the crowd went nuts and everything was fine – everybody was happy. And Pepper took all the credit for the promotion.

The Showboats other major college signing was quarterback Walter Lewis from the University of Alabama. Lewis ran the option at Alabama and was a more consistent runner than passer. Although he would flash brilliance over the next two seasons, Lewis never fully beat out journeyman pocket passer Mike Kelley for the Showboats starting job.

The Showboats debuted at the Liberty Bowl on February 26, 1984.  The team put up a respectable showing against the league’s eventual champions, the Philadelphia Stars, losing 17-9 before 28,098 fans. The next week saw the Showboats’ first victory, a 23-13 win over a weak Chicago Blitz team at the Liberty Bowl. But weeks 3 and 4 saw back-to-back blowout divisional losses to the New Orleans Breakers (37-14) and the Birmingham Stallions (54-6). New owner Billy Dunavant declared that he would boost the Showboats’ $2.7 million player budget by an additional $2 million to make the team more competitive.

The Showboats finished their expansion season with a 7-11 record. Off the field, the franchise began to gain momentum. In contrast to many other USFL cities, crowds in Memphis gradually grew during the 1984 season. It all culminated in a sellout crowd of 50,079 at the Liberty Bowl for the ‘Boats home finale on June 16th, 1984. It was only the second sellout in the USFL’s two-year history.

Memphis Showboats USFLAs the Showboats’ focus turned to the 1985 season, owner Billy Dunavant made good on his earlier promise to boost payroll to put a winner on the field. The Showboats went after the top two defensive backs drafted in the May 1984 NFL Draft, Mossy Cade (#6 overall) from the University of Texas and Leonard Coleman (#8 overall) of Vanderbilt. Memphis picked Coleman in the USFL territorial draft in January 1984, but he decided to wait for the NFL at the time. Now both Cade and Coleman were contract holdouts in the NFL. The Showboats swooped in and poached both players.

The USFL shrank from 18 to 14 teams for the 1985 season. A major factor in the contraction was the league’s controversial plan to switch from spring football to a fall schedule beginning in 1986. Dunavant was one of the backers of the fall switch. When the passed in the summer of 1984, it set of a wave of moves and mergers as other USFL clubs fled NFL markets. The contraction put 200 players on the market and the Showboats plucked many of the best ones. Linebacker John Corker, the league’s 1983 Defensive Player-of-the-Year, came over from the Michigan Panthers. Running backs Tim Spencer and Harry Sydney revitalized what had been an anemic rushing attack in 1984.

Finally, just a few weeks before the 1985 opener, the Showboats inked NFL free agent left tackle Luis Sharpe to a 4-year, $2.3 million contract. Sharpe was one of the finest young lineman in all of pro football. His February 1985 deal with Memphis was arguably the last significant defection in the USFL-NFL wars. The 1985 Showboats now featured five players (Sharpe, White, Cade, Coleman and Spencer) who were actual or projected 1st round picks in the prior three NFL drafts.

The Showboats opened the 1985 season 3-0, including a victory over the defending champion Baltimore Stars. But the team dropped five of the next six to reach the midway point at a disappointing 4-5. Pepper Rodgers benched Walter Lewis in favor of Mike Kelley for the season’s second half. It was an odd move on paper. Lewis was the top quarterback by rating in the USFL in 1985, with 16 touchdowns against just 5 interceptions. As a running threat, he averaged an eye-popping 9.1 yards per carry with 5 more touchdowns. But it worked.

The Showboats caught fire in the second half of 1985. The team reeled off victories in seven of its final nine games to make playoffs with an 11-7 record. One of the Showboats few late season losses was a 17-7 loss to Donald Trump’s New Jersey Generals at Giants Stadium. But Memphis claimed an important scalp in the game. Reggie White cracked the collarbone of New Jersey’s prized rookie Doug Flutie, sending their Eastern Conference rivals into the postseason with a back-up quarterback.

Mike Kelley remained under center for the Showboats postseason debut on June 30th, 1985. By seeding, the game should have been played at Denver. But the Denver Gold’s attendance cratered in 1985 and league broadcaster ABC prevailed upon the league to switch the game to the Liberty Bowl where the crowd would look better on television. The Showboats crushed the Gold 48-7 to advance to the semi-finals.  Once again, the Showboats hosted at the Liberty Bowl despite being the lower seed. But this time they lost, bowing the the USFL’s best regular season team, the Oakland Invaders, on July 6th, 1985. It proved to be the final Showboats game.

Memphis prepared for the 1986 USFL fall season as one of the just eight remaining franchises. But after a crushing jury award in the league’s anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL, the USFL folded operations in August 1986.

 

Memphis Showboats Shop


Showboats Retro T-Shirt by Throwback Max

Showboats White Logo T-Shirt by Papas Tees

Just published! One of FWIL’s Top Sports Books of 2017

 

Memphis Showboats Memorabilia

 

Showboats Video

Showboats vs. the Baltimore Stars at the Liberty Bowl on March 9th, 1985.

Behind-the scenes clips of Memphis Showboats football from The Pepper Rodgers Show


In Memoriam

Linebacker Rod Shoate (Showboats ’84) died on October 4, 1999 at age 46.

Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White (Showboats ’84-’85) passed away on December 26, 2004 of a cardiac arrhythmia. White was 43 years old. New York Times obituary.

Showboats founder and part-owner Logan Young was found dead at his home on April 11, 2006. Initially described as a likely homicide by Memphis police, investigators later announced that the 65-year old died of an accidental fall.

Defensive back Doran Major (Showboats ’84-’85) died of cancer on June 11, 2012 at age 51.

Former Memphis State running back Terdell Middleton (Showboats ’84) died on April 3, 2015 at age 59.

 

Downloads

2012 Fun While It Lasted interview with former Showboats VP of Marketing & Public Relations Rudi Schiffer

 

Links

United States Football League Media Guides

United States Football League Programs

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Written by Drew Crossley

November 27th, 2017 at 4:08 am

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.
Folded: October 22, 1975

Stadium: Memphis Memorial Stadium (50,164)

Team Colors: Burnt Orange & Brown

Owner: John Bassett et al.

World Bowl Championships: None

 

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.

The signings were 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 to be a more formidable adversary than Joe Robbie.  Canadian federal minister of health and welfare Marc Lalonde set out to force Bassett out of Toronto Lalonde believed the arrival of the U.S.-based World Football League posed an existential threat to the Canadian Football League and its Toronto Argonauts franchise.  The minister’s Canadian Football Act sought to protect the CFL and native-born football players by keeping U.S.-based pro leagues out of Canada. The legislation never passed, but the debate created enough uncertainty and antagonism that Bassett moved his franchise to Memphis, Tennessee on May 8, 1974. The shift came just 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 went 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 Shop

Southmen Retro Brown T-Shirt by A&E Designs

Southmen Retro Gray T-Shirt by A&E Designs

WIFFLE: The Wild, Zany and Sometimes Hilariously True Story of the World Football League by Mark Speck

 

 

Memphis Southmen Memorabilia

 

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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1978-1980 Memphis Rogues

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Memphis RoguesNorth American Soccer League (1978-1980)

Born: 1978 – NASL expansion franchise
Moved: September 1980 (Calgary Boomers)

Stadium: The Liberty Bowl (50,164)

Arena: Mid-South Coliseum

Team Colors: Red, White & Gold

Owners:

Soccer Bowl Championships: None

 

The Memphis Rogues were North American Soccer League (1968-1984) club that lasted for three outdoor seasons and one indoor campaign between 1978 and 1980.   The NASL added six expansion teams added during a fit of exuberance in the winter of 1977-78.  League investors later came to regret the expansion push as all six of the 1978 expansion clubs, including the Rogues, either folded or moved by the end of 1980.

The Rogues were notably weak as an outdoor club with a 30-62 record over three seasons, including a league-worst 6-24 record during the 1979 season.  But the Rogues did find an unexpected niche playing indoor soccer.  The NASL experimented with a winter indoor season in 1979-80 and the Rogues were the surprise of the league, going 9-3 and advancing to the championship series, where they lost to the Tampa Bay Rowdies.  Memphians, by and large disinterested in the Rogues’ outdoor matches at the Liberty Bowl, packed the Mid-South Coliseum to the tune of 8,200 fans per game for indoor matches.

Unfortunately, the Rogues’ indoor phenomenon would last for only one winter. Canadian real estate speculator Nelson Skalbania bought the team and packed it off to Calgary, Alberta in September 1980.

Former Rogues Vice President of Operations & PR Rudi Schiffer talked to Fun While It Lasted in 2011 about the Rogues’ brief run in Tennessee:

Memphis Rogues“I flew down to Tennessee around New Year’s 1978 and met the guy who was running <the Rogues> – Bill Marcum.  Marcum was from Tampa, where he helped get the NFL to expand there in 1976.  He convinced a guy named Harry Mangurian , who was a horse breeder and owned the Buffalo Braves of the NBA, that he should buy the soccer team in Memphis.  Marcum hired me on New Year’s Eve for the Rogues marketing and PR job, but he was drunk.  When I called him a couple days later to get my airplane ticket, he’d forgotten who I was.  Which gives you a hint of what was to come.

“The Rogues were out of control.  In Memphis I was constantly getting calls from the police to come down and get the boys out of jail.  We had a theme song called “The Rambling Rogues of Memphis“ .  The theme of the song was Off the field and on the field, we’re the Rambling Rogues .  The English players in particular were just wild.

“The biggest moment in Memphis Rogues history – and one of the best in soccer history, really – was when the Cosmos came to town with that All-World Cup team of theirs, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto.  They came down here just expecting to beat the hell out of us.  It was the Rogues first season and we were something like 1- 10 at the time.

“What the Cosmos didn’t realize was that the Liberty Bowl pitch was only 56 yards wide.  It wasn’t the 70 yards that they were used to.  We packed it up in the back and just played defense and frustrated ‘em.  They were getting angry.  We had an English player named Phil Holder who was about 5’ 6”.  Carlos Alberto was so frustrated he came up kicked Phil right in the groin and got thrown out.  Late in the game, we had a young kid from Chelsea named David Stride .  Speedy kid with a great left foot.  The key of the game was Stridey took off down the left wing, took it deep in the corner, and crossed it into the middle.  At the top of the box was Tony Field who had played for the Cosmos the year before.  They didn’t want him any more and we got him in a trade.  He put a one-timer right in the back of the net and we beat the Cosmos 1-0.  It was shocking.”

In 1980 Harry Mangurian sold the Rogues to Avron Fogelman, owner of the Memphis Chicks minor league baseball team.  Fogelman ran the club for one season, but sold it to Vancouver real estate speculator Nelson Skalbania in September 1980.  Skalbania moved the team to Calgary, where the franchise lasted one more season as the Calgary Boomers before folding in September 1981.

Soon after the Rogues left town, the rival Major Indoor Soccer League moved in and placed a franchise in the Mid-South Coliseum, hoping to recapture the enthusiasm from the Rogues one and only indoor season.  The MISL’s Memphis Americans lasted for three seasons from 1981 to 1984.

 

Memphis Rogues Shop


Rogues Retro T-Shirt by Throwback Max

Ian Plenderleith’s Definitive Account of “The Short Life & Fast Times of the North American Soccer League

 

Memphis Rogues Memorabilia

 

In Memoriam

Goalkeeper Bob Stetler (Rogues ’80) died in a car accident in July 1990. Stetler was 38 years old.

Original Rogues owner Harry Mangurian passed away on October 19, 2008 at age 81.

 

 

Downloads

2012 Fun While It Lasted interview with former Rogues exective Rudi Schiffer

 

 

Links

Andy Northern’s Memphis Rogues History Blog

North American Soccer League Media Guides

North American Soccer League Programs

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2001 Memphis Maniax

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XFL (2001)

Born: 2000 – XFL founding franchise
Folded: May 10, 2001

Stadium: The Liberty Bowl

Team Colors:

Owner: XFL

XFL Championships: None

 

The Memphis Maniax were one of eight franchises during the one and only season of the XFL, a failed joint venture between World Wrestling Entertainment and NBC.

The team was mediocre on the field, finishing at 5-5 and out of the playoffs under Head Coach Kippy Brown.  Memphis’ best known players were the 1994 Heisman Trophy-winning running back Rashaan Salaam and former Virginia Tech quarterback Jim Druckenmiller.   Both were first round draft picks in the NFL and both are considered among the higher profile draft busts of the 1990’s.

The XFL actively courted controversy in several areas, such as some sluttier-than-usual cheerleader promos, but it isn’t clear if the league realized their team names themselves might come under attack.  The league’s other Southern franchise in Birmingham, Alabama was originally set to be called the “Blast”, but was quickly changed to the “Thunderbolts” after complaints that the original name conjured memories of Birmingham’s 1998 abortion clinic bombing by Eric Rudolph and the wave of racially motivated Klan bombings during the Jim Crow era.  In Memphis, the Maniax name drew the ire of mental illness advocates, including Michael Faenza, President of the National Mental Health Association.  Detractors objected to the term “maniac”, to the googly-eyed lunatic in the team’s logo and to the inferred association with ax murderers. The XFL elected not to change this name, however.

WWE Chairman Vince McMahon announced the demise of the league in May 2001, less than three weeks after the playing of the first “Million Dollar Game”, i.e. the league’s championship game.  Low ratings and enthusiasm from the league’s TV partners at NBC and UPN were a key factor.

The Maniax were the fourth professional football team to play in Memphis’ Liberty Bowl, following the Memphis Southmen (1974-75) of the World Football League, the Memphis Showboats (1984-1985) of the United States Football League and the Memphis Mad Dogs (1995) of the Canadian Football League.  (Yes, the Canadian Football League).  None lasted more than two seasons.

 

Memphis Maniax Shop

ESPN Films 30 For 30: This Was The XFL

 

Maniax Video

UPN broadcast clip from the March 4, 2001 XFL clash between the Maniax and the Orlando Rage at the Liberty Bowl.

 

Links

XFL Media Guides

XFL Programs

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Written by AC

January 25th, 2013 at 8:03 pm

1995 Memphis Mad Dogs

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Canadian Football League (1995)

Born: 1994 – CFL expansion franchise.
Folded: November 30, 1995.

Stadium: The Liberty Bowl

Team Colors:

Owner: Fred Smith

Grey Cup Championships: None

 

The Memphis Mad Dogs were a one-year wonder in the Canadian Football League (yes, Canadian) and part of the CFL’s epic failure to expand into the United States between 1993 and 1995.  The Mad Dogs arrived just in time for the final season of the CFL’s three-year American misadventure in the fall of 1995.

Federal Express founder and CEO Frederick W. Smith (pictured at right on the team’s 1995 media guide) led the Mad Dogs ownership group. He acquired the franchise for a reported $3 million expansion fee in December 1994.  The CFL franchise was something of a consolation prize for Smith and the City of Memphis.  Smith was part of a group of investors, led by cotton king and former Memphis Showboats owner Billy Dunavant, that tried to land an NFL expansion franchise for Memphis in 1993.  The proposed NFL team would have been named the Memphis Hound Dogs, due to the participation of the Elvis Presley Estate in the investor group.  But Dunavant & Co. lost out to Charlotte and Jacksonville in the NFL sweepstakes. When Smith brought the CFL to town a little more than a year later, it felt like sloppy seconds to many area football fans.

Memphis did have an intriguing pro football track record.  The Memphis Southmen of the mid-1970’s World Football League drew strong crowds at the Liberty Bowl.  That club made national headlines by luring a trio of stars – Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield – away from the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in 1975.  The mid-1980’s saw the arrival of Dunavant’s Showboats, a popular franchise in the United States Football League.  The Showboats launched the Hall-of-Fame pro career of University of Tennessee defensive end Reggie White.  During the USFL’s final season in the spring of 1985, the Showboats averaged more than 30,000 fans per game.  But the USFL folded in 1986 after an aborted move to the fall.  As with the WFL a decade earlier, Memphis lost a strong football franchise when its league collapsed around it.

The Mad Dogs re-assembled parts of the USFL brain trust to try and re-capture the Showboats’ buzz.  Charismatic former Showboats Head Coach Pepper Rodgers – equal parts promoter and coach – returned as Head Coach and minority partner of the Mad Dogs.  Ex-Showboats front office executives Steve Ehrhart and Rudi Schiffer returned in key positions.  The team even signed 35-year old quarterback Mike Kelley, the Showboats back-up quarterback in 1984-85.  Kelley hadn’t played a down of football in eight years, since suiting up as an NFL replacement player during the 1987 player strike.

The Mad Dogs featured a formidable defense. Two-time CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player Greg Battle headed the linebacking corps. Perennial CFL All-Stars Tim Cofield (DE) and Rodney Harding (DT) anchored the line.  The offense ranked near the bottom of the league, but featured a couple of notable names in starting quarterback Damon Allen and 34-year old running back Gary Anderson. Anderson was a former 1,000-yard rusher in both the USFL and the NFL.  Allen had a mediocre season for the Mad Dogs, passing for only 11 touchdowns against 13 interceptions.  But he would go to play 23 seasons in the CFL, retiring in 2007 as the all-time leading passer by yardage in professional football history (at the time) with 72,381 passing yards.

The Mad Dogs greatest legacy is likely the discovery of wide receiver Joe Horn, an unheralded community college player who previously kicked around a few other CFL training camps without latching on.  Horn was a 1,000-yard receiver for the Mad Dogs in 1995, and attracted the attention of NFL scouts.  The Kansas City Chiefs drafted him in the 5th round in 1996.  Horn went onto a 12-season NFL career, earning four Pro Bowl appearances with the New Orleans Saints between 2000 and 2004.

The Mad Dogs debuted at the Liberty Bowl on July 7, 1995, losing their second game of the season 31-13 to the British Columbia Lions.  A disappointing crowd of 14,278 turned out for the inaugural game in the 62,000-seat bowl.  A few late summer games cracked the 20,000 barrier. But once college football started up in September, attendance plummeted down to around 10,000 per game.

The Mad Dogs played their final game on October 26, 1995, a 25-13 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos before an announced crowd of 12,078 at the Liberty Bowl.  A little over a month later, Fred Smith threw in the towel and folded the club. Published accounts at the time pegged his losses at anywhere from $3 million to $6 million.  The four other American CFL franchises soon followed suit, bringing an end to the CFL southern adventure after three seasons.

 

Memphis Mad Dogs Shop

End Zones & Border Wars: The Era of American Expansion in the CFL by Ed Willes

 

Memphis Mad Dogs Memorabilia

 

Mad Dogs Video

 

 

Links

Canadian Football League Media Guides

Canadian Football League Programs

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Written by AC

June 28th, 2012 at 2:53 pm

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