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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

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