To continue marking the anniversary of the USFL’s untimely demise, Mike Carlson continues his look back at the best and worst rivals to the NFL, going coast-to-coast and from A to X.
The first three entries on his First XI of contenders can be found HERE but, in the meantime, enjoy this motley crew….
8. XFL (2001)
XFL 1 was the brainchild of wrestling promoter Vince McMahon, in partnership with NBC, to fill the spring season with football in a combination of NFL markets and the usual secondary football cities. Oddly, NBC Sports was then run by Dick Ebersol, whose son Charlie is behind the AAF, which will compete with McMahon’s XFL2.
XFL 1 innovated to make the game livelier: a ‘scramble’ for the ball rather than a coin-toss to decide possession, elimination of the kicked extra-point, a CFL-style punt return rule, a 35-second play clock. And they added innovations like helmet microphones (a la WLAF) and nicknames on jerseys, like the immortal Rod Smart’s ‘He Hate Me’ (“Who hates him?” football writer Paul Zimmerman’s wife asked him. “His high school English teacher,” Dr Z replied.).
Lots of familiar faces from WLAF, both players and coaches, re-appeared here, some with great success, and the league launched a second-shot at the NFL for QB Tommy Maddox. But McMahon’s personal impact worked against selling the league to football fans – everything from the leering focus on ‘diva’-style cheerleaders to McMahon-esque gimmicks and feuds littered through the colour commentary from Jesse Ventura or Jerry Lawler (though play-by-play man Jim Ross tried to play it straight). We live in a reality TV world today: XFL2 could wind up hitting more marks than its predecessor.
7. PACIFIC COAST FOOTBALL LEAGUE (1940-48)
Strictly speaking, as part of the Association of Professional Football League from 1946 (along with the American Association, based around New York, and the Dixie League, in Maryland and Virginia), the PCFL was a minor league, but it was important because, with wartime travel restrictions and its openness to black players at a time when the NFL was segregated, the quality of play was sometimes quite high.
The L.A. Bulldogs were charter members and the only team to survive all eight seasons; their stars Kenny Washington and Woody Strode broke the NFL’s colour barrier with the 1946 Rams, while future baseball immortal Jackie Robinson joined briefly in 1941 before war called. The league even had a black MVP in 1945, Oakland Giants tailback Mel Reid, now better remembered now as a concert promoter. They also boasted former Stanford star Frankie Albert, who would wind up a Hall of Famer with the 49ers. The AAFC ‘Niners arrival in San Francisco in 1946, along with the AAFC Dons and NFL’s Rams in Los Angeles, doomed the PCFL; although they tried expanding to Honolulu with the Hawaiian Warriors in 1946, the league died after two seasons of struggle.
6. CONTINENTAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE (1965-69)
This was sort of a 20th Century version of the UFL, with bigger ambitions but without the big money. The name came from a prospective baseball league created by William Shea (Shea Stadium) and fronted by baseball legend Branch Rickey, whose aim was to return a national team to New York after the Dodgers and Giants quit for California a dozen years after the NFL and AAFC had put teams there.
Like AFL 3, the nucleus of the CFL was two minor leagues (the Atlantic Coast Football League and United Football League, based around Ohio). Though it would be hard to call it a major league, it began with a team in Toronto, added a team in Montreal in its second year and made valiant efforts to go national, with a western division (including Seattle) in its third, eventually adding teams in Chicago, Indianapolis and much of middle America in its fourth. They even absorbed teams from the Texas Football League, including the Mexico Golden Aztecs, owned by Red McCombs – who later bought the Minnesota Vikings.
The most successful team was probably the Orlando Panthers, whose star QB Don Jonas was MVP in 1967 and ‘68; he earned enough money to turn down jobs as an NFL backup. After the league folded, he won a Grey Cup and Most Outstanding Player award in the Canadian Football League.
My local team, the Hartford Charter Oaks, folded to return to the Atlantic Coast Football League as the Knights, featuring future Raider fullback Marv Hubbard. The coach of the San Jose Apaches in 1967 was a guy called Bill Walsh; Ken Stabler played for the Spokane Shockers in 1968, the season he feuded with Raiders owner Al Davis. Other future NFL names gracing the CFL included DE Coy Bacon, QB Johnny Walton and PK Garo Yepremian; but it never made an impact in New York, where its Brooklyn Dodgers played on Randall’s Island, sitting forlornly under the Triborough Bridge.
5. AMERICAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE (1936-37)
AFL 2 had the biggest influence on the game of the three early AFLs. Chaotic franchise moves resulted in a starting six teams, including three who dominated the league: the Boston Shamrocks, so successful that George Preston Marshall moved his Redskins to Washington; the Cleveland Rams; and the New York Yankees, featuring Hall-of-Famer Ken Strong.
The second season saw Cleveland leave for the NFL, while boxer Jack Dempsey and singer Bing Crosby joined the league’s board of directors, which may explain the addition of the Los Angeles Bulldogs, the first putative major league team to play on the West Coast. Ironically, the Bulldogs were turned down for NFL membership in favour of the Rams, who eventually would move to Los Angeles. The Bulldogs had beaten two NFL teams in exhibitions in 1936, and went 8-0 to win the AFL title in 1937, while winning eight more matches (some sources say 10) against Providence Steam Roller of the American Association and West Coast independents like the Hollywood Stars (part-owned by actor Victor McLaglen) and Salinas Iceberg Packers. But they were the only team in the league to make money, and it folded after its second year. The Cincinnati Bengals eventually joined AFL 3 while the Bulldogs became charter members of the PCFL in 1940.
4. WORLD FOOTBALL LEAGUE (1974-75)
The WFL business model was drawn from the World Hockey Association, which sprang up to compete with the NFL and signed a number of older, high-priced stars. This wasn’t a surprise since founder Gary Davidson started the WHA and the American Basketball Association (ABA) and both had eventually merged with the existing major leagues. The big money man was John Bassett, who bought a franchise for Toronto, but the Canadian government forced him to move his team to Memphis, by which time he had already signed Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield and Jim Kiick from the Dolphins.
Contract chaos ensued as the NFL, threatened by a players’ strike in 1974, tried to keep players or lure them back after many signed ‘future’ contracts, not valid until their present deals expired. Oakland’s Ken Stabler and Daryle Lamonica both signed with the league, though the former never played.
They were the second league to see their New York team stuck on Randall’s Island; it quickly moved to Charlotte. The WFL also had a team in Jacksonville before the NFL, and another in Hawaii. Their Philadelphia Bell featured Vince Papale (who, unlike the movie version, had actually played for the Bell in the Seaboard League, and didn’t join the Eagles from the sandlots) and the legendary quarterback Jim ‘King’ Corcoran, the ‘Minor League Joe Namath’, who led the league in TD passes in its first year. The WFL’s wholesale signing of minor-league players from the ACFL and Seaboard League killed both of those leagues forever.
To be continued…