This one was not for all the money. In fact, it was for very little money. World Bowl I was brought to you live last week from Birmingham, Ala., courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS, it seems, had decided that a piece of the pie was better than no pie at all, so it allowed the hometown Americans, who had owed the Federal Government as much as $237,000 in back taxes, to play the game at Birmingham's Legion Field in return for a share of the gate. The Americans seized the opportunity to score a thrilling 22-21 win over the Florida Blazers. For their efforts they were rewarded with the World Bowl trophy, championship rings they had extorted from their owner and a 60% share of whatever is left of the gate after the IRS and several other creditors pick it over.
Sizing up the two teams before the World Bowl, it was hard to think in terms of their on-field success. After all, no player on either squad had received a regular paycheck for weeks, although Florida perhaps had an edge in experience here since it had gone without money twice as long as Birmingham. Both teams had discussed possible franchise shifts. Both were looking for new financing. Both had popular coaches, Birmingham's Jack Gotta and Florida's Jack Pardee, who had dipped into their own pockets to give to the company store. Gotta had bought his team a pregame meal. Pardee and his assistants took turns supplying toilet paper for their clubhouse. Clearly, the game was a toss-up.
Florida had become the sentimental favorite because of its greater deprivation. Pardee, who may very well be a head coach in the NFL next season, should be named the coach of all time for keeping the Blazers within sight of a championship or, for that matter, for keeping them within sight. The Florida ownership last paid its players and coaches on Sept. 6, and some of those checks bounced. Rumors were continually circulating about franchise moves and the possibility of fresh supplies of money. The managing general partner sued the owner. The owner sued the managing general partner.
Matters came to a head during the playoffs, when it was announced that the often-postponed sale of the team to a group headed by businessman Robert Prentice finally had been consummated. The players were even given a peek at a $1.5-million check that supposedly would solve all their financial woes. Shortly thereafter news came that the sale had been delayed again. It became public knowledge that the purchasing group's spokesman, Coleman Taylor, was a convicted felon, recently paroled after serving almost a year on charges of transporting a stolen car across a state line. A few days before their semifinal game against the Memphis Southmen, one of the few solidly financed teams in the WFL and the hot favorite to win the World Bowl, the Blazer players had to accept the reality that they were not going to be paid then, and probably never.
December 16, 1974
"The players have been dumped on by the league and by the Blazer ownership," said Quarterback Bob Davis. "We're mad now." Linebacker Larry Ely said, "We want to win the World Bowl and take the World Bowl trophy and shove it back at the WFL." In the playoff Memphis took a quick 15-0 lead and held it through the half, but Florida persisted and eventually won 18-15 to go on to Birmingham.
The World Bowl was originally scheduled to take place the Friday after Thanksgiving as the culmination of a four-team tournament. For a brief time the field grew to six teams, then to eight, which was highly democratic since it appeared that only nine franchises were going to be playing at the end of the season. Then, amid cries to abolish the playoffs altogether and declare Memphis the champion, the format was reduced to three teams—Eastern Division winner Florida, Central Division winner Memphis and Central Division runner-up Birmingham. This was not greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm by Western Division champion Southern California. There was another recasting to include the Sun and the other second-place clubs, Hawaii in the West and Charlotte in the East, only somehow Philadelphia, which finished third in the East, qualified instead of Charlotte. It was suggested that the playoff teams had been chosen by placing collect calls to all the clubs and admitting those that accepted them.
Philadelphia lost in the first round to Florida. Three of Southern California's best players, Kermit Johnson, James McAlister and Booker Brown, neglected to show for the Sun's game with the Hawaiians, claiming that missed payroll dates had voided their contracts. The Sun lost 32-14. The Hawaiians then lost to the Americans, Florida upset Memphis, and so the World Bowl game came to Birmingham. Three days before the game, the Birmingham players announced that they would not play and walked out of practice, demanding five weeks of unpaid wages. A day later they relented and went back to work when Birmingham Owner Bill Putnam promised them they would receive championship rings if they won.
The way the game started, Putnam did not seem in any danger of having to visit a jeweler. Florida took the opening kickoff and marched 51 yards to the Birmingham five. Tommy Reamon, the marvelously elusive runner who is the league's leading rusher, swept right and dived over a pack of bodies into the end zone. At some point he fumbled the ball. It appeared that he had it until he hit the ground, which meant a touchdown, but the officials ruled that he had lost control before crossing the goal line. The play was ruled a touchback and Birmingham took over at its 20. That seemed to take all the starch out of Florida. Commenting on the play later, Blazer Linebacker Billy Hobbs said, "The WFL officiating is even worse than not getting paid."
Birmingham scored twice in the second quarter and again at the start of the second half for a 22-0 lead. After the second touchdown Gotta replaced starting Quarterback George Mira with his alternate, 6'4", 225-pound Matthew Reed, for the WFL's action point after touchdown. A touchdown is worth seven points; the action point, which cannot be kicked, is worth one. Reed rolled right and ran straight at Defensive Back Miller Farr, who was waiting at the goal line. Farr had a better chance of receiving a paycheck than he had of stopping Reed, who plowed through him for the point, a vitally important one, as it turned out.
The score remained 22-0 until the start of the fourth quarter. If the Blazers had accepted their fate, had quickly run out the last 15 minutes of a three-month nightmare and had gone off in search of gainful employment, who could have blamed them? But on the opening play of the final quarter, Davis, running from a blitzing linebacker, lobbed a ball down the right sideline to Reamon who scampered to the end zone to complete a 39-yard play. Davis tried to throw to Wide Receiver Matt Maslowski for the action point but the pass was batted down.
Then, midway through the quarter the Blazers moved 73 yards to a second touchdown, Davis picking up the last 40 on a play-action pass to Tight End Greg Latta. This time Florida tried an option to the left on the action point, but Middle Linebacker Warren Capone stopped Running Back Cliff McClain short of the goal line, leaving the Blazers a touchdown and a point behind.
With 4½ minutes left the Blazers forced the Americans to punt. Rod Foster, who played his collegiate football at Harvard, fielded the ball at the Florida 24, ran immediately into a gaggle of tacklers, spun completely around and somehow slipped away to sprint 76 yards for the score. Now one point behind, the Blazers went to their strength for the action point, sending Reamon on a simple sweep to the right. Again Capone, with help from Randy Lee and Larry Estes, made the stop.
Still, 4:14 remained. Pardee elected to try a semi-onside kick, past the first line of defenders but short of the second. It failed, and Birmingham took over at the Florida 48.
The crowd was down on Mira now, even though he would be named World Bowl MVP, and was yelling for big Reed. Gotta put him in. At the two-minute warning the Americans faced a third and nine at the Florida 37. Reed faded to pass and was about to be sacked when he broke free up the middle. Several Blazers had a shot at him but, as on the action point, he proved too strong and dragged tacklers to the 25 for a first down. That was the coup de gr√¢ce. The Americans played out the clock to win their 13th game without a loss at Legion Field.
Out of frustration, the Blazers ended the game with a fight on almost every one of the last few plays. And after the gun sounded Florida Cornerback Billy Hayes raced toward the Blazer dressing room under the end-zone stands with the game ball. Birmingham Tackle Paul Costa chased him, and several players from both teams chased the two of them. A shoving match started underneath the stands. Here were all these players who hadn't been paid in weeks fighting over a football. The Blazers got it into their dressing room to finish the skirmish.
No matter. The Americans secured another and, speaking for the whole team, Linebacker Ross Brupbacher said, "The game ball goes to the city of Birmingham. I hope they bring us back here next year to play with it."
Next year, of course, there will have to be a great deal more money available if the WFL is to be in Birmingham or any other city. On the day before the World Bowl, Oakland Quarterback Kenny Stabler, who last spring signed to play with the Americans beginning in 1976, filed suit to void the contract because Birmingham had failed to make $30,000 in bonus payments on schedule. The day after the game, sheriff's deputies confiscated Birmingham's uniforms on behalf of a creditor, and there were plans afoot to confiscate the Americans' office furniture, too.
That was typical of the situation in most league cities. After a successful first part of the season the teams, ran out of money and credibility. Houston moved to Shreveport. New York moved to Charlotte. Detroit listed 122 debts in filing for bankruptcy. Not one of the five teams that came to Shreveport to play was able to pay its hotel bill. Jacksonville went out of business, and some of its players were talking of filing fraud-and-deceit suits against the team's former owner and the WFL. The IRS filed a lien against the Sharks' holdings and those of the Portland Storm. Alan R. Miller, executive director of the WFL Players Association, estimated that something between $4 million and $7 million in compensation was still owed by the various franchises to their players. The figure of $20 million in total debt around the league seemed reasonable.
The WFL was supposed to present a $10,000 purse to the league MVP at half-time of the World Bowl. Three rookie pros—Reamon, Running Back J. J. Jennings of Memphis and Quarterback Tony Adams of Southern California—tied for the award, and got $3,333.33 each. Some said the winners would have a choice of taking a WFL check in that amount or a WFL franchise. To spare itself the ridicule that checks would inspire the league got the cash and arranged for armed Wells Fargo guards to bring the money to the field.
Toward the end of the season only three teams, Memphis, Philadelphia and Hawaii, were able to meet their payrolls, and their owners, John Bassett, John Bosacco and Sam Battistone, were considered the only men in the league capable of fielding teams in 1975. "At this point the league has no credibility," said Bassett. As if to confirm that, Eddie Einhorn, the president of TVS, which televises WFL games, reported that he had been unable to sell a single additional minute of advertising time after the league started having its troubles.
In the pursuit of credibility, the more substantial owners took over control of the league from its founder and first commissioner, Gary Davidson, who resigned in November. The new WFL president, Chris Hemmeter, a part owner of the Hawaiians who will divest himself of that interest in January, has come up with a revolutionary plan to put the league on solid financial footing. Hemmeter says he thought of his plan while in the shower. At least he wasn't taking a bath.
Hemmeter suggests that future WFL owners invest enough money initially to ensure their team's survival through five years of minimal support. He suggests that travel costs, officiating costs and stadium rentals be paid in advance. Most radically, he proposes that a player be signed for a percentage of the team's income; if an owner wants to give a player an amount beyond that percentage, the money must be put in escrow. To guarantee that all teams are complying with these rules, their books will be reviewed by a league comptroller every two weeks.
"The only thing that's going to cure the World Football League is dollars," says Hemmeter. "Equity dollars, not debt dollars. We can't solve our problems by borrowing. Our first step is to provide the proper environment for investment. Right now the credibility of the league stinks, but under this plan we have a credible business deal." Because there are only three stable franchises at the moment, Hemmeter will merely ask interested owners to put money in escrow for their purchases until there are enough solid investors to reestablish the league.
The critical period is the next 90 days. It is a long shot. If the league cannot find investors, World Bowl I will be the one World Bowl.