EPISODE #88: The 1968-69 AFL New York Jets – With Bob Lederer

On January 12, 1969, the American Football League champion New York Jets stunned the sports world when they beat their heavily favored NFL title-winning counterparts the Baltimore Colts to win the third annual “AFL–NFL World Championship Game” – today remembered as version III of the “Super Bowl.”

The key to the Jets’ ultimate success, of course, was superstar quarterback Joe Namath – whose talent, confidence and charm had already made him an instant celebrity when he first arrived on the Gotham sports scene in 1965.  But the rise of the former (and by the end of its third season in 1962, insolvent) New York Titans to the top of the pro football heap was far from a solo effort.

Author Bob Lederer (Beyond Broadway Joe: The Super Bowl Team That Changed Football) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the decade-long saga of the Jets’ remarkable evolution from a mediocre team in dilapidated stadium in an oft-derided "Mickey Mouse" league, to a franchise that literally saved the AFL from itself and vaulted a newly merged NFL into the modern era of pro football.

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EPISODE #87: New York’s Shea Stadium’s Curious 1975 – With Brett Topel

It was, unwittingly, the center of the New York professional sports universe in 1975.

The official home of both Major League Baseball’s Mets and AFL-then-NFL football’s Jets since 1964, Shea Stadium was always a busy venue.  But when the football Giants and baseball Yankees found themselves displaced by extensive renovations to their shared Bronx home of Yankee Stadium, Shea instantly became Mecca for Gotham sports fans – hosting all four teams over the course of their respective 1975 seasons. 

The Giants, of course, had already started their wayward journey away from the Bronx in 1973, when plans were announced for a brand new, state-of-the art facility in the Meadowlands of East Rutherford, New Jersey to open in time for Big Blue’s 1976 season.  After two miserable seasons at New Haven, Connecticut’s Yale Bowl (winning only one of 12 games there), the Giants were wooed by New York mayor Abe Beame to play one last season back inside the city limits before absconding for good across the Hudson.

The Yankees, meanwhile, set up temporary shop at Shea beginning in the spring of 1974 – the first of two seasons the Bronx Bombers would play “home” games there while awaiting their new digs, also to open in 1976. 

Thus, for one crazy 1975 season, all four New York teams – the Mets, Jets, Yankees, and Giants – called Shea Stadium home.  Four teams, 175 games, 3,738,546 fans, and one stadium – the only time in professional sports history that two baseball teams and two football teams shared the same facility in the same year.

Brett Topel (When Shea Was Home: The Story of the 1975 Mets, Yankees, Giants, and Jets) joins the pod to discuss the highlights – but mostly lowlights – of one of the oddest years in New York City sports history.

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EPISODE #86: The Battle for Dallas: The AFL Texans vs. The NFL Cowboys – With John Eisenberg

By the end of the 1958 NFL season – one punctuated by an iconic, nationally televised “Greatest Game Ever Played” championship – interest in professional football had risen to unprecedented levels across the country, capturing enough attention to seriously challenge baseball for America’s chief sporting interest.  Nowhere was the ground more fertile than in the state of Texas, where college and even high school football had held sway for generations – but the pro game (last attempted with a relocated 1952 NFL franchise called the Texans that ended in mid-season abandonment) had still yet to firmly root.

But in the spring of 1960, after an unlikely series of events, two young oil tycoons each became convinced of the opportunity to start their own pro franchises in Dallas’ legendary Cotton Bowl: a reincarnated club called the “Texans” – part of a new upstart circuit called the American Football League; and a hastily arranged response from the established (and newly threatened) NFL called the “Cowboys.”  Virtually overnight, a bitter professional football feud was born – with Dallas sports fans caught in the crossfire.

Texans owner (and AFL league founder) Lamar Hunt and Cowboys head Clint Murchison wasted no time drawing battle lines for the hearts and minds of Dallas’ (and the state’s) pigskin faithful; their teams took each other to court, fought over players, undermined each other’s promotions, and rooted like hell for the other guys to fail.  

Hunt’s Texans focused on the fans – building squads heavy on local legends and using clever promotions to draw attention to both his new team, and the new league.  Murchison’s Cowboys concentrated their efforts on the game – hoping to quickly match the competitiveness of the NFL’s established teams with a young cerebral coaching talent named Tom Landry, and a draft strategy that eyed the long term.

John Eisenberg (Ten-Gallon War: The NFL’s Cowboys, the AFL’s Texans, and the Feud for Dallas’s Pro Football Future) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the three-year battle for pro football supremacy in Dallas – from which both teams eventually (and ironically) emerged victorious in their separate pursuits of success.

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EPISODE #85: Houston’s Iconic Astrodome – With Bob Trumpbour

When it debuted to the public on April 9, 1965 (with an exhibition Major League Baseball game featuring the newly-renamed Houston Astros and Mickey Mantle’s New York Yankees), the Astrodome – audaciously dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by its builders – immediately captured the attention of the sports, entertainment and architectural worlds.  

It was a Texas-sized vision of the future – a seemingly unimaginable feat of engineering, replete with breakthrough innovations such as premium luxury suites, theater-style seating, and the world’s first-ever animated stadium scoreboard.  At the time, it was the biggest-ever indoor space ever made by man – an immense cylinder nearly half-a-mile around and with a flying-saucer-like roofline – that evoked a modern space age that the city of Houston and a reach-the-Moon-obsessed nation envisioned for itself.

Amidst the ambition, not all was perfect: baseball outfielders were initially unable to see fly balls through the stadium’s clear Plexiglas roof panels, and attempts to grow natural grass for its playing surface failed repeatedly (ultimately leading to the development of artificial “AstroTurf”).    

Yet, unquestionably, the arrival of the Astrodome changed the way people viewed sporting events and – putting casual fans at the center of the experience, that would soon become the expected standard for all facets of live communal entertainment.

Penn State University professor Rob Trumpbour (The Eighth Wonder of the World: The Life of Houston’s Iconic Astrodome) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the life, impact and ongoing legacy of the Astrodome’s signature role in transforming Houston as a city – and some of the memorable (and not so memorable) pro franchises that called it home during its 43-year run, including the AFL/NFL football Oilers, the NASL soccer Stars and Hurricane, and challenger-league football’s Texans (WFL) and Gamblers (USFL). 

Plus, the backstory of Major League Baseball’s 1962 expansion Houston Colt .45’s – the original catalyst behind the dome’s conception and construction.

Our appreciation to OldSchoolShirts.com, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, 503 Sports, Audible, and MyBookie for sponsoring this week’s episode!

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EPISODE #84: The 1960s-Era NFL Baltimore Colts – With Jack Gilden

The third incarnation of the Baltimore Colts – the second as an official member of the NFL – produced some of the most memorable and dominant teams to ever play the pro game. 

Winners of impressive back-to-back NFL titles over the New York Giants in both 1958 (the December 28th Yankee Stadium sudden-death overtime final regarded as the mythic “Greatest Game Ever Played”) and 1959, the Colts and head coach Weeb Ewbank surprisingly stumbled into mid-table mediocrity in the early years of the 1960s – enough to convince mercurial owner Carroll Rosenblum to make a stunning change at the end of the team’s (7-7) 1962 season – one that would quickly shake up the squad and the expectations behind it.

The selection of Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Don Shula to become the new head coach of the Colts was eyebrow-raising for a number of reasons – age (at 33, the youngest-ever to be chosen for such a role in the NFL up until that time); relative inexperience (only two years as a college assistant at Virginia and Kentucky before his first pro stint in Detroit building the famous “Fearsome Foursome” defense); and karma – cut by the Colts as a player seven years earlier, Shula was now suddenly coach over former teammates who hadn’t previously accorded him much respect.

Chief among those players was quarterbacking legend-in-the-making Johnny Unitas – arguably the Colts’ most valuable franchise player, who was hugely responsible for the team’s titles in the late 50s, and through whom any future success depended. 

Author Jack Gilden (Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula and the Rise of the Modern NFL) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss how these two eventual Pro Football Hall of Fame titans battled each other and the rest of the NFL during the remainder of the 1960s, and lifted the Colts back to elite status in the league – while setting themselves both up for further individual greatness once they again parted ways.

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EPISODE #82: AFL & NFL Football All-Star Ron McDole

In a nearly 20-year playing career across the 1960s American Football League and 1970s NFL, defensive end Ron McDole (The Dancing Bear: My Eighteen Years in the Trenches of the AFL and NFL) experienced pro football’s modern-day coming-of-age from inside his old-school, two-bar helmet.  From 1961-1978, McDole played in over 250 professional games, including championship runs with the AFL Buffalo Bills (1964, 1965) and a Super Bowl appearance with the NFL Washington Redskins in 1972.

A cagey and deceptively agile athlete, McDole wreaked havoc on football’s best offenses as part of a Bills defensive line (including left tackle Jim Dunaway, right tackle Tom Sestak, and right end Tom Day) that held opponents without a rushing touchdown for 17 straight games across 1964-65. His twelve career interceptions remain a pro record for defensive linemen.

Traded by the Bills in 1970, he was given new life in Washington as one of the most famous members of George Allen s game-smart veterans known as the “Over the Hill Gang.”  Through it all, McDole was known and loved by teammates and foes alike for his knowledge and skill on the field and his ability to have fun off it.

In this revealing conversation with host Tim Hanlon, McDole describes: the unique camaraderie of playing in small-market Buffalo and in the upstart AFL; the reality of needing off-season jobs to pay the bills and make ends meet; the continual magnanimity of Bills’ owner Ralph Wilson; AND (at 45:00) the price he and many of his fellow players are now paying health-wise for playing the game they loved - with very little acknowledgement or support from the NFL.

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EPISODE #80: The AAFC, AFL & the NFL’s Formative 1950s – With Economist David Surdam

After barely surviving World War II, the National Football League of the late 1940s was not only on tenuous financial footing, but also facing an existential threat from an ambitious new challenger with deep-pocketed owners ready take advantage of America’s growing interest in professional football, a newfound surplus of playing talent, and a tantalizing return to economic prosperity. 

While the All-America Football Conference lasted for only four seasons (1946-49), its mere presence jolted the historically conservative and inwardly-focused NFL into an era of dramatic transformation and strategic maturation that laid the groundwork for a meteoric rise in popularity for the sport and secured its position against the raft of competitive challenges to its supremacy in the decades that followed.

University of Northern Iowa Professor of Economics and David W. Wilson Business Ethics Fellow David Surdam (Run to Glory and Profits: The Economic Rise of the NFL During the 1950s) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the economic and regulatory developments that the league underwent during the Fifties – which enabled the NFL to not only withstand direct competition from upstarts like the AAFC and, in the 1960s, the even more-formidable American Football League – but also solidify its place as the dominant and most economically successful professional sport in North America.

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EPISODE #78: The United States Football League – With Jeff Pearlman

Multiple New York Times bestselling sports book author Jeff Pearlman (Gunslinger; Boys Will Be Boys; The Bad Guys Won!; Sweetness) joins the pod this week to promote his latest literary treasure – a deeply personal devotional about the wild and ultimately misbegotten United States Football League.

Crafted from over four hundred interviews and borne of a childhood fascination/obsession, Football For a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL is a narrative tour de force that chronicles the bizarre and often comical story of the erstwhile early 1980s spring league that pugnaciously challenged the pro football establishment with a witches’ brew of ownership bravado, expensive player talent, national TV coverage, wayward franchises, bounced paychecks – and, audaciously, a Hail Mary of a class action federal lawsuit that won the battle, but ultimately lost the war against the supremacy of the NFL.  

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Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL - buy book here

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EPISODE #65: The CFL’s American Expansion Experiment with Sportswriter Ed Willes

As Johnny Manziel’s pro football comeback journey wraps up a promising pre-season with the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, we take a moment this week to reminisce on the approaching 25th anniversary of the CFL’s bold, but ultimately ill-fated attempt to bring its exciting brand of pigskin south of the border in 1993.

When the NFL put the brakes on its two-year World League of American Football experiment in the summer of 1992 (which included a franchise in Montreal, dubbed the “Machine”), an economically wobbly CFL sensed an opportunity to fill the gap in US markets newly comfortable with the notion of pro football, as well as a potential growth path for the tradition-rich Canadian game to expand outside the Provinces.  In fact, two WLAF owners, Fred Anderson (Sacramento Surge) and Larry Benson (San Antonio Riders) "crossed over" to the Canadian League and were awarded newly rechristened franchises for 1993 – Anderson’s Sacramento Gold Miners and Benson's San Antonio Texans. 

While the Gold Miners were the only ones to make it into the following season’s expanded CFL schedule (Benson literally – and ominously – left the league at the altar by bowing out the day of the league’s press conference announcing the expansion), the door was open to a wild three-season adventure that brought the wide-open Canadian game to far-flung American outposts in Baltimore, Las Vegas, Shreveport, Memphis, Birmingham, and, ironically (via eventual relocation from Sacramento), San Antonio.

Longtime Vancouver Province sportswriter Ed Willes (End Zones and Border Wars: The Era of American Expansion in the CFL) joins the podcast to discuss the league’s short-lived American expansion effort, which then-commissioner Larry Smith had hoped to eventually encompass ten US teams in a fully expanded 20-team league.  

Among the misadventures, Willes recounts: the 1995 champion Baltimore Stallions (who operated as the nickname-less “CFLers” the previous season in a trademark dispute with the NFL over the “Colts” moniker); the woefully attended Las Vegas Posse (who practiced on the Strip in the Riviera Hotel’s parking lot and were forced to play their last “home” game in Edmonton); the Memphis Mad Dogs’ unique approach to fitting the longer/wider CFL field into the Liberty Bowl; why football-mad Birmingham couldn’t draw flies for Barracuda games once college and high school seasons started; and the “Great Tucker Caper” – featuring the infamous brothers Glieberman and their attempt to steal away the Shreveport Pirates to the greener pastures of Norfolk, VA.

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EPISODE #61: Sports Promoter Doug Verb

If someone ever decides to build an American sports promotion Hall of Fame, the inaugural class will undoubtedly be led by this week’s special guest, Doug Verb.  In a career spanning more than 40 years in professional sports management, Verb’s remarkable career has included spearheading marketing, promotion, publicity, and television for some of the most innovative and memorable leagues and franchises of the modern era. 

One of the founding executives of both the pioneering Major Indoor Soccer League (along with sports entrepreneurs Earl Foreman, Ed Tepper, and previous podcast guest Dr. Joe Machnik), and the frenetic Arena Football League (with the sport’s inventor [and past two-part guest] Jim Foster), Verb additionally  served as president of pro soccer’s legendary Chicago Sting from 1982-86 – which, incredibly, drifted between playing in two separate leagues during his tenure (for one year, simultaneously) – the outdoor North American Soccer League and the indoor MISL. 

In our longest and more anecdote-filled episode to date, Verb vividly recounts the highs and lows of launching new teams, leagues and even sports themselves from whole cloth – with nary an operational blueprint or career roadmap to be found.  Buckle up for a wild ride through the woeful 1976 NASL Philadelphia Atoms, the “Rocket Red” pinball-like MISL, soccer for all seasons in the Windy City, and birthing indoor football. 

PLUS:  Kiddie City to the rescue; Earl Foreman’s “Brother-in-Law Effect;” getting paid in soybeans; and the curious one-game history of the Liberty Basketball Association! 

AND:  Verb reveals plans for a first-ever Major Indoor Soccer League reunion later this year in Las Vegas!

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EPISODE #59: Pro Soccer’s Dean of Media Relations, Jim Trecker

With a career spanning more than four decades, the National Soccer Hall of Fame’s 2017 Colin Jose Media Award-winner Jim Trecker has been part of the American sports media relations landscape since the late 1960’s.  After a chance part-time undergrad job in Columbia University’s modest sports information department, Trecker traded his initial career ambitions in French language education for what ultimately became an unmatched professional journey in public relations at the highest levels of international sports.

After cutting his PR teeth with various post-grad pro sports gigs around New York (including work for the Madison Square Garden-owned New York Skyliners [actually Uruguay’s C.A. Cerro] of the 1967 United Soccer Association), Trecker helped manage media relations for the “Broadway” Joe Namath-era AFL-then-NFL New York Jets – a whirling dervish of major league sports information management that transfixed both the Gotham and national press corps, especially in the wake of a surprising Super Bowl III championship.

But it was the arrival of international soccer superstar Pelé to the fledgling New York Cosmos in 1975 that ultimately took Trecker – and the steeply ascendant North American Soccer League – into a stratospheric professional orbit, as the increasingly star-studded team, league and sport exploded onto the local, national and global sports scenes during the latter half of the decade.  Soccer’s first true international “super club,” the Cosmos became nothing short of an international sports and cultural phenomenon, and Trecker’s job was to manage all of the media’s intense interest in everything related to them – no easy feat.

Trecker joins host Tim Hanlon to recount some of the most memorable events during the heyday of the Cosmos, as well as his subsequent PR leadership roles with the NASL’s Washington Diplomats, the league office itself, and his mega role as head of media relations for the wildly successful USA-hosted 1994 World Cup.  PLUS: we discuss Trecker’s role behind the upcoming NASL 50th Anniversary, to be held in conjunction with the re-launch of the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, TX on October 16-18, 2018!

Thanks to Audible, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com and Podfly for their support of the show!

EPISODE #57: The Pro Football Life of Upton Bell

Upton Bell grew up at the knee of the National Football League’s second-ever commissioner – his father, the legendary Bert Bell – who not only saved professional football from financial ruin in the aftermath of World War II, but also became one of its greatest innovators.  Originator of the iconic phrase “on any given Sunday,” the senior Bell created lasting contributions to the NFL, such as the first pro football draft, scheduling parity, television revenue-sharing, and sudden-death overtime.

For the junior Upton, it was a priceless childhood amidst pro football’s formative years – begun while watching his father draw up the league schedule each year using dominoes at the kitchen table – steeped in the personalities, lore, and economic pragmatism of a game that would ultimately dominate the American professional sports landscape like no other.

In a seemingly preordained career, Upton Bell (Present at the Creation: My Life in the NFL and the Rise of America’s Game) has been an owner (the wacky World Football League’s Charlotte Hornets), a general manager (the NFL’s New England [née AFL Boston] Patriots), a player personnel director (the 1960s NFL-dominant Baltimore Colts), and long-time sports commentator/talk radio host – remaining a true and insightful “football guy” throughout.

In this very revealing conversation, Bell joins Tim Hanlon to discuss his personal and professional journey through the sport he loves; the lessons learned and insights gleaned from his unique purview into the pro game’s coming-of-age era; the current state of the NFL and where it might be headed; and heretofore untold stories about the stranger-than-fiction WFL.

This week’s episode is brought to you by SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, Audible (where you can listen to the audiobook version of Present at the Creation!) and Podfly.

Present at the Creation: My Life in the NFL and the Rise of America's Game - buy book here

Intro audio & numerous photos courtesy: Richie Franklin's Charlotte Hornets Football Network website - visit here

EPISODE #52: The Wild & Wacky World Football League with Author Mark Speck - Part Two

We conclude our conversation with WFL researcher Mark Speck (WIFFLE: The Wild, Zany and Sometimes Hilariously True Story of the World Football League; World Football League Encyclopedia; . . .And a Dollar Short: The Empty Promises, Broken Dreams, and Somewhat-Less-Than-Comic Misadventures of the 1974 Florida Blazers), as we find the league limping its way through an inaugural 1974 campaign that featured two mid-season franchise relocations (Houston to Shreveport, and New York to Charlotte), two outright team collapses (Detroit and Jacksonville), dwindling attendance and TV ratings, the ousting of league founder/commissioner Gary Davidson – and a championship “World Bowl” between two cash-strapped finalists (Birmingham and Florida) that was only allowed to take place after the IRS agreed to accept the game’s gate receipts as payment for an overdue tax bill.

A return for an improbable second season in 1975 was made possible only by dissolving the league entirely and legally reconstituting into a second incarnation (inexplicably with the same name), under the stricture of resort developer/Hawaiians owner Chris Hemmeter’s eponymous operating plan that called for franchise deposit fees, limited budgets and player revenue-sharing based on business success.  But with no renewed national TV contract (TVS declined the option after Joe Namath spurned the Chicago Winds’ lucrative offer to jump), a now-highly suspicious fan base, and far less press coverage than the previous year’s spectacle, the “new” World Football League fared even worse – folding entirely and for good on October 22, 1975 – after just 13 weeks of play.

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WIFFLE: The Wild, Zany and Sometimes Hilariously True Story of the World Football League - buy book here

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. . . And a Dollar Short: The Empty Promises, Broken Dreams and Somewhat-Less-Than-Comic Misadventures of the 1974 Florida Blazers - buy book here

Numerous photos courtesy: Richie Franklin's World Football League website - visit here

 

 

EPISODE #51: The Wild & Wacky World Football League with Author Mark Speck

Perhaps no defunct league in modern-day professional sports history endured a more ignominious storyline and spectacular demise than that of the World Football League – a uniquely disastrous attempt to establish a summer-into-autumn rival to the National Football League during the mid-1970’s.

Brimming with confidence from his co-founding exploits with two previous (and at the time, still very-much-alive) challenger pro circuits – the American Basketball Association in 1967, and the World Hockey Association in 1971 – WFL founder/commissioner Gary Davidson saw the 1974-era National Football League as the next logical target for his quintessentially anti-establishment sports management ambitions.  While the ABA and WHA both eventually yielded successful mergers of their most viable franchises into their established rivals, the World Football League quickly proved to be quite different – and, ultimately, Davidson’s professional and personal Waterloo.

The WFL initially succeeded in persuading dozens of NFL stars to jump leagues for its hastily-arranged summer 1974 launch, largely because the NFL had no free agency, and the promise of a legitimate alternative offered newfound leverage for players seeking to improve their market values.  Many who did jump, however, signed “futures” contracts that would only take effect after the expiration of their NFL deals – a proposition that became increasingly dubious as under-capitalized WFL franchises seemingly began shutting down almost as soon as they debuted.  And that was just the start of what quickly became a litany of insurmountable calamities (including scandalous admissions of widespread game attendance inflation) that befell and ultimately sank both Davidson, and then the league itself – not once, but twice in just two years.

We begin our exploration of this most head-scratching of professional leagues with the dean of WFL researchers Mark Speck (WIFFLE: The Wild, Zany and Sometimes Hilariously True Story of the World Football League; World Football League Encyclopedia; . . .And a Dollar Short: The Empty Promises, Broken Dreams, and Somewhat-Less-Than-Comic Misadventures of the 1974 Florida Blazers), in a gift of an episode that just keeps on giving!

We appreciate Podfly, Audible and SportsHistoryCollectibles.com for their support of the podcast!

          

WIFFLE: The Wild, Zany and Sometimes Hilariously True Story of the World Football League - buy book here

World Football League Encyclopedia - buy book here

. . . And a Dollar Short: The Empty Promises, Broken Dreams and Somewhat-Less-Than-Comic Misadventures of the 1974 Florida Blazers - buy book here

Numerous photos courtesy: Richie Franklin's World Football League website - visit here

EPISODE #46: The United States Football League with Author Paul Reeths

For the first time since Episode #11, we return to the brief, but unforgettable streak of pro football lightning known as the United States Football League, with the author of its definitive history, Paul Reeths (The United States Football League, 1982-1986). 

The brainchild of New Orleans plywood manufacturer/car dealer/World Championship Tennis co-founder/Superdome director/art-and-antiques dealer David Dixon, the USFL splashily announced its intention to bring big-league, springtime professional football to 12 major markets, at New York’s famed “21” Club on May 11, 1982.  In short order, the league added its first commissioner (sports cable TV executive Chet Simmons), a landmark marquee player signing (Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker), and, most valuably, national television contracts with broadcaster ABC Sports and upstart cable network ESPN.

In this illuminating episode, Reeths recounts some of the most memorable (and unbelievable) events from the USFL’s subsequent three-season run – and ultimately Pyrrhic antitrust legal victory over the National Football League – including the:

  • Origins of the “Dixon Plan” and its foundational belief in the insatiable fan appetite for pro football beyond the confines of the NFL’s fall schedule;
  • Surprisingly common bond among the league’s deep-pocketed owner-founders, the alarmingly rapid rate with which many bailed after the inaugural season, and the large line of expansion owners ready to replace them;
  • Unwittingly fortuitous 1982 NFL player strike that gave oxygen to the USFL’s challenger narrative;
  • Swift and destabilizing impact of Donald Trump’s arrival to USFL ownership in the summer of 1983 – and the movement towards direct fall competition with the NFL; AND
  • “Successful” restraint-of-trade federal court verdicts that provided way too little, and far too late to save the league from collapse.

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EPISODE #44: Arena Football League Founder Jim Foster - Part Two

We conclude our two-part journey into the early history of the Arena Football League with founder and inventor Jim Foster, who recounts some of the most notable events of the league’s formative years – including a memorable 1987 “demonstration season” featuring:

  • The February debut “Showcase Game” in suburban Chicago’s Rosemont Horizon between the hometown Bruisers and the Miami Vise – highlights of which later dominated ESPN’s SportsCenter;  
  • A return to the Horizon for the first-ever nationally televised league match four months later (after a non-televised inaugural game the night before in Pittsburgh) – an overtime thriller that left fans, ESPN broadcasters, and league officials scrambling for the newly-written rule book;
  • The league’s first “Arena Bowl” championship game (won by the visiting Denver Dynamite) in front of a sold-out Pittsburgh Civic Center and a live national TV audience; AND
  • US patent filings (officially granted in the spring of 1990) protecting the original rules, play and configuration of arena football – and precluding potential competition (like 1989’s almost-World Indoor Football League) from stealing the concept.

Plus: the early dynasty of the Mike Illitch’s Detroit Drive; the holier-than-thou genius of coaching legend Tim Marcum; Des Moines gets a team; what happens when a ball gets stuck in the goalpost during the run of play; and can today's Arena Football League be saved?

Thanks to Audible, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com and Podfly for their support of this week’s show!

EPISODE #43: Arena Football League Founder Jim Foster

As the new year beckons, the fate of the Arena Football League – one of America’s most innovative modern-day professional sports concepts – hangs in the balance.  With only four teams (the mutually-owned Washington Valor and Baltimore Brigade, defending champion Philadelphia Soul, and a still-unnamed Albany, NY squad) confirmed for the upcoming 2018 season, the AFL will play with exactly the same number of franchises that comprised its inaugural “demonstration” season back in 1987 – and a mere fraction of the 19 clubs that competed during its heyday in the early-to-mid 2000s.

Much has happened to the league and the sport during those 30+ years, of course – and few doubt that the unique (and once-patented) excitement of arena football won’t eventually find a sustainable business model and a return to long-term stability. 

In the interim, however, we delve into how it all began, with the first of our two-part interview with Iowa native Jim Foster – the inventor of arena football and the founder of the original Arena Football League – who takes host Tim Hanlon on rollicking excursion across the uncharted sports terrain of the 1970s and 80s that led to both the birth of a sport and the launch of a professional league, including: 

  • Exporting professional American football to Europe decades before the NFL;
  • Discovering fans’ year-long appetite for pro football via the USFL;
  • Scribbling parameters for “indoor football” on a manila envelope while attending the 1981 MISL All-Star Game;
  • Tinkering on a shoestring with facilities, equipment, rules, and approaches to TV broadcast coverage;
  • Tapping into the nostalgia and cost economics of two-way players, as well as the fan appeal of “run-and-shoot” offensive action; AND
  • Defending the notion of centrally-controlled league ownership from franchise-hungry charter owners.

This week’s episode is sponsored by SportsHistoryCollectibles.com , Audible and Podfly.

EPISODE #27: Jim Thorpe’s Oorang Indians with NFL Films’ Chris Willis

At the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, the National Football League was a mere footnote in the American sports scene, when matchups were played on dirt fields by vagabond athletes who would beat up or punch out their opponents for fifty bucks a game.  But one team during that era was different – the Oorang Indians.  Founded by an ambitious dog breeder, comprised only of Native American players, and coached by a national multi-sport superstar (and charter pro football Hall of Famer), the Indians barnstormed their way through the NFL in 1922-23 – becoming an instant hit in virtually every city they played.  NFL historian Chris Willis (Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe, and the Oorang Indians: How a Dog Kennel Owner Created the NFL's Most Famous Traveling Team) joins Tim Hanlon to recount the story of this unique franchise and curious forgotten chapter of professional football history, including:

  • How a publicity-hungry dog kennel owner named Walter Lingo convinced the country’s greatest athlete Jim Thorpe to join him in hatching a pro football team in a league barely two years old;
  • How tiny La Rue, Ohio (population: 747) became (and remains) the smallest town ever to house not only an NFL franchise, but any professional team in any league in the United States;
  • How Lingo used the spectacle of the Olympic-famous Thorpe and his all Native-American squad to help advertise his kennel and sell his pure-bred Airedale Terriers;
  • Why halftime entertainment was more important to Lingo than winning or losing on the field; AND
  • Why players like Long Time Sleep, Joe Little Twig, Baptiste Thunder, and Xavier Downwind never saw NFL action again after the Indians folded in 1924.

Thanks to Podfly and Audible for their sponsorship of this week’s episode!

Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe, and the Oorang Indians: How a Dog Kennel Owner Created the NFL's Most Famous Traveling Team - buy book here

EPISODE #26: The TVS Television Network with Producer/Director Howard Zuckerman

On January 20, 1968, a frenzied crowd of 52,693 packed the Houston Astrodome to witness the #2-ranked University of Houston Cougars nip the #1 (and previously undefeated) UCLA Bruins in a college basketball spectacle that legendarily became the sport’s “Game of the Century.”  In addition to the record-sized gate, it was the first-ever college game to be televised nationally in prime time – and it was sports entrepreneur Eddie Einhorn’s scrappy little independent network of affiliated stations called the TVS Television Network that brought it to millions of TV viewers.  Calling all the shots from the production truck was veteran TV sports director Howard Zuckerman – who quickly became the backbone for the fledgling ad hoc network’s subsequent coverage of not only college hoops, but also two of the most colorful pro sports leagues of the 1970s – the World Football League and the North American Soccer League.  Zuckerman joins host Tim Hanlon to recount some of his most memorable (and forgettable) moments in TVS history, including:

  • Surviving a power outage in the middle of the WFL’s first-ever national telecast from Jacksonville;
  • Managing a motley crew of rotating guest commentators for WFL broadcasts, including the likes of George Plimpton, Burt Reynolds and McLean Stevenson;
  • Hastily reorienting weekly WFL production travel plans as teams suddenly relocated or folded;
  • Faking on-field injuries during NASL telecasts to allow for ad hoc commercial breaks;
  • The origins of the specially-composed TVS theme song and its orchestral big band sound; AND
  • Post-TVS work, including the Canadian Football League’s Las Vegas Posse, and the worldwide music landmark event Live Aid.

Thank you Audible and Podfly for supporting this episode!

Numerous WFL photos courtesy: Richie Franklin's World Football League website - visit here

EPISODE #25: Early Pro Football’s Memphis Tigers with Author Wylie McLallen

The Memphis Tigers professional football team of the late 1920s and early 1930s never played a down in the National Football League, but that didn’t stop them from becoming one of the era’s most successful clubs – including laying a legitimate claim as the sport’s national champions in 1929.  Author/historian Wylie McLallen (Tigers by the River: A True and Accurate Tale of the Early Days of Pro Football) joins Tim Hanlon to discuss the story of the Tigers’ exploits in the Depression Era world of “independent” gridiron competition – as well as the team’s sizable role in helping shape the early years of organized American professional football, including:

  • Becoming one of the first competitive pro squads to emerge from outside the sport’s traditional Northeast and Midwest strongholds;
  • Notching signature 1929 wins over the NFL’s formidable Chicago Bears and previously undefeated champion Green Bay Packers;
  • Declining an offer to subsequently join the NFL in 1930, as team owners struggled to keep the team financially alive;
  • Leveraging their on-field success into forming a challenger (and decidedly Southern) “American Football League” in 1934; AND
  • Succumbing to macroeconomic realities in 1935, but enduring for future generations as the officially designated nickname for the University of Memphis’ athletic teams.

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Tigers by the River: A True and Accurate Tale of the Early Days of Pro Football - buy book here