EPISODE #113: The Alliance of American Football – With Conor Orr

Just weeks after its sudden collapse, we take our first look at the brief life of the Alliance of American Football with Sports Illustrated football writer and MMQB NFL podcast host Conor Orr (The Curious Rise and Spectacular Crash of the Alliance of American Football; More Strange Tales from the Collapse of the AAF).

Inspired by his work producing the 2017 documentary This Was the XFL for ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series, director Charlie Ebersol concluded that the renegade league co-created by his father (NBC Sports producer Dick) and World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) impresario Vince McMahon in 2001 had actually been a viable concept, but poorly executed – especially the subpar quality of on-field play. 

After reportedly being rebuffed by McMahon to potentially revive the old XFL brand, Ebersol instead dove into planning for his nascent AAF – with the prime focus on solid football product; the “Alliance” formally announced its launch on March 20, 2018, and by June had more than 100 players under contract.

What followed was months of methodical and seemingly well-conceived efforts to: construct a solid football operations infrastructure under veteran NFL executive Bill Polian (including top coaches like Steve Spurrier, Rick Neuheisel and Dennis Erickson); solicit investment from (supposedly) stable deep-pocketed investors (such as player-turned-entrepreneur-turned-NFL-owner Reggie Fowler); develop business-enhancing media, data and wagering technology to augment on-field play; and even devise evolved rules to speed up games and improve player safety.

The AAF made its debut with two simultaneous Saturday evening games in San Antonio and Orlando on February 11, 2019 in front of a surprisingly large CBS national primetime TV audience – but the league’s operational wheels started coming off almost immediately.  Chief among the issues: a Week One cash call that investor Fowler couldn’t cover, and a hastily-arranged $250MM majority equity investment from NHL Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon – who quickly concluded that operational finances were dangerously unstable, and likely unsustainable.

After weeks of maneuvering, Dundon pulled the plug on further funding his pledge (rumored as only $70MM of the promised amount), announcing the suspension of the league’s operations on April 2nd – just two weeks shy of completing the regular season.  15 days later, the AAF filed for Chapter 7 (liquidation) bankruptcy.

SI’s Orr walks host Tim Hanlon through the league’s chronology, the facts as we know them today, and what’s likely to come in the months ahead as the story of the AAF continues to play out.

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EPISODE #111: Pro Football’s “League That Didn’t Exist” – With Gary Webster

WKKY-FM radio personality and sports author Gary Webster (The League That Didn’t Exist) helps us return to the curious story of the All-America Football Conference – the well-funded upstart that competed directly with the NFL in the late 1940s for supremacy of the still-fledgling sport of US pro football.

After being rebuffed by the NFL to expand, influential Chicago Tribune sports editor (and baseball and college football All-Star Games’ creator) Arch Ward recruited a who’s who of wealthy businessmen to help form a rival second league that he hoped would ultimately play the senior circuit in an annual championship game similar to the World Series. 

Post-war peace produced a surplus of talent, and the AAFC attracted many of the nation’s best players to its eight inaugural teams in 1946 – including more than three dozen College All-Star Game participants, two Heisman Trophy winners and over 100 players with NFL experience. 

With commercial air travel increasingly viable, the enterprising AAFC placed franchises in burgeoning markets outside of the NFL’s traditional Northeast and Midwest footprint (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami); it also chose larger stadiums in established NFL markets (Chicago, New York, Cleveland) to compete head on.

Despite the NFL’s publicly dismissive tone, the AAFC quickly established itself as a formidable threat – drawing huge crowds and generating significant national publicity.  The quality of play was high (15 AAFC alumni were eventually inducted into pro football’s Hall of Fame), and innovations such as a 14-game double round-robin schedule, zone defenses, and racial integration quickly proved popular and ultimately, long-lasting. 

By 1949, however, nearly every team in both leagues was losing money, as increased competition for players drove salaries higher, while average attendances declined.  By season’s end, the NFL agreed to absorb three AAFC franchises (Cleveland, San Francisco and Baltimore) for 1950; the combined and briefly renamed “National–American Football League” was set – and the AAFC was no more.

Webster joins host Tim Hanlon to recount some of the more notable events during the AAFC’s brief, but impactful history – as well as the befuddling refusal of the modern-day NFL to recognize the statistics and lasting contributions of the All-America Football Conference, despite the continued existence of two of its original franchises (the Browns and the 49ers) today.

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EPISODE #110: Cleveland’s Historic League Park – With Ken Krsolovic

Author Ken Krsolovic (League Park: Historic Home of Cleveland Baseball, 1891-1946) joins the podcast to go deep into the history and legacy of Cleveland’s first major league sports stadium.

Originally built for the National League’s Cleveland Spiders, team owner Frank Robison strategically built the wood-constructed League Park at the corner of Lexington Avenue and Dunham (now East 66th) Street in the city’s Hough neighborhood, where the streetcar line he owned conveniently stopped.  It debuted on 5/1/1891 with a Spiders 12-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, with the legendary Cy Young throwing the first pitch.  Despite being competitive during the decade (including a Temple Cup in 1895), the Spiders drew poorly, leading Robison to ship his best players to his new fledgling St. Louis Browns franchise in 1899 – and the Spiders to on-field (20-134) and off-field (6,088 fans for the season) collapse.

After a year of minor league play, League Park became the home of the Cleveland Bluebirds (aka Blues) of the new “major” American League in 1901 – the team that would ultimately evolve (1902: Broncos; 1903-14: Naps) into today’s Cleveland Indians.  The park was rebuilt in 1910 as a then-state-of-the-art concrete-and-steel stadium, debuting on 4/21/1910 (a 5-0 Naps loss to the Detroit Tigers before 18,832) – a game also started by Cy Young.

Though the Indians were League Park’s primary team, they were not the only tenants over the stadium’s later decades.  In 1914-15, the Naps/Indians shared the stadium with the minor league Cleveland Bearcats/Spiders (actually, the temporarily relocated minor league Toledo Mud Hens) to discourage the upstart Federal League from placing a franchise in Cleveland.  The Negro American League’s Cleveland Buckeyes held court at the park during much of the 1940s – including a Negro World Series title in 1945. 

And the fledgling sport of professional football also called League Park home during the NFL’s formative 1920s in the forms of the Cleveland Tigers (1920-22), Indians (1923), Bulldogs (1924-27) – and most famously with the Cleveland Rams of the late 1930s/early 1940s.

Like the Rams, the baseball Indians began moonlighting games and eventually full seasons with the larger, more modern (and lighted) Municipal Stadium during the WWII and post-war eras – ultimately sealing the venerable League Park’s fate by 1946. 

After years of neglect and urbanization, a modern restoration of League Park and its original ticket house was completed in 2014, where fans can now play on the original field where Cleveland’s pro players once roamed.

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EPISODE #105: The World Football League’s Detroit Wheels – With Mark Speck

In a league uniquely rich in comic misadventures and financial disasters, perhaps no one franchise from the World Football League’s inaugural 1974 season stood out more for its own brand of woeful ineptitude than the Detroit Wheels.

Saddled from inception by an unwieldy ownership group of 33 different founding investors – including Motown Records superstar Marvin Gaye and Little Caesar’s Pizza founder (and budding Detroit pro sports patron) Mike Illitch – the Wheels’ front office featured neither cohesive management nor adequate funding to cover even the most basic of operating expenses, let alone a realistic budget from which to field a competitive team.

Unwilling to spend more than $10,000 per player, management unwittingly took the club out of contention for most of the NFL and CFL veterans flocking to other WFL franchises, while securing only three signings from its 33 picks in the league's college draft.  In pre-season desperation, the Wheels even advertised an open tryout that drew over 600 hopefuls, yet produced none good enough to make the roster.  As training camp progressed at Eastern Michigan University, one owner even suggested that the team move the players into tents in a nearby public park to help cut costs.

Worse still, the Wheels couldn’t secure a lease at either Detroit’s downtown Tiger Stadium or Ann Arbor’s (University of) Michigan Stadium – having to settle instead for Eastern Michigan’s Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti, 35 miles and full hour’s drive outside of the city.   Unsurprisingly, the team averaged just 11,264 fans across five-ever home games, save for a relocated sixth match played in even further-distant London, Ontario, Canada before an assemblage of barely 5,000.

Not that there was much to cheer for anyway.  The Wheels lost their first ten games of the season, winning only once (a 15-14 away squeaker at the then-league-leading Florida Blazers in Orlando on September 11, 1974), before dropping their next three to fall to a WFL-worst 1-13 record.  By October 10th, creditors and the league had had enough, and the Wheels folded into oblivion – six games short of completing their first and only season.

WFL researcher Mark Speck (Nothing but a Brand-New Set of Flat Tires: The Sad, Sorry Saga of the 1974 Detroit Wheels of the World Football League) returns to the show to fill in the rest of the details!

Be sure to visit our sponsors OldSchoolShirts.com, Streaker Sports, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, and 503 Sports for great World Football League garb and gear!

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

EPISODE #102: The World Football League’s Florida Blazers – With Mark Speck

World Football League researcher extraordinaire Mark Speck (And a Dollar Short: The Empty Promises, Broken Dreams, and Somewhat-Less-Than-Comic Misadventures of the 1974 Florida Blazers) returns to the podcast to discuss the incredible story of Orlando’s first professional sports franchise – and the crazy challenger football league that hastened both its creation and demise.

The Florida Blazers actually originated in late 1973 as the Washington Ambassadors, one of the originally-envisioned charter WFL teams to begin play the next summer.  From the outset, franchise owner/oceanographic engineer Joseph Wheeler had difficulties raising financing and securing a lease for DC’s RFK Stadium – and by March, had moved the team to nearby Norfolk, VA – with no better luck.    

Hastened by a nervous WFL Commissioner Gary Davidson, Wheeler sold the club in May of 1974 – a mere two months before the start of the season – to an Orlando, FL syndicate led by former New England Patriots player and executive Rommie Loudd, which had just lost (to Tampa Bay) a bid to get an NFL expansion team. 

Quickly setting up shop in a small and rickety Tangerine Bowl, the newly rechristened Blazers finally got their act together (at least on the field) with a surprising array of veteran (ex-Jets Bob Davis and Larry Grantham) and rookie (eventual league co-MVP Tommy Reamon) talent assembled by NFL star coach Jack Pardee – who rose to the league’s elite and ultimately to the World Bowl championship game. 

Incredibly, off the field, the franchise was a financial disaster – riddled with poor attendance, non-existent marketing, inadequate financing, unpaid bills (and players) – and an owner who ultimately would up in jail for tax embezzlement and narcotics trafficking.

And we’re only scratching the surface!

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

EPISODE #101: New York Yankees Broadcaster John Sterling

Legendary New York Yankees baseball play-by-play man John Sterling joins host Tim Hanlon for a cavalcade of career memories from his 50+ year journey in sports broadcasting – including a treasure trove of stops along the way with previously incarnated or otherwise defunct teams (and leagues).

Now celebrating his 30th consecutive season with the Bronx Bombers, Sterling’s unique vocal stylings have become synonymous with some of the Yankees’ most signature moments during that time – including the team’s dominant run of American League and World Series championships across the late 1990s and much of the 2000s. 

The path to becoming one of baseball’s marquee team broadcasters was far from direct, however, and we (naturally) obsess over some of Sterling’s more memorable “forgotten” gigs along the way, including:

  • Falling into radio play-by-play with the NBA Baltimore Bullets as a late fill-in for Jim Karvellas;

  • Becoming the almost-voice of the ABA Washington Caps (until a hasty move to Virginia to become the Squires);

  • Hustling to secure radio rights to the upstart WHA New York Raiders for Gotham’s talk powerhouse WMCA - and the irony of later calling games for the NHL Islanders;

  • The highs of the ABA New York, and lows of the NBA New Jersey Nets;

  • “Phoning it in” for the World Football League’s short-lived New York Stars; AND

  • The ahead-of-its-time Enterprise Sports Radio Network.

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Classic John Sterling audio clips courtesy of Eric Paddon; follow him on YouTube here

EPISODE #100: WHA Hockey’s New England Whalers – With Former Owner Howard Baldwin

We celebrate our 100th(!) episode with one of the founding owners of the pioneering World Hockey Association – and the man ultimately responsible for the absorption of four its teams into the NHL in the “don’t-call-it-a-merger” of 1979. 

Hollywood film producer and original New England Whalers founder/owner Howard Baldwin (Slim and None: My Wild Ride from the WHA to the NHL and All the Way to Hollywood) joins host Tim Hanlon for a rollicking ride through the modest beginnings, death-defying life, and lasting aftermath of pro hockey’s paradigm-transforming challenger league – as well as the tortuous journey of the only US-based franchise to survive the consolidation.

Come for Baldwin’s hard-to-believe stories of the Whalers and the WHA, like:

  • Winning the Avco Cup championship in the team’s (and league’s) very first (1972-73) season, despite being fourth in line for Boston Garden home dates behind the Bruins, Celtics and even the AHL Braves;

  • The courtship-turned-love-affair between the Whalers and the city of Hartford that led to the club’s relocation to the WHA’s (and ultimately NHL’s) smallest TV market in 1974; AND

  • Doubling as league president with the sole purpose of effecting a merger with NHL.

But also stay for tales of Baldwin’s incredible WHA after-life, including:

  • Riding into the 1980s with the NHL’s “Hartford” Whalers;

  • The curious interconnection between the Minnesota North Stars and the San Jose Sharks;

  • Winning the 1992 Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but losing the franchise to bankruptcy six years later; AND

  • Segueing into life as an Academy Award-winning Hollywood film producer.

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EPISODE #98: The Original XFL – With Brett Forrest

As another NFL season closes, we shift gears toward the forthcoming Alliance of American Football – the first of two new leagues attempting to again extend the pro game into viable Spring season play – where the USFL, World League of American Football and NFL Europe have famously tried before. 

The other – both in 2001 and in a reincarnated form coming next year – was and is the XFL, which we finally sink our teeth into for the first time this week with Wall Street Journal national security reporter Brett Forrest (Long Bomb: How the XFL Became TV's Biggest Fiasco).

We drop this episode on the 18th anniversary of when the audacious joint venture between the Vince McMahon-helmed World Wresting Federation (now WWE) and the Dick Ebersol-captained NBC Sports opened play at a raucous Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas to see the hometown Outlaws battle the already-villainous New York/New Jersey Hitmen in front of a national primetime television audience.

Nearly two decades later, most who witnessed it (not to mention the tumultuous season that followed) still don’t know what to make of it.

Forrest digs into: the process of tackling his then-first-ever book assignment with Long Bomb (including the pre-season magazine article from which it came); some of the curious characters (the seemingly-legitimizing presence of Dick Butkus, the unwitting marketing genius of Rod “He Hate Me” Smart, the hungry group of eager players simply wanting one last shot at playing pro football) he encountered along the way; and the less-than-enthusiastic response of McMahon to the idea of a book about the league in the first place.

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EPISODE #97: Pro Football’s Dynastic Cleveland Browns – With Andy Piascik

Win or lose in next week’s Super Bowl LIII, the five-time NFL champion New England Patriots are already guaranteed a spot in the annals of pro football history as one of the sport’s most dominant teams – especially when viewed through the truncated lens of the last two decades.

That said, a legion of successful clubs over the league’s prior eight decades – such as the Green Bay Packers of 1929-44 (and much of the 1960s); the 1981-98 San Francisco 49ers; the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers; the 1990s Dallas Cowboys; and the early 1970s Miami Dolphins – can legitimately claim the right to be included in the discussion of football dynasties, when normalized across the competitive realities of their respective eras.

Author Andy Piascik (The Best Show in Football: The 1946–1955 Cleveland Browns – Pro Football's Greatest Dynasty) joins host Tim Hanlon this week to detail how one of those teams – the Cleveland Browns of the late 1940s upstart All-America Football Conference and then early 1950s NFL – might just possibly be the proverbial “greatest” of all time, all things being equal.

The Browns were the only champion the well-funded, big-league challenger AAFC ever had in its four-season post-WWII run, and quickly made their prowess known to the pro football establishment in 1950 when they soundly defeated the NFL’s defending champion Philadelphia Eagles in the newly merged league’s opening game – and then proceeded to steamroll their way to the title later that season, as well as consecutive title game appearances (winning the last two) through 1954.

In the decade spanning 1946-55, the Browns – headed by legendary coach Paul Brown, and joined by no fewer than nine future Pro Football Hall of Famers (Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Bill Willis, Frank Gatski, Len Ford, Doug Atkins and Mike McCormack) – amassed a better record (105-17-4) and won more championships (seven) than any team in pro football history.

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EPISODE #90: The National Football League’s Origin (and Survival) Story – With John Eisenberg

Episode #86 guest John Eisenberg (Ten-Gallon War: The NFL’s Cowboys, the AFL’s Texans, and the Feud for Dallas’s Pro Football Future) returns, this time to guide us through the fascinating formative years of the National Football League – and the five now-legendary figures responsible for nurturing its development through tumultuous times and an often-uncertain future into what is now America’s most popular sport.

In his new book The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire, Eisenberg highlights the individual dedication and collective conviction of Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney, Chicago’s George Halas, New York’s Tim Mara, Washington’s George Preston Marshall, and Philadelphia’s Bert Bell to risk everything in building and growing the game of professional football.

Originally formed (as the “American Professional Football Association”) at a time (1920) when the sport barely registered on the national scene (baseball, boxing, horse racing, and even the college version of the game all rated higher in fan appeal) – the circuit (renamed the National Football League two seasons later) injected structure and integrity into the sport, on the shared belief that a viable professional business was both possible and inevitable.

Fending off existential threats from a constant stream of challengers – including the better-funded All-American Football Conference (AAFC) of the late 1940s and American Football League (AFL) of the early 1960s – the five owners ultimately succeeded by repeatedly sacrificing short-term success of their respective teams for the longer-term good of the NFL as a whole.

The story of the NFL’s rise to the top of America’s pro sports landscape is one of not only historical significance but also of methodical – and sometimes, just plain lucky – business ingenuity.

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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 a 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.

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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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Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula and the Rise of the Modern NFL - buy here

    

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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.  

Thanks to MyBookie, OldSchoolShirts.com, Audible, and SportsHistoryCollectibles.com for sponsoring this week’s episode!

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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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