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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The League That Didn’t Exist: A History of the All-America Football Conference - buy here

Chicago Rockets and Chicago Hornets classic AAFC T-shirts by OldSchoolShirts.com - buy here

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.

Thank you MyBookie, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, OldSchoolShirts.com, 503 Sports, and Audible for their sponsorship!

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

    

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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 #18: Pro Football Historian Ken Crippen & the All-America Football Conference

Pro Football Researchers’ Association president Ken Crippen (The Original Buffalo Bills: A History of the All-America Football Conference Team; The All-America Football Conference: Players, Coaches, Records, Games & Awards) joins Tim Hanlon to discuss the upstart pro football circuit that gave the war-weary NFL a formidable challenge in the late 1940s.  Crippen describes:

  • How a newspaper sportswriter from Chicago convinced big money investors spurned by the NFL to start a directly competitive alternative league;
  • The NFL’s public attempts to minimize the credibility, yet private efforts to contain the success of the AAFC;
  • The head-to-head battles between the leagues to dominate pro football in markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Cleveland;
  • The immediate dominance and innovative approach of Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns, who many felt were the best team across both leagues;
  • Why the Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts were ultimately absorbed by the NFL, but the Buffalo Bills weren’t; AND
  • The controversy among football historians around why the AAFC’s game records are still not “official” in the eyes of the NFL, despite being recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Thank you Audible for sponsoring this week’s episode!

The All-America Football Conference: Players, Coaches, Records, Games & Awards - pre-order book here

The Original Buffalo Bills: A History of the All-America Football Conference Team - buy book here