The Sacramento Gold Miners: A franchise of firsts

The Sacramento Gold Miners: A franchise of firsts
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The Sacramento Gold Miners were a franchise of firsts in the CFL in the early 1990’s.

This was all part of an American expansion plan masterminded by then CFL commissioner Larry Smith. He had a vision of a multi-site North American CFL with teams in the USA and Canada.

As we are back to a nine team league consisting solely of Canadian based teams, we can say that didn’t really work out. However this is a period looked back on fondly by fans.

But why are we calling the Gold Miners a franchise of fists? Well….

The Gold Miners were the first American team to play in the CFL. They were also the first American team to host a game against a CFL team. (A game the lost 38-36 to the Calgary Stampeders on the 17th July 1993). Finally they were the first American team to win a CFL league game. (A game in which they defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders 37-26 on the 24th July 1993.)

They were far from the first American team to play a CFL team. There had been a series of international fixtures running from the 1940’s to the 1960’s where American and CFL teams had clashed. But they were the first American team to compete and win as a league member.

Switching from Surge to Gold Miners

Before the Gold Miners Sacramento had the Surge. Image from worthpoint.com

The Sacramento Gold Miners were built from the former World League of American Football (WLAF) franchise, the Sacramento Surge. The surge existed for 2 years, playing 2 seasons, from 1991-1992. They had been a charter member of the WLAF.

That team that had posted an 11-9 record, finishing 1992 8-2 and going on to win the 1992 World Bowl.  A game played in Canada, at the home of the Montreal Machine.

For many the Gold Miners were a continuation of the Surge as some of the personnel of the WLAF franchise moved into the CFL. Meaning there was another first here. Because the Surge were the first and only American team to win the World Bowl, (the WLAF and later NFL Europe championship game).

The First Gold Miners Season

The Gold Miners adopted much of the look & colour scheme from the Sacramento Surge. Image from football-aktuell.de

In 1993, as we have noted, the Gold Miners became the first US based franchise in CFL history.

Built out of the World Bowl champion Surge, owner Fred Anderson kept the same team colours. He also retained the same Head Coach (Kay Stephenson), and some notable players.

That season they came bottom of their Division. But 6-10 was no disgrace for an expansion team and they showed flashes. Sacramento’s 1993 average attendance of 16,979 fans per game was the lowest in the 9-team CFL however and that was a worry.

Some talent on the roster

There was some talent on that 1993 Gold Miners team. Among the players on the Gold Miners roster were QB David Archer, WR Carl Parker, and running backs Mike Oliphant & Mike Pringle.

Archer was a revelation in the CFL. In the Gold Miners’ debut 1993 year he threw for 6,023 yards, still the fifth most in any CFL season. That year he went 403 of 701 for 6,023 yards & 35 touchdowns.

In a five year career in the CFL he completed 1,388 of 2,434 passes (57%) for 20,671 yards with 120 touchdown passes.

Mike Oliphant led the CFL in yards from scrimmage (1,572) that year. But it was his backfield partner who would leave much more of a mark on the league.

With the Gold Miners, Pringle appeared in all 18 games and was used more as a receiver out of the backfield than a runner. He carried the ball only 60 times for 368 yards, but caught the ball 56 times for 523 yards.

Pringle would go on to a Hall of Fame career, becoming the leagues’ all time leading rusher. Pringle’s best season was an amazing 2,065 yards rushing on 347 carries in 1998. That made him one of a select group of pro football running backs with a 2000 yard season under their belt.

Mike Pringle was a 3 time Grey Cup Champion. He won in 2002 & 2003 with the Montreal Alouettes. But his first came with the 15 win team 1995 Baltimore Stallions. A place he had landed in 1994 in a trade from Sacramento. He had a breakout season running for 1,972 yards.and a 6.4 yard average, followed by running for 1,791 yards in the Grey Cup winning year.

The Second Gold Miners Season

The ’94 season saw the Gold Miners joined by US based franchises in Baltimore, Las Vegas and Shreveport.

1994 saw star QB Archer limited to 12 games due to injury. He still managed to complete 210 of 390 passes covering 3,340 yards and 21 TD’s however.

This time they finished fifth in a six team West Division following a 9-8-1 season.

Sacramento’s 1994 average attendance of 14,226 was 11th in the league, stronger only than the disaster happening for the Las Vegas Posse.

The Gold Miners had shown improvement and gone 15-18-1 over two CFL seasons in Sacramento. Despite early optimism however heavy financial losses and stadium issues led to the Gold Miners moving on.

The San Antonio Connection

The San Antonio Riders had played alongside Sacramento (in the form of the Surge) in the WLAF in 1991 and 1992. An 11-9 regular season record matched the Surge. However their 7-3 record did not get them into the playoffs in 1992.

Following the NFL owners decision to shutter the WLAF after two seasons, both Sacramento and San Antonio had applied to the CFL to join their US expansion in 1993.

Despite the fact that San Antonio has a storied history of non-NFL football at the last minute the owners backed out. In 1993 the San Antonio Texans were not to be.

The Texans name was going to be a compromise as the Riders were to change names to the San Antonio Texans as the Roughriders (Saskatchewan) and Rough Riders (Ottawa) already existed in the CFL.

However all of these connections would come to the fore again in 1995 when the Gold Miners moved to San Antonio. They became the first, and so far only US franchise to play a third season in the CFL.

The Gold Miners become the Texans

The re-brand – the Gold Miners become the Sana Antonio Texans. Helmet image from worthpoint.com

In 1995 the Gold Miners moved out of Sacramento and headed to San Antonio. The new Alamodome was a much better home for the team. Plus, they were much geographically closer to the other American CFL teams now.

This time the team were one of five US based franchises playing in the South Division. They would have their best season as a CFL franchise recording a 12-6 year. 8 wins in their last 9 games saw them recover from a 4-5 start.

They signed David Archer once more (he had been a Free Agent heading into the ’95 season), and he had his most efficient season in the CFL yet. This time Archer completed 61% of his passes for 4,471 yards for 30 TD’s against only 8 picks.

In fact, built around Archer, the O was tremendous. The Texans scored 630 points & averaged 35 points a game, second best in the league.

On November 5th, 1995 the Texans won the South Division Semi-Final beating the 10-8 Birmingham Barracudas 52-9. Just over 13,000 fans were in the Alamodome to see the Texans last home game.

The following week the Texans travelled to Baltimore for the South Division final against the division champion Baltimore Stallions. The Stallions knocked off San Antonio 21-11 before 30,217 fans in Baltimore.

The franchise of firsts found themselves having played in the last CFL league game played in America.

The end of the Gold Miners/Texans

Despite consistent improvement on the field, a move from Sacramento to San Antonio had not seen an improvement in fortunes off the field.

The Texans still struggled with attendance. They averaged 15,855 for nine regular season home games, which ranked 11th among the CFL’s 13 franchises in 1995.

Owner Fred Anderson lost an estimated $14 million over three CFL seasons in Sacramento and San Antonio but had been prepared to invest again. However illness intervened, and after three years the CFL wound up the US expansion experiment too.

There is an argument to be made that the US franchise expansion fees kept the CFL afloat in a time of need.

It is a time looked back on with great interest. An interest generated by the US teams – and the Sacramento Gold Miners were the first among them.

If you want to know more about this fun, crazy period in CFL history I would recommend starting with the book End Zones & Border Wars which is full of wonderful details.

Banner image from flickr

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