The Memphis Express are a newly formed pro team residing in the AAF. They are the latest in a long list of pro or semi-pro teams to try and make it here.
This article is not about the Express. What it is about is a look back at the repeated attempts to have a pro football team in Memphis. Not least because, very briefly, one of those teams was in the CFL.
The AAF has had a penchant for setting up teams in previously occupied markets. We have already seen quite a list of teams that used to exist where they have now established franchises in Birmimgham, San Antonio and Orlando.
Memphis is another site chosen by the AAF with a rich heritage of pro football teams that have come and gone.
When the Oilers left Houston Memphis even had a brief unsuccessful flirtation with the NFL.
The impact of college football
We saw in the article on Birmingham it was is in the heart of college football country. Tennesse is also SEC territory. Whilst the Volunteers may not be in the city of Memphis they still represent the state.
There is a lot of tradition for pro football to compete with here. The Vols have played football for 121 seasons, starting in 1891. They have won 16 conference championships and six national titles in their history although their last national championship was in 1998.
The city of Memphis itself hosts NCAA Division I FBS team the Memphis Tigers. There is plenty of football already on offer.
I have found a short list of defunct pro football franchised from Memphis. It is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list so much as a look back at previous franchises in this spot.
There may be more, contact me and tell me if I’ve missed any!
Memphis Southmen/Grizzlies: World Football League
The World Football league had a very brief existence. It was only around in 1974, and 1975. To say it wasn’t a success would be an understatement. Often referred to as “the wiffle”it never really took hold.
Whilst that existence was brief it had a major impact on a dynasty in the senior league. Miami Dolphins fans of a certain era may want to skip this bit!
Southmen or Grizzlies?
Originally they were to be the Toronto Northmen. However then Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau introduced the Canadian Football Act. Effectively the Northmen were barred from competing with the CFL.
So they headed south to Memphis and became the Southmen. A name that did not stick. Even if the team were officially listed that way going into the 1974 season.
Native Memphians disliked Southmen so much the team was informally known as the Memphis Grizzlies. The name seems to have some to come from the team logo showing a stylised bear backed by the sun.
Raiding the Dolphins
The WFL had already pulled off a coup thanks to the Grizzlie’s owner signing Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield from the Miami Dolphins for the 1975 season.
In staggering numbers for the time the players were offered $1.5 million over 3 years for Csonka, the MVP of Super Bowl VIII just two months earlier. $1.0 million over three years for Warfield. And $900,000 over three seasons for Csonka’s backfield partner Jim Kiick.
The Dolphins players still had a year to run on their NFL contracts. The plan was for Csonka, Kiick and Warfield to join Memphis for the WFL’s second season starting in the summer of 1975.
Their last game together in the NFL was the famous sea of hands game where the Dolphins lost to the Raiders and ended a run of Superbowl appearances.
There are Dolphins old timers to this day that will tell you the heart had gone out of the Dolphins when the WFL announced the raiding of its stars.
From a WFL point of view the publicity was tremendous. They even got a Sports Illustrated cover shoot out of it. None of the players ever really produced in a big way in Memphis either.
The Team performance
In 1974 the Southmen’s home opener drew 30,122 fans and they went on to have the league’s best record at 17–3. They lost in the semi-finals to the Florida Blazers, 18–15.
Warning signs that the NFL players had made a mistake jumping ship were clear in 1974. When the Birmingham Americans beat the Blazers to win World Bowl I, sheriff’s deputies interrupted their post-game celebration to confiscate the team’s equipment!
Somehow in 1975 the league returned. Under a new corporation and with new investors alongside a handful of original investors the second season got underway.
Now officially know as the Grizzlies, Memphis made it to 7-4 before the league folded. Danny white quarterbacked the team this season before having a highly respectable career in the NFL.
Following two WFL seasons there was a drive to get into the NFL as an expansion franchise. Over the winter of 1975-6 a season ticket drive saw 40,000 pledges. The NFL weren’t interested and that was that.
Memphis Showboats: USFL
The Memphis Showboats were one of a few USFL teams to develop a steady and loyal following.
The Showboats began as an expansion club for the spring league’s second season in 1984. A Name The Team contest in The Memphis Commercial Appeal saw 21,052 entries. “Showboats” won over “Hound Dogs” and “Mudcats” from the list of three finalists.
The owner of the Shoboats was Logan Young Jr. who was an Alabama Crimson Tide booster owing to a close family friendship with the late Alabama coach Bear Bryant.
Long after the USFL’s demise, Young would earn a federal prison sentence for bribing a high school football coach to steer a star player to Alabama.
That Alabama connection was on show here too. The Showboats offered a $1 million contract to 38-year old former Crimson Tide quarterback Ken Stabler in 1983. They dodged a bullet as Stabler turned them down to stay in the NFL then promptly only played 3 more games.
Easily the most recognisable player to pull on the Showboats jersey was future NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White.
The Showboats went 7-11 in 1984 and 11-7 in 1985. They averaged 27,599 fans at home games in their first year and 30,948 in their second.
Like the Grizzlies in the WFL before them, the Showboats were one of the most viable teams in their league.
The death knell for the league came when a group of owners led by a certain Donald J Trump opted to move to an Autumn schedule and take the NFL head on. Memphis ownership were part of this move as the strong attendances had convinced them they could succeed.
Memphis Mad Dogs: CFL
Fred Smith, the owner of the Mad Dogs really wanted to deliver a pro team to Memphis. He had been part of the ownership group for the Showboats. He was also part of the push for the Memphis Hound Dogs in 1993 that ultimately saw Memphis overlooked in favour of Jacksonville and Carolina.
Once that dream was over Smith turned to the CFL. The league were obviously impressed. Serious consideration was given to selling either the Hamilton Tiger-Cats or Calgary Stampeders to Smith and his group.
However, once they had resolved their ownership situations, Smith’s group was granted an expansion franchise for 1995. The team morphed from the NFL chasing Hound Dogs to the CFL franchise Mad Dogs.
The Mad Dogs hired former Showboats coach Pepper Rodgers. There was a push for continuity as the Mad Dogs also hired the Showboats GM. It was an attempt to follow the Sacramento Gold Miners blueprint. They had built on the previously successful Sacramento Surge.
Bringing in CFL talent
Much of the Mad Dogs approach was based in copying what had gone before. They tried to emulate the Baltimore Stallions by getting staff and players who had previous CFL experience.
The Mad Dogs hired former CFL coach Adam Rita to become their new offensive coordinator. Rita had coached the Toronto Argonauts and the Edmonton Eskimos to Grey Cup championships in 1991 and 1993.
The Mad Dogs also signed veteran QB Damon Allen, who won the Grey Cup with the Eskimos in 1987 and 1993 getting Grey Cup MVP honours on both occasions.
As is often the way this did not lead to an offensive explosion. Instead Memphis had one of the best D’s in the league.
Memphis played at the Liberty Bowl. This really didn’t suit the Canadian game. The stands were very close to the field of play, making it difficult to alter the field to the larger CFL specifications.
AstroTurf cutouts were added to widen and lengthen the field. Even with these adaptations the Liberty Bowl field was still narrower and shorter than all other CFL fields. That included other US fields which were not CFL regulation dimensions either.
Just like the Birmingham Barracudas, the Mad Dogs had a problem with the college football season. They had reasonable attendances during the first two months of the season. The crowds weren’t as large as for the Showboats or Southmen. They were however still comparable to those for the established CFL franchises.
To avoid clashes with the Tennessee games and the local SEC fervour management persuaded the CFL to let the Mad Dogs play late-season games on Sundays, as the ‘Cudas had done.
It was a good idea but not a successful one. Several late season games drew crowds of fewer than 10,000 fans.
Memphis ended the 1995 CFL season with a 9–9–0 regular season record, which placed them fourth in the South Division and one game out of the playoffs.
One bright spot for the team was Tim Cofield winning the James P. McCaffrey Trophy as the Most Outstanding Defensive Player of the South Division.
Having Damon Allen on the team meant that at the time of his retirement the Mad Dogs had had pro football’s all time pass yardage leader on their books. Allen’s record would be superseded by Anthony Calvillo who had himself played for one of the US expansion teams.
Allen still holds the pro football record for most yardage gained passing and rushing combined. He is in enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Due to financial losses and the late-season attendance slide, the Mad Dogs folded at the December 1995 CFL meeting.
The NFL almost came calling
Memphis really tried to attract the NFL. In 1987 Memphis spent $19.5 million refurbishing the Liberty Bowl, expanding bench seating to 62,000 and adding 44 luxury suites. If they were hoping a franchise would come their way they were disappointed as the Cardinals moved to Phoenix.
In 1993 Fred Smith the founder of FedEx and Elvis Presley Enterprises the estate of Elvis tried again.
They pitched the Memphis Hound Dogs against teams from Charlotte, Jacksonville, Baltimore, and St. Louis. Once again they were overlooked.
When the Houston Oilers decided to move it was described by Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews as “an example in how you don’t want to move a franchise. It was a wreck.”
A real saga unfolded that really requires a much deeper read than here. A good place to start would be with this from Yahoo Sports. Suffice to say that the NFL was not all that popular in Memphis following these events.
In 1996 the Oilers Bud Adams was keen to move the Oilers from Houston. Nashville was to be the destination. Property taxes would fund the building of a new stadium. It would not be ready until 1998. Because of that Memphis became involved.
The Liberty Bowl hosted the NFL’s re-named Tennessee Oilers for the 1997 season. The plan was for the Oilers to play two full seasons in Memphis. This could then be used as a springboard to attract the expansion franchise that was to be awarded following the Cleveland Browns relocation.
Unfortunately the Oilers were an attendance disaster in Memphis. The locals had little interest in a team that ultimately ‘belonged’ to another city. Given that the Oilers were being coached by Jeff Fisher it should come as no surprise that they went 8-8 in their lone season in Memphis.
Memphis Pharaohs: Arena Football League
The Memphis Pharaohs played two seasons in the Arena Football League, their first concurrent with the Mad Dogs, in 1995 and again in 1996.
The Pharaohs were the first pro sports franchise to play in the Pyramid Arena. The Arena cost a staggering $62 million dollars in 1991. it closed its doors 15 years later.
The team joined the AFL in October 1995 as an expansion club, becoming the league’s 15th franchise.
The Pharaohs went 6-6 and took the 8th seed in the 1995 playoffs. They then lost to the eventual Arena Bowl champion Tampa Bay Storm 53-41 in the quarterfinal round.
In 1996 the Pharaohs turned over their entire roster. They brought in a large number of newcomers with little indoor experience. They promptly went 0-14 and attendance fell to 5,245 per game. The 96 Memphis Pharaohs are widely considered one of the worst teams ever seen in the Arena Football League.
Following the season the team relocated to Portland Oregon.
Memphis Maniax: XFL
With the XFL relaunching and marketing XFL2020 it is interesting to look back at a team from the lone previous XFL season.
It is thought that ‘NBC and the WWF both lost $35 million on their $100 million investment in the league’s inaugural season.’ So launching again is certainly a bold move.
The Maniax were the fourth professional football team to play in Memphis’ Liberty Bowl.
Memphis’ best known players were the 1994 Heisman Trophy-winner running back Rashaan Salaam and former Virginia Tech quarterback Jim Druckenmiller. Both were first round draft picks in the NFL. However the fact they were playing in the XFL tells you how that went.
In a terribly sad footnote, Salaam died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on December 5, 2016. He was 42 years old.
The Maniax finished the only year of XFL play – 2001 at 5-5 and out of the playoffs.
Memphis Xplorers: AF2
The Xplorers played in AF2, a developmental league for Arena Football. The league ran from 2000 to 2009. They were a 2001 expansion member of the league and played from 2001-2006.
Over their six seasons the Xplorers went 52-50 with the high point coming in 2005 when they won Arena Cup VI 63-41 against Louisville.
There were plans to bring the team back in 2009 with a new name – the Midsouth Mafia but this never happened.
Banner image from the USFL photo archive on NFL.com
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