Memphis Mad Dogs: A CFL one season wonder
The Memphis Mad Dogs were a one season wonder in the CFL. Existing for one year alone back in 1995. 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, it is a period looked back on with some fondness by CFL fans. We have previously looked at the first US expansion team, the Sacramento Gold Miners. As well as Las Vegas’ previous pro football incarnation the Posse, and the most successful US expansion team the league saw, the Baltimore Stallions. Now I thought it might be fun to recall a team that lasted one year and went .500 – the Memphis Mad Dogs.
Mad Dogs arrive in the CFL
Memphis were born into the third and final season of the US expansion period, in 1995. To start that season the CFL added the Mad Dogs in Memphis and the Barracudas in Birmnigham. At the same time they transferred Sacamento to San Antonio, and continued with teams in Shreveport and Baltimore (who had contested the previous Grey Cup). These teams were grouped in the ‘South Division’ whilst the Canadian teams were in the ‘North’.
Memphis looked to be on a good footing in terms of ownership. Headed up as they were by Fred Smith of FedEx. And they made some good moves, bringing in Damon Allen at QB, and having Adam Rita on the coaching staff for example.
Head Coach meanwhile was a man with buckets of experience. But not of the CFL. Franklin Cullen “Pepper” Rodgers had a long coaching career in the college game. Plus, he had coached the Memphis Showboats in the original USFL, so you could see why they might sign him. But he never really got to grips with the 3 Down game or its rules. Not to mention decrying the idea of selling the Mad Dogs and the league in Memphis stating, “Half the People Here Couldn’t Even Spell Saskatchewan”. Not exactly ideal.
Grounds for despair
Memphis had brought in some good players, yet they were the lowest scoring team in the league. A lot of that was down to the field they played on.
The Mad Dogs played at the Liberty Bowl. At this time the capacity was 62,921. Which was way too big for the crowds they were getting.
The Liberty Bowl was not built for the three down game. A fact exacerbated by the stands being very close to the field of play, making it difficult to reconfigure the field to CFL standards. The field was narrower than other CFL fields, and far from regulation.
The end zones were half-grass/half-Astroturf pentagons that were only nine yards long in the middle and seven yards long at the sidelines. For context a CFL end zone is meant to be 20 yards deep.
The CFL should be an excinting, wide open game. But the Liberty Bowl restricted the playing area and favoured the D.
The thing is, this isn’t the NFL
One of the problems for the Mad Dogs was that they were seen as a bit of a consolation prize. Fred Smith had been part of a group of investors, led by former Memphis Showboats owner Billy Dunavant, that tried to bring an NFL expansion franchise to Memphis in 1993.
They were vying for the Memphis Hound Dogs, (so named because the Elvis Presley Estate was part of the investor group making the bid), but they lost out to Charlotte and Jacksonville as the NFL went with the Panthers and Jaguars.
So announcing the Mad Dogs CFL arrival in the wake of missing out on an NFL team made them feel like a consolation prize. Not a great way to pull in the fans.
Not enough Mad Dogs fans in the stands
The Mad Dogs debuted at the Liberty Bowl on July the 7th, 1995, losing their second game of the season 31-13 to the British Columbia Lions falling to 0-2. More concerning however was the fact that just 14,278 were in the stands. Making the Bowl look cavernous.
By week three they got their first win, but this time in front of even less fans in Memphis with 11,748 on hand. Three straight wins going into their sixth game with a 3-2 record saw them host the Toronto Argonauts with their biggest crowd of the season, 20,183.
By season’s end however with college and high school football in full swing they were drawing as little as 7,830 when hosting Birmingham.
They had tried to play late season games on a Sunday so as not to go up against local college teams. But the NFL draw was still too big, even when there was no NFL team in the region.
The Memphi Mad Dogs depart
Due to losses said to be between anywhere from $3 million to $6 million, and the poor attendances, Fred Smith folded the team after one year.
The CFL had adopted the marketing slogan, “Longer, Wider, Faster” to appeal to the American football market in the US. Due to the dimensions of the Liberty Bowl, the Mad Dogs perhaps delivered on this the least in their brief one year existence. For all that they finished 9-9 and were able to compete.
They also managed to leave a mark too. Some players had a great season in Memphis colours. Defensive End Tim Cofield was named a CFL All-Star. Following a season in which he registered 24 sacks he was also runner up for Defensive MOP award.
You can also find players linked to the Memphis Mad Dogs in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
CFL legends on the Mad Dogs team
The Mad Dogs were not without talent. Indeed, amongst their ranks were three future Canadian Football Hall of Fame members. They may not have had the best year of their career in Memphis – but each of these former Mad Dogs carved out an impressive career in the CFL.
Damon Allen – QB
By the time 1995 rolled around Allen had been in the league for over a decade. Ten years in the league had seen him play for three different teams. So far over half of his time had been spent with Edmonton. And he had picked up 2 championships with them.
In 95 however he signed with the Memphis Mad Dogs expansion franchise. Allen had a pretty pedestrian season in Memphis. A large part of this may be attributable to the fact that the Mad Dogs field was not properly laid out to CFL standards due to a lack of space.
After this he would spend seven successful seasons in BC before finishing his career as a Toronto Argonaut and retiring as a 4 time Grey Cup champion. At the time of his retirement in 2008, Damon Allen was Pro-Football’s All-Time Passing Leader with 72,381 yards, as well as holding the CFL record for All-Time Rushing Yards by a Quarterback with 11, 914 yards and CFL passing TD record at 394.
Some of his records have been surpassed. But that shouldn’t take away from a fantastic career. His CFHOF bio is here.
Greg Battle – LB
Greg Battle was a truly outstanding defensive player. He had a 12 year CFL career that stretched from 1987 to 1998 and that took in two Outstanding Defensive Player awards (1990 and 1991).
Battle stayed with the Bombers for 7 years from 1987 to 1993. They were his best years. Especially from 1989 to 1991 in which he was runner-up as well as being a two time winner of the Outstanding Defensive Player in the CFL.
Battle actually suited up for two of the expansion teams. This happened because he signed as a free agent with the expansion Las Vegas Posse in 1994. However, he was traded partway through the season to the Ottawa Rough Riders. As a free agent again in 1995, Battle returned south of the border to sign with the expansion Memphis Mad Dogs. With who he had a career high 6 interceptions.
His CFHOF bio is here.
Rodney Harding – DT
Harding was one of the top defensive linemen in the CFL from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s. He had spent a decade (1985-1994) with the Toronto Argonauts. In those 10 years, Harding received Eastern All-Star status 5 times and in the latter two years was also voted All-Canadian.
In 1995 he became a Free Agent and signed with the Memphis Mad Dogs. He kept up his performance levels being nominated Southern Division All-Star that year. The Calgary Stampeders picked him up for the 1996 season in the dispersal draft. He responded, in his final year, by picking up another Division All-Star award.
At the time of his retirement he was one of the top 10 all-time CFL sack leaders.
His CFHOF bio is here.
Banner Image: A Memphis Mad Dogs player in helmet. Image from helmethistory.com