Nine years before the United States Football League brought pro tackle football to the spring – and 17 years before the NFL unveiled the World League of American Football – Bill Caruso had a terrific idea.
It was ahead of its time, although the timing, as it turned out, was all wrong.
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With minor league football teams scattered across the country and receiving little if any publicity competing against the NFL and NCAA in the fall, Caruso in 1974 proposed the All-American Football League. It would consolidate all the top minor league teams and – more importantly – the schedules would shift to the spring.
Caruso was a plumbing executive who had worked with the Atlantic Coast Football League in 1970, the last year NFL teams had working relationships with minor league clubs.
That arrangement created conflict since only 12 NFL teams had access to second tier circuits, so the big league’s competition committee dissolved the limited farm system.
But Caruso’s confederation would solve that problem because there would be plenty of minor league squads to go around.
An organizational meeting with 34 team owners was held in New Jersey on October 27. Representatives from the Seaboard Coast, Mid-West, Pacific, Trans-American and Dixie leagues were there. The idea was to have three divisions – Atlantic, Midwest and Pacific – with each division split into North and South sections. The 10-game schedule would run from April 15 to July 1 and the circuit would have a draft at the end of the season to give major league teams the chance to get their pick of the litter.
There were only 26 NFL franchises in 1974 (the new World Football league started with 12 and was down to 10 by October), so the minor league player pool would be substantial. And, the feeder system was designed to be cost effective with a $75,000 operating budget for each team. “This is a new concept in minor league football,” Caruso told the San Francisco Examiner for an October 26, 1974 story. “We are attempting to bring all existing minor league operations in the country under one umbrella. They will play in the spring to develop players for the majors.”
The All-American League would be open to players age 25 and younger, so the teams would provide players who didn’t make pro rosters right out of college a chance to hone their skills.
“It’s ridiculous trying to compete against the National Football League with minor league teams,” Caruso said. “What we hope to do now is work hand-in-hand with the NFL to develop major league players. Our goal is to get a financial subsidy from the NFL.”
“The minor leagues as they operate today are strictly a loss operation,” Caruso told United Press International. “They play at the same time as the major leagues and are totally disorganized. My idea is to bring all the minor league teams together, go to a spring schedule and get the pro leagues to give us two coaches for each team and $25,000 from every big league club to develop talent for them.”
Considering the profit machine that the NFL is today, $25,000 is couch money. But that wasn’t so in 1974.
In fact, the New York Times reported that eight NFL teams lost money that year, and although its teams averaged an after‐tax operating profit of $256,000, that was down by 45 per cent from the average profit of $472,500 in 1973.
Plus, there was a player strike over the summer, resulting in the cancellation of the annual College All-Star Game. Exhibition games were played with all-rookie rosters.
Throw in the fact there had been a bidding war with the WFL, and there was little appetite for the NFL to spend money on anything other than itself. By February, 1975, the league was still being touted, only this time under the direction of Bill Flowers, an executive with the Orange County Rhinos. Of course, nothing came of it. Forty-seven years later the All-American Football League remains a good idea, but one that still hasn’t come to fruition.