The Memphis Southmen were arguably the most notable team in the brief history of the World Football League. They shocked the sports world by luring Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield and Jim Kiick away from the NFL champion Miami Dolphins, counted Elvis Presley as one of their biggest fans, and even met payroll – a rarity in the WFL.
What’s interesting, though, is the Southmen (also known as the Grizzlies) were actually the second WFL franchise awarded to the land of the Delta Blues. And Memphis city officials initially wanted no part of this new league at all.
Gary Davidson formed the WFL in late 1973, touting a league that would be international in scope. But as the fledgling circuit moved closer to a July, 1974, launch date, it became apparent that its flagship clubs would be in North American cities.
San Francisco sports promotor Steve Arnold, who was involved with other Davidson ventures such as the American Basketball Association, World Hockey Association and World Team Tennis, owned the Memphis entry. He was officially granted the franchise on January 15, 1974, and said his first order of business was to get local people involved.
A local person not involved, however, was Memphis mayor Wyeth Chandler.
“Nobody from that league (the WFL) has contacted me,” Chandler told the Associated Press. “My aim is to get us into the NFL. At the present time, I think Memphis will only support big league sports and that means the National Football League.”
The NFL Expansion Committee was slated to meet just days after Davidson gave Arnold rights to the team, and Memphis, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, Tampa and Honolulu were considered leading candidates to land one of two new NFL teams expected to begin play in 1976.
The president of Mid-South Sports Inc., Mike Lynn (who went on to become an executive and minority owner of the Minnesota Vikings and president of the World League of American Football) certainly didn’t want the sport’s biggest league to have a reason not to come there.
“The community would boycott any move at this time to bring in a World Football League franchise,” Lynn told AP. “It would be an economic disaster unlike any that has ever been seen in the history of professional sports.”
While Arnold faced resistance from the mayor, he did get a slightly warmer reception from the Memphis Park Commission, which operated Memorial Stadium. As the NFL continued to consider its expansion options, the commission in February voted to negotiate with Arnold about use of the stadium on Wednesday and Thursday nights when WFL games would be played.
But the commission decided not to discuss the negotiations again until a March meeting, which was just four months before the new league’s July 10 launch.
Arnold considered that a stalling tactic and believed the commission wanted to wait until the NFL made a firm decision on 1976 expansion before getting in bed with the WFL. So instead of waiting around, he decided to take his franchise to Houston.
With the WFL out of the picture Memphis could put all its energy behind an NFL push, and for a time it appeared to be a smart move. At a February meeting Lamar Hunt, head of the expansion committee, had high praise for the Bluff City and hinted that when the NFL announced an expansion decision in April, pro football fans in Tennessee might just hear some pretty good news.
Instead, only Tampa was named as a future NFL franchise and the second team for 1976 wouldn’t be determined until June. Still, Lynn told the Memphis Commercial Appeal in late April he had heard from “the highest possible source” that Memphis would join the exclusive NFL club on June 4. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle denied the report, saying “there has been no decision of any kind relative to expansion that was not publicly announced.”
But Memphis’ WFL story was not over.
John Bassett, owner of the WFL Toronto Northmen, had caused a seismic quake in the sport by signing Csonka, Warfield and Kiick for the 1975 season. That deal demonstrated that the new gridiron business was serious about being a major league but pressure from the Canadian government – who wanted to keep the Canadian Football League safe from an American football invasion – prompted Bassett to take his franchise south of the border.
Just as news broke that Memphis was apparently headed to the NFL, Northmen officials began touring Memphis and scouting the city as a possible relocation site.
Had Memphis officials received a public commitment from the NFL, the Toronto club would’ve continued to search for a new home in the United States. But on May 2, 1974, Chandler and members of the Park Commission met with Bassett to discuss a non-exclusive contract for Memorial Stadium, which was home of the annual Liberty Bowl.
Just five days later, the movers and shakers in Memphis had become convinced the NFL was, in fact, not ready to set up shop in Tennessee. Seattle’s construction of a domed stadium and the NFL’s chance to grow the league in the Pacific Northwest had apparently moved that city next in the expansion line.
So, on May 6 the commission voted 3-1 to lease the stadium to the WFL entry, angering NFL proponents who saw the move as a death knell.. In fact, on the same day Bassett held his news conference announcing the Northmen’s southern move, Mid-South Sports filed a class action suit in an effort to void the WFL stadium lease.
Millionaire grain dealer Ned Cook was hoping to be part of an NFL ownership group but said those dreams were shattered by the commission’s vote.
“Well,” he told United Press International, “Memphis just kissed the NFL goodbye.”
Chandler, who was quick to oppose the WFL’s first flirtation with Memphis, told the Commercial Appeal the situation had changed dramatically due to the NFL’s indecisiveness.
“I think I would have to have from Mr. Rozelle a statement to the effect that the NFL will come to Memphis,” he said. “I think we’ve heard this other and we’ve heard it up to our ears prior to this (expansion committee) meeting in New York.
“Everybody said, ‘Chandler, you’re in, just hang in there.’ And then I went to New Orleans and got the word that we weren’t in, we weren’t out – we were in limbo, and that’s even worse.”
Chandler added that Bassett leading the ownership group and changed his opinion of the WFL.
“Steve Arnold came here to sell a franchise,” Chandler said. “He owned the franchise, he lived wherever it was (San Francisco), he had no intention of ever moving to Memphis or anything else. He was coming here merely to try to get a stadium agreement on the front end and then try to sell the franchise to somebody. We didn’t have any idea who it might be or who we were dealing with or anything else. He was a seller.
“Now the guy we dealt with here (Bassett) is a businessman, the son of a very wealthy man and, of course, apparently wealthy in his own right who, together with other identified parties, also well-to-do businessmen in Canada, are now the buyers. They’re not selling anything.”
On June 5 the NFL granted Seattle an expansion franchise, and Chandler told AP that meant allowing the WFL to set up shop was the proper move.
“It would appear we made the right decision,” he said. “We felt that the NFL was keeping us hanging loose while they negotiated with Seattle. The NFL hasn’t contacted me since the WFL moved here. It just shows that there weren’t enough votes to get an NFL franchise then (in April) or now.”
The Southmen had the best regular season record in the WFL’s 1974 season (17-3) and won the Central Division before being upset by the Florida Blazers in the playoffs. They averaged 21,505 fans per game.
The league itself was a financial dumpster fire but was reinvented in 1975, allowing Csonka, Warfield and Kiick to show off their abilities seven times at Memorial Stadium, pulling in 19,695 fans per game. The trio’s star power notwithstanding, with no national TV contract the “new” WFL had no chance at survival.
It folded on October 22, 1975, and Memphis – along with the Birmingham Vulcans – announced they were applying for membership in the NFL.
That’s another column for another time …