Birmingham  WFL

Americans  - 1974 

Putnam’s fellow investors decided that his insistence on trying to sign Julius Erving for an exorbitant salary was reason enough to buy him out of his investment but Putnam had fellow construction magnates, the Pendley brothers make an offer of $1 million dollars, an offer that the investment partners had to match to recover Putnam’s ten percent share of the team.  Putnam had known Davidson through his sports world contacts and Davidson saw the ambitious Putnam as a perfect prospective owner of a WFL franchise, especially with approximately $3.3 million from his sports world endeavors. Feeling that the Atlanta Falcons were too well entrenched and popular, they decided that Birmingham, not Atlanta, would be a fertile site. Putnam needed investment money and it was never clear, nor is it to this day, if he paid the $500,000.00 franchise fee to Davidson. General partners were found in Lon Day, Cecil Day, and J. Donnally Smith. Lon Day ran First Innkeepers Corporation, a subsidiary of Day’s Inn Corporation, owned by his brother Cecil. Lon Day’s Administrative Assistant, often referred to later as “a secretary” by the Birmingham and national media was Mrs. Carol Stallworth, twenty-nine years of age and always noted as “blonde” in any published report. Mrs. Stallworth’s husband Jim Stallworth was an executive with Ryder Truck Leasing and what often went unreported is that the Stallworths too, invested in the Birmingham team. Naming her as team president put her in the public eye. The Day brothers expressed an interest in additional ownership if the team was to be located in Atlanta but it was believed by NFL sources that they did not have the money to make a major investment in a pro football franchise, although their own business and their reputations were considered to be solid.


Putnam had lined up Vince Costello as his head coach, a Cincinnati Bengal assistant and a highly respected former player as a key member of the Browns and Giants. After a verbal agreement had supposedly been reached, Costello surfaced as one of Don Shula’s newly hired Dolphins assistants, not as Birmingham’s head coach. Having gotten off on the wrong foot with the fanatical football fans of the region, Putnam was looking to make amends with a blockbuster hire. In order to pique fan and media interest, Putnam was a bit secretive about the identity of his new head coach and sequestered him in a Birmingham hotel under the false name of “Darrell Royal” which may have been a bit of wishful thinking on his part.  Putnam’s new head coach was Ottawa’s CFL Coach Of The Year and Grey Cup victor Jack Gotta. He then infuriated Gotta by grossly exaggerating the number of season tickets supposedly sold at Legion Field, after they secured rights to the venue. Announced season ticket sales were 20,000 when the actual number was a decent-for-the circumstances 7200. Gotta said that when he repeated the 20,000 number he had been given by the ticket staff and Putnam, it made him “look like a jackass” and that while “publicity gimmicks are one thing, …deceit is something else. Things like that can harpoon your program.” Gotta had no idea how accurate and what a predictor of the future that simple statement would prove to be. Gotta however was a savvy football man and brought in a very experienced staff, starting with Defensive Coordinator Marvin Bass. Bass had been head coach at William And Mary. Another William And Mary Head Coach, Lou Holtz was once quoted as saying that he did not do as well as he had anticipated at the school because “among the football players, we had too many Marys and not enough Williams” but Bass had been successful there and later at the University Of South Carolina as both head coach and athletic director. Lynn Amedee had been a starting QB at LSU and a successful assistant coach at Tulane and with the New Orleans Saints. Billy Tohill was the former head coach at TCU and Wayne Grubb the former head coach at Samford University.  The staff then went looking for players and the two distinguishing characteristics of the Americans were a penchant for players with CFL experience and recruiting those from southern-based college teams, something that played well to the SEC-knowledgeable Birmingham audience.



One player that they had under contract but who was not available in 1974 was Oakland’s quarterback Kenny Stabler, an icon in Alabama because he had led Bear Bryant’s ‘Bama teams to championships. On March 31st, John Bassett announced that his Memphis Southmen had signed Miami Dolphins Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield to a monster personal services contract. Not to be outdone, at least from the perspective of Crimson Tide fans, the very next day, and this was no April Fools’ Day joke, Putnam announced the signing of Stabler who would don the Americans uniform for the 1976 season. Stabler was thrilled because it was assumed, despite the lack of known details, that his contract was “major” and he could return home to play out his professional career. If nothing else, Stabler’s signing sent the signal that the Americans at least, like the Southmen, meant business and the fans were thrilled. Until Stabler’s NFL contract expired and he became available, former University Of Miami and 49er quarterback Geroge Mira, never more than a journeyman backup in the pros, would keep the quarterback seat warm. In seven NFL seasons, the final two with the Eagles and Dolphins, Mira had completed less than forty-three percent of his passes and had lost much of the niftiness that had made him a darling at the University Of Miami. Backing him up was tall, rangy Matthew Reed, a 1973 tenth-round draft pick of the Bills out of Grambling where he quarterbacked some excellent offensive juggernauts. Racial prejudice or lack of talent had him in and out of Buffalo quickly and he spent the remainder of the season traveling through the rosters of both the Broncos and Saints as a quarterback and tight end but he did not appear in an NFL in-season game. Physically he had tools and Gotta believed he could be a full time professional quarterback. Mira had a good season in 1974, completing 155 of 313 passes with 17 TDs and 14 INTs, somewhat above his NFL average production. Reed however captured the imagination of the Americans’ fans, winning five of their games within the last three minutes of regulation time, usually with the type of heroics reserved for dime novels.


The running backs were expected to bring NFL experience to the WFL in a big way. Charley Harraway had been a stud with the Washington Redskins, paving the way for Larry Brown with his great blocking ability. He was no slouch as a ball carrier and he saw the WFL as an opportunity to do more of that with no one of Brown’s ability overshadowing him. Some of Paul Robinson’s luster had worn off due to injury but the former Bengals and Oilers running back had the pedigree of having been the 1968 AFL Rookie Of The Year and AFL’s leading rusher, and a two-time All Pro. A track star at the University Of Arizona, it surprised many that he was also a decent receiver having had but one year of football participation in college. Adding to the “Southern flavor” of the club, the Americans brought in Art Cantrelle who had been a tough dependable back for Gotta with Ottawa for two seasons before following his CFL coach to Birmingham. When Cantrelle left LSU, he was the second leading all time ball carrier behind Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon and a fan favorite. Jimmy Edwards came into camp as a question mark. At the University Of Oklahoma, he was considered every bit as capable as the “other back”, Greg Pruitt but never got it in gear for the Sooners. He finished his collegiate career at Northeast Louisiana State and spent a season in Vancouver with the Lions of the CFL. By the time the season was over, these four backs made for a very solid unit which certainly complemented top receivers Dennis Homan and Alfred Jenkins. Homan had already served his time in the NFL, three years with the Cowboys and another two with the Chiefs and he remained a star to Alabama fans. Alfred Jenkins on the other hand, was little known coming out of tiny Morris Brown College but used his All WFL season as a springboard to a nine-year career with the Atlanta Falcons including an All Pro nomination in 1981. Leading the offensive line was 245-pound road grader Buddy Brown. Revered at the University Of Alabama and often compared to the great John Hannah, he was named to the All WFL team at offensive guard and given credit for opening the holes for their bevy of backs. Former Bills offensive captain Joe O’Donnell, an All Pro in 1965, and very much an unsung player on some of the Bills’ better teams, signed with Birmingham for 1974 but a broken leg kept him on the sidelines the entire season.


Keys to the linebacking unit were Ross Brupbacher and Warren Capone. Brupbacher had been a fourth round draft choice of the Bears after a sterling career at Texas A&M as a three year starter. He played along side of Dick Butkus from 1970 through the 1972 season. He attended law school at Tulane University in 1973 but jumped at the opportunity to return to the fray in 1974 with the Americans. Earning All WFL acknowledgement with his fine play, Brupbacher later returned to the Bears for one more shot, playing in every game of the 1976 season. Capone, another LSU star was twice named as All American and applied his WFL experience with the Cowboys in 1975 and Saints in 1976. Yet another All SEC star roamed the defensive backfield for the Americans, versatile Dickey Lyons who had been a two-way threat at Kentucky. He had been a fourth-round draft choice of the Atlanta Falcons in 1969 who played that year for the Richmond Roadrunners of the Atlantic Coast Football League. He spent part of 1970 on the Saints roster and then played part of a year with the BC Lions in the CFL. He was an all around terrific player, equally adapt at kick and punt returns as well as coverage on special teams. Lyons in fact led the ACFL in punt returns, and now he was with Birmingham. Former Jet backup Cecil Leonard helped Lyons in the defensive backfield while Leonard’s backup, rookie Willie Smith, proved adept at punt returns, leading the WFL for 1974.


Gotta and his staff brought the Americans into the last week of the season with a winning record, despite all of the obstacles the league and team faced. However on November 13, 1974, they had to face off with the State Of Alabama who had attached the Americans’ assets for non-payment of taxes. When interviewed, Gotta admitted that the coaches, players, and support staff had not been paid for a number of weeks but that he planned to take the team through the conclusion of the season and into the playoffs. Putnam explained that the bonuses paid to future NFL players who would join the Americans in 1975 and 1976, contributions to the league coffers that were used to keep other under financed teams afloat, and the lack of local investors had produced this unstable and crumbling situation. After defeating Shreveport 40-7 in the regular season finale, Gotta began preparations for the playoffs with a hugely successful 15-5 record but they were in the unenviable position of being in the same Central Division as the 17-3 Memphis team, thus finishing second to them. In the playoffs Birmingham benefited from a bye week and then hosted Hawaii who had defeated Southern California in the first round. With Reed at the controls, Birmingham won a hard fought 22-19 contest to advance to the World Bowl against the Florida Blazers. Gotta’s preparations were derailed by a one day players’ refusal to practice because they had not been paid. Convincing them to go on for the finale, the World Bowl was a great artistic success. Taking a 22-0 lead into the final quarter, the Americans held off a frenzied Blazer comeback to prevail in a great game, winning 22-21. In keeping with the tone of the entire WFL debacle, as players were showering and changing, Jefferson County Sheriffs entered the locker room and confiscated any helmets, jerseys, or other playing equipment they could to satisfy a judgment on behalf of Hibett’s Sporting Goods. Reports stated that players were seen smuggling their helmets and jerseys out of the locker room as they left the stadium or passing equipment through open windows to waiting friends and family members. Jimmy Edwards did them one better. Greg Allred recounted that Edwards had been ejected in the final moments of the World Bowl. As he was being escorted from the field, he was notified that the sheriffs were waiting to confiscate everyone’s equipment. Edwards thus chose to walk off the field and continued to walk, right out of Legion Field! As his teammates entered the locker room and were faced with the sheriffs’ demands for their pants, shoulder pads, and anything else belonging to the Americans, Edwards strolled out of Legion Field and into the parking lot in full uniform, presumably to return at a later time for his personal belongings. Mr. Allred further recalled the absurd nature of the confiscations, noting the woeful exit of Americans’ trainer Drew Ferguson. When Ferguson left the field and entered the locker room, one of Hibett’s representatives spotted his red, white, and blue trainer’s shoes and asked, “Are those from Hibett’s?” When Drew acknowledged that they were, he motioned to a deputy who impounded the shoes at that very moment, leaving Ferguson to walk out into the night and travel home in his socks! Thus, the Birmingham Americans were crowned, in a somewhat inglorious manner, as the 1974 World Football League champions and at that point in time, no one could predict the future of the team or the league.


Those confiscated uniforms could be considered as “utilitarian” if not exciting in appearance. One important distinction that the Americans’ uniforms claimed was that they were the only team to eschew the Davidson generated WFL design. While most who are still available for comment from the Jacksonville Sharks claim that Bud Asher pushed for the silver and black color combination to pay homage to his former employer and mentor Al Davis, the WFL office still dictated the sleeve and helmet stripe combination, the Shark logo, and other features of the entire uniform. The Americans wore the only jersey design that was independent of the WFL office with wide fishnet material, perhaps in response to the hot and humid conditions of Alabama, and a sleeve stripe that gave an overall look that reminded many of Auburn University. Wearing either the blue or white jersey, they were distinct when compared with any of their opponents. The white helmet with royal blue center stripe was flanked by red stripes that were often not clearly distinct and simply made the center stripe appear to be one wide blue stripe. The stylized “A” on each side was identifiable if not particularly memorable. Again, utilitarian is perhaps the best descriptive word for the helmet. Americans fans certainly loved their team and the team uniforms and supported them well, well enough that the NFL should have given full consideration to Birmingham as an expansion city.   BACK...

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