Philadelphia WFL


Bell  - 1974 - 75
 

Waller’s staff was a mix of abilities and personalities. Nick Cutro looked like a Jersey tough guy who had been through the mill and his years as a minor football league coach and NFL scout had toughened him for the ordeal of the Bell. Joe Gardi had a Maryland connection with Waller as did Bob Pellegrini although the latter was remembered more for his successful career as a ten year linebacker with the hometown Eagles and Redskins. Gardi was somewhat unknown at the time but had been a high school great in New Jersey, being named to the Newark Star-Ledger’s All Decade Team of the 1950s as a Harrison High School star. He later went on to coach the N.Y. Jets as an assistant, worked in the NFL office as a supervisor of officials, and then returned to the sidelines as the long time coach at Long Island’s Hofstra University, taking them from Division III status to their current position in the Division IAA Atlantic 10 Conference. Defensive backfield coach Andy Nelson had come off of the championship Colts teams as an All Pro and former offensive linemen Ernie Wright had played with Waller on the 1960 LA Chargers and then for him with the San Diego Chargers. It was a good staff.  They had to go out and find the players.

 

With former All Big Ten Wisconsin star Alan “A-Train” Thompson coming into camp as what they thought would be their feature back, the Bell could not know that he would be no more than a very capable back-up. In Claude Watts they had the ultimate minor league football player. Ten years that took him through the United Football League, Continental Football League, and the Atlantic Coast Football League, Watts was a running back that was just too good to hang them up and didn’t want to, yet never moved past being briefly rostered by the K.C. Chiefs and had a short stint with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Interestingly, Watts’ Bell backfield mate was John Land who it could have been said, was “Waller’s Boy” in the most positive sense of the expression. Land had left the Baltimore Colts in their 1968 Super Bowl year and played on a succession of minor league teams, five years’ worth under Head Coach Waller. Thus with other, younger, better known backs in camp, the Bell opened the season with two thirty-year old running backs whose greatest triumph had been with the ACFL’s Pottstown Firebirds where both formed that starting backfield. Another Firebird grad who had a bit more pedigree than some of his Bell mates was the quarterback, James Patrick “King” Corcoran, sometimes known as James Sean (having added “Sean” himself to sound more Irish), often referred to as merely “The King” and yes, everyone who knew the least bit about minor league football knew King. Listed as a “rookie” quarterback for Tom Nugent’s 1962 University Of Maryland team, the notation that the loss of “alternate QB Corcoran” going into the 1963 season can only be interpreted that his career did not extend to fruition in college. He was however, the undisputed king of minor league ball with a presence and charisma that had to be seen and experienced. His leadership skills pushed his teammates towards victory, a somewhat hidden trait that more than overshadowed the two-game NFL experience he had with the Patriots, time in camp with the Broncos, and a stint on the 1967 Jets’ taxi squad where he was described as “the poor man’s Joe Namath” for his brashness and wardrobe. The King had one more try with the NFL, this time with the Eagles, being released in August of 1971. This “minor league backfield” brought the Bell the third highest point production total in the WFL. The King was the number-two passer in the league, runner-up to the Sun’s Tony Adams and he contended for years that if the Bell had played their final game, one forfeited by the Chicago Fire, he could have led the league in passing. Both Watts and Land were ranked in the top seven in both scoring and rushing. Throw in the second best punt returner (Ron Mabra) and the number six kickoff return man (Jimmie Joe, younger brother of former Jet and Bronco Billy Joe) and “potent” could be spelled with capital letters! If one wanted to find a reason to watch WFL football and cheer for the underdog, offensive tackle and guard Bill Ellenbogen could have been held up as a standard case study. He started his college career at the University Of Buffalo and transferred to Virginia Tech. He was the last player cut by Hank Stram from the 1973 Chiefs and played with the semi-pro Albany Metro Maulers. When the NFL players called their strike in 1974, Ellenbogen traveled to the Oilers camp and did not object to being given number sixty-five. He was after all, an offensive guard and sixty-five was an appropriate number for his position. When the striking regulars agreed to return to camp, the Oilers’ “real” number sixty-five, perennial All-Pro Elvin Bethea was incensed that someone else had worn his number and had done it as a strike-breaking scab. Bethea threatened Ellenbogen and then made good on the threat, delivering a stunning roundhouse punch in a team scrimmage. Released by Houston, Ellenbogen’s next stop was with the Bell of the WFL where he played out the ’74 season. In 1975 he did not wish to face the financial uncertainty of the New League WFL and was invited to the Redskins camp by George Allen. Again finding himself the last man cut from the team, it was back to the WFL, this time with the Shreveport Steamer. When the league folded, Ellenberger waited until 1976 before trying out with the Giants but they cut him. He then traveled to Winnepeg of the CFL and made the squad. When injuries crippled the Giants offensive line after the second NFL game of the season, he was called back to the Giants and lasted the season and then through 1977 as well. These were the typical men of the WFL. The only knock on the offense was its inconsistency and Waller’s tendency to call plays as if he was a riverboat gambler.
 

 

 

The defense unfortunately was a bit more porous with defensive back Mabra the standout performer. Stuffing the run was the province of strongman Tom Laputka who had been named MVP in the 1973 Grey Cup Game for the CFL championship. He teamed with Bob Grant, the middle linebacker who had helped to take the Colts to the 1968 and 1970 Super Bowls. There just wasn’t a lot of talent besides them on the defensive side of the ball. Laputka played gleefully due to a landmark legal decision. As a true star-on-the-rise with Ottawa in the CFL, Laputka was still quick to jump to the Bell and take the opportunity to play close to his New Jersey hometown outside of Philadelphia. The CFL sued the WFL over this breach of contract issue and won compensation for Laputka but one of the final stipulations was that Tom receive his Bell salary “up front” which proved to be fortunate. Laputka was one of the few who managed to collect his entire annual salary, and returned to Canada for another two years of productive play at the conclusion of the 1974 season. Two other defensive players of note to join the Bell were Steve Chomyszak and Tim Rossovich. Rossovich was known as a wild-eyed defensive end, and later, middle linebacker who starred with the Eagles until his antics became such that he was moved on to the Chargers. His bodyweight had dropped so low that some coaches speculated that he was playing at little more than 200 pounds, forcing his release. As a Philly fan favorite, he was a natural for the Bell. Although better known for lighting himself on fire and eating glass, Rossovich could still make some game-changing plays. He later used his derring-do attitude and seemingly endless tolerance for pain for a career in Hollywood as a stunt man and actor. Chomyszak was not as well known but had the reputation of being one of the strongest men to ever play in the NFL. He was considered to be an Olympic level shotputter after only one year of competition at Syracuse, tossing the shot over 65 feet. Former Bengal strength coach Kim Wood stated that Chomyszak could squat 800 pounds, deadlift 800 pounds, and bench press over 500 pounds at a time when these were close to world record lifts and he did this with the leverage disadvantage of being 6’7” tall. After retiring from football, the quiet and reserved Chomyszak, whom some coaches felt needed a bit more “killer instinct” to match his prodigious strength, made millions of dollars in the coal industry but died from liver and pancreatic cancer before truly enjoying the money he had made. Burly Rick Cash was another defensive end, nicknamed “Thumper” for the obvious reason of having the ability to crack opponents into next week. Originally drafted by the Packers in 1968, he was released but then played with Atlanta, the Rams, and the Patriots in a six year NFL career. Not yet ready to quit, he joined the Bell and earned a reputation as one of Rossovich’s henchmen. On one occasion, Rossovich didn’t like the particular tee shirt given to him by equipment man Bob Colonna so he and Cash threw Colonna into a garbage can, taped the lid on, and rolled it around the locker room to uproarious laughter. One special teams standout who doubled at wide receiver proved to be as exciting as Mabra. “Forgetting” to play college football, Vince Papale instead captained the St. Joseph College track team and parlayed his experience at Interboro High School and with the Seaboard League’s Aston Knights into a starting position. Demonstrating that Waller’s decision to keep and later start Papale was no fluke, Vince became known for his grit and determination as a special teams wildman with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1976 through 1978.  

 

The Bell uniforms may be better known than some of the other World Football League teams. NFL Films did a nice feature on the WFL a few years ago as part of their LOST TREASURES OF THE NFL series and interviews with King Corcoran’s son Jimmy and film clips of the Bell were prominently featured. Theirs was a great jersey in a striking shade of “blue” augmented by yellow/gold and white trim. HELMET HUT has for a very long time, featured the King Corcoran Bell helmet on the WFL area of the site. The “off” yellow color reminds many of the Sunflower Gold used on some teams’ helmets and the contrasting stripes and distinctive Philadelphia Bell with its characteristic crack is an iconic symbol of this team. Many of the Bell players wore contrasting royal blue Dungard masks that gave the helmet an excellent and “clean” look that many collectors covet to this day.

 

IN 1975...

 

The financial collapse of the World Football League exposed a number of owners as frauds, others of being guilty of making a poor business decision, and some as the legitimate behind-the-scenes financers. In Philadelphia the venerated Kelly family had their name on the ownership papers and the respect and fondness for this long-established family helped pave the way for concessions from the City. However, those on the inside knew that while the name was sound, the bankbook no longer was. As the fiasco of 1974 moved forward, John Bosacco came out from the shadows and not only revealed himself as the deep pockets of the franchise but someone who believed that the league could be salvaged. Working closely with Chris Hemmeter, Bosacco helped to remove 1974 Commissioner Gary Davidson from power, install Hemmeter, and then make plans that would lead to the formation of the New League, Inc., DBA The World Football League for 1975. Bosacco stayed in the league’s front office as acting secretary and a member of the Executive Committee. A successful attorney and MBA, Bosacco believed his Bell team had the goods to go all the way. One of the front office changes was removing Ron Waller as General Manager and giving him head coaching responsibilities only. In Waller’s defense, he had but sixty days to assemble a staff and team after being hired for both positions in 1974. There were problems with vendors, office staff, and general business matters often due to an incomplete or absence of communication among departments. Bosacco believed that naming 1974 Bell business manager Richard Iannarella as GM and allowing him to take care of the “business end” of the Bell including player contracts, would allow Waller to focus on coaching only. Waller’s 9-11 record was seen as an underachievement by some as he had a lot of high-powered offensive talent, thus unburdened of his front office responsibilities, it was expected that he would post an improved record. Six-time All Pro and former Green Bay great Willie Wood was hired as the Assistant Head Coach and defensive coordinator. Former L.A. Rams great Duane Putnam, a three-time All Pro guard was brought in to handle the defensive line. Joe Gardi, the Bell offensive backfield coach the year before, was retained to handle the offensive line. Like Waller, Gardi had been an outstanding player at Maryland. Joe Gaval, a Bell scout, moved into the coaching suite to take on the special teams assignment. It was expected that Wood’s experience and talent would help to improve the defense and that Waller’s wide-open, gambling, big play offense would be more consistent. They averaged thirty points per game in 1974 but that average resulted from unpredictable and inconsistent performances.

 

The Bell came into 1975 with what appeared to be the best rushing attack in the league. While the media was hyping the Memphis combination of the highly paid Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, some of the more sophisticated observers were quick to note that the Bell’s John Land and Claude Watts accounted for over 2000 yards in 1974. The scourge of the best of the minor football leagues in the late 1960s, Land and Watts complemented each other magnificently and between them, could run, block, and catch with the best. Adding the Southmen’s J.J. Jennings who ran for over 1500 yards in ’74 made this a potential blockbuster backfield. Philadelphia was closer to Jennings’ Massachusetts home than Memphis, so happy with his entry onto the Bell squad, high hopes were present for this backfield. As a star at Rutgers and the country’s leading collegiate scorer, the Bell might have thought he could also bring in more fans. Wisconsin’s Alan “A-Train” Thompson joined the squad during the 1974 season and despite an enviable collegiate record, contributed minimally as he would in ’75. An attempt was made to upgrade the receiving corps with NFL super star Ted Kwalick and Eagle mainstay Ben Hawkins, on paper certainly, a tremendous improvement from 1974’s group. Hawkins was a Philly fan favorite, a starter since joining the Eagles in 1966 and he led all NFL receivers in reception yardage in ’67. His broken leg in 1973 made him expendable and he was traded to the Browns for the 1974 season, joining the Bell in ’75. Kwalick was one of the ballyhooed 1974 futures that the WFL bragged about. Like Csonka, Kiick, Warfield, Lamonica, and Stabler it was a player of Kwalick’s stature that they felt would give the league credibility and attract other disgruntled NFL regulars. Originally signed as a future with the Hawaiians, Kwalick was “dispersed” to the Bell in the league’s attempt to achieve more competitive balance as they approached the 1975 season. Kwalick was a genuine All Pro, three times over in fact and was considered one of the top two or three tight ends in the game. He was also versatile and was sometimes used as a wide receiver and what later was referred to as the “H-Back” in the 49er offensive scheme. A two-time All American out of Penn State and a former All State athlete at McKees Rock, PA Montour High School, Kwalick was considered to be “hometown” to Philly fans despite growing up in the Pittsburgh area. None of the Bell receivers were among the top statistical finishers but among Kwalick, Hawkins, and running back Land they had almost ninety receptions and a thousand receiving yards that made for a potent attack. Two of the lesser-known receivers were back from the ’74 squad, small, less talented than the others, but highly motivated. Vince Papale, the track star turned pro football player who would go on to be a special teams demon for the Eagles continued his role as fan favorite with his spirited special teams play. The other was Long Island product Len Izzo, a 185 pound package of dynamite who had led what was then called the small college division in kickoff returns his senior year at C.W. Post College. Izzo did well with the Hartford Knights of the ACFL after failing a free agent tryout with the Browns, and played with the Bell as a sometimes starter for its two years. No longer directing the attack was “King” Corcoran, the team leader who had headed the Bell in every one of their 1974 games. Corcoran finished ‘75 by completing less than fifty percent of the passes he threw but he wasn’t called upon to shoulder the load as he was in ’74. Instead, World Bowl quarterback Bob Davis who had enjoyed a seven-year pro career with three teams and who led the Blazers in 1974 was the Bell regular. A New Jersey native, he was thrilled to be playing so much closer to home especially since he had a strong involvement with a number of charitable and community organizations in his home town of Monmouth. 

 

Defensively, some of the bigger names were still there but for the Bell this unit was never its strong point. The Defensive Player Of The Year in Northern California at St. Francis H.S. of Mountain View was Tim Rossovich who still had a huge following in Philadelphia. He started all but one game for the Eagles in a four-year career at both defensive end and middle linebacker. His antics of setting himself on fire, eating glass, drinking motor oil, and being the life of every party endeared him to Eagle fanatics. His off-season “job” of making sand candles and lounging on the beaches of his home state made him a counter-culture hero, the look complete with a blowout Afro hairstyle that was barely contained within the confines of his helmet. That he hit a ton when he came to play put him in the 1969 Pro Bowl but a loss of bodyweight, strength, and the quickness that had made him a special player as the leader of USC’s Wild Bunch had him starting most of the Bell games in 1974 and ‘75, instead of playing in the NFL. Louis Ross who had played so well for the Blazers the year before, had his pick of suitors and chose the Bell when the Blazers went bankrupt. Originally a basketball player at South Carolina State, he was an early advocate of Nautilus training which boosted his muscular bodyweight by more than thirty pounds and gave him significant strength to augment his great speed and reaction. An eighth round choice of the Bills, he was a 6’7” special teams player who was later traded to Atlanta and the Chargers before hooking up with the Blazers which gave him the opportunity to play in front of his home town crowd. When the WFL finally ceased operation, he continued his career in the Canadian Football League. Rookie middle linebacker Steve “Rocky” Colavito out of Wake Forest was a genuine find. A Bronx boy from New York City, he played at traditional Catholic School League powerhouse Cardinal Hayes before embarking for Wesley Junior College of Delaware and then Wake Forest. Colavito came by his nickname the honest way as a cousin of Detroit baseball great Rocky Colavito and he was a rock! At 6’ and 225 pounds he was considered a bit undersized starring at Wake Forest but did get a shot with the N.Y. Jets. Failing that he moved on to the Bell for 1975 and was their outstanding rookie and an immediate starter. When the season ended prematurely, he hooked on with the Eagles for their final games of the ’75 season. When Willie Wood moved Rossovich from linebacker to the defensive end spot that first earned him so much acclaim, the Bell defense looked to be improved over 1974.

 

Philadelphia Bell expert Tom Heffner who maintains an internet site that provides a tremendous amount of information about the Bell and their history (http://www.geocities.com/wflphiladelphiabell) noted that the chaos that engulfed the World Football League from its inception also affected the Bell that had been one of the few franchises that seemed to have a modicum of stability. By the time the team took the field for its July 27th pre-season game against the Portland Thunder, Waller and most of the staff had been fired and Joe Gardi was elevated to Interim Head Coach, with King Corcoran directing the offense. After the game, yet another move was made and the shakeup in the coaching staff elevated Assistant To The Head Coach Willie Wood to the top spot for the regular season opener against Hawaii on August 2nd. The significance of this hire was that Wood was now the first African-American to be the head coach of a professional football team. Wood’s road to the top had been difficult. A product of the streets of Washington, D.C. Wood depended upon Bill Butler, his Boys Club coach to write letters to USC in order to get their attention and consideration for a scholarship. In an era when a Black quarterback was a rarity, he led USC as their signal caller and defensive back. He was passed over in the NFL draft and again called upon Butler to help make contacts in the NFL. The Packers were the only team that responded and he surprised the Lombardi staff by successfully competing against twenty-four other defensive backs for a roster spot. Used almost exclusively on punt returns, Wood did not blossom until 1961, his second year, starting in place of an injured Jess Whittenton and leading the NFL in punt returns. From there, he had a Hall Of Fame career with the Pack. Wood repeated his ground-breaking role when he became the first African-American Head Coach in the Canadian Football League in 1980, with the Toronto Argos. Wood immediately brought coaches to the Bell who looked like a mid-1960s NFL All Star team. Former Packer defensive backfield teammate Herb Adderley took over the position as defensive backfield coach. Adderley didn’t have to go far as he was a Philadelphia native, a graduate of Philly’s Northeast High School, and a restaurateur in town. Former Steeler, Ram and Redskin great linebacker Myron Pottios, a western Pennsylvania legend who also starred at Notre Dame was rushed in to coach the defensive line. Ex-Browns running back Leroy Kelly, another Philadelphia high school star out of Simon Gratz H.S. and then Morgan State, had finished his playing career with the Chicago Fire and jumped at the chance to coach the Bell’s stable of offensive backs. Frank Gallagher who had starred on a number of excellent Detroit Lion offensive lines had come into the Bell’s ’75 camp as a projected starter, a tough, experienced player who would enhance the offensive line’s performance and give it consistency. Gallagher was another Philly product having played at St. James H.S. in Chester and Wood offered him the offensive line job. Wood continued the staff overhaul a few weeks before the collapse of the season when he added former Redskin head coach Bill McPeak, most recently laboring as Abe Gibron’s right hand man in the brief life of the Chicago Winds. McPeak was hired to direct the offense as coordinator. He immediately simplified Waller’s scheme and put emphasis on the fundamentals rather than the multitude of offensive formations that were favored by Waller. If the Bell had built an offensive reputation for one thing, it was inconsistency.  After ten games and a 3-7 record most of the offensive statistics were toward the bottom of the league while the defense was carrying, or trying to carry the load. Rookie linebacker Steve “Rocky” Colavito as an example had one hundred and thirty tackles including seventeen solos and another eleven assists against Portland in a 25-10 loss. The Bell would complete the shortened season with a 4-7 mark and like the remainder of the World League, faded into memory.

 

The Bell uniforms were the same as they were in 1974 with the immediately recognized cracked Liberty bell and the beautiful blue and gold jerseys.  BACK...

 

If interested in any of these or more WFL helmets please click on the photos below.