Leo Cahill, the architect of
Bassett’s Toronto franchise in the Canadian Football League as both coach and
General Manager, returned as the Southmen’s GM and made sure that John McVay and
most of his staff returned too. With the WFL’s best record at 17-3 there was an
“if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” attitude although the arrival of the
Dolphin’s Big Three would certainly change the look of the offense. Bob Gibson
left the staff to become head coach of the Charlotte Hornets and Dave Skrien
replaced him. Little-known to American fans, Skrien had captained Murray
Warmath’s 1960 Minnesota team and had a brief pro career with the Eagles and the
CFL before becoming one of the more successful CFL head coaches. Jay Fry, Joe
Galat, Jim Rountree, and Joe Eaglowski were back and intent on doing the same
fine job they had done the year before. Immediately prior to the start of the
season, Cahill was mysteriously gone and became the newly named General Manager
of the Chicago Winds.
In 1974 former Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte had carried the load at quarterback and Danny White was his back-up and made his major contribution as one of the league’s best punters, finishing with a 40.9 yards per punt average. In 1975 it was White who carried the load as the signal caller. As all fans know, from 1976 through 1988, White was one of the key men in Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboy scheme and had an extremely productive NFL career. White later became the long time championship winning coach of the Arizona Rattlers and served during the 2006 Arena Football League season as the head coach of the new expansion Utah Blaze team. In 1974 the Memphis rushing attack was devastating with J.J. Jennings, John Harvey, and Willie Spencer posing as an NFL quality trio. Obviously, room had to be made for Csonka and Kiick and just as obviously, it was expected that these two in a similar attack would be at the top of the league standings by the time the season ended. Jennings was traded to the Bell where he played second fiddle in the backfield to John Land, leaving the starting spot vacant for Kiick. While Kiick led the Southmen in scoring, it would be holdover Willie Spencer, the Massillon High School product who was seasoned in the CFL before playing a key role until injured with the ’74 Southmen, who would wind up as the team’s leading rusher. Its not that Csonka wasn’t effective because his 4.3 yards per carry average was acceptable. However there were tremendous expectations, reflected in the money paid to him and the New League’s commitment to focusing upon him as “their star” that made it unacceptable to many that he could do no better than third best rusher on his own team. Interestingly Csonka and Spencer would play together again in 1977 and 1978 on the New York Giants. Kiick too would return to the NFL, with Denver in 1976 and the start of 1977 until being traded to the Redskins. With only one carry for the year, 1977 brought the curtain down on his ten-year pro career. As in ’74 Ed Marshall was the go-to receiver for Memphis. As the WFL scoring leader in 1974 with nineteen touchdown receptions, his nine in ’75 was on track in the truncated season. He placed fourth overall in the league and significantly, was statistically ahead of the vaunted Warfield in receptions, yards gained, and touchdown receptions with just tenths of a yard between them on per catch average. Gary Shirk too retained his importance with the offense. He was a bit behind his monstrous 1974 per catch average gain of 19.7 yards but his performance with Memphis earned him a spot with the New York Giants in 1976 and he made the most of it, becoming a mainstay of the G-Men’s offense for seven years. Marshall too became a Giant after the collapse of the WFL and although he was the main man with Memphis, he could not duplicate Shirk’s productivity and played no more than a back-up role in 1976 and ’77.
Offensive lineman/professional wrestler and doing both with great longevity, Ron Mikolajczyk again anchored the offensive front. The supporting cast remained similar to the ’74 crew: tall Walter Highsmith at the opposite tackle, former All CFL guard Charles Bray, and center Ralph Hill who with a number of other Southmen followed their coach McVay to the Giants when the WFL folded. Hill was the Giants center in 1976 and 1977. “TK” Tom Kruyer out of Indiana and a CFL vet shared time with Mississippi State great Justin Canale to make a formidable unit. Justin followed his brother Whit through Catholic High School in Memphis and then at Mississippi State. Both were named as All SEC and both played for the Boston Patriots, Whit in 1968 after spending a year with the Dolphins and Justin in 1965 through 1968 before playing with the Bengals in 1969. The defensive line and linebackers proved that like the offensive line, the Memphis coaches could do more with less. No big names, no hot-shot players but a coaching scheme and players acting in tandem to have a solid defense. If there were “names” on the defense, perhaps David Thomas and Seth Miller would qualify. In 1974 with Thomas at cornerback and Miller at the strong safety, they were number one and number two respectively in WFL interceptions with Thomas named as the league’s Defensive MVP at the end of the season. With Leon Jenkins of the Steamers leading the 1975 version of the WFL in interceptions with six at the premature close of the season, Thomas and Miller were right behind him with five each. A former team captain and All Conference selection at Texas Southern, Thomas also handled the majority of punt returns for the ’74 Southmen. That latter chore was given over to Roger Wallace in 1975 and he responded by finishing third in punt return yardage in the final league standings. Seth Miller at 6’4” and 210 pounds was a big safety and hit like a truck. At Arizona State he led the nation in interceptions his senior year in 1970. An All Western Conference choice, he was drafted by the Falcons but instead played two years in the CFL before returning to the States in ’74 to star with the Southmen. Up front, former Michigan standout and All American Cecil Pryor was a decent pass rusher who contributed to the ’74 Memphis sack total that finished only one behind league leader Florida. He was rostered with both the Packers and Bears but gained his real game experience with Montreal of the Canadian League.
A number of Southmen found football life after their WFL experience, most with the New York Giants as they were picked up by Head Coach John McVay. There is no doubt that the signing of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield was the high water mark in publicity for the World Football League. That the blue-collar lesser-known players who had for the most part carried the team in 1974 continued to do so in 1975 without major contributions from the three NFL stars speaks to a higher level of talent that the Southmen had than may have first been apparent. Owner John Bassett, with or without a percentage of local investment money was primed and ready to have an NFL expansion team. His staff was first-rate and did in fact go to the NFL as did quite a few of his players. The team lost money but took the loss and functioned as a viable business venture, one that was looking towards the future. The USFL must have seen something in Memphis that the NFL did not. The Southmen, like the Birmingham Vulcans were denied a franchise as the NFL expanded into Tampa Bay and Seattle but the USFL made the Memphis Showboat one of their flagship teams and the rabid football fans in the Memphis area proved they could and would support a professional team. Their uniforms, almost identical to those worn the year before, retained a beautiful appearance with a striking color combination of brown and orange and a classic and powerful grizzly bear on the helmet. Adding orange to the bear's cowl gave the entire helmet a brighter and more noticeable look.BACK...
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