Memphis  WFL

Southmen  - 1974  Danny White
(Authentic Reproduction)

In retrospect, the Memphis and Birmingham entries to the World Football League were the best run and both had on-the-field success. As a financially solvent entity however, the Memphis Southmen, often referred to as the Grizzlies because of their team logo, was the one team that could have entered the NFL as a successful expansion team. Good coaching, good players, and solid financial backing provided the Southmen with perhaps the only WFL franchise that truly was on stable ground in both the front office and on the field. The unusual team name was easily explained although even coaches and players often referred to themselves as Grizzlies. John Bassett was a wealthy Canadian and former Davis Cup tennis player. His family owned eleven newspapers, the CFTO television station which was Canada’s largest, the World Hockey Association Toronto Toros, a World Team Tennis franchise in Toronto, and a motion picture company. He also was the principal owner of the CFL Toronto Argonauts which he sold for $3.3 million, the proceeds to be used for his WFL venture. Bassett chose the name Toronto Northmen to distinguish their “north of the border” location and pedigree but ran into problems with the Canadian national government that expressed serious concerns about any United States football franchise being located in Canada. There was a fear that any U.S. backed venture would destroy the CFL and there was great national support for this defensive posture. Wrangling went on for months with the Canadian legislature threatening to place economic sanctions on Bassett and his holdings until it reached the point that Bassett felt that discretion was the better part of valor. He abandoned Toronto and sought out a site in the United States. With the originally designated WFL Memphis franchise given to Gary Davidson’s friend Steve Arnold, the city still sat vacant as a pro football destination. Arnold could not find the necessary financing there but since it had not cost him any money, it was rather easy for him to pick up and move his franchised area to Houston, especially since Davidson did not care where his WFL teams were located, as long as they were paid for. Bassett saw Memphis, a city desperate for a National Football League franchise and in fact holding out for one, as an ideal location. With former Argos coach and General Manager Leo Cahill at his side, Bassett came to Memphis seeking a stadium and some local financial backing. Cahill was well respected. He had been a guard on some of the greatest teams at the University Of Illinois but had made his mark as a coach and an astute judge of talent, having led Bassett’s Toronto team to successful seasons. They came with credibility because on March 31 they announced that in a coup that shook the NFL, perhaps the first WFL action to really get the older league’s attention, the Toronto Northmen had signed Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield of the champion Miami Dolphins for a package deal of $3.5 million plus automobiles and apartments. These three marquee players would join the team for the 1975 season when their NFL contracts had expired. If no one else in the WFL had respect, Bassett did. He came to Memphis with a viable product for partial sale. Bassett retained control of the club but enticed some of Memphis’ moneyed sportsmen to throw in with him. He was seeking approximately $2 million in limited investment that in WFL terms, would have made the team extremely solvent. Packing company president Nat Buring, Avron Fogleman of the ABA Memphis Tams (who later owned 49% of baseball’s KC Royals), and country singer Charlie Rich all joined the ownership group with Bassett. They secured a five-year lease with 50,000 seat Memphis Memorial Stadium, changed the team’s name to the Southmen, and hired John McVay as head coach.  MORE...

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