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TGS MID-AMERICAN RETROSPECTIVE...WHEN THE WHEELS CAME OFF IN YPSILANTI
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Not many college stadiums have doubled as homes for pro football teams in their histories. And the Mid-American Conference certainly doesn’t come to mind when recalling some of those rare examples. But an archaeological dig into the gridiron siub-surface will reveal a time when the MAC and pro football did converge at a most unlikely locale...Eastern Michigan’s Rynearson Stadium.

That’s right. The EMU Eagles are the only MAC program to ever share their home field with a pro football team. Now, if you can remember that team, you should be due some sort of bonus.

The 2014 football season is fast approaching! And we're ready at TGS with discounted JULY subscription prices! Click here for more special JULY subscription info on THE GOLD SHEET now!

We’re talking about the short-lived existence of the Detroit Wheels of the old (and very colorful) World Football League. And while we searched for interesting tales from our TGS experiences to tell about the MAC for this retrospective piece, we were hopelessly drawn into a trip down memory lane with the Wheels, one of the most dubious entries of one of the most dubious adventures in American pro sports history.

(We realize we have made a segue away from the MAC for this piece, the only connection being the stadium at EMU. But the tale of the old WFL Wheels nudged out the “Cradle of Coaches” topic at Miami-Ohio, and specifically its great three-year run of Tangerine Bowl wins from 1973-75 under Bill Mallory and Dick Crum, two of the lesser-celebrated mentors from the “Cradle” at Miami-O. The next MAC Retrospective focuses on those Miami teams, but for now, in the 40th anniversary year of the WFL...let’s talk Wheels!).

A little refresher on the WFL is in order, especially as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the league’s 1974 birth this summer.

The announcement of a proposed pro football league on August 2, 1973 generated mixed emotions. The idea for the WFL was created in the mind of Orange County, California attorney Gary Davidson, who had been instrumental in the formation of the ABA and was a co-founder of the WHA. Often referred to as a "promoter” or “franchise broker" he somehow convinced twelve individuals or groups of differing means to purchase franchises.

The 1974 WFL season would run from July to early December when the league would play its championship "World Bowl" clash. Games would be played at midweek (except for a handful of Sunday games in Honolulu, home of the Hawaiians) under floodlights. A TV contract with Eddie Einhorn’s TVS was signed that pumped $1.5 million into league coffers that season. Veteran play-by-play man Merle Harmon, who had worked network events in the past and was well-known as the radio voice of the New York Jets in the 1960s and at the time Bob Uecker’s partner on Milwaukee Brewers broadcasts, would be joined by colorful ex-NFL WR Alex Hawkins and a series of “guest” analysts that would include Burt Reynolds, George Plimpton, and McLean Stevenson throughout the season.

The TVS deal provided a national television game every Thursday night. The package was syndicated, so it did not air in every city nation-wide, but most of the major markets would show the games.

The league also tried to be innovative where it could, borrowing from the experiment used in 1968 AFL-NFL preseason games when all PATs were to be regular scrimmage plays, not kicks. The WFL called it the “action point" after TDs that were worth seven, and not the normal six, points. Hence a lot of 8s and 11s and 15s and 22s and other odd team scorelines from the WFL’s first season. Davidson, whose ABA had introduced the red-white-and-blue ball, also introduced a yellow/gold football with a blue (or red) stripe for the WFL. Kickoffs would be from the 30 yard-line, overtimes would be played in case of ties, and goal posts were also at the back of the end zone. For these latter two items, the NFL would introduce the same in the 1974 season.

We at TGS paid attention to the WFL as well in 1974 (and, while it lasted, in 1975). Though we didn’t have a special summer publication for the league, we did release selections on games as part of our Late Telephone Service. TGS founder Mort Olshan kept an eye on the league, whose debut happened to nearly coincide with the publishing of Mort’s highly-acclaimed Winning Theories of Sports Handicapping in 1975. Mort even devoted a small chapter to the WFL in his prized work.

“Last summer, a collection of ex-pros, fringe pros, and would-be pros threw in with a far-flung but ill-formed network calling itself the World Football league,” Mort said in ‘75. “Their eyes aglow with dollar signs, these ambitious newcomers and unemployed or unhappy National Football league veterans found the lucrative WFL offers too good to pass up.

“Little did they realize that the fast-buck WFL was about as professional as a neighborhood bowling league, that many of them were destined to go from professional to amateur status while playing for nothing more than a love of football.”


(As an addendum, Mort added the following Editor’s Note: “At this writing, the WFL has announced plans to operate in 1975. Considering the league’s shaky background, one cannot be certain of its capacity to operate throughout the entire 1975 season.” Prescient, we would say!)

There was a mild break for the WFL in the summer of 1974 in that the NFL was undergoing labor unrest at the same time. When the WFL kicked off in July, the NFLPA was on strike, and the first NFL preseason games (including the Bills-Cardinals Hall of Fame Game in Canton) that summer would feature “scab” players not unlike the 1987 regular-season lockout. For a while in the summer of ‘74, it appeared as if the WFL would provide the alternative for football fans in case the NFL strike endured, although it would eventually settle after being in effect from July 1-August 10.

Of course, there were various other dimensions that were part of the WFL storyline. League credibility took an enormous hit within the first month of play in the summer of 1974, when select teams disclosed many of the fans who watched the early-season games either paid a discount fee or nothing at all for tickets. The Jacksonville Sharks admitted that 44,000 of the more than 100,000 fans who attended their first two games went free. Officials of the Philadelphia Bell said about 60,000 of the 110,000 fans at the first two Philadelphia contests paid nothing or group discounts. "I did lie, no question," said Barry Leib, executive vice president of the Bell, "but we papered the house because we wanted people to see the team and the stadium. We felt it was the only way to sell the thing." Philadelphia tax figures reportedly indicated that there was a paying crowd of only 13,855 fans on opening night and 6,200 for the second game. "I don't see where it hurt anyone," Lieb said. "It's not like it was malicious. We estimated that the more people who saw the game, the more fans we could make." The Bell announced 55,534 for its opener with the Portland Storm, and disclosed that 10,000 tickets were free, 20,000 tickets were in group charity or discount blocks, and the remainder paying full price.

There were other unique storylines associated with the league, including raids on the NFL for top-level talent signed to “future” contracts. Of those, none gained more notoriety than John Bassett's Toronto Northmen (who would soon become the Memphis Southmen; Bassett would return in the '80s as owner of the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits), well before the initial 1974 season, inking Miami Dolphins stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield for the subsequent 1975 campaign. That trio, and a handful of others like Dallas RB Calvin Hill and San Francisco TE Ted Kwalick (both with the Hawaiians), and Vikings WR John Gilliam (Chicago Winds) would also play in the USFL in the following, and eventually ill-fated, 1975 season. Other NFL notables such as QBs Ken Stabler and Craig Morton were “signed” for 1976. In all, there were no fewer than 60 NFL players reportedly under “future” contracts for the league when it began operations in the summer of 1974.

While only some of those players ever moved to WFL, the raids on the rival league had made their impact, because they helped jolt a stagnant NFL salary structure that was part of the 1974 players strike. Although many of the “future” NFL players never would jump to the WFL, they and their NFL cohorts would appreciate what the new league had done for their salaries.

The franchise game was no less intriguing. One team went through several identities. First, it was slated to play in Maryland and wanted to be called the Washington Capitals, but the expansion NHL franchise, to be based in the new Capital Centre in Landover, Md., and debuting in the fall of 1974, had already trademarked the rights to the nickname. A contest held to name the team came up with the Ambassadors. For a short while the team became the Baltimore-Washington Ambassadors, and then the Baltimore name was dropped, and the team simply became known as the Washington Ambassadors. Owner Joe Wheeler offered former Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas a contract as head coach and GM of the team. Unitas, though retired at the end of the 1973 season, declined, stating that he was still under contract to the San Diego Chargers. Spurned by Unitas, Wheeler reached out to Redskins linebacker Jack Pardee with the same offer. Pardee jumped at the chance, and quickly signed with the new league.

In the meantime, Wheeler had engaged in a war for territory with Pardee's old boss, Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams. Wheeler wanted the Ambassadors to play at RFK Stadium, but Williams refused to allow it. Williams won the war, and the Ambassadors were on the move. Without ever stepping on the field, the team went through its third relocation, now called the Virginia Ambassadors, to be based in Norfolk. But only for a moment. Then, the operation would move considerably further south and settle upon the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando. Hence, the Florida Blazers were born.

But among all of those storylines were the Detroit Wheels, whose one-season odyssey, even by WFL standards, was very unique.

The Detroit franchise didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. Commissioner Davidson was first approached by a man named Bud Hucul about placing a team in the Motor City. Davidson gave Hucul his blessing until it was discovered that Hucul was a hospital employee whose previous business dealings included dozens of arrests and lawsuits. After the Hucul mess, the Wheels were officially born on December 13, 1973, when Davidson announced that a group of 10 local business and political leaders had put up the necessary entry fee. This group, which was assisted by Mayor Coleman Young, would eventually grow, and would include Motown legend singer Marvin Gaye and Mike Illitch, owner of Little Caesar's Pizza and eventually the NHL Red Wings and MLB Tigers.

The club came in existence with no less than 33 individual investors, investing from $14-50,000 each. The groups’ leader, 28-year old Louis Lee, who had been on the football team at the University of Michigan, went to work contacting doctors, lawyers, rich widows, and basically anyone with a sizeable checkbook who could finance the "dream" of owning a professional football club.

By March, Lee had his partners beyond the initial group including Gaye and Ilitch...thirty-three who had contributed a total of $400,000 and purchased a World Football League franchise for the city of Detroit. Lee was named president and he and other the thirty-two partners all received gold blazers embossed with the teams’ logo. More on the owners throughout this piece.

On the football side, the Wheels had an interesting, and intriguing, idea for their head coaching job, and first pursued “Big John” Merritt, the legend from Tennessee State. Merritt, however, rejected the offer from the Wheels and their GM, Sonny Grandelius, who had some success at Colorado more than a decade earlier before getting run out of Boulder when the Buffs ran afoul of the NCAA. Grandelius had also worked as an analyst alongside the legendary Van Patrick on CBS-TV Detroit Lions telecasts in the late ‘60s but was a sales manager for a Detroit automotive parts concern when the Wheels came calling. Grandelius would subsequently hire Eastern Michigan’s Dan Boisture (left; there’s the MAC connection again!), a regional favorite since his days as a star player for the University of Detroit, as his head coach. If the name Boisture sounds familiar to pro football fans, it's probably because Dan's brother Tom was a longtime NFL personnel exec with the Patriots and Giants.

Like most of the WFL general managers, Grandelius was hamstrung in his attempts to build a roster. Proving he could identify future talent, the Wheels would pick impressively in the WFL’s first college draft, choosing future NFL stalwarts Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Bill Simpson, Freddie Scott, Rick Middleton and Randy Grossman. But the Wheels couldn’t sign any of them, including their top choice, Michigan TE Paul Seal, who inked with the NFL Saints instead. Only 3 of the 33 Detroit draftees would sign with the Wheels.

Desperate for players, the Wheels would roll the dice with their own public audition for talent, putting out a call for bodies in hopes of filling their roster. The team ran an add in the Detroit Free Press for "professional athletes". Boisture and his staff held tryouts at Belle Isle for over 600 hopefuls, including a man who brought his wife (dressed in a fur coat) and a office executive who handed Boisture a note that read, "I’d really like to play football, but if I can’t make the team I’d settle for water boy." Not one of the 600 hopefuls made the team--not even as water boy. Boisture had his work cut out for him.

Their most ambitious play for an “established” star involved RB Warren McVea, once a ballyhooed prep and star at the University of Houston and a sometimes-contributor with the Kansas City Chiefs, including their Super Bowl year of 1969. But McVea was also a prima donna of the highest order, and his career had been slowed by a succession of injuries. McVea reported to camp late, worked out four days and then either missed or was late to several practices. Boisture suspended him and then added insult to injury by giving McVea’s #6 jersey to one of the team's ball boys. McVea was ultimately traded to the Houston Texans, having never worn a Wheels uniform.

Like many WFL teams, the Detroit roster was a mish-mash of several CFL refugees, minor league players, free agents, and a handful of NFL castoffs and lower-profile rookies. The CFL contingent would provide the nucleus of the team, led by former Tennessee QB Bubba Wyche, who had backed up Dewey Warren for two years in Knoxville and would lead the Vols to the Cotton Bowl in his senior season of 1968. For the next few years, Wyche, whose older brother Sam was a star QB at Furman before his own pro career and later an NFL head coach at Cincinnati and Tampa Bay, had been languishing on the bench in Saskatchewan behind legendary CFL QB Ron Lancaster and jumped at the chance to leave the Roughriders for the new league. The running backs also were CFL imports, Calgary’s Jesse Mims (New Mexico State) and Edmonton’s Sam Scarber (New Mexico), and the CFL/New Mexico connection continued on defense with S Rocky Long, lured from the B.C. Lions and a former Lobo star. (That’s the same Rocky Long who would eventually coach at his alma mater and is currently the HC at San Diego State...more on Rocky in a bit). Rocky’s safety partner was none other than Terry Hoeppner, who would also go on to a career on the sidelines as HC at Miami-Ohio and Indiana before his untimely passing in 2007.

Wyche had ex-Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hubie Bryant as his main target, and other sturdy receivers in Jon Henderson and Terry Phillips. Detroit also signed other promising rookies; offensive guard Doug Neuendorf, running backs Jim Rathje and George Spanish, linebacker Dominic Riggio, defensive tackles Eddie Johnson and Jesse Parks, and defensive backs Rick Murphy and Gary Yeoman.

But there were multitudes of problems from the beginning with the Wheels, including the search for a proper home venue. Rebuffed by top choice Tiger Stadium and second choice Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, the Wheels needed help from Detroit Mayor Coleman Young to finally secure EMU’s Rynearson Stadium, located near Ann Arbor and 35 miles west of downtown Detroit in suburban Ypsilanti. Dan Boisture would thus be coaching in the same stadium where he had previously led his EMU then-called Hurons (years before they became the Eagles). Wheels ownership contributed $400,00 to improvements, as Rynearson would be upgraded from 15,000 to 22,000 seats, and improved lighting would be required for nighttime TV. But Rynearson was also not especially convenient, located well off of I-94 and requiring some work to find the stadium from the interstate.

Other storm clouds were forming. The 33-strong ownership group didn’t take into consideration the cost of equipment, lodging, training facilities and administrative costs that go into owning a professional football team. The Wheels were assembled at the bargain basement price of $10,000 per player, and on the eve of training camp, a team official seriously suggested a version of Washington, D.C.’s late-60s “Resurrection City” and that the team pitch tents in the city park so the Wheels could conduct practice at a reduced price. It was bad enough that the Wheels couldn’t practice on a field with sidelines and end zones, but to have the players sleep in tents was simply asking too much. One day, Boisture and his staff traveled to a possible training camp site to find the field covered with three inches of manure.

Money issues proved problematic almost everywhere in the WFL, but the Detroit mess was particularly acute.

Commissioner Davidson was immediately aware that the Detroit situation might be the worst in the league. "There are definitely some problems in Detroit," understated Davidson. And the players were feeling the brunt of it. The team ran out of adhesive tape, and was saved only when a local medical supplies salesman donated a case to the club. Punter Chuck Collins said a shortage of towels forced him to dry off after practice with two T-shirts. Another player was denied a shoestring. Quarterback Bubba Wyche would eventually send an “S.O.S” telegram to Davidson, begging for help.

With this as a backdrop, it was no surprise that the Wheels lost games at the outset...and kept losing. The Wheels who survived camp opened the season in Memphis, where Detroit fell behind 18-0 and would lose to the Southmen, 34-15. The Wheels lost four fumbles and gained only 56 yards rushing. A week later, the Wheels opened their home season. "We'll sell out!" proclaimed ticket manager Brian Rekiel. Instead, the Wheels drew the smallest crowd of the young WFL season -- only 10,631 people. The Wheels were not helped by the fact that one local newspaper listed the game's starting time as 8:30 and another reported it as 7:30. Not only that, a late 5-yard TD run by Florida Blazers RB and ex-Missouri star Tommy Reamon (and later an acclaimed HS coach in the Tidewater region) sent Detroit to its second straight loss, 18-14.

Club President Louis. Lee spent most of the game walking through the stands talking to fans. "I was trying to convince the people to come back next time,“Lee said, painting quite a contrast between himself and the blue-blood NFL Lions owner William Clay Ford, who was less likely to walk the aisles at Tiger Stadium than he would to frequent the downtown Lafayette Coney Island for a couple of coney dogs. But the fact Lee shook the hands with almost all of the fans also meant that attendance was ominously low.

Four days later after the home loss to the Blazers, the Wheels had made the long trek to face the Hawaiians in the old Honolulu Stadium, a year before new Aloha Stadium would be ready. Detroit led 16-14 in the third quarter, but the Hawaiians exploded for 22 points to win 36-16. Wyche was intercepted three times, and the Wheels were still O-for-1974. And in deep trouble.

The owners were already weighing three options open to them: 1) Sell the team to investors who would move the team; 2) Sell the team to local investors; or 3) Keep dumping money in a hole in the ground.

There were reports of investments angels saving the day. Including John DeLorean, the celebrity (and eventually to-be-disgraced) Detroit auto executive who was said to be preparing an offer to buy the team and move it into Tiger Stadium. Esther Edwards, one of the owners and VP of Motown Records, was reportedly willing to purchase controlling interest in the club. Upton Bell, son of former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell, was also trying to put a group together to buy the team and move it to Charlotte, North Carolina.

"There is no question the ownership will have to be restructured,” said Grandelius, "It's a simple matter of mathematics. The fan support hasn't been there. Our owners realize now, too, that it's a difficult proposition to try to operate a business with 33 owners."

Financial hardships continued to plague the team, as the team's demise grew more imminent and rumors circled. It was whispered that the Wheels went more than a week without selling a single ticket. During one game, the P.A. announcer reported to the small crowd that the Wheels would be on the road the following week. The crowd cheered. At another game, the few people who had bothered to show up entertained themselves with a game of Frisbee. When wide receiver Jon Henderson's son had to be treated at a hospital, Henderson was told the Wheels' hospitalization policy was worthless, and he had to scrape up $500 to pay the bill. Players took to bringing their own towels to the locker room. Eventually, as things got worse, groups of players moved their wives and kids into a single house, making it easier to evacuate if the franchise had to move.

Even the coaches were affected. Lack of funds made it impossible for games to be filmed.

Indeed, the money woes reached everywhere. For one home game the official programs were not delivered. The printer had not been paid. The Wheels’ launder also had not been paid, so on several occasions, the team didn’t have uniforms and had to cancel practice. One day the Wheel players were paid an office employee who walked out onto the field and started handing out paychecks while the team ran their plays. A wide receiver running a rout was quickly handed a paycheck and the ball fell incomplete. Money was a rarity, and the checks were stashed in helmets, shoulder pads and socks. One player suggested that the Wheel players would get more of a workout if they sprinted to the bank before the checks bounced.

The losses continued, at the bank and on the field. The Wheels’ second home game drew only 14,614 fans and Detroit lost 21-18 to Birmingham. There would be a quick rematch at Legion Field on August 7, in front of a Birmingham crowd the Wheels could only dream of--40,367. They watched the Americans beat the Wheels for the second week in a row, 28-22, as ex-Grambling star QB Matthew Reed hit future Atlanta Falcons WR star Alfred Jenkins for a 17-yard TD pass with only 22 seconds to play to secure the win. The Wheels hurt themselves by tiurning over the ball five times. Memphis then trashed Detroit 37-7, shredding the Wheels defense for 279 yards rushing, led by ex-Rutgers star J.J. Jennings’ 113 YR. Detroit committed four turnovers and gave up seven QB sacks. Another small gathering at Rynearson--10,300--watched the Wheels concede 28 points in the 2nd Q and get flattened by the Chicago Fire, 35-23. Detroit had a net minus 2 yards passing in the game as its quarterbacks were once again sacked seven times. Near the end of the game, the Wheels' pep band heaped insult onto injury by playing the Jose Feliciano hit Light My Fire.

The Wheels, at the brink of complete financial collapse, took another step towards the edge of oblivion. Management moved the Wheels’ September 2nd home game against the Portland Storm to London, Ontario, Canada (120 miles from Detroit) for $30,000 in survival cash from Portland owner Robert Harris. Harris was interested in moving the Storm to the Ontario city and renaming it the London Lords. On an overcast day, an announced crowd of 5,101 (actually only 2,000 tickets were sold) watched what the media christened the "Battle of the Beaten" as Portland defeated Detroit 18-7. The Wheels were 0-9.

Amid the financial mess and missed paychecks (which was not unique for the Wheels among their WFL brethren) , Boisture somehow kept the team battling, even after what would become ten straight losses. The payoff would finally come in Orlando, of all places, where a late TD and action point by ex-TCU RB Billy Sadler provided the deciding points as the Wheels circled the wagons, rallied and managed to beat the Florida Blazers, 15-14, on Sept. 11. The margin of victory was a Blazer missed action point pass in the last quarter.

(The Blazers, coached by Jack Pardee, would endure many of the same financial hardships, and then some, as the season progressed, eventually to be regarded as the “Payless Wonders” after working without paychecks for the final 11 weeks of the season, yet somehow hanging together to make the playoffs and reach the World Bowl finale, where a breathless 4th Q rally fell one point short of the Birmingham Americans in a 22-21 thriller.)

Soon after the victory against Florida, the league took over the Wheels. Each of the remaining clubs were assessed a $60,000 fee to help finance the Wheels’ debts. Then, on September 24, 1974 the Detroit Wheels organization filed a petition for reorganization under Federal bankruptcy laws, listing debts of more than $1.5 million. The team had been plagued by the worst record and lowest attendance in the WFL. and listed as debts; $480,000 in unpaid franchise fees; $140,000 in loans from the Bank of the Commonwealth and three loans from individual owners. While the league and the former owners fought out the legalities in the courts, the Wheels also left behind a legacy of possible new home towns to roll into.

Shreveport, Louisiana. was actually the first rumored city. Reports had the Wheels moving to Shreveport and making a multi-million dollar offer to South Carolina and former LSU HC Paul Dietzel (highlighted in our SEC Retrospective), and a multi-year offer to star NFL. quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who lived in Shreveport and had attended nearby La Tech in Ruston. After a Texas judge ordered a game between the Houston Texans and the Hawaiians to be played in Houston, the Texans announced their move to Shreveport, becoming the Steamer, and the Wheels were unwanted in Louisiana. (Midseason moves were another unique element of the WFL.)

Louisville was the nest reported destination for the Wheels. Management and the city talked in depth about bringing the team to Kentucky and play at Fairgrounds Stadium, adjacent to Freedom Hall, but talks fell through in the last seconds. DeLorean reportedly held negotiations with Tiger Stadium officials about moving Wheels games to the venue. In the end, DeLorean balked and the Wheels were again unwanted. Race car driver Roger Penske was also rumored to be interested in the Wheels.

The win at Orlando vs. the Blazers would be Detroit's only taste of victory. The Wheels played hard again in their next game, as Wyche rallied the team from a 22-3 deficit and into a late lead, but Southern California QB Gary Valbuena would hit former UCLA and San Francisco 49er WR Dick Witcher for a game-winning 29-yard TD pass with just 1:47 remaining at the Big A, and the Sun would win 29-24 at Anaheim. The Wheels were then crushed 37-7 by another team in financial trouble, the New York Stars. In fact, the win over Detroit was New York's last game in the Big Apple, played at the dimly-lit Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island. Upton Bell, who had considered buying the Wheels, purchased the Stars instead and immediately moved them to Charlotte. The move was announced in the press box at the end of the game, and one of the writers present simply couldn’t resist a little play on words. “Frankly Charlotte, I don’t give a damn!,” he paraphrased in his best Clark Gable impression, prompting a chorus of laughs.

A 14-11 loss to Shreveport on Oct. 2 put the Wheels’ record at 1-13. In keeping with their short-lived tradition, the Wheels, for the 8th time in the season, blew a lead to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Detroit saw an 11-7 edge evaporate along with its offense, which produced only 7 first downs and 85 yards rushing. The Wheels turned the ball over three times and Bubba Wyche, who had stayed in the lineup despite absorbing a terrible beating all season, was sacked another three times.

But the end was at hand. As DB Rocky Long, now the San Diego State HC, recalled at the recent Mountain West media day in Las Vegas. “After the game, the sheriffs came and confiscated our uniforms,” said Long. “About that time, we knew it was done.”

One day after the loss to Shreveport, creditors packed a bankruptcy court in Detroit to file $1.4-million worth of claims against the Wheels. On October 7, Davidson announced that those games involving the Wheels and the Jacksonville Sharks for the upcoming week had been postponed. If new investors were not found in 2 or 3 days, the commissioner stated, both teams would be folded. The financial calvary was not coming over the hill for the Wheels, however. When Davidson's deadline approached, the clock struck midnight for Detroit. Davidson announced that the Wheels and the Sharks had been removed from the league schedule. The Wheels had officially fallen off.

"I don't know where things went wrong", said the same Rocky Long, in a long-ago Sporting News interview, "but they sure went wrong somewhere along the line. The first time I knew we were in trouble was when I read it in the papers. The team and the coaches always have been the last ones to know anything. We never know, from day to day almost, where we're going to practice, or where we're going to play. We went a couple of games without scouting film because the club couldn't afford to process it and more than once we've worn dirty uniforms to practice. We've just had to patch up old stuff and make it do. I guess because we couldn't buy anything else.

"All the problems have put a lot of pressure on everybody,"
Long concluded. "We've been thinking about everything but football."

(At the aforementioned recent Mountain West media day in Las Vegas, Long was able to joke with assembled writers and players about the old days of the WFL. “We’re quizzing them about the Detroit Wheels,” I said to Long as he stopped by to see how his players were handling their interviews. “They don’t even know the Detroit Wheels existed,” said Long. To which LT Terry Poole said, “Was that a dog-sled team, or something?")

As for the ownership group? "They were just thirty-two jerks who thought they'd be millionaires overnight," snarled punter Chuck Collins after the team folded.

In retrospect, the Wheels, while operating against the odds (as was the entire WFL), could have still served as a model of one of the first racially diverse professional sports’ ownership groups had Gary Davidson been inclined to hold them up as such. That he sought ownership from almost anyone willing to hand him a minimal amount of money obscured the fact that the Detroit owners’ group had the potential to blaze a new trail in sports. But the Wheels’ ownership was an unwieldy group of mostly modest financial means who instead saw the opportunity to bask in the glow of status and stardom. From the start it was doomed to failure.

Some of the owners had the means to make it work, including Motown Records Vice President Esther Edwards, and respected attorney William Browning. Mike Ilitch, still years from buying the Red Wings and Tigers, could have been another alternative, though he was not as prominent in 1974 as he would eventually become. But most did not have the means and none believed the realistic prediction of Bob Fenton, an attorney representing a rival group that had bid for the WFL franchise when he stated that “it would take maybe $3 million a year outlay for four straight years before a franchise could expect to produce profits.” Louis Lee, at twenty-eight years of age, was left to run the operation, the first African-American (and youngest) president of any pro sports franchise to that date. His sports legacy deserved better.

Is there any other lasting memory of the Wheels? Well, their uniforms were as slick as any pro football had ever seen, with one of the best color combinations we can recall. Black jerseys with yellow numbers outlined in an orange-tinged red and sleeve stripes, and corresponding white jerseys with red numbers, with yellow pants featuring thick red piping, trimmed in black, made for a memorable appearance, if nothing else. The yellow helmets with the wide red stripe flanked by thinner black stripes had a great logo, although even today you can engender a great deal of conversation by interpreting that wonderful logo. A tire in the middle of a lower case “d?” Was it a musical note in honor of Motown and/or Mrs. Edwards? We’ll never know.

And 40 years later, at least we can say that the Detroit Wheels looked pretty good whenever they took the field.


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