Monday, July 22, 2013

WFL Stadium Tour: Rynearson Stadium

Aerial of Rynearson Stadium.  Photo courtesy of EMU Athletics.

Rynearson Stadium (Ypsilanti, MI).  Home of the Detroit Wheels.
Some facts about the stadium:

-       Rynearson stadium is home to the Easter Michigan University Eagles.
-       The stadium is named after Elton J. Rynearson, Sr., who coached football at Eastern Michigan for 26 seasons.
-       The Wheels initially hoped to play in Tiger Stadium in Detroit but since the Detroit Lions of the NFL played there the Wheels needed to find a different home.  They moved nearly 40 miles west to play in Rynearson Stadium.
Dan Boisture coaching at EMU
-       Dan Boisture was hired as the Wheels head coach after coaching the Eastern Michigan Eagles from 1967-1973.  Boisture’s record at EMU was 45-20-3.  His record with the Wheels was 1-13 before the franchise folded with six games remaining in 1974.
-       Original capacity was 15,500 but expanded to 22,227 and lights were added when the Detroit Wheels announced they were going to play there.
-       The most fans the Wheels drew at home was reportedly 14,614 against the Birmingham Americans (The Americans would go on to win the one and only World Bowl).  In what would be their final home game the Wheels only drew a reported 6,351 spectators.  The Wheel’s lost all five of their home games.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Ron Mix Interview, Portland Storm GM

In March of 1974 the Portland Storm became the 12th and final team to join the World Football League.  With less than four months until the start of the season the franchise had a lot of work to do (especially since the WFL draft had already taken place and other teams were signing players).  Ron Mix, who was a couple years removed from wrapping up his Hall of Fame career in the NFL, was hired as the Storm’s general manager.

WFL Nation: What were you doing prior to joining the World Football League?
Ron Mix: Well, I played in the National Football League for 12 years.  10 years with the San Diego Chargers, 2 years with the Oakland Raiders.  While playing for the San Diego Chargers I went to law school at night.  A four-year program.  So I was already an attorney by the time I started playing for the Raiders.  Then once I finished with the Raiders the Chargers offered me a job as their in-house attorney to, among other things, negotiate player contracts and certain other duties and I did that for approximately a year.  Starting the second year I was contacted by a friend of mine, Bruce Gelker, former University of Southern California football player.  We played in different eras but I attended the University of Southern California also.  And he told me that he had purchased the Portland franchise of the World Football League and he offered me a chance to be the General Manager and part owner of the team.  And in any event for a bunch of reasons I decided to do that.  In retrospect I think it was a foolish move because I think it’s foolish anytime you move away from the National Football League.  But at any rate that was my first foolish move and I accepted that job.
I actually believe that it was the perfect time to start a new league because the salaries in the NFL were really depressed and the players were not being paid fairly.  And I thought that was a real opportunity for a new league to start and for the league to be able to obtain outstanding players both through the draft but also by the league signing NFL players whose contracts had expired or in fact even signing them to future contracts.  Waiting until their team contracts had expired.
In any event, that’s what I thought.  I was wrong because the league really was not operated adequately.  There was not consistently a well-funded group of owners.  There were a couple of owners that were well funded but not everybody was and so in retrospect it was probably doomed from the start.  But it was an interesting experience if not a frustrating experience.  But I would trade it in an instant, I would trade it in an instant to have not made that decision.

WFLN: Why do you say that?
RM: Well, it was just a bad decision.  I think I was the first in-house attorney any NFL team has ever had and so I think it would have put me in a good learning position to perhaps someday be a general manager of a team.  But once work history was tainted with working in the World Football League, a league that did force the NFL to start paying salaries that were really much much more fair than previously had been.  I don’t think any NFL team would have been particularly enamored with hiring me.  Although I didn’t make any effort either.  I just started practicing law.

WFLN: When Bruce Gelker first reached out to you what was your main interest to join the WFL?
RM: Well, I had already decided that at that time the San Diego Chargers were in a very big downward spiral.  They had been severely fined by the league for providing unauthorized illegal drugs to their players and it just seemed like there was no real direction that I could look at for the team having any long-term success.  They just seemed to be misguided.  So I looked at it and saw that it was an unstable job and I thought well I might see it’s a job 2 years, 3 years, 5 years… What if I’m in it five years and then football is somewhat unstable and then lose a job.  In the meantime I will not have learned how to practice as an attorney and maybe I have to leave town, join another football team and I didn’t want to leave San Diego on a more permanent basis.  So when Bruce offered the job at a salary greater than I was receiving with the Chargers and with a 5% ownership interest at no cost I decided it was worth the risk.  I thought I’d just be risking one year of my life.  If it worked out it’d turn out great, if it didn’t no big deal I’d just start practicing law.
But in retrospect the Chargers really did right the ship.  And the owner Gene Klein really became an outstanding owner.  It just took him a while to understand how to run a football team even though he is a brilliant businessman in all other respects.  He turned out to be an outstanding owner.  I should have had more patience.

WFLN: When you first went to the Storm what was your plan as their general manager to put together the Storm’s roster?
RM: The lowest paid players at the time were offensive/defensive linemen and my plan was to go into the NFL, it was really more of a two year plan, find out which players contracts would be expiring and then sign them up for the following year at a very significant pay increase.  And expecting that by the second year with the outstanding, because we would have had the influx of top NFL players offensive and defensive linemen.  But also try to get players that what we’ll call the skilled but overrated positions.  I think it was technically a good plan.

WFLN: What other responsibilities did you make priorities when you first stepped in as general manager?
RM: Well, of course the priority was to really sell tickets.  But that was something that would almost have to take care of itself.  You have to have a winning team, an exciting team, you have to have people who are a population who’s convinced they are going to see a good brand of football, a good level of football.  The football was pretty good.  There was a weakness as there always is in a new league.  The weakness would have been, generally speaking, at quarterback.  Generally speaking throughout the league there were a few good quarterbacks.  But the overall attendance of the league was really not very good.

WFLN: How was the football team received in the Portland area?
RM: There was a good core of fans but it was a small core of fans.  I forget what our average attendance was but I think it was probably somewhere in the range of 12-15,000 a game and it probably would have taken 25,000 a game to break even.
(Ed. note- Attendance figures show the Storm averaged just under 15,200 per game.)

WFLN: When you first took over the team, as you were heading into the season what were your realistic goals for that first year of the franchises existence?
RM: I thought it would really have to be a two-year plan before we could become a really good team.  So the goal really was to just be competitive and put on a good product and I think [head coach Dick] Coury was able to do that.

WFLN: The team started the season 0-7-1.  Do you recall anything about that rough start with the team?
RM: I don’t even recall it.

WFLN: Really.
RM: Yeah, I don’t recall that that was the start.  If you were to ask me how did we finish I’d probably tell you I think we were a .500 team.  Am I close to my recollection?

WFLN: Yeah, after that rough start you did go 7-5 the rest of the way.
RM: Yeah, I think the problem was I believe the Portland franchise started later than the other teams and the signing of players.  So I think they were at a handicap and it took us a while to bring in the bodies, then it took a while for Dick Coury to educate them properly so he could form them into a team.

WFLN: Do you have any specific recollections about any games from that [1974] season?
RM: I think our first game was an away game in Philadelphia and my wife traveled with me with the team to go to that game and the stadium was absolutely packed.  I told her “Oh my gosh it looks like we made the right decision.”  And then later we found out that the team ownership had like papered the house by about 40,000 free tickets to people.  So I remember how disappointed we were to learn that.  Then of course there were just attendance problems throughout the year by all teams.
(Ed. note- Attendance in Philadelphia for the season opener was reported as 55,534.  It was later reported only 13,800 purchased tickets.)

WFLN: You mentioned before the finances of the league and the struggles.  What was the financial situation like for the Storm?
RM: Well, it started out right away Bruce Gelker sold the team.  He may have sold it before the first game.  And it sold to a guy from Canada named Bob Harris and Bob reportedly was wealthy but he stopped putting money into the team.

WFLN: What was that like for you?
RM: Oh, it was very distressing.  To not be able to pay the guys.  Very distressing.  That was the ugly part of being associated with that team is that nobody ever received the full amount of their salary.  In fact neither did I.

WFLN: Really?  What was that like for you as well?
RM: I had a personal guarantee from Bruce Gelker on my salary and then I hadn’t received anything.  I didn’t receive anything at all during that entire time I was with the team so I ended up having to sue my friend Bruce Gelker and about three years later, it took that long to get to court, about three years later I got paid.  But of course I got paid after attorney fees so financially it didn’t turn out so hot either.

WFLN: Are you guys still friends?
RM: I can refer to him as a friend.  We knew each other.  We knew each other prior to the relationship but it wasn’t like a long-standing social relationship.  And with the passage of time we became social acquaintances again.  We were cordial in each others presence.

WFLN: Getting back to the team.  There’s lots of stories of bills not getting paid.  Was there ever any talks of a boycott from the players about not getting paid that you guys had to deal with on a management level?
RM: No, I don’t recall that.  No, no the guys… I think they kind of resigned themselves to if the league survives maybe we’ll get paid.

WFLN: That must have been really tough on you to have to deal with.
RM: Well, again it was distressing not being able to help them out.  I’ll say this, the players had a great attitude.  A great attitude about it.  They naturally were unhappy they were only getting a small fraction of what they were supposed to be getting every week and they still kept practicing hard and playing hard.

WFLN: When you reflect back on the league and that season now.  It’s going on almost 40 year later now.  What do you think?
RM: I think they missed a great opportunity to come up with a competitive league.  There just wasn’t the financial backing.  The league never should have got off the ground with the type of financial batch generally existed with the league.  There should have been certain safeguards that should have included that each owner is required to drop a bond, whatever amount of dollars they anticipated to operate a team for a year.  There was just no safeguards at all.  It was a huge missed opportunity because America was ripe for more teams in more cities and the players were not being paid adequately in the NFL and were ripe for being, to use a farm analogy, were ripe for being harvested to move over to another league.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Richmond Flowers Jr. Interview, Shreveport Steamer Safety

When the World Football League came into existence “future” contracts were a way owners set out to compete with the National Football League.  A number of NFL players signed future contracts with the WFL including Jim Kiick, Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield of the Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins.  But it was Richmond Flowers Jr. who started it all as the first player under contract with the NFL to officially sign with the World Football League.

WFL Nation: What were you doing in 1973 prior to the World Football League?
Richmond Flowers Jr.: I was with the New York Giants in New York City and I was also a part of the World, there was a professional track circuit they tried to start at the same time and those World Football League guys were the same guys, [WFL Founder/Commissioner- Gary] Davidson and those guys were connected somehow and that’s how they got in touch with me.  And I think I was the first one to sign, I signed before the quarterback from the Chicago Bears did.  Which didn’t necessarily turn out to be a good thing.
(Ed. note- In the early 70’s the International Track Association was formed.  Richmond Flowers Jr. competed in it and Gary Davidson was a part of the advisory committee.)

WFLN: What interested you in the league?
RF: Well, I mean its money is what I was interested in.  I was living in New York City, starting defensive back making $27,000 and wondering why I never had any money when the season was over.  So they offered a whole bunch of money.  I didn’t have the sense of how to secure it and took it on a promise.  You know never ever really got paid.

WFLN: What kind of money were they offering to you?
RF: Oh, they offered about $250,000.

WFLN: For how many years?
RF: I just remember the number.  Probably 3 I guess.

WFLN: Was there one team making an offer, or multiple teams?
RF: I got offered by the league.  The league [co-founders], [Gary] Davidson and [Donald J.] Regan.  They were the ones that offered it and they said they would assign me to a team.  But they wanted me to do it because I was in New York City and I was in the track so a little bit of name recognition and that’s why.  So I did it with the league and I ended up getting signed to Houston.

WFLN: How did the NFL react when you decided to play in the World Football League?
RF: They really never said anything.  They offered me some goofy $28,000 or something and I probably should have gone and negotiated with them but the others offered me a lot more so I just took it and they read about it in the newspaper.

WFLN: I read in some places you signed for a front office job but you also played in the league.
RF: Yeah, that was part of the deal.  They would assign me to a team and I would also be working a career when it was all over in the front office.  That was a part of the enticement, but it was to play.  But I couldn’t play until my contract ran out.  The Giants still had an option on me for one more year so I had to wait around and while I waited around I actually worked with the Texans until finally the Giants cut me at the end.  And then I could play with the Texans and then they ended up moving to Shreveport.

WFLN: So you were also going to move into the front office but they signed you to play.
RF: Yeah, yeah.  That was just a part of it but I didn’t sign for the front office.  I signed to be a player but with the understanding that if everything went well there would be a place for me in the league office or in the front office which is certainly something the Giants never would offer, and I had seen what happened with the AFL, and those guys were pretty charming, and I was hoping they could do it again.  You know they had done the World Hockey [Association] and that, at the time, was doing pretty well.  So I thought they could really pull it off.  I was wrong.
(Ed. note- The World Hockey Association (WHA) existed from 1972-1979.  Gary Davidson was a co-founder of the league.  Four WHA teams merged into the NHL. (The Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets))

WFLN: What was that like when they [Houston Texans] moved [to Shreveport, Louisiana]?  You were coming to a franchise that was just moving, they had a new ownership, they had a new head coach.  What was that like to come in and start playing with them?
RF: Well I thoroughly enjoyed Shreveport.  That was a great place to play.  They supported the team really well.  I mean Houston didn’t support them at all.  But Shreveport did and when you’re playing you like to think somebody cares about what you’re doing and it was kind of like a Green Bay situation.  So I thoroughly enjoyed the two years I was in Shreveport.

WFLN: What’s your favorite story from playing with the Shreveport Steamer?
RF: Oh geez, (laughs).  Going to the horse tracks and trying to win some money at the horse tracks.  They started those about the same time that we had our team (laughs) (Louisiana Downs Race Track opened in October of 1974) and that was our best chance to make any money was going out to the horse tracks I think.  And, you know, just kind of a shock being in a really low end dressing room.  I mean you knew you were in the minors when you were in that dressing room and nobody was paid so everybody was grumbling all the time.  You know they weren’t happy.  And Shreveport probably got paid less than anybody but when we played in the game we played and we loved it and that’s why we kept playing for nothing.  Because we loved the game.  But you never forget not getting paid and people not being able to pay their bills and cars being repossessed.  It was pretty bad.

WFLN: So were you getting paid occasionally a little bit or were they not paying you at all?
RF: They did pay some.  I got paid… they guaranteed me, let’s say I was getting paid $30,000.  Seems like they guaranteed me $15,000 and they said they’d pay that upfront if I came back the second year.  And I said “No problem.  That’d be good.  I’ll do it.”  But the $15,000 that you pay me is going to apply to the last seven games.  Let’s say that there was 14 games and that I’ll get paid month to month on the first seven games. (laughs) I figured out a few things along the way.  And I’d be daggone if they didn’t go seven games and then cave in and nobody got paid the rest of their money.  But I did.  Because I got a guarantee on the second half of the season.

WFLN: Wow.  That’s interesting.
RF: Yeah, it was lucky.  But it was also experience having been through all that stuff you know and they were willing to give me the money up front, in advance against the salary and I said “Great.  Just make it advanced against the last seven games and not the first seven.”  And they did it and that’s how I got paid.

WFLN: I’ve heard stories about teams because of the lack of money not being able to get uniforms back from the laundry or problems with team bus drivers not getting paid.  Do you recall any stories like that during your time with the Shreveport Steamer?
RF: No.  You know they did exactly what they said they’d do the second year.  We played seven games and I don’t remember having any problems other than we came to a screeching halt at seven games.  (Ed. Note- they played 12 games in 1975) I know what you’re talking about and I think Philadelphia and some of those ended up a lot worse than we were.  Now that I remember thinking about it Shreveport was a pretty good place.  They did pay some of the money.  Some of those people I don’t think paid anything.  I remember when the USFL (United States Football League) came along.  I had some friends that were coaching and they weren’t getting paid and I said “Well, what you should do is wait till you’re on national television and then about six hours or seven hours before the game tell them you’re not going to play if they don’t pay you and pay all the players.”  They wouldn’t do it but that was the only thing that you could have done was you had to hold them up on a television game in order to get paid and nobody would do that because they knew that if they didn’t play then that could just take the whole thing down and everybody was afraid of taking the whole thing down because everybody loved the game so much and they didn’t want to do that.  And they should have because other guys probably would have ponied up and paid those guys.  Because some of those guys didn’t get paid anything.

WFLN: You mentioned the Philadelphia Bell in there.  You played a game one time with Shreveport against Philadelphia.
RF: I remember that.

WFLN: It was at JFK Stadium and it was reported that only 750 fans were at that game.
RF: You think there was that many?
(Ed. note- JFK Stadium could hold 102,000 for football games)

WFLN: What was that like to play inside a stadium of that size with that few people?
RF: Well, it was pouring down rain.  I remember that even more than the lack of a crowd.  I mean it was intense and nobody had conditioned the field and so we were playing in mud slop in front of those 700 people.  But I do remember it.  I remember there was nobody there and in the locker room at halftime I put a quarter in a pay phone and called somebody and just… it was a joke.  I called Lucia and said “I’m playing in a football game against the Philadelphia Bell and there’s nobody in the stands and it’s pouring down rain.”  I mean the coaches couldn’t really get to hopped up over that deal when you’re sitting there with nobody in the stands.
(Ed. note- The Steamer defeated the Bell 30-25)

WFLN: Who would you consider to be the best player on the team?
RF: I remember playing against [Jim] Nance in the NFL and he was the first 250 pound running back I’d ever seen.  Of course it was 250 around his stomach.  You know he was huge.  Whereas the guys today are 240 pounds and they have 8% body fat but Nance was a great guy.  He was a character.  He was.  Joe Robb was there from the Detroit Lions and it was the tail end of his career.  You know, all we could do is cry or laugh and we just laughed a lot.  On one hand it was terrible we didn’t have money.  On the other it was just… hell, it was a hoot.  You just go out and play and do the best you can.

WFLN: If you weren’t getting paid or players weren’t getting paid that much why did you all decide to keep playing?
RF: Because we love the game so much and they just hoped that maybe it would all work out.  It’s like they did in the USFL and everything else.  I mean these guys today, if those teams didn’t pay all that ridicules money they’d still play.  I guarantee you.  But those owners are willing to pay it so they should take everything they can till those owners decide one day to say “no, we’re going to pay X amount.”  They’d lose some [players].  You know there’d be some that got a lot of money and quit.  But I guarantee you those guys come along out of college will play for whatever they can get because they love the game.  We were the same way.  I mean it’s living proof that those guys loved the game.  That’s why they played.  It’s why I played.  I mean I wanted the money but the bottom line was they didn’t pay the money anymore then it came down to do you want money or do you love the game?  And I love the game.

WFLN: How did you find out about the league folding?
RF: They just came in one day and said we’re not going to ask you to play anymore and they’re not going to play.  I had gotten hit in the back of the shoulder and I actually missed the last game and didn’t even play because I was hurt.  So I may not have even been in the locker room when they announced it.  I can’t remember how we were told but I just remember we didn’t finish.  Only thing I remember was I got paid those last games that we didn’t get paid.  And I ended up getting the whole $35,000.  I wanted to go to law school and so I had to come back and play that year cause I needed the money to go to law school.  So I came back and they paid me like I told you and so with that $35,000 I then had the money to go to law school and I enrolled in law school the next September.
(Ed. note- Flowers Jr. went to the University of Alabama School of Law)

WFLN: Now I read that you represented the players at a meeting following the franchise folding.  Do you recall that meeting?
RF: No I don’t.  What was there to represent? (laughs)

WFLN: You were pretty upset about the team folding and that players weren’t going to get paid.
(Ed. note- In a quote from the UPI following the league folding Flowers Jr. said “Supposedly they are to come up with an offer to make a settlement with the players.” “I think that’ is wishful thinking.  If they think I am just going to walk away from this, I’m not.  If there’s any dirty laundry to drag out, we’ll drag it out.”)

RF: It was sad!  I mean there were people coming around there trying to get some of the players to take counterfeit money and go to racetracks and do it.  You know whatever or however you do that.  It was sad that guys were in that shape they would even consider something like that.  I don’t think any of them did it.  I knew that I had gotten that $35,000 that year and I knew that it was going to secure my future with law school.  But those other guys they didn’t get paid but for the first half and nothing thereafter.  They were all promised this would be a different deal and it’s all going to work out and it didn’t.  But you didn’t have any bargaining power.  There’s nothing you could do or say.  You’re upset all you want to but if they don’t have the money they don’t have the money.  That’s where I learned my lesson.  Just because some big guy with a lot of money is involved that doesn’t mean anything.  Cause you take a guy like Donald Trump, he may be worth a billion dollars but he limits his risk.  So he gets through a deal with a corporation and he says ‘I’ll put in a million and a half’ or whatever the number is and when you pass that number he’s done.  And kids just don’t understand that.  They think because there’s some big name in there, Chris Hemmeter or whoever it was going to be it was going to work.  But those guys, you know, they’re not going to let one deal take all their wealth away.  And so there was nothing you could do.  And I figured that out at that point that those guys were not going to come up with any money to keep the thing going and why would they with 700 people going to a football game?  People weren’t coming.  Birmingham had a great team and they had great crowds but theirs were falling off too because it was just sick and the fans knew it and they just didn’t want to support it anymore.
(Ed. note- Chris Hemmeter was the owner of “The Hawaiians” franchise in 1974 and became the WFL Commissioner in 1975)

WFLN: We’re approaching the 40th anniversary of when the league started, next year.  Now, 40 years later, how do you think the World Football League should be remembered?
RF: It was a bunch of guys that dream, that looked at the possibilities.  And being involved at the beginning is something really special.  You know they all maintained that optimism.  We were very optimistic and we saw the glass half full and we loved the game.  But at that point of time the NFL wasn’t paying anything.  Now they picked it up.  The WFL after [Jim] Kiick, [Larry] Csonka and [Paul] Warfield came across and some of those guys got a bunch of money the NFL started paying more and it never looked back.  But boy, when we came along they weren’t paying anything.  That’s what people don’t realize.  They had that little spurt with the AFL and NFL, you know with Joe Namath getting $250,000 (Ed. note- Namath’s AFL contract was reportedly 427,000) everybody thought that was the end of the world but after that competition between those leagues died then those salaries went back down.  I remember Calvin Hill, I think he was a first round draft pick.  I think he got a $25,000 bonus and a $25,000 salary.  I mean that’s a first round draft pick.  I was a second [round] draft pick and I got a $21,000 bonus and a $20,000 salary.

WFLN: And the WFL helped change that a little bit.
RF: It did change it.  It changed it.  And they never went back down after that.  They kept going.