Saturday, May 13, 2017

Forgotten Superstars:The 1984 Arizona Wranglers

We return to the Forgotten Superstars universe with a look at one of my favorite teams ever that I rooted for in just one season, became my team under bizarre circumstances, and after that season was around, yet gone.

Well, that's the story I'm about to tell of the 1984 Arizona Wranglers of the late and lamented United States Football League and it's one of those stories that only tends to happen in rebel leagues that attract rebel fans-like yours truly.

The USFL was the only league that started up when I could pick the team I wanted to root for from day one.
The ABA, WFL, and WHA were in existence in my childhood, but they started before I could understand, so I was picking my team to root from existing franchises.
Shane and I were the only people that we knew that were USFL fans and I remember watching as many games as possible on ESPN and the Sunday afternoon game of the week on ABC.
I bought/was sent several media guides from the different teams (including the pictured one above) and Shane and I each had USFL team hats from a store at the mall-American Outfitters, which was a clothing store that wouldn't have ranked high on any list of a retailer that would sell USFL hats!
To this day, I still have my battered Wranglers hat, it's not wearable anymore, but I still have it.

In the USFL, I could pick my team from any number of reasons-team colors, team names, the city the team was located in, coach,roster-whatever motivated you to be a fan of a team could be used because there were no restrictions!
In 1983, I looked at all of those factors and took the Chicago Blitz.
The Blitz had several former NFLers, signed some college stars (Running Back Tim Spencer of Ohio State of note for me) and they had hired George Allen as head coach, who I had liked as the Redskins coach and that made them my choice.
The Blitz was one of the early favorites to win the league and made the playoffs ( Four teams did in the initial season) with a memorable playoff loss in which the Blitz built a big lead (21 points) and then blew it in an overtime loss in Philadelphia to the favored Stars, who were the league's best team even though they would lose to Michigan next week in the championship game.

Here is where things go off the rails.
The Blitz was owned by a surgeon, Ted Dietrich, who had taken a massive money loss in season one in Chicago, who lived in Arizona and wanted to have a team closer to his home there.
This desire led to one of the craziest things in sports history.
Dietrich sold the Blitz to another surgeon in James Hoffman and then Dietrich bought the Arizona Wranglers (who went 4-14 in the 1983 season).
Dietrich now owned a team in the location that he wished to own it, but now had moved from one of the most talented in the league to one of the worst.
Considering the resources invested in the Blitz with some big contracts for top-notch players, this was a huge step backward, so something had to be done.
Whether it was friends helping friends or someone pulling a huge scam, Dietrich managed to trade almost the entire Wrangler talent roster (except quarterback Alan Risher, who had a contract clause that required his permission to leave Arizona) and coaching staff to Chicago for the same personnel from the playoff level Blitz and their staff, which included George Allen.
This was the rough equivalent of trading most of the Pittsburgh Steelers roster and coaches to the Jacksonville Jaguars for the same return-How happy do you think the Pittsburgh fans would be with such a swap?
Chicago fans didn't flock to see the playoff Blitz and with the "new" Blitz being a bottom feeder, the USFL was effectively finished in Chicago after this trade, but the Arizona fans welcomed a championship contender.
I had a choice to make-Should I stay with the uniforms and logo of the Blitz and continue my fandom with Chicago? Or should I follow "my"coach and players to Arizona?
I decided to pull for the Wranglers, after just one year of existence, deciding to stick to the team in the uniforms rather than the uniforms themselves.

The Wranglers featured an NFL veteran at quarterback in Greg Landry, who was solid if not great in his NFL years with the Lions and Colts, perhaps the best running game in the league with Tim Spencer, who likely could have been a first-round pick had he not signed with the USFL before the NFL draft and former Jet Kevin Long-both would rush for over 1,000 yards and a talented wide receiver in Trumaine Johnson ( 90 catches and well over 1,000 yards), another would be NFL 1st rounder that signed early with the USFL, the Wranglers could be a fun offensive team and the defense possessed several NFL veterans and Frank Minnifield, yet another would be high NFL pick and would later become a borderline hall of fame candidate as a Cleveland Brown.

The Wranglers generally played like the Blitz-as in beating the really good teams and losing games to awful teams such as losses to the terrible San Antonio Gunslingers at home and scoring just three points in a loss to the Oakland Invaders, another team with a losing record.
Arizona won just five of their first twelve games (5-7) before ripping off wins in five of their final six games to tie the Los Angeles Express at 10-8 for the Pacific Division title, but lost the tiebreaker and instead earned Arizona a wild card spot in the now eight-team playoff field.

The Wranglers were overlooked entering the Western Conference playoffs and would travel to a division champion to start the playoffs in Houston against Jim Kelly and the Gamblers.
The Wrangler offense did next to nothing for most of the game and the defense would struggle to contain Kelly but would manage to stiffen in the red zone as the Gamblers would kick three field goals by former Cowboy and Oiler Toni Fritsch with Kelly's offense only finding the end zone once.
Still, Arizona trailed 16-3 with only the final eight minutes to play and looked to be finished.
The offense began to turn the tide as Tim Spencer roared downfield on a twenty yard run for a score, the Wrangler defense stopped Kelly, forced a punt and then marched down the field for the winning score as Greg Landry flipped a scoring pass to former Dallas running back Doug Dennison with under two minutes to play to notch a shocking 17-16 win over the Gamblers.
I missed this game as ABC showed a few playoff games at the same time and we received the Birmingham-Tampa Bay game, but I was quite pleased to see the comeback through "updates from New York" from now HBO boxing voice Jim Lampley.

The upset win in Houston moved the Wranglers into the Western finals against another division champion in the Los Angeles Express and another hall of fame passer in Steve Young for a game scheduled in Los Angeles.
However, the Los Angeles Coliseum was preparing for the upcoming Olympics in a few weeks and the Express was not allowed to play there.
That meant the wild card Wranglers would host the playoff game against the division winner on a Sunday afternoon game on ABC, but there was yet another wrench to come.
The normal heat in Arizona in July is not exactly conducive to football, but this weekend was especially oppressive and the league pushed the kickoff back to 8 PM, which put the game at 11 pm in the East, which guaranteed a tiny audience.
It also meant that Shane and I would be watching the game on a small black and white TV in a hotel room in Chincoteague VA late into the night.
I remember having to watch the game and be as quiet as possible as dad tried to sleep, which was pretty hard with rooting for the Wranglers.
This was also the weekend that my parents would roll their eyes about for years as they told people that we were the only kids in the world to be happy with pouring rain on vacation, so we could stay inside and watch Mid-Atlantic wrestling and the USFL!
They didn't remember the particulars, but they often referred to this weekend as "they would have rather watched television".

The game itself was somewhat similar to the game in Houston, although it was a little closer throughout than the win over the Gamblers.
The Wranglers offense wasn't running smoothly but kept the game close enough to have the game within reach, trailing 17-14 as the fourth quarter began behind two rushing touchdowns from Tim Spencer.
Arizona stepped up and dominated the fourth quarter as Kevin Long dove into the end zone on the period's first drive to gain a lead that they would not lose at 21-17.
The Wranglers forced a punt and scored again as Greg Landry hit Tim Spencer for a touchdown (Spencer's third of the game) before an Arizona interception of Steve Young set up a Mack Boatner score that ended with three touchdowns in eleven minutes that gave the Wranglers a 35-23 win.
The defense did their share in the victory as Arizona intercepted Steve Young twice and allowed him to complete just seven passes for the evening.

The Wranglers headed to Tampa for the championship against the Philadelphia Stars on my 16th birthday, which was spent watching the Wranglers play for the title.
Alas, the pattern was broken as the Wranglers continued their dull play in the first three quarters, but against the excellent defense of the Stars, the fourth quarter comebacks ended as the Stars won the championship in a dominant 23-3 victory.

The title loss would be the last professional game that George Allen would ever coach as, after the season, Ted Dietrich would sell the Wranglers to the owner of the Oklahoma Outlaws, Ted Tatham.
Tatham would hire his own coach (Frank Kush) and merge his Outlaws with the Wranglers to create the Arizona Outlaws, who would finish 8-10 in the 1985 season, the third and final year of the USFL.
For some dumb reason, the Tatham's (the Outlaws used Tatham's son as the GM) allowed most of the better Wranglers to leave in favor of Outlaws that had gone 6-12 in the 1984 season.
Tim Spencer was drafted by Memphis in an allocation draft, Frank Minnifield and Trumaine Johnson jumped to the NFL and Greg Landry retired rather than backup Doug Williams in Arizona to name just a few.

As for me?
I would move onto a new team to root for in the final season-the Memphis Showboats, but I enjoyed my days as a Blitz and Wranglers fan more as it was pretty clear as the 1985 season played out that the USFL was in trouble, thanks to Donald Trump (sound familiar?) and his skill at convincing people that he knew what he was doing and pushed the league into a fall showdown with the NFL.
Over 30 years later, I still have so many fond memories of those teams and that league, and thanks to the wonder that is YouTube, I can watch so many games now that either bring back memories or watch games that I've never seen before.
I hope you enjoyed this look back at the Wranglers and the USFL.
I have plans for eventual posts on the 1983 Blitz and 1985 Showboats, so if you liked this or want more of it, let me know.

Back next time with a cleaning of the inbox and soon the return of the TRS boxing rankings...

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