Central Division (1983)
Central Division, Western Conference (1984)
A. Alfred Taubman
Silverdome, Pontiac, Michigan
Regular Season Record
1983 Central Division Champions
1983 USFL Champions
Jim Stanley (22-14-0, 2-1 in playoffs)
Sometimes when you pursue a goal long enough and hard enough only to reach it, you look back at what you've achieved and wonder, "Was it worth it?"
That question was undoubtedly running through the mind of Michigan Panthers founder A. Alfred Taubman as he stood next to the 1983 USFL Championship Trophy, just won by his team in a 24-22 victory over the Philadelphia Stars at Denver's Mile High Stadium. In pursuit of that Spanish made, 48 pound hunk of marble, silver and gold, Taubman had spent in excess of $6 million - triple what USFL founder David Dixon had recommended for teams in their first year.
Six million dollars. It was a staggering figure even for a man of Taubman's considerable wealth, and one that had him wondering whether his decision to take a flyer on pro football in the spring was a sane one.
The 1983 Season
At a glance, the 1983 Michigan Panthers were viewed as a true Cinderella story on the field, rebounding from a 1-4-0 start (including a loss to the moribund Washington Federals) to win 13 of their next 15 games to claim the league's inaugural championship. A more accurate assessment is that in those early weeks, Taubman was becoming more and more embarrassed at his team's performance; deciding to do something about it, he opened his wallet to acquire the best talent available - league founder David Dixon's lamentations be damned.
On March 19, the Panthers signed Thom Dornbrook, an offensive lineman who had left the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers after helping them win Super Bowl XIV. On April 19 he'd sign another Steeler, defensive lineman John Banaszak, a member of the team's famed "Steel Curtain" defensive unit. On April 27 the Panthers would raid the Steelers roster again, adding offensive tackle Ray Pinney to the roster.
It would be these expensive roster additions that helped transform Michigan from also-rans to contenders. As the season progressed the Panthers would catch up to, then pass, the Birmingham Stallions and Tampa Bay Bandits in the Central Division standings. The 1983 regular season would conclude with the Panthers atop the Central Division standings at 12-6-0; in the process equalling the record of the team most in the media thought would run roughshod to an easy league championship, the Chicago Blitz.
Hosting the Pacific Division champion Oakland Invaders in the 1983 Divisional Playoffs, long suffering Detroit football fans finally warmed up to the Panthers, coming out to the Pontiac Silverdome 60,237 strong to witness their team earn a trip to Denver and the USFL's inaugural championship game.
In the inaugural USFL Championship Game the following Sunday, the Panthers had a relatively easy time with the Atlantic Division champion Philadelphia Stars, amassing a 17-3 lead through three quarters of play. Then all hell broke loose. The Stars rebounded to score 19 points in the fourth quarter, and if not for a 48 yard touchdown strike from Bobby Hebert to Anthony Carter with 3:01 remaining, Taubman could have left Mile High Stadium without the championship and the trophy it represented. As it was though the Panthers would hold on, winning 24-22.
The 1984 Season
During the off-season, fans of the Michigan Panthers believed their team would have an easier path to the playoffs in 1984 than in their inaugural campaign, if for no other reason than the change in the division's composition itself:
- The Chicago Blitz, the Panthers chief rival for the division crown in 1983, had been swapped with the far from competitive Arizona Wranglers
- The Birmingham Stallions and Tampa Bay Bandits would be realigned into a new, Southern Division; and
- Three expansion teams (Houston, Oklahoma and San Antonio) would be aligned into the Central Division along with Chicago and Michigan.
Given those circumstances, the Michigan Panthers should have coasted to the Central Division crown. But the expansion Houston Gamblers had other plans, racking up 13 wins in 18 games and relegating the Panthers to second place with a 10-8-0 record. The team would in fact almost miss the playoffs, beating out the Denver Gold for the Western Conference's second "wild card" playoff berth.
Traveling to the Los Angeles Coliseum for the first round of the playoffs, for the second straight year the Panthers would square off against the champions of the Pacific Division - this time the L.A. Express and their hotshot rookie quarterback Steve Young. Dueling before an embarrassing 7,964 fans, the Panthers and Express would be tied, 21-21, at the conclusion of regulation play. The game went into overtime. Then double overtime. Then triple overtime.
After 93 minutes and 33 seconds of football, Los Angeles running back Mel Gray would mercifully end the game with a 25 yard touchdown run. In that instant on June 30, 1984, and without anyone yet aware of all of it, four things came to their end:
- The longest game in the history of professional football
- The Michigan Panthers effort to win back-to-back USFL championships
- The 1984 Michigan Panthers season; and ultimately
- The Michigan Panthers themselves.
The Panthers Invade Oakland
An advocate of spring football since the USFL's inception, Alfred Taubman was taken aback at the thought of taking the older, far more financially stable National Football League head-on beginning in the fall of 1986. Suspecting that the outcome was a fait accompli, Taubman would sent his son Robert to represent the team at the meeting. In the meantime he had made a decision: if the USFL went to a fall schedule, he'd shutter the Michigan Panthers then and there.
As the meeting at which the vote took place unfolded however, another option emerged. Oakland Invaders owner Tad Taube was looking to take on a partner to help get through the 1985 season and prepare for the transition to a fall season schedule in 1986. Considering the notion that unlike in Detroit, the Invaders would face no direct NFL competition in Oakland (while the San Francisco 49'ers were in the region, people in Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose tend to consider themselves independent of the others despite their proximity). Deciding to help friend Taube and keep his hand in the league in case it won a sizable verdict in the USFL v. NFL case, Taubman consented to the Invaders absorbing the Panthers in a merger, bringing the USFL's presence in the Motor City to an end.
The Official Timeline of Michigan Panthers
(from a corporate perspective)
- May 28, 1982: MMW-823, Inc. formed as a Michigan corporation.
- October 28, 1982: MMW-823, Inc. is renamed The Detroit Panthers Football Club, Inc.
- November 18, 1982: The Detroit Panthers Football Club, Inc. is renamed The Michigan Panthers Football Club, Inc.
- March 21, 1991: The Michigan Panthers Football Club, Inc. is voluntarily dissolved.