Southern Division, Eastern Conference (1984)
Eastern Conference (1985)
William Dunavant and Logan Young
Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tennessee
Regular Season Record
Pepper Rodgers (18-18-0, 1-1 in playoffs)
Despite attending Vanderbilt, Young's favorite college team would the the Alabama Crimson Tide, thanks to a personal relationship he'd cultivated with its legendary head coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant. When the USFL announced its launch in 1982, Young sensed an opportunity to make a name for himself as a public benefactor, giving himself and fellow Memphians their own pro team to root for, to have a good time doing it, and maybe even make a buck or two.
Upon learning that the league was accepting expansion applications, Logan Young immediately submitted one in search of a Memphis franchise for 1984, then formed a limited partnership, Memphis Showboats, Ltd., enlisting local business leaders and other people of means to join him in bringing his dream to reality. To his delight, on July 17, 1983, Young's dream came true: Memphis would be the last of six new cities to have a USFL presence in 1984.
Young Teams Up With Dunavant
Joining Pittsburgh, Houston, Jacksonville, San Antonio and Tulsa as USFL cities would come with a price tag: $6 million, paid out over a three year period, to be precise. While Logan Young and his initial partners had the means to cover the fee with no issue, they would soon learn that $6 million was merely a price of a seat at the table. If they wanted to eat? It'd cost more.
Befitting Logan Young's showboating style, he quickly would put together a top-flight marketing staff to promote the club, hiring local legend Pepper Rodgers as the team's head coach, whereupon he... essentially ran out of cash. While Young was far from broke, most of his assets - assets the USFL perceived as readily available to operate the Showboats - were actually tied up in a trust fund which the owner couldn't access. The result was that before the team had pumped up its first football, they had a cash crunch.
Determined, Young continued to line up limited partners to buy units in Memphis Showboats, Ltd. at $150,000 each, and while finding partners came readily enough for him, he realized that if the team were ever to be successful, a much larger investor would be needed; one to whom Young would have to relinquish control of the franchise.
Fortunately he had someone in mind: William "Billy" Dunavant, a man who had inherited his father's textile business at 29 years old, then proceeded to expand it into a veritable business empire. Dunavant had real, immediately accessible money (at the time, he was reportedly worth $150 million), and what's more, like Young he had a real interest in seeing the Showboats become a successful enterprise. So while Young would remain a key figure in the ownership group and the Showboats front office, it'd be Dunavant who'd keep the 'Boats afloat.
Selling the Sizzle
There's a sales adage that applied to the 1984 Memphis Showboats: "Sell the sizzle, not the steak." Pepper Rodgers roster for the team's inaugural season would have but one name immediately remembered today: that of future Pro Football Hall of Famer Reggie White, then in his rookie season. With quarterbacks Walter Lewis and Mike Kelley calling the signals, the Showboats would post the second-best record among expansion teams, finishing 7-11-0 and in fourth place in the USFL's newly established Southern Division.
But the real story of the Memphis Showboats (other than from White's exceptional, obvious talent) came in the form of Showboats fans themselves. The team's attendance at the Liberty Bowl was stellar by USFL standards, averaging 27,599 over the course of the eseason and including:
- 30,640 against expansion brethren Pittsburgh Maulers
- 32,406 against the woeful San Antonio Gunslingers; and
- 50,079 when the Showboats took on their Alabama-based Southern Division rivals, the Birmingham Stallions
More encouraging was that while in most USFL cities teams attendance figures were dropping as the season progressed, in Memphis they were growing.
Adding talent for the 1985 season through the college draft as well as a dispersal draft following the USFL's consolidation from 18 to 14 teams, the Showboats fared better on the field in their second season, posting an 11-7-0 record, finishing third in the seven-team Eastern Conference. Attendance figures, which had been bright for the inaugural 1984 season, were even brighter in 1985 as the team's home games would average more than 30,000 fans.
Qualifying for the USFL playoffs, despite being a lower seed than the opposing Denver Gold, due to Memphis fans attendance history the Showboats were awarded home field advantage, one they evidently didn't need as they would go on to demolish the Western Conference's #2 seed, 48-7. Though the team missed out on an appearance in the USFL Championship Game by falling to the Oakland Invaders the following week, Memphians (unlike many other cities) were looking forward to the 1986 season, fourteen months down the road.
Sadly however, the loss to the Invaders would be the team's final game. The end result of USFL v. NFL would cause an almost immediate "suspension of operations" for 1986. And while it's entirely possible, if not likely, that the Showboats would have fared just as well as a fall season team as they had playing football in the spring, ultimately the USFL and the Showboats were sunk.
The Official Timeline of Memphis Showboats
(from a corporate perspective; possibly incomplete)
- June 29, 1983: Memphis Professional Football, Inc. ("MPF" below) organized in Tennessee. Corporation is authorized to issue 100,000 shares.
- August? 1983: Memphis Showboats, Ltd. ("MSL" below) is formed as a limited partnership. MPF is the general partner.
- February 17, 1984: Memphis Showboats, Inc. ("MSI" below) organized in Tennessee, possibly as a conversion of MSL to MSI. The corporation is authorized to issue 1,000 shares.
- May 9, 1985: MPF dissolved by State of Tennessee; later reinstated.
- March 5, 1987: MPF dissolved by State of Tennessee; later reinstated.
- December 31, 1990: No later than this date, MPF likely dissolved.
- September 14, 1993: MSI voluntarily dissolved.