Central Division (1983)
Southern Division, Eastern Conference (1984)
Eastern Conference (1985)
1983-1985: Marvin Warner
1985-1986: A public-private consortium represented by team president Jerry Sklar, which included the City of Birmingham, Aaron Aronov, Fred Berman, Harold Black, Quentin Brown, James Clark, Wayne Gillis, Edward Hardin, Andrew Hollis, Gaylon McCullough, Mayer Mitchell, Mark Osborn, Harold Ripps and J.B. Schilleci
Legion Field, Birmingham, Alabama
Regular Season Record
1984 Southern Division Champions
1985 Eastern Conference (regular season) Champions
Rollie Dotsch (36-9-0, 2-2 in playoffs
Between the time he conceived the USFL in 1965 and actually began putting it together, founder David Dixon considered dozens of potential locations for franchises, over time developing a list of preferred markets. Birmingham, while somewhere on that list, wasn't near the top.
"Birmingham could be a great franchise city, assuming there is no adverse residual effect from WFL days," he wrote to one potential Birmingham franchisee. In short Dixon was leery. In 1974-75, the WFL's Birmingham franchises (note the plural there) would attract among the largest crowds in the league to Legion Field, only to fold in ignominious fashion - in the process leaving fans feeling burned, and a lot of local business owners, who had supported the team, stuck with bad debts.
In late 1981 however, the kind of financial heavyweight David Dixon desired to hold a USFL franchise would step forward: Marvin L. Warner. Having served as the United States ambassador to Switzerland in the Carter Administration, Warner owned 96% of the Cincinnati-based Home State Savings Bank. Dixon, who was seeking owners who had money in the bank had found one who literally owned the bank.
This next part is somewhat in dispute, depending on who was telling the tale: per Dixon, the founder suggested Warner take the franchise in Washington; an offer Warner immediately declined. Not wanting Warner to get off the hook, Dixon then asked Warner where he'd want to place a franchise; when Warner proffered Cincinnati or Birmingham, Dixon reviewed his preference list, saw Birmingham higher on it than Cincinnati, and offered Warner Birmingham as the site.
Per Warner, however, Warner had considered both Washington and Cincinnati, but rejected each for its own reasons, settling on Birmingham, to which Dixon consented. I tend to believe the Dixon version, as it seems illogical that a man of Warner's stature, civic mindedness and financial wherewithall would snub his hometown in favor of Birmingham.
The franchise deal struck just a few days before, Warner would be among those present at the press conference announcing the launch of the USFL at "21" in New York City. Asked of his plans Warner was generally non-committal, stating that he liked "Birmingham Knights" as a team name but would likely authorize a "name the team" contest.
A month later, Warner's son Mark would reveal that the franchise would not be called the Knights, but rather the Birmingham Stallions. Given Warner's hobby of breeding Kentucky thoroughbred race horses it made sense. In keeping with the theme, the club's cheerleading squad, meanwhile, would be referred to as the "Fillies."
The Coaching Search
In comparison to some other franchises set to make their USFL debut in 1983, the Birmingham Stallions were almost sedate, putting together a quality front office and ticket sales operation that was the envy of a number of others. But the team did have difficulty in one area: hiring its head coach.
First up was (now) legendary Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden, but after just two days Bowden would withdraw himself from consideration, saying he was content in his current role. Next up was the man who'd coached the WFL Birmingham entries and now was head coach of the CFL's Calgary Stampeders, Jack Gotta. While Gotta was intrigued, he didn't consider the Stallions all that interested and stayed put.
Hall of Fame former Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints head coach Hank Stram was next on the list - only not even Stram knew it. "I've heard from different sources that my name's come up there, but I don't know anything about it." Then came Dallas Cowboys defensive backs coach (and future University of Alabama head coach) Gene Stallings. With Stallings, it would advance to a point where an actual offer would be extended. Despite being offered double what he would be making with the Cowboys however, Stallings declined.
Now embarrassed by the very public nature by which team president Jay Gould was conducting the coaching search (immediately after Stallings rebuffed him, he had approached a fifth candidate, Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Hank Bullough), Warner personally stepped in. Within days Gould was gone, replaced by Jerry Sklar as team president, and Warner attempted to put a gag order on news related to the coaching search. It would do no good however, as over the next few weeks two more names (those of former Notre Dame head coach Dan DeVine and Montreal Concordes head coach Joe Galat - who had piloted the team to a 2-14 season in 1982) would surface as those who reportedly had been at least considered for the position.
Finally, on September 2, 1982, Sklar would introduce Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach Rollie Dotsch - anywhere from the team's second to eighth choice, depending on who might have been offered what, as their first head coach.
A Most Stable of USFL Franchises... Until It Wasn't
Over 1983 and 1984, the Birmingham Stallions establish themselves as a (red and) gold standard within the USFL. On the field, Rollie Dotsch gradually built the team into one of the best in the USFL; one of only four teams (the others being Philadelphia/Baltimore, Denver and Tampa) to avoid a losing season in any of the three years of the league's existence. Off the field, while the team is losing significant amounts of money it's doing so with a purpose in mind: establishing the Stallions as a consistently winning brand of pro football, investing in talented players such as Buffalo Bills running back Joe Cribbs. At the end of the 1984 season, the Stallions are seen as among the league's elite teams on the field, and among its more stable teams off it.
And then they hit the wall. While traveling at full speed. Without wearing a seat belt.
Just as the 1985 USFL regular season was to get underway, owner Marvin Warner's world essentially collapsed around him. The foundation of his business empire, Home State Savings Bank, had been engaged in some complicated financial transactions with a Fort Lauderdale-based government securities dealer, ESM Government Securities. On March 4, ESM was shuttered by the Securities and Exchange Commission as the result of a massive fraud. ESM's failure would in turn trigger a run on Home State, with depositors withdrawing in excess of $100 million in just five days time, forcing its closure and ultimately forcing Ohio Governor Richard Celeste to impose a three-day statewide banking holiday for over 70 savings and loans in the state.
Warner, who would be implicated in the fraud along with his son-in-law, Tampa Bay Bandits minority owner Stephen Arky, would relinquish his ownership in the Stallions within weeks. Two years later, he would be convicted on nine criminal counts and ultimately would serve 28 months in prison. Arky meanwhile would commit suicide in his home in Miami on July 23, 1985.
While virtually everyone expected Warner's downfall to spell the end of the USFL's venture in Birmingham however, team president Jerry Sklar spearheaded what amounted to a "Save Our Stallions" campaign, enlisting the team's limited partners to further fund the franchise. In April the Birmingham City Council would commit $1 million to the team - $900,000 in loans (it knew it'd never be repaid in full) along with a direct investment as a limited partner. Later that month, the league's owners voted to defer a $415,000 contribution required to prop up the Los Angeles Express. The Stallions would be perceived as limping across the finish line when the 1985 season concluded.
Remarkably though, the team had every intention of being among those to play in the abandoned Fall 1986 season. At the end of the 1985 campaign, Joe Cribbs exercised a buy-out clause in his contract and returned to the NFL, giving the Stallions $750,000 in very badly needed cash - just enough to post a half-million dollar letter of credit with the league for 1986 and fund team operating expenses until the decision in USFL v. NFL was rendered on July 29, 1986.
The Official Timeline of Birmingham Stallions
(from a corporate perspective; probably incomplete)
- March 24, 1984: Birmingham Stallions, Ltd. (limited partnership, "BSL" below) formed.
- April 1, 1985: Birmingham Stallions Football, Inc. acquires either assets of BSL, or BSL itself.
- December 28, 1990: Birmingham Stallions Football, Inc. dissolved.