ARIZONA WRANGLERS

1983-1984
Pacific Division (1983)
Pacific Division, Western Conference (1984)

Team Ownership
1983:  Jim Joseph and Brad Liebman
1984:  Dr. Ted Deitrich, George Allen, and
Willard (Bill) Harris

Home Stadium
Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Arizona

Regular Season Record
1983:  4-14-0
1984:  10-8-0

Championships
1984 Western Conference Champions

Head Coaches
1983 - Doug Shively (4-14-0)
1984 - George Allen (10-8-0, 2-1 in playoffs)

 

 

 

 

Depending on your point of view, the USFL's Arizona Wranglers could be considered the first professional football team to play in the Valley of the Sun.  Or it could be considered a team that relocated to Phoenix from Los Angeles.  Or it could be considered a team that was formed as a spin-off of the Oakland Invaders.  Or it could be considered two different teams which ultimately met their end by being merged into a third.  Or it could be any combination of the above.  But no matter your viewpoint, throughout its brief history the Arizona Wranglers were a team of change.

Confused?  Here's the Story...

Originally a team in Phoenix wasn't even part of USFL founder David Dixon's plans.  Jim Joseph had been a part owner of the Bay Area franchise (later named the Oakland Invaders) along with friend and business associate Tad Taube.  As Taube's involvement in the USFL became more active, Joseph initially took a back seat.  But an unexpected opportunity had come forward - Alex Spanos, who had signed up to own the USFL's Los Angeles franchise, announced he was leaving the ranks of USFL owners to take a minority stake in the NFL's San Diego Chargers.  Spanos ultimately would acquire majority control of the team and in 2017 move it... to Los Angeles.

Desiring to have a more active role in the USFL project, Joseph volunteered to take full reins of a franchise himself.  Once agreed to by the remaining owners, Joseph and Taube decided to flip a coin to decide who got which market:  Joseph won the toss and chose Los Angeles.  Shortly after this however, Bill Daniels and Alan Harmon, the Colorado-based mega-moguls from the still burgeoning cable television industry, were rejected by the City of San Diego in their efforts to lease Jack Murphy Stadium for their home games.

Oakland to Los Angeles to Phoenix, thanks to San Diego

Surmising that a team owned by cable television magnates in the entertainment capital of the world would be more beneficial than having Jim Joseph operate the team, the owners collectively asked Joseph to allow the Daniels/Harmon pairing to place their team in Los Angeles.  After some cajoling he agreed on one condition:  Joseph could pick the team's next location without approval of the owners being required, and once there he couldn't be "bounced" from that market.  With that assurance, Joseph finally found a home for his team in the desert sands of Phoenix, Arizona.  The Arizona Wranglers were finally born.

Joseph would hire Atlanta Falcons assistant coach Doug Shively as the Wranglers first head coach, then held closely to David Dixon's financial blueprint for the USFL, keeping spending (especially on player talent) to a bare minimum.  The team would select star Southern Methodist RB Eric Dickerson in the inaugural USFL Draft, but made no serious attempt to actually sign him.  Instead, the Wranglers opted for "mid-line" rookies such as quarterback Alan Risher, and players such as Curtis Bledsoe, who recently had been released by NFL clubs.

For their first eight weeks on the field, the rag-tag Arizona Wranglers were actually a competitive football team, going 4-4-0 and beating among others the team viewed by many prior to the start of the season as the USFL's dominant club, the Chicago Blitz.  As the mid-point of the inaugural season approached the team found itself in contention for the Pacific Division title, despite being one of only two or three teams which really heeded Dixon's warnings about excessive player spending.  Then... the wheels came off.

In Week 9, the Wranglers lost 34-20 to the Oakland Invaders, starting a ten game losing streak that saw the team go from Pacific Division contenders to hapless pretenders, finishing last in what would prove the league's weakest division with a 4-14-0 record.  Jim Joseph was, for lack of a better term, unhappy.  Having started as the part owner of a team near his San Francisco home, he'd been bounced from there to Los Angeles, and then once again to Phoenix, where he was caretaker of a team that was losing games on the field and money from his pockets; and the only way to fix the former would be to dig deeper into the latter.  He'd had enough.

Some Owners Trade Players.  These Guys Traded Their Franchises.

Enter Dr. Ted Deithrich, the Phoenix-based cardiovascular surgeon who had founded the Arizona Heart Institute, and the year before the USFL's Chicago Blitz.  Unlike Joseph, Diethrich and partner/head coach George Allen had spent lavishly on player talent including former NFL'ers Greg Landry and Stan White.  But the response to assembling one of the league's most competitive teams was an average home attendance of just over 18,000 for the 1983 season - costing Diethrich millions to operate a team in a city 1,500 miles away.  Diethrich hadn't given up on the concept of spring football; he'd given up on it working in Chicago, however.

So when Jim Joseph advised his fellow owners he was looking for a way out in Phoenix, the idea of the good doctor owning his hometown team became quite appealing.  Diethrich's idea was unusual (but not unprecedented; it had occurred twice in the NFL's history) - a franchise "trade" where the 1983 Chicago Blitz would move, lock, stock and sled blocks, to Phoenix while the 1983 Arizona Wranglers would become the "new" Chicago Blitz.

Joseph was game, but there was a snag:  Diethrich had to find a buyer for the Blitz.  Eventually in a colleague he found his sucker, ehr, man, Milwaukee cardiovascular surgeon Dr. James Hoffman.  Realizing that they could either agree to this unusual deal or lose two franchises on the same day, on September 29, 1983 the owners agreed to the various transactions and the Arizona Wranglers had, in essence, been reborn.

The "New" Wranglers

Blitz Wranglers head coach George Allen brought along a team that had fell just an overtime touchdown short of advancing to the 1983 USFL Championship Game.  The "new Wranglers" of 1984 would finish 10-8-0, tied with Los Angeles for the Pacific Division's best record.  Though the Express would claim the Pacific Division title on tiebreakers, the Wranglers would earn a playoff berth, where they'd make a run reminiscent of the 1980 Cleveland Browns "Cardiac Kids."

Down 16-3 to the Houston Gamblers with seven minutes left, the Wranglers scored a pair of dramatic touchdowns in the final minutes to advance to the Western Conference championship game.  There, an even more Herculean effort would be put forth to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat as the Wranglers scored 24 points in the fourth quarter to overcome the rival Express and rookie phenom quarterback Steve Young, 35-23.

USFL fans in Phoenix, who just a year earlier were lamenting a lousy, 4-14-0 squad, were now seeing their team in the league's championship game.  Unfortunately for the Wranglers, Cinderella's slipper didn't fit in Tampa as the Philadelphia Stars, who had lost the 1983 Championship Game to Michigan, promptly dismantled the Wranglers.  The final score was 23-3, but it could just as easily have been 41-3 (the Stars turned the ball over three times, including twice in the "red zone," and the usually reliable kicker David Trout had missed both a field goal and an extra point attempt).  It was, as they say, a game not as close as the score would indicate.

Doug Williams, quarterback of the Arizona Outlaws. Note the black stripe running down the uniform pants - an attempt to cover-up the team's use of 1984 Arizona Wranglers pants, which featured a "flame job" down the sides.

Another Odd Deal Brings the Wranglers to An End

During ABC's telecast of the championship game, Wranglers owner Ted Diethrich was shown pacing the sidelines of Tampa Stadium like a nervous cat, and one could surmise that the game's outcome wasn't the only thing he was nervous about.  As had been the case in Chicago, Dr. Diethrich had lost millions of dollars in Phoenix with the Wranglers.  Game attendance figures were virtually unchanged from 1983 despite a much improved, much more competitive team, and as Jim Joseph before him, Ted Diethrich had seen enough of the USFL; he wanted out.

As would the business transaction that brought Ted Diethrich into the ownership of the Arizona Wranglers, the deal that took him out was an unusual one and, as if to put a weird bookend on the team's history, would involve an owner who had originally intended to place his USFL team in San Diego.  Though Alan Harmon and Bill Daniels had tried and failed to put the USFL in San Diego for 1983, Oklahoma oilman William Tatham had persuaded USFL owners that he could get the league into Jack Murphy Stadium.  Awarded a new San Diego franchise for 1984, Tatham would prove to be precisely as successful as Daniels and Harmon had:  not at all.  So Tatham would take his franchise to Tulsa, Oklahoma, setting up shop as the Oklahoma Outlaws; but just weeks after the 1984 season began, he was quite openly looking for a new home for the team.

At an owners meeting following the 1984 season, Tatham began discussing a possible merger between his Outlaws and the Oakland Invaders.  When Invaders owner Tad Taube eventually backed away from the idea, Ted Diethrich began negotiations which ultimately led to Tatham acquiring the Wranglers assets; a move which allowed the Outlaws to move to Phoenix for 1985.  While widely reported as a merger of the two clubs, in fact it was an "acquisition of assets," and as a practicale matter Tatham had simply bought a second franchise, traded the team's best players from the Wranglers to the Outlaws, folded the Wranglers and moved the Outlaws to Phoenix.

Any way you sliced it however, the Arizona Wranglers:  conceived in Oakland, midwifed in Los Angeles and born in Phoenix, Arizona, were now officially dead thanks to a marriage with a team that had been conceived in San Diego and born in Tulsa.

The Official Timeline of Arizona Wranglers
(from a corporate perspective)

  • December 3, 1982:  Arizona Professional Football Corporation ("APFC" below) formed.
  • October 26, 1983:  APFC and Chicago Blitz Football Club, Inc. (also formed in Arizona) merged.  APFC is surviving entity.
  • August 9, 1984:  APFC and Chicago Blitz Cheerleaders, Inc. (again, formed in Arizona) merged.  APFC is surviving entity.
  • April 26, 1985:  APFC is renamed "Sports Liquidators, Inc."
  • July 26, 1993:  Sports Liquidators, Inc. is dissolved.