Memphis, Singletary Push AAF's Footprint into the Mid-South

by Fran Stuchbury
May 11, 2018 - Alliance of American Football (AAF)

The Alliance of American Football officially welcomed Memphis as the league's third team during a press conference on Thursday. Former NFL great Mike Singletary will take the coaching reins. The AAF franchise will join the National Basketball Association's Grizzlies, G League's Hustle, AAA baseball's Redbirds and a new Division II soccer franchise on Memphis' pro sports scene.

"Memphis is often referred to as 'America's largest small town,'" said AAF co-founder and CEO Charlie Ebersol. "It is a vibrant city full of culture and spirit, with so much to do and see, while at the same time, it's a such a strong, tight-knit community. It's no surprise that the city's millennial population has grown significantly over the years."

The AAF team will be playing its games at the 58,207-seat Liberty Bowl, which has hosted all Memphis' outdoor teams over the years. The facility opened in 1964 and since 1965 has been utilized as the home field of the University of Memphis Tigers as well as the bowl game which bears its name. In addition to football, the stadium also hosted the North American Soccer League's Memphis Rogues from 1978-1980.

Memphis, which had long sought an NFL franchise, has a long history of teams in alternative pro football leagues.

  • Memphis Southmen (1974-75) - World Football League - Originally slated to play in Toronto as the Northmen, the team moved to Memphis as they were not allowed to compete against the CFL's Toronto Agronauts. The Southmen were informally known as the Memphis Grizzlies and were owned by Canadian John F. Bassett, who went on to own the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits.

    They finished the 1974 season with a 17-3 record before losing to the Florida Blazers in the semifinals 18-15. In 1975 the Southmen added three Miami Dolphins superstars: running backs Larry Csonka and Jim Kick along with wide receiver Paul Warfield. They jumped out to a 7-4 record and would have made the playoffs, but the World Football League folded 12 weeks into the season. Following the WFL's implosion, Bassett unsuccessfully sued the NFL for a 1976 expansion slot.

  • Memphis Showboats (1984-85) - United States Football League - The Showboats joined the USFL as an expansion team in 1984, the league's second season. Pepper Rodgers served as the head coach. They finished their first campaign 7-11, buoyed by 12 sacks from rookie Reggie White, a future Pro Football Hall-of-Famer. The roster also featured offensive lineman Larry Pfohl, who was later known as the wrestler Lex Luger.

    The Showboats significantly improved in 1985, going 11-7 as Reggie White finished with 11.5 sacks. Home attendance increased from 27,599 to 30,948. The fan support prompted the USFL to move a playoff game from Denver to Memphis, and the 'Boats defeated the Denver Gold 48-7 in front of 34,528 fans. In the semifinals they played at home again, this time before an even a bigger audience of 37,796 fans but lost to the Oakland Invaders 28-19 in what proved to be the team's final game.

    Memphis was one of eight teams willing to play the 1986 season in the fall but the USFL ended up folding after collecting just a dollar in damages in its 1986 anti-trust suit against the NFL.

  • Memphis Mad Dogs (1995) - Canadian Football League - Memphis and Canadian football seemed an odd mix, but the Mad Dogs joined the league in 1995 in an American South Division with four other US teams: the Baltimore Stallions, San Antonio Texans, Birmingham Barracudas and Shreveport Pirates. Pepper Rodgers took the reins, a decade after his Showboats' stint. Quarterback Damon Allen, a CFL legend who ended up passing for 72,381 yards his career, led the Memphis offense which also featured wide receiver Joe Horn who went on to enjoy a long NFL career with four Pro Bowl appearances. The Mad Dogs finished the season 9-9 and missed the playoffs. They averaged 14,550 fans at the Liberty Bowl. After the 1995 season, the CFL retreated north, abandoning its American experiment, and the Mad Dogs folded.

  • Tennessee Oilers (1997) - National Football League - On their way to becoming the Tennessee Titans, the relocated Houston Oilers played the 1997 season in Memphis because their stadium in Nashville wasn't going be ready until 1999. Memphis fans largely rejected the short-term stopover, and none of the seven games attracted more than 27,000 people. The Oilers played the final home game that season at Vanderbilt in front of 50,677 fans which persuaded owner Bud Adams to move 1998's slate of games to Vanderbilt, ending the Memphis agreement a year early.

  • Memphis Maniax (2001) - XFL - The Maniax went 5-5, tied for second in the Western Division with the San Francisco Demons, but missed the playoffs after losing both times they played the Demons. Memphis' leading rusher was 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam with 528 yards. The Maniax ranked sixth in attendance out of eight teams, averaging 20,396 fans. The XFL folded after the 2001 season. Kippy Brown who was the Maniax head coach would go on to win a Super Bowl XLVIII championship as a wide receiver coach with the Seattle Seahawks when they defeated the Denver Broncos 43-8.

Steve Ehrhart, who relocated to Memphis in 1984, served as general manager for the USFL Memphis Showboats, CFL Memphis Mad Dogs and XFL Memphis Maniax. As Executive Director of the Liberty Bowl, he attended the AAF press conference.

The Memphis metropolitan area has hosted a pair of Arena football teams as well. The Memphis Pharaohs lasted two seasons, playing at The Pyramid. In 1995 they went 6-6 and lost to the Tampa Bay Storm in the playoffs 53-41. The 1996 season the Pharaohs finished 0-14. After the 1996 season they moved to Portland and became the Portland Forest Dragons.

The Memphis Xplorers joined arenafootball2, the Arena Football League's minor league, as an expansion team during the 2001 season. They played at the DeSoto Civic Center in Southaven, Mississippi, a Memphis suburb. The Xplorers lasted six seasons from 2001 till 2006. In 2005 they won an ArenaCup championship, defeating the Louisville Fire 63-41 in Bossier City, Louisiana, a game I covered in person for OurSports Central on August 27, 2005. After the 2006 season the Xplorers folded. Danton Barto who head coach the Memphis Xplorers from 2002 to 2006 is now the head coach of the National Arena League Lehigh Valley Steelhawks.

Continuing its string of well-known coaches, Ebersol announced NFL legend Mike Singletary as Memphis' head coach. The former Chicago Bears linebacker played from 1981 to 1992 and was an integral member of a dominating defense that won Super Bowl XX when they beat the New England Patriots 46-10. He made the Pro Bowl 10 straight years from 1983-1992, earning NFL Defensive Player of the Year nods in both 1985 and 1988, as addition to NFC Defensive Player of the Year accolades in 1984, 1985 and 1988. He was voted to the NFL's 1980's All Decade Team and was named NFL Man of the Year in 1990.

Singletary began his coaching career as the Baltimore Ravens' linebacker coach from 2003-2004 before moving on to a similar position with the San Francisco 49ers. He took over as interim head coach for the 49ers after the team fired Mike Nolan during the 2008 campaign. Singletary finished the season with a 5-4 record. He was then promoted to the head coaching position after signing a four-year deal with the team. In 2009 he went 8-8 with the 49ers. In 2010 the 49ers started the season 0-5 before going 5-5 down the stretch. Eliminated from playoff contention, Singletary was fired. His overall head coaching record was 18-22.

From 2011-2013 Singletary joined the Minnesota Vikings as special assistant to the head coach and linebackers coach. He joined the Los Angeles Rams staff in 2016 as a defensive assistant.

Singletary was named of Trinity Christian Academy in Addison, Texas, in March. He will still coach that team this season.

With his strong background on defense, Memphis could have one of the stingiest squad in the AAF. No one ever questioned Singletary's passion or dedication to the game, but his San Francisco offenses struggled at times, so the offensive coordinator position will be an important hire for the team.

Singletary will face Steve Spurrier (Orlando) and Brad Childress (Atlanta), the other two coaches on AAF sidelines thus far.

The team president of the Memphis franchise is Kosha Irby, a former Memphis player who was a Regional Director for live events with the WWE.

Memphis joins Orlando and Atlanta in the Alliance of American Football. AAF Founder Charlie Ebersol stated on the Rich Eisen show that the next five AAF cities will be announced over the next four weeks.

Check out Fran Stuchbury's other Alliance of American Football reports:

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Alliance of American Football Stories from May 11, 2018


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