Arizona's (Almost) Pro Football Champions

July 12, 2018

Arizona's (Almost) Pro Football Champions

The tale of the Arizona Wranglers is one of four different football teams. It all starts in May of 1982 with the founding of the United States Football League (USFL).

Playing its games in the spring, the USFL was originally supposed to have, among its 12 charter members, teams in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Oakland. However, the owner of the L.A. franchise, Alex Spanos, opted instead to buy a stake in the NFL’s San Diego Chargers. USFL Oakland co-owners Jim Joseph and Ted Taube flipped a coin to see who would take the L.A. franchise in the new league. Joseph won the toss. Meanwhile, the San Diego franchise owners, Bill Daniels and Alan Harmon, were unable to secure a lease on Jack Murphy Stadium. The league then insisted that they take L.A. due to their ties to the cable TV business. Joseph was given the San Diego franchise but of course, had to find a new city where he could lease a stadium.

In August he moved the team to Phoenix and named them the Arizona Wranglers. Their first game was on March 6, 1983, against the Oakland Invaders. The Wranglers lost 24 to 0 before a crowd of 45,167 at Sun Devil Stadium. It would be the largest USFL crowd to see a game in Phoenix.

In their first season, the Wranglers stumbled to a record of 4 wins and 14 losses, tied for worst in the USFL along with the hapless Washington Federals. In 1984, the Wranglers fortunes would turn around after an odd deal was struck with another USFL team.

After losing tons of money, Joseph wanted out. Meanwhile, Ted Diethrich who owned the Chicago Blitz, and a Phoenix resident, longed to be back in Arizona. So, he sold the Blitz to his friend James Hoffman and bought the Wranglers from Joseph. He and Hoffman then swapped franchises, with the Blitz players and coaching staff, who had finished the 1983 campaign with 11 wins against 7 losses, moving to Phoenix, while the old Wranglers essentially became the new Blitz.

The new Wranglers won but failed to connect with fans in Phoenix. Attendance dwindled even as the team compiled a 10 and 8 record, tied with Los Angeles atop the Pacific Division standings.

In the first round of the play-offs, the Wranglers notched a comeback win against the Jim Kelly-led Houston Gamblers. L.A. won the tie-breaker to capture the Pacific Division title but was unable to host the second round playoff game against Arizona because their home field, the Coliseum, was being readied for the Olympics. The game was moved to Phoenix where the Wranglers won 35 to 23. The following week, they met the Philadelphia Stars in the championship game in Tampa falling 23 to 3.

Despite the team’s on-field success, Dietrich, like Joseph, had lost a lot of money. He wound up selling to Oklahoma Outlaws owner William Tatham who was looking to move that team to a bigger market. The Outlaws, incidentally, started as another attempt to place a team in San Diego. They ended up in Tulsa when no progress could be made on a stadium lease in San Diego.

Tatham merged the two clubs to form the Arizona Outlaws who finished 8 and 10 in 1985. They were going to be part of the 8-team, 1986 fall USFL season, but after winning only $3 in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, the USFL went out of business.

In 1988, Bill Bidwell showed up with his St. Louis Cardinals bringing the NFL to town in the guise of the Phoenix Cardinals who in 1993 became the Arizona Cardinals.




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