The CFL will host the 104th Grey Cup at BMO Field on Sunday in a matchup featuring the powerhouse Calgary Stampeders and the Ottawa Redblacks. The Canadian Football League is rich in tradition, and history, but between 1993-95, the league—full of floundering franchises which were operating in the red—decided to try and revive its brand by expanding into the United States. That particular era, probably best remembered as something between the very colorful days of the American Basketball Association and Vince McMahon's XFL venture, brought us plenty of memories and snapshots, like a young Anthony Calvillo in a Las Vegas Posse jersey, or CFL legend Matt Dunigan rocking the teal jerseys (classic, by the way) of the Birmingham Barracudas.
It also brought us plenty of behind-the-scenes stories that rank somewhere between surreal and bizarre today. To commemorate the era, I spent the last week reading "End Zones and Border Wars: The End of American Expansion in the CFL" by Ed Willes. Here are the highlights from that one time the CFL wanted to be American:
The list of possible destinations for CFL in the United States was remarkable—We ended up with San Antonio, Baltimore, Las Vegas, Sacramento, Memphis, Birmingham and Shreveport, but the the list of cities that expressed interest in a CFL franchise included Portland, Honolulu, Albuquerque, Anaheim, Nashville, Norfolk, Virginia, St. Louis, St. Petersburg and San Jose. London, England, was also briefly mentioned. Two of my favourite potential destinations that didn't work out: Orlando, because CFL commissioner Larry Smith actually called a press conference at a Hooters to announce a franchise in 1994 but the deal fell through in the last minute, and Worcester, Massachusetts, where Al Zappala, a lawyer from the state, wanted to renovate Fitton Field at Holy Cross College with the plan of bringing in Doug Flutie as the team's quarterback.
Honolulu versus Saskatchewan would have been amazing, if only for the vintage Grey Cup matchup T-shirt that would be going for $5,000 on eBay today.
Anytime you can put a franchise in Las Vegas, you should—The Las Vegas Posse were not very good, but what other franchise has an introductory press conference at Lady Luck casino, which featured Melinda a.k.a. The Glamorous First Lady of Magic:
The presser also included five male dancers, a midget and a white pony. But my favourite part is that when the team nickname was revealed, the finalists were Posse and Mounties. The Las Vegas Mounties would have undisputedly been a top-five all-time sports team name.
1) Posse players frequented The Riviera, where players were allowed to cash in their paycheques for casino chips. It's been reported more than one player would do just that and end up leaving the casino broke.
2) Assistant coach Jeff Reinebold married his girlfriend while they were in Las Vegas with the team. It was a $49.99 ceremony and five players were invited as part of the wedding party.
3) The team's office was at the Gold's Gym.
4) Reinebold once said, "Let me get this straight, you miss a field goal and you still get a point? What the fuck kind of game is this?" which might have summed up a million people's feelings about the CFL.
5) The team mascot was a horse that defecated regularly on the sidelines.
Las Vegas lounge singer Dennis K.C. Parks absolutely butchering 'O Canada' before the game which resulted in Posse owner Nick Mileti writing a letter to Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien to apologize for the performance.
The Shreveport Pirates were a close second—I just want to point out that you can buy a Shreveport Pirates mini-helmet on eBay for only $37 right now. Maybe they weren't the circus that was happening in Las Vegas, but the Pirates illustrated just how make-it-up-as-we-go the American expansion era was. The team tried to secure a local college location for training camp but ended up in a barn on the Louisiana State Fair Grounds that was adjacent to its home field. Most of the players ended up sleeping in a dorm room area that was located on top of a milking barn. There was also no air conditioning.
The Baltimore CFL Club was the model of success—If there was one model of success during the American expansion era, it was the Baltimore... um, football club? When Baltimore landed a CFL franchise in 1994, the plan was to adapt the colours of the Baltimore Colts, the city's NFL franchise which left overnight for Indianapolis in 1984. Owner Jim Speros went to court to get the rights to call his team the Baltimore CFL Colts, the NFL filed suit for trademark infringement and won an injunction banning the use of the Colts name. The team ended up being known as the Baltimore Football Club and ended up the Stallions later on. Whatever its name was, it had general manager Jim Popp and head coach Don Matthews, who would later carry on the franchise's success after it relocated to Montreal. Baltimore also had quarterback Tracy Ham and running back Mike Pringle. The Stallions are the only American franchise to win a Grey Cup, doing so in 1995. Many also believe the success of the Baltimore CFL Club encouraged Art Modell to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1996.
Ham and Pringle. I'm hungry now. Photo courtesy CFL
Memphis Mad Dogs head coach Pepper Rodgers hated the CFL—Rodgers played at Georgia Tech in the 1950s and was later the head coach at Kansas, UCLA and his alma mater before he joined the Mad Dogs in 1995. Having spent his entire life in American football, Rodgers was not very open-minded about the CFL rules. "Offence in the CFL is a two-down game and I was always a three-down coach," Rodgers once quipped. He wanted to install three running back sets, and would yell at his players to call for fair catches on punt returns before assistants had to remind him about the CFL rules. Rodgers' views on the CFL game can be summed up in this one quote he gave to reporters: "You Canadians can sit around and do what you want up there in Canada but no one understands the rules here because we have some really weird stuff in this league."
The 82nd Grey Cup was a battle for national pride—One of the underlying storylines involving the American expansion era was the sense of pride that Canadian teams and players felt and how protective they became of the CFL brand. All of that reached its climax at the 1994 Grey Cup, when the B.C. Lions faced off against Baltimore at B.C. Place Stadium. In the lead-up to the game, there was plenty of talk about the Canadian-US player ratio, potential rule changes that would create more opportunities for American players in the CFL and squeeze out spots normally reserved for Canadian players. The War of 1812 was referenced at least once during Grey Cup week. If there was an us-versus-them mentality, the Canadians prevailed in this battle, as B.C. defeated Baltimore 26-23. Lions running back Sean Millington on the experience: "They were the All-American team and they were supposed to wipe the floor with us. That's what we'd been hearing all week. But we were Rocky Balboa. We took the punches but we hung in there long enough to land the knockout punch."
The following season, Baltimore would win the 1995 Grey Cup, but by then, the great American expansion experiment was nearing its end. By the start of the next season, all the U.S. franchises had folded or in Baltimore's case, relocated to Montreal. The CFL had reverted back to a nine-team league, with all the franchises based in Canada. But for a brief period there, the CFL flirted with expanding its game into America. It didn't produce a lot success on and off the field, but it gave us plenty of quirky stories to cherish for a lifetime.