This story originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
Twenty years ago, Matt Dunigan—one of the best quarterbacks in CFL history—set career highs in a season with 4,911 passing yards and 34 touchdowns. He did so despite missing the first and last two games of the regular season with injuries. More impressively, Dunigan put up those numbers in Birmingham, Alabama, for an expansion team that featured a coaching staff trying to adjust to the Canadian game.
Dunigan had already won two Grey Cups and passed for a single-game pro football record 713 yards. Despite the already fully stocked résumé, Dunigan saw the opportunity of leading an expansion team south of the border as a tremendous opportunity to introduce the CFL game, which he saw himself as an ambassador of, to a new audience. Raised in Dallas, and having played collegiately at Louisiana Tech, Dunigan was familiar with the United States' mentality with football. For his family, it was a chance to visit what he called one of the best kept secrets of America.
"It was a tremendous year," Dunigan recently said. "A career highlight. A memorable year with quality people and friends. It was a great experience. I felt like the team we put together on the field had a chance to win several Grey Cups."
They might have. After Dunigan missed the first two games of the regular season—both losses for Birmingham—with a finger injury, he returned for the home opener at Legion Field and was greeted by an announced attendance of 31,185, the largest opening night crowd in the league. Dunigan rewarded the home crowd by throwing three touchdowns and running for another in the first half en route to a 51–28 win over Hamilton.
The offence was humming, the expansion team had one of the best quarterbacks of all time leading the way, and yet, the entire season and existence of the franchise would end up being just a footnote in CFL history. A year later, the team would no longer exist.
The early 1990s were not a vibrant time for the CFL, with many of its franchises in a state of flux and facing major financial challenges. In 1993, the league looked south of the border for expansion, awarding a franchise in Sacramento. The Gold Miners would become the first CFL team in the United States in league history. Three more teams from the United States were added the following season: the Baltimore CFL Colts, Las Vegas Posse and Shreveport Pirates. The Posse folded before the start of the 1995 season and the Gold Miners became the San Antonio Texans, but the CFL pushed forward with expansion plans, awarding teams in Memphis and Birmingham.
Several months before the start of the inaugural season in Birmingham, Art Williams—an insurance executive and owner of the franchise—announced at a press conference that his team's nickname would be the Barracudas. "It's an animal that's vicious and mean," Williams explained to reporters, noting that the name was selected not because of geography, but due to the reputation of the fish. To protect the brand, Williams even had a copyright on the name. Their jerseys were as ambitious as the league's plans to expand into the United States, with teal being a primary color with a mix of black, blue, burnt orange and white as complements.
The Barracudas were the city's fourth attempt at a professional football team after failed stints in the World League of American Football, the World Football League and the United States Football League. Williams hired Jack Pardee, who was coming off a 1994 season with the Houston Oilers in which he resigned after the team started 1-9, as head coach. Pardee also had a background in six-man football, and was generally credited with pioneering the run-and-shoot offence. The rules of Canadian football made it favourable for a team to run up the score with a free-flowing offence, especially with a quarterback as gifted as Dunigan. Pardee hired John Jenkins as the offensive coordinator. Jenkins had a 18-15 record over three seasons as the head coach of the Houston Cougars, and had his first run-in with the CFL the year prior when he was a defensive backs coach with Winnipeg.
The team would eventually transform into an offensive juggernaut, but the chemistry between Dunigan and Jenkins took time to develop.
"It was like jamming a square peg into a round hole," Dunigan said when asked about training camp in Birmingham. Jenkins' run-and-shoot offence offered a steep learning curve even for Dunigan, since many of the principles and sets were designed for an American-sized football field and a longer game clock (in the CFL, the game clock is only 20 seconds between plays).
Dunigan's preseason injury didn't help with adjusting to a new offence. Behind closed doors, Dunigan was honest with Jenkins, and used his experience playing under CFL rules to point out which plays were actually applicable. It was a give-and-take approach that extended to Dunigan's first game with the Barracudas. Prior to games, Jenkins would hand out sheets of papers to everyone on the offensive end. The paper had squares on them, and each square represented a yard. So the instructions were precise and clear on where the offensive players needed to be. It wasn't the type of play calling Dunigan was accustomed to. He felt restricted. Frustrated in the first quarter, Dunigan decided to stop looking toward the sideline for instructions. Instead, he got in the huddle and started calling his own plays. The Barracudas marched out to a comfortable lead by halftime, which is when Jenkins approached Dunigan in the locker room. "Everything good, hoss?" Jenkins asked his quarterback. "Everything's good," Dunigan replied. "Scoreboard looks OK, doesn't it?"
Dunigan has nothing but praise for Jenkins, and the results on the field proved that the two eventually reached a compromise and learned to trust each other. "It was a lot of fun being in control of an offence with great personnel and being afforded the type of freedom I was," Dunigan said.
After an early October victory over Shreveport, the Barracudas were 10-6 with two games remaining in the regular season. They had won four out of five games and were 10-4 after Dunigan's return from injury. While the team was performing well on the field, it was a different story off it. The team drew great crowds to start the season, but once college football started, attendance started to dwindle. This was a point of contention with the ownership group, who pushed to have the games played on days that didn't conflict with the other football games going on.
"We should have been Thursday night football," Dunigan said. "Friday is high school football, Saturday is college football. Sunday and Monday is the NFL. Give the fans a rest on Tuesday and Wednesday and then have the CFL, make it the first thing out of the block, and let them buy in. You're asking people to come to the stadium when their money, commitments and allegiances are somewhere else. That really hurt us at the gates."
Williams reportedly lost at least $10 million that season, and the downturn in the team's finances carried over onto the field. In the team's final home game of the season, the Barracudas lost 45–18 to the Eskimos, and saw their Grey Cup hopes dashed when Dunigan suffered a season-ending injury, breaking his right index finger on an Edmonton player's helmet in the second quarter. As it turns out, that would be the last CFL game ever played at Legion Field.
The following week, with Dunigan sidelined, Birmingham closed its regular season schedule with a road loss to San Antonio. After the defeat, Williams walked into the locker room and informed the team that no matter what happened in its playoff game next week, a rematch against the Texans, the franchise was folding. "It was surreal to play under those circumstances," Dunigan recalls.
The playoff run would be brief. Without Dunigan, the Barracudas were blown out 52–9 in San Antonio and their high-octane offence failed to score a single touchdown.
"The only thing that's certain is we won't be back in Birmingham in the CFL in the fall," Williams was quoted as saying immediately after the Barracudas were eliminated.
The Barracudas didn't draw more than 10,000 people in their last four home games. Dunigan maintains to this day that they had the personnel to win the Grey Cup if it wasn't for the unfortunate timing with his injury.
By December 1995, the Memphis Mad Dogs had folded and the Barracudas were still on the block, so much so that neither team sent a representative to the league board of governors meeting. In January, the team was sold to a group in Shreveport. In the end, last-ditch efforts by Boyd Parker and the Shreveport Armada to finalize the sale of the Barracudas were rejected by the board. In February, the Barracudas, along with the Mad Dogs, Texans and Pirates, were formally shut down (Baltimore would survive, in a way, moving to Montreal to become the Alouettes). Professional football would get a fifth try in Birmingham in 1999, when WWE's Vince McMahon created the XFL and ended up placing franchises in three of the CFL's failed expansion cities: Birmingham, Las Vegas and Memphis. The XFL also folded after one season.
Two decades later, Dunigan still talks about his experience in Birmingham with a twinge of regret. "They were very knowledgeable football people," Dunigan said. "With the rich tradition of football especially in the South, and they loved our game, too. It was fun playing in front of that crowd at Legion Field and introducing them to our style of play. The U.S. expansion plans was a recipe for disaster. It was doing what they had to do to keep the league afloat, but there was no consistency for prerequisites for ownership groups to have. We had a solid ownership group [in Birmingham] but there was no blueprint to follow for everyone."
The CFL has not awarded any teams in America since.