A ticket for your last chance to see the WFL in Birmingham
This week will mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the WFL. The league had endured questions and hardships throughout much of the 1975 season. Although there were some teams who voted to continue playing, they were out-voted by the weaker franchises and the league folded on October 22nd 1975. Birmingham, one of the strongest franchises voted to continue playing, and was coming off a satisfying win over division rival Memphis.
The Birmingham Vulcan had just returned home from a tough road win, 18-14, at Memphis, only to have the task of facing the Southmen again the very next week. The Southmen came to town with the celebrated trio of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, & Paul Warfied, ready to avenge the loss in the Liberty Bowl. However, there would be no drama or controversy that had marked the earlier contest, with the Vulcans dealing a 21-0 shutout over the visitors from Memphis. The Birmingham defense held a death grip on the Grizzlies offense and never relinquished its stranglehold. Larry Willingham, Warren Capone, Jimmy Teal, Jim McKinney, Larry Estes, and Bob Tatarek were the defensive leaders for the Home team. The Vulcans offense was efficient and crisp, led by Matthew Reed, Art Cantrelle and Johnny Musso, with Denny Duron scoring his first professional touchdown. Cantrelle and Musso added scores on short runs as well.
On Memphis’ first drive, Vulcans DB Larry Willingham set the tone for the day. Memphis QB Danny White found TE Gary Shirk on a short crossing pattern. Willingham arrived an instant after the ball did with Willingham unloading on Shirk. The ball popped loose for an incompletion and Memphis had to punt.
Birmingham scored on its second possession, with Reed leading a 16-play 64-yard drive, with Reed hitting reserve QB Denny Duron on a 14 yard pass for the TD. The action point was no good, and the Vulcans led 7-0. Vulcans LB Pat Kelly delivered a vicious blow to the Southmen’s George Campbell on the ensuing kickoff, jarring the ball loose, and Willie Smith recovered for Birmingham at the Memphis 13. Four plays later Cantrelle scored from the 2-yard line, and Birmingham now led 14-0 (the action point was again unsuccessful). A 51-yard Reed to Jim Bishop aerial started a 77-yard 7-play drive in the 4th quarter, ending with Musso slashing in from 2 yards out. The AP was unsuccessful, but Birmingham’s 21-0 lead held to finish of the Southmen.
The Birmingham News closed out its story on the game by adding that the Vulcans would begin preparations for the Southern California Sun, “…and there is no reason to doubt there will be another week in the WFL.” Sadly, however, 3 days later the WFL announced that it was suspending operations and that was the sudden end to the WFL and the Birmingham Vulcans.
On Wednesday October 22nd, 1975 Head Coach Marvin Bass assembled the Vulcans players for a hastily called closed-door meeting. In it he broke the sad news that the WFL had folded. The WFL had conducted a teleconference with all of the league’s teams and voted to “cease operations”, as worded in a teletype sent out by the WFL office that day. Only Birmingham and Memphis voted to continue playing. After the meeting with the players concluded and press conference was held where Coach Bass addressed the media. “I’ve been in coaching 33 years, but what I had to do 30 minutes ago makes this the saddest day of my life. I had to tell my football team they are unemployed”.
Reaction was swift to the sad news. Players, coaches, fans alike were saddened by the loss of Birmingham’s professional football team. The suddenness, despite rumors, made it especially difficult.
Birmingham, along with Memphis, petitioned the NFL for admission. While there are varying versions of how this process went, the outcome is the same in each version, Birmingham’s football team was gone, and would not return in the form of an NFL franchise.