The A11 Football League team to play in Michigan starting in the spring of 2015 is going to have a tough outdoor alternative professional football act to follow.
Thirty years ago, another such team, the United States Football League’s Michigan Panthers, came on to the scene and not only was successful right away, but won the USFL’s first championship.
In 1983, the Panthers, based in Detroit and playing home games in the Silverdome in nearby Pontiac, were one of the USFL’s 12 charter franchises. Michigan, despite winning its first game 9-7 at Birmingham, struggled at the outset of the spring season, going 1-4 in its first five games. It was then, however, that the Panthers went on a roll, winning six games in a row and finishing their initial regular season at 12-6 and as co-Central Division champs.
Michigan won its first playoff game at home against Oakland, 37-21. They then defeated the Philadelphia Stars, 24-22, in the first USFL Championship Game, thanks in large part to rookie quarterback Bobby Hebert’s three touchdown passes.
In 1984, the Panthers fought through key injuries to finish the regular season at 10-8, and fought their way back in the postseason. But it was in their first postseason game, on June 30, that they lost, 27-21, in the longest game in professional football history – a three-overtime affair in Los Angeles against the Express.
As it turned out, that would be the Panthers’ final game in Michigan. Due to the ill-fated decision by the USFL to move to the fall beginning in 1986, the Panthers merged with the Oakland Invaders for the 1985 spring season, not to be seen again after back-to-back successful seasons on the field.
Michigan does have one other outdoor alternative pro football experience over the last 40 years, and it wasn’t a good one. The Detroit Wheels played in the first season of the World Football League in 1974, but they didn’t finish the season. Instead of playing in Detroit, the Wheels’ home games were at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. And after going 1-13 in 14 games, the cash-strapped Wheels were removed from the league.