August 2, 2011

1975: Bell Spoils Calvin Hill’s Debut with Hawaiians

The World Football League’s Honolulu-based team, The Hawaiians, had started poorly in 1974 but improved throughout the course of the eventual 9-11 season. The team had used rookie Norris Weese at quarterback until veteran Randy Johnson, cut by the NFL’s Giants, came aboard at midseason. While WR Tim Delaney led the WFL in pass receptions with 89, the running game ranked last among the clubs that made it through the full season.

Several NFL veterans had been signed to contracts prior to the ’74 season, but other than Johnson, who only became available because the Giants released him, the club had to wait until 1975 to avail themselves of their services. Two of the players they had signed, San Francisco TE Ted Kwalick and Vikings WR John Gilliam, were allocated to other teams by the league (Philadelphia and Chicago, respectively). But RB Calvin Hill (pictured above), who had gained 5009 rushing yards in six years with the Dallas Cowboys, joined the Hawaiians for the ’75 season and it was anticipated that he would substantially upgrade the running attack. However, the team had lost Johnson as the quarterback, who jumped back to the NFL with the Washington Redskins.

On August 2, 1975 The Hawaiians traveled to Philadelphia where they opened the regular season against the Bell before a sparse crowd of 2732 fans at Franklin Field on a 94-degree Saturday night.

The Bell had undergone a change in head coach after Ron Waller, who guided the club in 1974, abruptly resigned during the preseason. After assistant Joe Gardi took over for an exhibition win over Portland, former Packers great Willie Wood was named to the position the Tuesday prior to the season-opening contest. Wood thus became the first African-American head coach of a major league pro football team in the modern era (some 14 years before Art Shell was hired in the NFL; Fritz Pollard had coached in the early 1920s).

Philadelphia scored first on a 37-yard field goal by Bob Cooper. The Hawaiians responded with a 72-yard drive that was capped when Hill caught a pass from QB Rick Cassata for a 13-yard touchdown. With a successful pass for the action point, they led 8-3 at the end of the first quarter.

In the second quarter, colorful Bell QB Jim “King” Corcoran threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Kwalick that was followed by RB J.J. Jennings running successfully for the action point. The Bell took an 11-8 lead into halftime.

In the third quarter, Corcoran threw a pass to WR Ron Holliday that went 15 yards in the air but was turned into a 55-yard touchdown when Holliday evaded three tacklers and ran down the right sideline for the score, although the action point attempt failed. Cooper followed with a 35-yard field goal to give Philadelphia a comfortable 21-8 lead after three quarters.

The Hawaiians narrowed the margin in the fourth quarter on a two-yard carry by RB Clayton Heath. The action point attempt failed but the Bell now led by just six points with plenty of time remaining.

The Hawaiians again moved into Philadelphia territory, but in a key defensive play by the Bell, Hill was stopped short at the Philadelphia 30 in a fourth-and-two situation. With time running out, The Hawaiians inserted backup QB Sonny Sixkiller into the game and advanced to the Bell 16 yard line with the help of a pass interference call and three offside penalties. With no timeouts remaining, Sixkiller threw to WR Tim Delaney in the end zone for an apparent game-winning score, but a holding penalty nullified the play and give Philadelphia the 21-15 win.

The Hawaiians had more first downs (23 to 16) while outrushing the Bell, 245 yards to 119; Philadelphia gained more net passing yards (154 to 84).

Calvin Hill ran for 155 yards on 32 carries and Clayton Heath added 68 yards on 17 attempts that included a TD. Rick Cassata completed just 7 of 19 passes for 61 yards with a TD and three interceptions while Sonny Sixkiller connected on both of his passes for 23 yards. Hill and Heath also each caught three passes, with Hill leading the club with 30 yards. Tim Delaney had 26 yards on his two catches.

For the Bell, King Corcoran was successful on 13 of 25 passes for 155 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. J.J. Jennings, who had been a league co-MVP with Memphis in ’74, ran for 57 yards on 11 carries to pace the rushing attack. Ron Holliday had five catches for 100 yards that included the long TD.

“Wow, if people wanted excitement, they certainly got their money's worth tonight,” said Willie Wood (pictured at right), a winner in his first game as a pro head coach. “Our guys really held them down at most crucial points although those offside penalties almost gave me heart failure.”

Neither team did particularly well in the WFL’s abbreviated second season that ended in October with the abrupt folding of the league. Both ended up with 4-7 records, which meant a last-place finish in the Eastern Division for the Bell at the point that the plug was pulled; the Hawaiians tied for fourth with the Portland Thunder.

The opening game performance was the best for Calvin Hill as he went down with a knee injury shortly thereafter and ended up with just 218 yards on 49 carries. He returned to the NFL with Washington in 1976, where he played for two seasons before moving on to the Cleveland Browns for four years. While still an effective role player, he never ran the ball more than 80 times in a season or exceeded his post-WFL high of 301 yards with the Redskins in ’76. As a receiver out of the backfield, he did catch as many as 38 passes with the Browns in 1979.

As for Willie Wood, he got another pro head coaching opportunity with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, becoming that league’s first black head coach.