August 28, 2010

1974: Bell Defeat Wheels After Near-Forfeit

During the World Football League’s first season, the Philadelphia Bell might not have been one of the more successful teams, but it was certainly one of the most entertaining. Under Head Coach Ron Waller, the Bell ran a complex offense full of unorthodox formations. Directing that offense on the field was QB Jim “King” Corcoran (#9 in above photo), a flamboyant minor league football veteran who had spent ten years playing for such clubs as the Norfolk Neptunes and Pottstown Firebirds. He had arrived at training camp in a white Lincoln Continental with the license plate of “KING” while shouting out the window through a bullhorn, “The King has arrived! The King has arrived!”

For all the flamboyance, Corcoran proved to be an effective quarterback for the Bell, passing to wide receivers Donnie Shanklin and Ron Holliday, as well as a local product from non-football-playing St. Joseph’s named Vince Papale who would later make the NFL Eagles as a 30-year-old special teams standout. RB John Land led the Bell in both rushing and pass receiving, and formed a solid tandem with Claude Watts.

Defensively, the team included former Eagles and Chargers LB Tim Rossovich, perhaps better remembered for his off-field behavior that included eating glass and occasionally setting his hair on fire than for his on-field exploits. Other standouts included LB Wally Dempsey, an eight-year veteran of the CFL, and CB Ron Mabra.

However, the team had also been responsible for the league’s biggest scandal when large crowds for the first two home games were found to have been significantly padded by tickets that had been given away (if not substantially discounted). With the end of the complimentary tickets, the crowds dropped off significantly, despite the exciting nature of the team’s play.

Philadelphia had compiled a 3-4 record as they prepared to host the winless (0-7) Detroit Wheels at JFK Stadium on August 28, 1974 before a crowd of 15,100. As was the case with many of the WFL teams, the Wheels were experiencing severe financial hardship to such an extent that the game came close to not being played.

The Wheels had started out short on cash and were never able to dig out of the hole. Not only was money short to pay players, but the team couldn’t cover administrative costs either. Programs were not delivered for one home game because the printer had not been paid, and players brought towels from home so they could take showers.

When the Detroit players arrived for the game at JFK Stadium, they found that there were no supplies, including tape, available. The team considered forfeiting since it wasn’t safe for the players to take the field without taping up. However, WR Jon Henderson was able to talk a Johnson & Johnson salesman into donating a carton of tape so that the game could be played.

For all the adversity, the Wheels were typically competitive on the field, and this game would be no different. The Bell scored first on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Corcoran to Land. But by the third quarter, Detroit was leading 16-14. Philadelphia’s Jerry Warren put the Bell ahead to stay with a 23-yard field goal, and the Bell followed that up with a 24-yard TD pass from Corcoran to Shanklin. The Wheels scored again, but couldn’t catch up as Philadelphia held on for a 27-23 win.

The Bell accumulated 174 yards on the ground, led by John Land’s 90 yards on 16 carries; Claude Watts contributed 34 yards on 15 attempts and a touchdown. “King” Corcoran completed 11 of 29 passes for 184 yards and two TDs. Both Land and Donnie Shanklin caught three passes apiece, with Shanklin’s 64 yards topping the club.

Detroit outrushed the Bell, gaining 194 yards, as RB Jesse Mims led the way with 85 yards on 15 carries and a TD. QB Bubba Wyche, a CFL veteran (as were many of the players on the team) who capably directed the offense throughout the difficult season, completed 13 of 28 passes for 156 yards, with no touchdowns and two of them picked off. Mims and FB Sam Scarber each caught four passes, for 20 and 33 yards respectively, although RB Billy Sadler gained the most yards receiving with 67 on his one catch.

The Wheels would not survive the season, although they did win once before folding with a 1-13 record. They also had the distinction of having the lowest average home attendance during the WFL’s first season (10,228). Philadelphia finished up at 9-11, putting them third in the Eastern Division but good enough to qualify for the postseason – they lost convincingly to the Florida Blazers in the first round.

“King” Corcoran led the WFL in pass attempts (546), completions (280), and touchdown passes (31) while ranking second in passing yards (3632); he also tossed 30 interceptions. John Land (pictured at left) rushed for over a thousand yards (1136) and also led the club with 54 pass receptions; Claude Watts was just under a thousand rushing yards with 927.

As Coach Waller summed up his exciting and colorful team, “We’re not a very conventional team. People come to our games to be entertained. We don’t put you to sleep like the Miami Dolphins do.” Of course, it could be said that the Bell also failed to win with the regularity of the Dolphins at that time, but they certainly contributed plenty to the brief history of the off-beat World Football League.