March 17, 2011

1965: Happy Chandler Named Commissioner of Continental Football League

With pro football booming in the 1960s and a second major league, the American Football League, providing evidence that there were still untapped markets for pro teams, another venture was launched in 1965. The Continental Football League was made up primarily of franchises from two minor leagues, with five from the defunct United Football League and four that pulled away from the Atlantic Coast Professional Football League.

On March 17, 1965 the new league took a significant step at generating publicity, and at least some credibility, by introducing 66-year-old Albert B. “Happy” Chandler as its first commissioner at a press conference.

The jovial Chandler had been Commissioner of Baseball from 1945 to ’51, succeeding Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and presiding over the integration of the major leagues. He was also a two-time Governor of Kentucky (1935-39 and 1955-59) and US Senator (1939-45).

Teams in the new league would play a 14-game schedule, and the 1965 season was to start on August 14 – a month before the NFL and AFL. Games would typically be on Saturday or Sunday nights and, in a move that the NFL would not adopt until 1974, sudden death overtime would decide regular season games that were tied after four quarters.

No television deals had been signed, although Chandler indicated that “we have hopes” (those hopes would ultimately prove to be in vain). Many players were already under contract. Each team had a 36-player roster limit and was allowed to carry a five-player taxi squad. Each had also paid a $5000 franchise fee and posted a $25,000 letter of credit. While there was no college draft for the first season, Chandler hoped that the new league would be able to compete for college talent with the NFL and AFL.

The ten-team league was organized into two divisions, with the East consisting of the Newark Bears (New Jersey), Norfolk Neptunes (originally the Springfield Acorns, from Massachusetts), Philadelphia Bulldogs, Toronto Rifles, and Wheeling Ironmen and the West containing the Charleston Rockets (West Virginia), Ft. Wayne Warriors (Indiana), Hartford Charter Oaks, Rhode Island Indians (Providence), and Richmond Rebels. Newark, Springfield/Norfolk, Richmond, and Hartford had come from the ACFL. Wheeling, Charleston, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Ft. Wayne came out of the UFL. The team in Providence was the only truly new franchise.

While the league belied its name by hardly spanning the continent – there were no clubs west of the Mississippi River or south of Virginia – there was talk of future expansion and Chandler insisted on promoting the enterprise as a new major league. In that spirit, teams were restricted from loaning players to NFL or AFL clubs, or from receiving optioned players from those leagues.

The name Continental League had been consciously lifted from a proposed third major baseball league that had been fronted by the innovative Branch Rickey in the late 50s and was finally nipped in the bud when the two existing leagues agreed to expand in 1961 and ’62. There was speculation that the new football league was a front for franchises looking to receive favorable attention from the AFL, which was due to expand beyond its initial eight clubs.

The Continental Football League got much farther than its baseball namesake, not only playing a complete season in 1965, but lasting for five years, until folding after the ’69 season. However, Chandler, who had been signed to a five-year contract, lasted just ten months as commissioner, resigning in January of 1966 after several teams sought to develop working relationships with NFL and AFL teams, thus abandoning any pretense of being a major league.

Few of the original franchises lasted all five years, with some, such as Ft. Wayne and Newark, relocating by the second year. The Charleston Rockets went a perfect 14-0 in the 1965 regular season and defeated Toronto for the ContFL’s first championship, but folded during the ’68 season. The Philadelphia Bulldogs, who won the ’66 title, weren’t back in 1967. Teams came and went during the league’s five-year run, although it did finally span the continent in 1967, fielding clubs in San Jose, Sacramento, Long Beach (for one game), and Orange County in California as well as Eugene, Oregon, and Orlando, Florida (the relocated Newark franchise). There were even more Canadian teams, the Montreal Beavers (formerly Ft. Wayne) and Victoria Steelers, and, in the last year, one in Monterrey, Mexico, the Golden Aztecs. There were 22 teams in 1969, not all of which completed the season.

Brooklyn hosted a franchise in 1966, but even though it had notable names running the operation – former baseball great Jackie Robinson (pictured below) as general manager and ex-Giant Andy Robustelli at head coach – it failed to draw and was a league-operated road team by the end of the season. It was typical of the instability that characterized the ContFL to the end.

While the Continental Football League never achieved the major league status that was envisioned when Happy Chandler took the helm, it did help launch some NFL playing and coaching careers, including QB Ken Stabler (Spokane Shockers), DE Coy Bacon (Charleston Rockets), DE Otis Sistrunk (Norfolk Neptunes), DB Pete Athas (Norfolk Neptunes), and PK Garo Yepremian (Michigan Arrows). QB John Walton of the Indianapolis Capitals went on to play in the WFL (San Antonio Wings), NFL (Philadelphia Eagles), and USFL (Boston/New Orleans Breakers). Two-time league MVP Don Jonas of the Orlando Panthers went on to become a star quarterback in Canada. And the head coach of the 1967 San Jose Apaches eventually coached at Stanford before entering into a Hall of Fame career as head coach of the NFL’s 49ers: 35-year-old Bill Walsh.