November 21, 2011

1974: Sun Lose Key Players, Then Lose WFL Playoff Game to Hawaiians

Befitting the state of the World Football League as it staggered toward the end of its first (and only complete) season, the outcome of the first round playoff game between the Southern California Sun and The Hawaiians was significantly determined by off-field events before the teams took the field on November 21, 1974.

Prior to the season, the Sun had made a splash with the signing of three prize rookies, FB James McAlister and RB Kermit Johnson from UCLA and OT Booker Brown out of USC. It was good publicity for the team, especially with all three players coming out of local major college programs. Indeed, the Sun was the most aggressive of the WFL clubs in pursuing their draft choices, with considerable success.

Coached by Tom Fears, a Hall of Fame end with the Rams who had also been the first head coach of the New Orleans Saints, Southern California had former Utah State QB Tony Adams running the offense that included several players with NFL experience, most notably WR Dave Williams, formerly of the Cardinals; TE Dave Parks, previously with the 49ers and Saints; and 13-year-veteran OT Joe Carollo, who had been with the Rams, Eagles, and Browns. The Sun easily won the Western Division with a 13-7 record.

For the WFL’s Honolulu-based team, the road to the playoffs had been more difficult. Coached by Mike Giddings, a former assistant with the NFL 49ers, The Hawaiians were also a young club with many players from West Coast schools. They had begun the season with rookie Norris Weese starting at quarterback, with predictable problems. The receiving corps was good, however, although the running game was lacking, and there was experience on defense. There was also a grueling round of travel, not helped by The Hawaiians insisting on playing Sunday afternoon home games while the rest of the league took the field on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

They got off to a 2-8 start, but the addition of several veteran players who were released from NFL contracts had a good effect in the second half of the year, in particular QB Randy Johnson (pictured at top), previously of the Falcons and Giants. By season’s end, The Hawaiians were 9-11, which was nothing special but enough to finish second in the Western Division and qualify to appear in the much-revamped postseason.

Just before the game, it was announced that McAlister (who was injured in any case), Johnson (the team’s leading rusher), and Brown would not be playing for the Sun. Because owner Larry Hatfield had missed a week’s payroll, the agent for the three players, Mike Trope, said that their contracts had thus been violated and they were now free agents. It was a huge blow for the club.

There was a disappointing crowd of 11,430 on hand at Anaheim Stadium. The Sun started 20-year-old Ralph Nelson and 258-pound Greg Herd at running back in place of the missing rookies.

In the first quarter, Tony Adams threw to Dave Parks for a 23-yard gain that set up a 47-yard field goal attempt by Rod Garcia, but it was missed with 9:47 to go in the period.

The Hawaiians had difficulty moving the ball on offense and finally scored thanks to a turnover. LB Jim Sniadecki picked off an Adams pass intended for Parks at the Sun 43 and returned it to the 23. Randy Johnson passed to TE John Kelsey for a 20-yard gain and HB Al Davis ran in for a touchdown from three yards out. The score remained 7-0 as Davis was stopped short on the action point attempt (touchdowns counted for seven points in the WFL and were followed by an action point, which could not be kicked).

The Hawaiians stopped the Sun on offense and got the ball back at their own 38. Johnson completed a 12-yard pass to WR Tim Delaney, who led the WFL in pass receptions during the season, and throws of 12 and 19 yards to Kelsey to set up a 23-yard field goal by R.A. Coppedge at just under three minutes into the second quarter.

Again Southern California couldn’t move the ball and Adams was sacked for a 14-yard loss on a third down play to force another punt from deep in Sun territory. CB Willie Williams returned the kick 27 yards to the Southern California nine yard line.

The Sun briefly got a break when a holding penalty backed The Hawaiians up ten yards, but gave it right back with a pass interference call that gave the visitors a first down at the five. Kelsey, running a crossing pattern, caught a touchdown pass from Johnson that gave The Hawaiians a 17-0 advantage (they again failed on the action point attempt, which consisted of Weese tossing an incomplete pass).

Southern California fought back thanks to the throwing of Adams and running and receiving of Herd, who gained 18 yards on a pass. Their next possession was finally stopped at The Hawaiians’ 20 yard line and Garcia kicked a 37-yard field goal with 3:54 left in the half to finally get the Sun on the board.

The Sun got the ball back as the clock ticked down to 41 seconds remaining before halftime and ran the ball, prompting boos from the crowd. Adams called a timeout and then threw to Nelson for 18 yards and 46 yards to WR Keith Denson for a touchdown. A pass was completed to HB Clay Jeffries for the action point and the score was 17-11 at the intermission.

The Sun still had the momentum as the third quarter began. The defense held The Hawaiians to a short possession and the offense then drove to The Hawaiians’ 16. However, they had to settle for a field goal when Adams was sacked for a nine-yard loss on third down. Garcia was successful on the 42-yard attempt and it was a three-point game with 9:07 remaining in the third quarter. It was the high point of the contest for Southern California.

The Hawaiians took the ensuing kickoff and went 72 yards in 12 plays. Davis capped the drive by diving into the end zone from two yards out for the TD. Weese ran for the action point, increasing the visitors’ lead to 25-14.

To make matters worse for the Sun, Adams was knocked out of the game with a knee injury after being tackled by DT Ron East early in the fourth quarter and backup Gary Valbuena came in to replace him. He was not up to the task of engineering a comeback as he was sacked three times and tossed three interceptions.

The second of the interceptions, by LB John Douglas, was returned 37 yards to the Southern California 14. Three plays later, Johnson threw to WR John Isenbarger for an eight-yard touchdown which not only sealed the win but started a fight when CB Jim Bowman of the Sun took a swing at Isenbarger. The Hawaiians again failed to convert the action point, but it no longer mattered.

Valbuena threw to WR Ike Harris for a 49-yard gain late in the game, but followed up with his third interception. Ex-USC and Philadelphia Eagles LB Adrian Young picked it off at the six. That was the last gasp for Southern California, and The Hawaiians advanced to the second round of the playoffs with a 32-14 win.

The Sun, playing catch-up for almost the entire game, outgained The Hawaiians (402 yards to 254) and had more first downs (23 to 17). However, Southern California’s running game accumulated just 99 yards on 30 carries without Johnson and McAlister in the backfield; The Hawaiians sacked the Sun quarterbacks six times, at a loss of 58 yards, while Johnson was only dumped once; and the Sun turned the ball over four times while he visitors suffered no turnovers.

Randy Johnson completed 14 of 24 passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns. John Kelsey caught 6 passes for 82 yards and a TD while Tim Delaney contributed 5 receptions for 40 yards. Al Davis (pictured at left) was the team’s top ground gainer with 49 yards on 12 carries that included two scores.

For the Sun, Tony Adams was successful on 11 of 21 passes for 189 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Gary Valbuena went to the air 17 times and had 10 completions along with three interceptions. Keith Denson caught 6 passes for 122 yards and the one long TD. Greg Herd ran for 52 yards on 10 attempts and Ralph Nelson added 39 yards on his 14 carries.

Afterward, there was plenty of frustration over the off-field issues expressed by Coach Tom Fears and the Southern California players.

“It sure as hell didn't help any not having Kermit and Booker,” said Fears.

“If management had done their part, we would have gone all the way,” complained DT Dave Roller. “You can’t win if you can’t concentrate and you can’t concentrate if you don’t get paid.”

The Hawaiians lost a close contest to the eventual-champion Birmingham Americans in the next playoff round. Both franchises returned for the abbreviated 1975 season, but James McAlister, Kermit Johnson, and Booker Brown jumped to the NFL and never played for the Sun again.

None of the three distinguished themselves post-WFL. McAlister played for two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and one with the Patriots, gaining a total of 677 yards rushing, catching 30 passes for 218 more, and returning kickoffs for an average of 20.5 yards. Johnson spent two years with the San Francisco 49ers and ran for just 124 yards, caught one pass, and had a 24.9 average on his 10 kickoff returns. Booker Brown also played just two seasons in the NFL, with the San Diego Chargers.

Both starting quarterbacks also defected to the NFL in 1975. Tony Adams, the league’s top passer and a co-MVP in ’74, became a backup with the Kansas City Chiefs. Randy Johnson joined the Washington Redskins, where he played behind Bill Kilmer along with Joe Theismann.