Thirty-four years ago this week, they burst out of the womb — kicking and screaming. No wonder, if they were the least bit clairvoyant. For if the Detroit Wheels knew what was in store for them, they would have done all they could to stay unborn. No doubt that a self-ziggy before one football was inflated would have been just fine with them.
1974 wasn’t such a great year in the Motor City. The Big 4 — yes, there were four major car companies back then: Ford, GM, Chrysler, and American Motors — were struggling as the country entered into a recession. And the sports teams in town were in varying stages of decay. The Tigers were entering into a recession of their own, having gone too long with the 1968 heroes and nosediving into last place with kids and creaky veterans. The Lions were treading water, nothing more — and their coach would die before one pre-season game was played, dropping dead of a heart attack during training camp. The Red Wings stumbled through another NHL season ingloriously. Only the Pistons, playoff qualifiers and losers of a rugged seven-game series with the Chicago Bulls, provided any breath of life.
Ahh, but there were those expansion teams in eventually-defunct leagues.
Fall of ’74 would give us the Michigan Stags of the World Hockey Association, attracting a few thousand of the very curious at Cobo Arena on a good night. But the Stags wouldn’t last the season, disbanding with players’ paychecks bouncing around like rubber balls.
But there was still the summer to get through before the Stags debuted, and right around the baseball All-Star break, the World Football League crashed the scene.
The Detroit Wheels were one of the original WFL franchises. And that’s pretty much all that you can say about them without getting into the bizarre and surreal.
The Wheels (one of the investors was a pizza magnate named Michael Ilitch) began inauspiciously when they didn’t have a place to play — not a good sign when there’s an entire league schedule — 20 games worth — to be played forthwith. Tiger Stadium was out — the Lions saw to that. The Wheels looked into U-M Stadium, but were again rebuffed. Some other choices were deemed ill, for various reasons. So the Wheels settled on tiny Rynearson Stadium, on the campus of Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.
The coach was former EMU coach Dan Boisture (maybe he had something to do with the selection of Rynearson). The GM was former MSU and NFL star — and Lions assistant coach — Sonny Grandelius, who just passed away this spring. The quarterback had a semi-famous name: Bubba Wyche, the decidedly lesser known brother of NFL QB and coach Sam Wyche.
The Wheels lost on the road to the Memphis Southmen in their opener, 34-15, then christened Rynearson as their home a week later by losing a close one to the Florida Blazers, 18-15. The Wheels then kept losing, both games and money, until their fate was pretty much sealed. Though they kept a lot of games close, the Wheels nonetheless lost and lost, going 0-11 before upsetting Florida for their only victory.
Yes, that’s what the Wheels’ helmet looked like back in ’74
The Wheels didn’t stick around for the entire 20-game WFL season. They folded up shop after Game 14, with a 1-13 record and pretty much zero fan base.
The WFL itself didn’t last much longer. They played two full seasons, but couldn’t rake up enough cash to make a go of it in 1976. But you can’t say the league wasn’t progressive — or at least creative.
There was the Action Point, for one. Touchdowns in the WFL were worth seven points, not six, and the Action Point was the point you tried for after a TD. Only it couldn’t be kicked; the scoring team would have the ball put in play on the five yard-line and would have to run or pass it over the goal line to get the AP. It made for some weird final scores — like 25-11, etc.
There were no fair catches. Although, punt returners had to be given a three yard cushion in order for them to have a fighting chance.
The WFL tried to avoid too much head-to-head competition with the NFL by holding training camp in June and playing a July-November schedule. There were no exhibition games — hence the 20-game schedule. And the games were usually on Wednesday or Thursday evenings. Only the team from Hawaii — called simply The Hawaiians (that’s how they were listed in the standings, too) — played their home games on Sunday, which made for some interesting scheduling quirks. Teams who played in Hawaii were usually playing on three days rest, although they’d get ten days off before their next game.
The Detroit Wheels, like every other WFL franchise, figured themselves a viable option for football-hungry fans. And with the Lions not exactly setting the NFL on fire, the Wheels fantasized about stealing away some of the Honolulu Blue and Silver’s fan base — even while playing in Rynearson Stadium out in Ypsi, which back then was barely more than a large high school set-up.
Didn’t work out that way. Not even close.
Like the Michigan Stags after them, the Detroit Wheels were mere blips on the city’s sports screen, not able to take advantage of their more famous colleagues’ yearly struggles and attract those disgusted and fed up with the Red Wings and Lions, respectively. Guess we only like our losing on a much grander scale.