Revival of the USFL’s Birmingham Stallions brings back memories for those who played the first time around

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Birmingham Stallions runningback Joe Cribbs during a game. (Courtesy Tuffy Crowe)

Christmas Day
December 25 2021 12:00 am

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Birmingham called and Tom Banks came running.

It started in 1980, when the Birmingham native left the St. Louis Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) after 11 seasons. Slowed down by several injuries over the past decade, Banks wanted to take some time off.

“I was beaten up and needed to take some time off to get healthy again,” said Banks, who was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2000.

Playing card of Birmingham Stallions center Tom Banks. (Courtesy Tuff Crowe)

A couple of years away from the game, Banks was not sure what to do next. Still not in playing shape, he was approached by Rollie Dotsch about joining the Birmingham Stallions. The team was part of the newly formed United States Football League, and Dotsch was slated to be the Stallions head coach. Dotsch needed a seasoned player who could help lead the younger players and get them used to professional play.

Getting back into training, Banks was the first player to sign with the Stallions, which played during the USFL’s first iteration from 1983 to 1985.

Many of the Stallions were no strangers to Alabama, having either played college ball for either the Crimson Tide or Auburn Tigers beforehand. For players like Banks, the opportunity to come back home to play football was too good to pass up.

“It was a real good way to finish out my career in Birmingham,” he said.

With the newly-revived USFL bringing back the Stallions next spring, many of the players and coaches who were part of that first group still have fond memories of the team.

“That was the most fun I’ve ever had in 35 years,” said Tuffy Crowe, an assistant coach for the first Stallions team.

‘It was so much fun’

For Joe Cribbs, Birmingham was the only option he had.

For three years, the Sulligent native had been a running back for the Buffalo Bills, where he had been named the American Football Conference Rookie of the Year in 1980. Not feeling appreciated by the team, Cribbs left the Bills in 1983.

Vaughn Johnson (33) of the USFL’s Jacksonville Bulls puts on a stopping hit to Birmingham Stallions running back Joe Cribbs (20) in fourth quarter game action at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., April 19, 1985. (AP Photo/Dan Sheehan)

“When the Bills forced my hand and left me no other choice, Birmingham was the logical destination at the time,” Cribbs said.

Cribbs soon signed with the Stallions, quickly becoming a standout on the team. His first season with the team in 1984, he led the league with 1,467 rushing yards.

“It was like coming home,” Cribbs said. “It was a good time and I was happy.”

Like Cribbs, Cliff Stoudt was also looking for something different. Before joining the Stallions, Stoudt had spent several years with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a backup for quarterback Terry Bradshaw. However, Stoudt was pulled up to starter in 1983 after Bradshaw was injured, leading the Steelers to a 9-2 season.

Seeing how Bradshaw would return to play soon, Stoudt wanted options.

“I didn’t want to go back to sitting on the bench after going a year as a starter,” Stoudt said.

Stoudt said everyone with the Stallions enjoyed their time together, something other teams noticed early on.

“I think we were the envy of a lot of guys in the league,” he said. “They just really did a great job.”

Crowe said Dotsch was a big part of what made the team great. Dotsch, who led the team to a 38-18 record those three seasons, died of pancreatic cancer in 1988.

“It was one of those things where you loved to go to work,” he said. “It was so much fun.”

The fans

One game Crowe still remembers was the season opener against the New Jersey Generals at Legion Field in 1985. It was quarterback Doug Flutie’s first game for the Generals and nearly 35,000 fans flocked to the stadium to watch the Stallions beat the Generals 38-28.

The USFL’s New Jersey Generals rookie quarterback Doug Flutie, right, is all smiles despite leading his team to the 38-28 loss to the Birmingham Stallions at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., Feb. 25, 1985. At left is the Stallion’s David Dumars. (AP Photo/Andy Hails)

However, what Tuffy remembers all these years later was the fans, some of whom he compared to concertgoers or NASCAR fans with the way they would celebrate the team.

“Those fans had a ball,” Crowe said. “They were tailgating hours before the games.”

Banks said that in those days, the Stallions had a very close relationship with the fans. With many of the coaches and players living in town, they were always out in the community.

“We felt a real relationship with the people who came to see us,” Banks said.

Both Cribbs and Banks said they enjoyed being able to see their family and friends at the games.

“All of my family were in the stands every week,” Banks said.

‘It would be great for the city’

From contract disputes to an attempt to competing with the NFL, many issues plagued the original USFL, which folded in 1986. Cribbs said he is not sure how successful the newest version of the league will be, but that commitment from both the owners and fans will be key.

“You have to have the business plan that will carry you out at least five to six years,” he said. “That would be my thoughts.”

The coaching staff of the 1985 Birmingham Stallions, led by head coach Roland “Rollie” Dotsch. (Courtesy Tuffy Crowe)

Nonetheless, many of the original Stallions feel the community would support a new team in the Magic City.

“I feel like if someone put a franchise in Birmingham, it would be successful,” Cribbs said. “Some of the other cities, they just could not do it, but Birmingham could.”

Currently, the city of Birmingham and the USFL are in negotiations to have the inaugural season played at Protective Stadium, which would host up to 40 games between eight teams between next April and July. As of Tuesday, no announcement has been made on where the season will be held.

Crowe thinks the community would come back around to supporting the Stallions again.

“It’d be great for the city,” Crowe said. “They have great high school facilities where they could all practice. I think it’d be great.”

Stoudt said that if the people behind the new USFL approach the league in the right way, especially when it comes to TV coverage, it could work. The first season will be broadcast on Fox Sports.

“There’s a lot more money in TV now than there was then,” he said. “If they approach it right, present it right, it should do well.”

Stoudt also said that regardless of the financial viability of the USFL, he believes people in Birmingham will come out to support the team, even though there might be some hesitation at first.

“I think the biggest fear is how many times they’ve had their heart broken,” he said, mentioning the many professional teams that have come and gone in Birmingham. “People love football and if they believe it’s going to work, they’ll jump on the bandwagon even more.”

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