On March 29th, the CFL announced the return of Touchdown Atlantic this season in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, marking the first time a regular-season CFL game will be played in the province. The league will be hoping this will bring the potential Atlantic Schooners expansion team one step closer to playing a down and expanding the league outside of its traditional markets for the first time since 1995. Back then, the CFL expanded into the States and while the US expansion era was ultimately underwhelmed, there is one team from the time that the (potential) Atlantic Schooners would want to emulate. This is the story of the Baltimore Stallions, and how they became the most successful American CFL team.
As a football city, Baltimore has a long and storied history. In 1947, the Baltimore Colts became the newest member of the All-America Football Conference, a professional football league that in 1950 merged with the NFL, giving the city of Baltimore its first sports team in a major North American sports league. Initially, the Colts struggled on and off the field, finishing 1-11 in the 1950 season and then because of financial problems, the team was forced to fold after one season. But in 1953, a new Baltimore Colts team was omitted into the National Football League and would be much more successful.
In 1956, the Colts signed quarterback Johnny Unitas, and it became a match made in heaven. Unitas became a three-time NFL MVP, five-time All-Pro, and is widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks of all time. During his time under centre, the Colts won three NFL Championships and a Super Bowl in 1970, making them one of the most successful teams of the era. The success couldn’t be maintained, and as the seventies and eighties went on, the Colts became more associated with losing, with the lowest point coming in the 1983 draft.
The Colts selected consensus number one pick quarterback John Elway, but the QB refused to play for the Colts, and would go on to win two Super Bowls with Denver, never playing a down in Baltimore. In 1984, Colts owner Jim Irsay infamously moved the team to Indianapolis in the middle of the night with Mayflower Transit trucks, bringing a sudden end to professional football in Baltimore.
The manner of the departure left many Baltimore fans heartbroken and resentful towards the NFL, and the next decade would only serve to fuel that. Firstly in 1988, where the St. Louis Cardinals opted to relocate to Arizona over Baltimore, and then in 1993 where the NFL passed over Baltimore for an expansion team, opting to put a team in Charlotte and Jacksonville.
With it looking unlikely that the NFL would come to Baltimore, businessman Jim Speros saw an opportunity with the CFL. In 1993, the CFL began expanding into the States, and Speros acquired the rights to an expansion team in Baltimore, bringing professional football back to the football starved city.
Whilst American CFL teams would often struggle on and off the field, Speros and the Baltimore team put together a winning formula. First off with the team identity, the team played in royal blue, silver and white, very reminiscent of the Baltimore Colts’ royal blue and white. Secondly came the name, Speros announced that the team’s name would be the Baltimore CFL Colts, bringing the iconic name back to Baltimore. This, however, would be the beginning of a long legal battle with the NFL, which would not allow Baltimore to use the name Colts.
Baltimore was legally forced to go by other names during the 1994 season such as Baltimore CFLers, and Baltimore Football Club. This made Baltimore fans even angrier with the NFL, and they rallied around their new CFL team whilst not being shy to call them the Colts. Playing at Memorial Stadium, home of the Colts for thirty years, the team averaged an attendance of 37,347 in 1994, by far the highest of any other American team.
On the field, Baltimore knew that in order to succeed in Canadian Football, they needed personnel who understood the Canadian game. A lot of American teams appointed coaches that didn’t have any Canadian experience, meanwhile, Baltimore General Manager Jim Popp appointed CFL veteran Don Matthews as the team’s head coach. Matthews had won a Grey Cup with BC in 1985 and also had stints in charge of Saskatchewan and Toronto.
Being an American team, Baltimore wasn’t subjected to the same ratio rules as Canadian teams and filled their team with talented Americans with CFL experiences, such as quarterback Tracy Ham and defensive end Elfrid Payton, they would also be joined by a running back Mike Pringle. Pringle rushed for 1,972 yards in 1994 as Baltimore took the League by storm, making it all the way to the 1994 Grey Cup final against BC. In a hard-fought game, Baltimore lost the game on a last-second field goal, thanks to BC Lions kicker Lui Passaglia.
For the 1995 season, Baltimore picked up right where they left off. Pringle was the league MOP having rushed for 1,791, and the team finished the year with a thirteen-game winning streak and a 15-3 record. Off the field, the team lost its lawsuit with the NFL over the Colts name and was rebranded as the Baltimore Stallions in 1995. The Stallions continued to enjoy great fan support, averaging above 30,000 fans for the second season in a row, and their success was starting to gain attention.
Like Los Angeles in the 2010s, Baltimore was becoming a bargaining chip for owners who wanted new stadiums and the success of the Stallions was proof that the NFL could thrive in the city. One of these owners was Art Modell of the Cleveland Browns, Modell couldn’t reach a deal with Cleveland over a new stadium and on November 6th, 1995, less than a week before a Baltimore Stallions playoff game, Modell announced that he was moving his team to Baltimore for the 1996 season. After thirteen years, the NFL was back in Baltimore.
The Stallions had been a runaway hit in the CFL, and Baltimore had even been awarded as the host city of the 1997 Grey Cup. With the return of the NFL to the city however, the writing was on the wall. Fan interest dried up with the team having to resort to cheap or free tickets to entice fans to attend the South Division final against the San Antonio Texans. The official attendance for the game was 30,217, an improvement on the 21,040 the previous week, but still lower than the 35,223 they managed for a playoff game in 1994.
If the Stallions were going out, they were going out in style. Once again, they reached the Grey Cup game, this time against the Calgary Stampeders. Despite being down 13-7 in the second quarter, the Stallions rallied to score seventeen unanswered points and kept Calgary at arm’s length for the rest of the game, winning the Grey Cup by a score of 37-20. Led by Grey Cup MOP Tracey Ham, Baltimore became the first and only American team to be Grey Cup champions.
After the 1995 season, the CFL ended its American expansion era, with all the teams folding except for one, the Baltimore Stallions. For the 1996 season, Jim Speros decided to relocate to Montreal and revive the Montreal Alouettes. Although the two teams are considered different entities by the League, many executives and players transitioned over to Montreal. General manager Jim Popp would oversee Montreal to three Grey Cups, and running back Mike Pringle spent six seasons with Montreal rushing for a team-record 9,649 yards.
The CFL expansion era is often viewed in infamy, with many of the teams suffering from being poorly run and poorly supported. But almost thirty years since their inaugural season, the Baltimore Stallions are revered as a model franchise of the time. The team was very well run and was committed to creating a product that would be successful on the field, and attract interest off it.
The 1995 team is considered to be one of the greatest teams in Canadian Football history. Including playoffs, they won sixteen consecutive games and became the fastest expansion team in North American history to win a championship. Baltimore became the first city to win both a Grey Cup and a Super Bowl. Who knows what could’ve been if the NFL never returned to Baltimore? Although it was just two seasons, the memories made by those fans in Baltimore in the mid-nineties will last a lifetime.
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