Bobby Hebert gives to Ken Lacy_edited.jpg

Michigan
Panthers

Team Panthers.jpg

The Panthers were one of the league’s most popular teams with QB Bobby Hebert and WR Anthony Carter out of the University Michigan. More than 60,000 fans showed up to watch the Panthers win a playoff game in 1983 and stormed the field after Michigan beat Oakland to earn a birth in the first USFL championship game.

 

Hebert remembers coach Jim Stanley would always try inspire the team with sayings like: “I don’t want no dogs that won’t hunt,” meaning he wanted his players to attack. Stanley had a great mix of young talent that would make the NFL once the USFL folded, and a bunch of seasoned NFL veterans on his ’83 championship team.

 

Ray Bentley, a linebacker out of Central Michigan, remembers there were so many players in camp that first year, he really didn’t have any idea of who the other players were.

 

After practice, the Panthers would run two buses back to the hotel from camp, and Bentley always liked to get on the first bus so he could relax at his hotel, but this one afternoon he had to take the second bus. While the players waited for more than 20 minutes in the sweltering yellow school bus, Bentley got up and asked, “Who are we waiting for? One of the players said, 'Bobby Hebert!' I said, 'Who the hell is Bobby Hebert?'"

 

Bentley knew nothing about Hebert, but he knew plenty about the wide receiver Anthony Carter. Although Bentley’s dad played for Michigan State, the Michigan receiver was his favorite football player. “You look at him and he’s about 160 lbs soaking-wet, and he sounds like a bird when he talked,” says Bentley. “But he was the ‘best football player’ that I’ve ever played with.  He worked harder than anybody; when the ball was in the air, he went and got it.  When he got going, everyone caught that fire.”

The Panthers, like the Denver Gold and Tampa Bay Bandits, were the darlings of the USFL with their tremendous fan support.  After winning their first game against the Stallions, the Panthers lost their next four games. Head coach Jim Stanley realized the season was slipping away and urged management to get some NFL veterans on the field to protect his young quarterback and open some holes for his backs. Tackle Ray Pinney, along with guards Tyrone McGriff and Thom Dornbrook,  joined Michigan to help the Panthers win 11 of their final 13 regular-season games. “All of a sudden we had an NFL caliber line,” says Bentley. “That’s what made the difference for us. We now had a football team and realized this is starting to turn around.”

 

The Panthers, like the Denver Gold and Tampa Bay Bandits, were the darlings of the USFL with their tremendous fan support.  After winning their first game against the Stallions, the Panthers lost their next four games. Head coach Jim Stanley realized the season was slipping away and urged management to get some NFL veterans on the field to protect his young quarterback and open some holes for his backs. Tackle Ray Pinney, along with guards Tyrone McGriff and Thom Dornbrook,  joined Michigan to help the Panthers win 11 of their final 13 regular-season games. “All of a sudden we had an NFL caliber line,” says Bentley. “That’s what made the difference for us. We now had a football team and realized this is starting to turn around.”

 

Michigan’s 12 wins earned them a home-playoff game against the Oakland Invaders in the semi-finals. Owner Alfred Taubman lowered ticket prices, as more than 60,000 adoring fans rushed through the gates to watch the Panthers beat Invaders 37-21, and earn the right to play in the first USFL Championship. The exuberant fans stormed the field after the playoff victory. “I’ll never forget the semi-final against Oakland,” says Bentley, with a reminiscent, yet excited voice. “I stayed out there just to feel it and to mingle with the fans. It was one of the most emotional and chaotic scenes I was ever a part of.”

 

By the end of the first season, Bentley says the fans recognized the players on the streets of Detroit.  After Michigan’s 24-22 win over the Stars, a few thousand fans showed their love for the team at the airport. “We got off that plane and it was heroe’s welcome that’s etched in my mind,” says Bentley. “They had a make-shift stage and some players thanked the fans – that was our parade.”

 

The Panthers went all the way to the USFL Championship and beat Jim Mora’s Stars. It was Hebert and Carter hooking-up for the game wining score on a 48-yard pass with 3:01 remaining, to seal what would be a 24-22 win over the Philadelphia Stars in the first United States Football League Championship game.

 

 After starting the 1984 season with a roar –winning their first six games --the Panthers limped into the playoffs with 10 wins. Injuries to Hebert and Carter, along with G.M. Jim Spavital’s departure, and player’s wanting more money in light of the team’s success, caused the Panthers to lose eight of the team’s final 12 games.

Despite the team’s problems, the Panthers averaged more than 32,000 fans at the gate, and earned their second-consecutive playoff berth. This time they wouldn’t have their tremendous fan support for home-field advantage. Hebert and company had to haul it out to Los Angeles to play the Express and their young running-quarterback— Steve Young.

 

 In what turned out to be the longest game in pro football history, the Express beat the Panthers 27-21 in triple-overtime. RB Mel Gray broke the 21-21 tie with a 24-yard touchdown run that put an end to the Panthers’ season on the sun-soaked Coliseum field.

 

Many owners felt a fall schedule would bring about the USFL’s demise, but led by New Jersey Generals’ owner Donald Trump, the move was marching forward. Michigan owner Taubman was friendly with the Ford family, which owned the Lions. Taubman didn’t want an inner-city battle with his friends, so the franchise merged with the Invaders for the 1985 season.

 

 This move didn’t sit well with players like Bentley, who embraced the fan support in his hometown. “It was disappointing because we had such a great thing going on there,” says Bentley. “We didn’t understand the logic to move; if we were going to merge, then let’s stay in Detroit and merge with us.  It was a whole different world out in Oakland.”

 

After getting off to a 4-3-1 start, the Invaders won nine of the remaining 10 regular-season games.  “It took awhile for those two teams to get together,” says Bentley.  “ On the upside, we had a ton of talent and we were really well coached.  That’s was a classy organization – coach Charlie Sumner ran it like the Raiders: ‘Just Win.’”

 

The Invaders finished with a league-best 13-4-1 record. In the quarter-finals, the Invaders beat Steve Spurrier’s Tampa Bay Bandits 30-27; then beat Pepper Rodgers’ Memphis Showboats 28-19 in the semi-finals.

 

After losing in the playoffs in ’84, the Panthers and Invaders merged to make one of the USFL’s most dangerous teams in league history. The reason wasn’t to better the talent, rather owner Alfred Taubman didn’t want to create problems with the ownership of the Detroit Lions. “Taubman was buddy-buddy with Lions owner William Clay Ford and didn’t want to go-head-to-head against his friends,” says Hebert.” The Invaders stormed to a league best 13-4-1 record after the merger. Hebert threw for 30 touchdowns and more than 3,800 yards; Carter, Derek Holloway and Gordon Banks combined for 179 receptions and 26 touchdowns in 1985. The Invaders scored 473 points – second only to Jim Kelly’s Houston Gamblers, who lit up the scoreboard with 544 points. Oakland stormed into the USFL Championship against the Jim Mora’s Stars, with playoff wins over Tampa Bay and Memphis. Hebert and company like they were going to upset Mora for a second time in three years, but a personal foul penalty on seven-year veteran fullback Tom Newton stalled the Oakland drive.. “The guys were yelling at him in the shower because he cost us the game,” says Hebert.

 

Bentley, Hebert Carter and the rest of the former Panthers, now had a second showdown with Mora’s Stars in the last USFL Championship. Unfortunately for the Invaders, a personal foul penalty on FB Tom Newton, thwarted the winning drive for Oakland, as the Stars won, 28-24, at a rain-soaked Meadowlands. “That was a heart-breaker,” says Bentley in a dejected voice. “It was one of the toughest losses I was ever a part of. I was disappointed in my performance in that game. I felt like I didn’t hold up to my part of the bargain – a lot of guys felt that way.  We had several guys that didn’t get it, and I was one of them. To this day, it’s still one of my biggest disappointments in pro football.”

 

The Invaders sold more than 25,000 season tickets in 1983, averaging more than 31,000 fans per game. The team was looked at as a replacement for the Oakland Raiders, who moved to Los Angeles after the ’81 season. Invaders’ management thought the team would fill the void with a football-hungry fan-base in Oakland. But attendance dropped to 23,000 in ’84, and to 17,000 in ’85, despite having an elite team with players like Carter and Hebert.