The Arizona Outlaws were a professional American football team that played in the United States Football League in the mid-1980s. They were owned by Fresno banker and real estate agent William Tatham, Sr., who had briefly owned the Portland Thunder of the World Football League.
The Outlaws were originally slated to play in San Diego. However, under pressure from baseball's Padres, the NFL's Chargers and the NASL's Sockers, the city refused to grant Tatham a lease for Jack Murphy Stadium. Scrambling for a home, Tatham seriously considered playing in Honolulu for its inaugural 1984 season. However, he settled on Tulsa, Oklahoma—even though the city had not even been included in a list of possible expansion sites for the USFL.
Tatham was initially skeptical about basing a team in Tulsa. It was only the 60th-largest television market, which would have made it by far the smallest market in the league. Moreover, the only viable facility, the University of Tulsa's Skelly Stadium, needed major renovations in order to bring it to something approaching professional standards.
However, Tatham had roots in Oklahoma, and eventually concluded that putting his team there would give something back to the state. He christened his team the Oklahoma Outlaws. The club was the second major-league sports team to play in the state, after the North American Soccer League's Tulsa Roughnecks.
On July 7, 1983, at the same time the USFL announced the expansion team, Tatham introduced Hall of Fame member Sid Gillman, who came out of retirement at age 71 to serve as the Director of Operations. Gillman signed a roster of players, but was fired by Tatham in December in a dispute over finances.
In what proved to be a harbinger of things to come, Tatham and his son, Bill, Jr.–who was tapped as general manager despite being fresh out of law school–discovered soon after the ink dried on his lease with TU that school officials had vastly inflated attendance figures for Tulsa Golden Hurricane football games in hopes of maintaining their Division I-A status. The Tathams had been led to believe that the Hurricane drew 35,000-40,000 people per game, which would have been more than respectable by USFL standards. However, business manager Bill Wall, TU's former athletic director, told them after the season opener that the Hurricane actually drew 17,000 per game.
Fortunately for the Tathams, they had a lifeline in Gillman's highest-profile signing, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Doug Williams, who bolted to the upstart league when the Bucs rejected his offer for a significant pay raise out of hand. Years later, Williams said that he was won over when the Tathams "treated me like a human," rather than "a piece of cattle in a stockyard." They signed him to a $3 million contract, along with a $1 million signing bonus, which made him easily one of the highest-paid players in either league. By comparison, while with the Bucs, he made less than several backups, and their offer for 1984 would have still made him one of the lowest-paid starters in the league. Williams was not a very refined, efficient, or consistent passer at that point in addition to being a little rusty, but had a big arm and a knack for making plays.
Along with Williams, the Outlaws roster included rookie Oklahoma State star RB Ernest Anderson. Former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer coached the team. A young out-of-work oil worker, defensive end and part-time musician named Toby Covel played during the Outlaws' preseason but failed to make the team and played that season with the Oklahoma City Drillers, an unofficial farm team; under his middle name Toby Keith, he eventually emerged as a major country music star.
The team only drew 15,937 to their first game, a home opener versus the expansion Pittsburgh Maulers on a rainy and cold spring day. (Home openers in the USFL for most teams were the highest attendance games of the season.) Two weeks into the season, Bill, Jr. announced that Skelly Stadium was inadequate for the Outlaws' needs and that they would be playing elsewhere in 1985.
The Outlaws were competitive for much of the first half of the season, starting out 6-2 off the strength of Williams' arm. Unfortunately, the team could not consistently run the ball. (The Outlaws finished with a league worst total of 1537 total rushing yards --- almost 200 yards less than the 17th ranked team.) Two blowout losses sent the team into a downward spiral. They did not win another game that season, dropping 10 straight to finish 6-12.
In spite of those factors, the Outlaws averaged 21,038 fans (in a 40,000-seat stadium), 14th in the league. It might have been even higher if not for brutally cold and wet early-season weather and what amounted to season-long lame duck status. While Tulsa as a USFL host city had a number of legitimate problems, fan turnout was surprisingly respectable, especially compared to the unsustainable attendance numbers seen by USFL teams in Chicago (7,455), Washington (7,694) and Los Angeles (15,361). They were also one of eight teams whose average attendance was 45 percent or more of listed capacity. The Outlaws would draw decent crowds of 25,403, 21,625, 22,017 and 29,324 later in the season.
During the team's season in Tulsa, all six of their wins came during inclement weather, 4 at home. Wins against Pittsburgh, Michigan, Houston, at Washington, and San Antonio came in rainy conditions, and a win against Chicago came in a Chicago snow storm.