Opinion

Tom Dillard: Professional football franchise failed to score in 1960s Arkansas

Given the football-crazed nature of Arkansas, one might wonder why the state does not have a professional football team. In 1967, a group of investors launched the Arkansas Diamonds, and in the process, they discovered that the time had not yet come for professional football in Arkansas.

It is not a pretty picture from any perspective.

Original partners in the venture included H.E. "Don" McConnell, owner of McConnell Heavy Equipment in Little Rock, Earl W. Sorrels of North Little Rock, and Paul Bone of Clinton. In January 1968, the Diamonds were granted the eighth franchise of the newly formed Professional Football League of America, which was located mostly in the Midwest.

Less than one month later, the Professional Football League merged with the Continental Football League, creating the Continental Professional Football League. Former Kentucky Gov. A.B. Chandler was the league's first commissioner.

The league was divided into three divisions: the Atlantic, with six teams stretching from Orlando to Detroit; a Pacific Division with five teams including Seattle and Sacramento; and the Central Division, which included the Diamonds as well as Chicago, Indianapolis, Omaha and Oklahoma City.

Coach and general manager Tom Burke faced a daunting task in creating a viable football team within the constraints of the league's stringent caps on salaries. Still, some notable local players signed on, including quarterbacks Bobby Tiner, a star at State College of Arkansas (now UCA) and former Arkansas State standout Tim Keane. Safety Ridley Gibson and running back Randy Behringer were both Baylor University alumni.

Here is how Jeffery L. Harres, who published a history of the Diamonds, described the team's debut: "Like most of the expansion teams, the Diamonds opened up the 1968 season terribly, losing all three of their exhibition games. Then, in their regular season opener played at Quigley Stadium in Little Rock on Aug. 31, they suffered a humiliating 33-10 defeat at the hands of defending champion Orlando."

After five painful losses, the Diamonds finally won a game against the Huntsville, Ala., Hawks by 31-27. Coach Tom Burke resigned a few days before the Huntsville game, being replaced by his assistant Fred Williams, a former Chicago Bears player.

Williams at least got to see the team win two games, one of which was the only win at home, defeating the Oklahoma City Thunderbirds 26-16 on Oct. 26, 1968. The Diamonds suffered losses in three of their final four games, including back-to-back losses to Omaha in which they were outscored by 70 to 20. The Diamonds "stumbled to a 2-10 record" their first year, to quote Paul Edwards, author of the entry on the team in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

A new coach, John Hoffman, and a new general manager, Jim Landers, used the off-season to recruit several new players. The most prominent was famed University of Arkansas quarterback Jon Brittenum, a Brinkley native who had played briefly for the San Diego Chargers. Landers, a native of Benton, also mounted a public relations campaign to generate fan support.

The 1969 season got off to a good start for the Diamonds as they won both exhibition games as well as defeating the Omaha Mustangs in their season opener at Little Rock on Aug. 30. In an even sweeter game, the gold- and blue-uniformed Diamonds slaughtered the Dallas Rockets 42 to 16 in a home game on Sept. 28. The team had only two days to celebrate before tragedy struck.

The IRS announced on Oct. 1, 1969, that it had filed a lien against the Diamonds for failure to pay almost $12,000 in payroll taxes. This came at about the same time the league, which faced troubles of its own, demanded a franchise payment of $20,000.

The owners, realizing they were woefully under-capitalized, renounced their ownership of the team. At this point, fans stepped into the fray and saved the day by raising funds to cover the league fees. In an act that should shame modern money-grubbing football players, the Diamonds players announced they would finish the season without pay.

However, the newly hired head coach Fred Williams and general manager Landers resigned. Landers said it had been "an impossible task to perform the duties I was hired to do due to lack of money." Additional fundraising, as well as an attempt to incorporate the team, failed to save the Diamonds, and the franchise was eventually revoked.

Despite their rather sad history, the Diamonds played some good football, especially during the second season. Both Tiner and Brittenum were good quarterbacks, and defensive wizard Tommy Trantham was praised for numerous interceptions. Even during the disastrous first season, Tiner rushed for 513 yards and passed for 1,186 yards. Former Razorback Tommy Trantham caught 45 passes for 510 yards.

The failure of the Diamonds can be blamed on several factors, especially under-capitalized owners. Since the players had regular jobs, finding time to practice was a challenge. Quarterback Tiner put some of the failure at the feet of University of Arkansas football coach Frank Broyles, who was seen as not supporting a professional team which would compete against the Razorbacks. As my friend Dr. Sam Taggart told me recently, "Arkansas already has a pro football team: the Razorbacks."

Community support never materialized. The largest attendance was at an exhibition game at Conway, which attracted about 2,500 people. Years later, quarterback Tiner could not forget the misery of a game played in a snowy Soldier Field in Chicago. Two fans -- his parents -- occupied the entire Diamonds' side of the 72,000-seat facility.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]. An earlier version of this column was published Sept. 7, 2014.

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