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The Orlando Pro Football Curse Is Real

Six leagues. Six teams. No titles. Several close calls.

Enforcers v Rage X Black
Remember the Orlando Rage?
Getty Images

Laugh all you want, but former Orlando Apollos head coach Steve Spurrier came out and said it Tuesday:

Assistant Coach Todd Washington went one further:

And FanDuel followed suit on Wednesday:

If they took their cues from the UCF Knights, more power to them. Hell, at 7-1, they had the best record by two full games.

Even though the Apollos didn’t get to prove it on the field before the AAF shut its doors on Tuesday, which has to stick in the Ball Coach’s craw, at least Spurrier gets to go out as the winningest head coach at Florida, South Carolina, and the Alliance of American Football.

But on a larger scale, it leaves yet another professional outdoor football franchise in Orlando empty-handed on the cusp of a championship.

Orlando has been home to six startup outdoor pro football leagues over four and a half decades now. Yet, in six of the eight seasons Orlando has had a pro football team, they’ve been denied a championship on its very doorstep:

Successful Failures: Orlando’s Pro Football Teams

Year Team League Head Coach Record Standings Result
Year Team League Head Coach Record Standings Result
1974 Florida Blazers WFL Jack Pardee 14-6 1st - East Division Lost World Bowl 1 to Birmingham Americans, 22-21
1985 Orlando Renegades USFL Lee Corso 5-13 7th - Eastern Conference Missed Playoffs
1991 Orlando Thunder WLAF Don Matthews 5-5 2nd - North American East Division Missed Playoffs
1992 Orlando Thunder WLAF Galen Hall 8-2 1st - North American East Division Lost World Bowl II to Sacramento Surge, 21-17
2001 Orlando Rage XFL Galen Hall 8-2 1st - East Division Lost in Semifinals to San Francisco Demons, 26-25
2009 Florida Tuskers UFL Jim Haslett 6-0 1st - UFL Lost UFL Championship to Las Vegas Locomotives, 20-17 (OT)
2010 Florida Tuskers UFL Jay Gruden 5-3 T-1st - UFL Lost UFL Championship to Las Vegas Locomotives, 23-20
2019 Orlando Apollos AAF Steve Spurrier 7-1 1st - Eastern Conference League ceased operations before playoffs
Note: Apollos declared AAF Champions by FanDuel

Six franchises. Eight seasons. Six first-place finishes. Four championship game losses by four points or less, plus a semifinal loss by one point. Call it bad luck, bad business, or bad timing, but this has all the earmarks of a classic sports curse.

Side note: I’m not including the Orlando Predators in this because they’re an arena football team, they’ve won two Arena Bowl championships (although they’ve also lost five and missed the playoffs only twice in their 25-season existence) and - most importantly - doing so would ruin my narrative. So just walk with me here, okay?

Let us exorcise the demons:

Florida Blazers (World Football League - 1974)

The Jack Pardee-led Blazers were the first-ever pro sports team based in Central Florida, and despite the players not being paid for three whole months of the season, they finished atop the WFL’s Eastern Division at 14-6. They won two playoff games before facing the Birmingham Americans in World Bowl 1 on December 5, 1974, where they lost 22-21, thanks to an early missed call that turned a Tommy Reamon touchdown into a fumble and a touchback.

The World Bowl itself nearly didn’t happen, as the Americans owed almost a quarter of a million dollars in back taxes to the IRS, who let the game go ahead as planned after agreeing to take a portion of the gate at Legion Field, and even took the Birmingham players’ jerseys as part of the satisfaction of the debt.

The Blazers’ franchise went to a court auction after the owner, former NFL player Rommie Loudd, was arrested on embezzlement charges 18 days after the game. It was revealed three months later that he financed the team through the sale of cocaine.*

*UPDATE: Thanks to Rachel Loudd, who brought to light some highly curious circumstances surrounding Rommie Loudd’s arrest:

The team moved to San Antonio the following year, and the WFL folded halfway through the 1975 season. Orlando’s World Bowl loss was the WFL’s only ever championship game.

Orlando Renegades (USFL - 1985)

After the Washington Federals played two awful seasons in the nation’s capital, the USFL attempted to move the franchise to Miami under Howard Schnellenberger (who left the University of Miami after its first national championship to take over the team). But the deal fell through, and the team moved to the Citrus Bowl under the ownership of Donald Dizney.

Coached by Lee Corso, the Renegades got off to a rough 0-6 start before QB Reggie Collier (who later played for the Cowboys and the Orlando Predators) led the team to five wins in its last 12, including a victory over Steve Spurrier’s Tampa Bay Bandits before 26,847 fans. However, they still finished in last place in the Eastern Conference.

Their final game was a June 22, 1985 victory over Steve Young and the L.A. Express in the Citrus Bowl. They were scheduled to return as part of a leaner USFL in the fall of 1986, but then, well, this happened:

Orlando Thunder (WLAF - 1991-1992)

Best. Uniforms. Ever.

But aside from that, after a mediocre 5-5 inaugural season in 1991 under Corso as the GM, longtime CFL coach Don Matthews and former Florida Gators QB (and now USF offensive coordinator) Kerwin Bell, the Thunder caught lightning in a bottle in 1992.

New GM Dick Beam replaced Matthews with another ex-Gator, Galen Hall, and Bell gave way to a Miami Dolphins draftee and rifle-balling lefty named Scott Mitchell.

Mitchell would go on to a lucrative, if somewhat checkered, NFL career. But he first flashed his NFL potential at the Citrus Bowl in the Spring of 1992.

Paired with a no-huddle offense that was among the first to use wristband playsheets to call plays, the Thunder went 8-2 (5-0 in the Citrus Bowl), bombed the Birmingham Fire 45-7 in their playoff game, and rolled into World Bowl ‘92 in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium against another 8-2 squad, the Sacramento Surge.

It looked great for three quarters, as Orlando rode two first-half Mitchell TD passes - one to eventual Kansas City Chief wideout Willie Davis - to a 17-6 4th quarter lead, as the Thunder defense, led by such names as Karl Dunbar (now a revered NFL assistant coach), longtime CFLer Malcolm Frank and future sports radio shock-jock Dan Sileo, stymied Sacramento QB and one-time Atlanta Falcons starter David Archer and the Surge offense.

Then it all fell apart.

Three fourth-quarter Thunder turnovers - two Mitchell fumbles and a pick to eventual St. Louis Rams Super Bowl hero Mike Jones - led to 15 Sacramento points, and the Thunder went back home empty-handed.

Three months later, the NFL disbanded the World League. When they brought it back two years later, they did so with no North American teams, and the Thunder went silent.

Orlando Rage (XFL - 2001)

Bolts v Rage Shay Getty Images

Vince McMahon’s XFL brought fresh attitude to football - and little else. But in a league that seemed to be about everything but the on-field product, the Orlando Rage set the standard for the actual football.

Galen Hall came back to coach the team, and under center was the league’s best quarterback, Jeff Brohm, a Louisville product who is now the head coach at Purdue.

Brohm led the Rage to a 6-0 start. He got knocked out of their fifth game against the Memphis Maniax - quite literally - with a severe concussion. The following week in the Citrus Bowl, Brohm made a name for himself before returning to the field against doctors’ recommendations:

Jeff Brohm is a LEGEND.

That didn’t last long though. After leading the Rage to their sixth win in the wake of his promo spot, Brohm was knocked out for the season the following week at eventual champion Los Angeles in a loss of the league’s two best teams. He would never play football again.

In stepped former Wake Forest QB Brian Kuklick, who guided the Rage to two wins in the final three regular season games to finish 8-2, the best record in the XFL. But in the semifinals at the Citrus Bowl against the 5-5 San Francisco Demons, again things unraveled.

Up 16-0, Orlando fell apart in the second and third, and trailed 19-16 in the 4th when Kuklick was pulled. His replacement, Jim Arellanes, promptly threw a pick-6 on his first XFL pass, and suddenly it was 26-16:

A late TD pass and a rare 3-point conversion got Orlando within one, but that was where they would stay.

As a result, the team with the best record in the league didn’t even play in the Million Dollar Game. Tommy Maddox and the L.A. Xtreme blew out the Demons 38-6 the following week, and NBC dropped a Tombstone Piledriver on the XFL shortly thereafter.

Florida Tuskers (UFL - 2009-2010)

UFL - California Redwoods v Florida Tuskers Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The UFL was a lean attempt at a second football league that for some reason played in the fall. While the quality of football was actually solid, everything else was pretty much not.

However, the Florida Tuskers can lay claim to being arguably the best franchise in the league over its four years.

In the UFL’s inaugural four-team season in 2009, Florida went 6-0 under head coach Jim Haslett, earning a berth in the league’s championship game in Sam Boyd Stadium against the second-place Las Vegas Locomotives.

The game went to overtime tied at 20, and the Tuskers got the ball to start. But then QB Brooks Bollinger threw a soul-crushing interception deep in the Tuskers’ own territory to Isaiah Trufant. Graham Gano drilled the game-winning field goal and the Tuskers fell, 20-17.

The following year, Joe Theismann bought the team from the league. Haslett went to the NFL and was replaced by former Orlando Predators coach and QB Jay Gruden, who was making his foray into the outdoor game. Again, the Tuskers qualified for the UFL Championship Game against the Locos, only this time in Omaha. Bollinger was replaced by Chris Greisen, a football journeyman who led them to three straight wins down the stretch.

In yet another back-and-forth affair, Greisen led the Tuskers downfield on a last-second drive, down 23-20, and Nick Novak, who most recently kicked in the AAF himself, came out to try a 45-yarder to send the game to overtime:

Foiled again.

The Tuskers moved to Virginia Beach for the 2011 UFL season, and the renamed Virginia Destroyers hired Marty Schottenheimer as their head coach after Gruden left for the Cincinnati Bengals.

In yet another cruel twist for Orlando fans, the Destroyers won the 2011 UFL Championship, this time beating their nemeses from Las Vegas 17-3, and giving Schottenheimer his first and only pro football title as a coach in his final game.

And finally:

Orlando Apollos (AAF, 2019)

It was fun while it lasted:

Let’s hope you enjoyed it, because who know when Orlando’s next shot at an outdoor pro football franchise will come.

And at least we’ll always have the Head Ball Coach: