Unravelling the Baltimore Stallions Success Story

Former Baltimore Stallions General Manager Jim Popp.
SEP 03, 2015 : Montreal Alouettes head coach and general manager Jim Popp prior to a CFL game between the BC Lions and the Montreal Alouettes at the Percival Molson Stadium in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Philippe Bouchard/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The CFL’s US expansion is one of the most daring experiments in gridiron football history. Taking a uniquely Canadian game south of the border took a lot of guts on the league’s part, but they decided they could handle the competition from the NFL and make it work.

It all started in 1993 when the Sacramento Gold Miners joined the West division in an effort to stifle some of the league’s financial troubles. In 1994, the Las Vegas Posse, Shreveport Pirates, and Baltimore CFLers joined. Then in 1995, all the American teams began to play in the newly-established Southern league.

The Baltimore Stallions Success Story

Following the 1995 season, the experiment ended following poor attendance, failing broadcast deals, and direct competition with the NFL. However, in the three seasons the CFL operated in the US, one team enjoyed more success than anyone could have imagined — the Baltimore Stallions. Over two years of play, the Stallions won 27 of their 36 games, made it to the Grey Cup twice, and won it once. However you feel about the CFL’s ill-fated trip south of the border, there’s no denying that the Baltimore Stallions success story is one of the most intriguing in league history.

Going at Pool of League Talent

Every great team starts with great coaches and managers, and the Baltimore Stallions are no exception. The Stallions got the ball rolling by signing Don Matthews as their head coach from the Roughriders and Jim Popp as general manager. Baltimore had a highly successful offseason in 1994, signing free agents like quarterback Tracy Ham and running back Mike Pringle. Even before taking the field, the Stallions had the makings of an all-star team.

This was all down to owner Jim Speros’ CFL savvy which set the Stallions apart from other American CFL teams. Speros recognized the differences between the CFL and the NFL and signed personnel and players accordingly.

On the other hand, other expansion teams, largely comprised of NFL talent, had little grasp of the Canadian game. With wise management and player choices, the Baltimore Stallions success story started to unfold… but they were just getting started.

Home-field Advantage, Crucial Learning Curve

1994 was a whirlwind of a year for the CFL. Not only did three new teams take to the field, but Canadian teams were facing serious competition from their American counterparts. This came mainly in the form of the “Baltimore CFLers” — unofficially referred to as the Colts amidst an NFL dispute. And the success of the CFL’s newest team couldn’t have come at a better time.

The city of Baltimore was without pro sports; the Colts football team had moved to Indianapolis 10 years ago and baseball was on a league-wide strike. As a result, Baltimore was champing at the bit to get a sports team. And when the Stallions took to the refurbished Memorial Stadium, the fans made themselves heard.

And it paid off. In 1994, the Stallions went 6-3 at home — which went up to 8-1 in 1995 and tied the best home record in the league. At the end of the ’94 season, Baltimore was second in the East, earning them a playoff spot. They breezed past Toronto and got lucky against Winnipeg to head to the Grey Cup, but their streak ended there.

Against the underdog B.C. Lions, the Stallions were unable to make headway and lost the game to a last-minute field goal by Lui Passaglia. While they walked away from BC Place empty-handed, the Stallions had completed their most crucial season. While 1995 saw them win it all, 1994 taught the young team the nuances of the CFL and their opposition — knowledge that would prove invaluable next season.

If it Ain’t Broke, don’t Fix it

The Stallions had a great season in ’94, and they knew it. A trip to the Grey Cup, multiple all-star honours, and an average attendance of 37,347 were all indicators that Baltimore had the right formula for success. So when the free agency came around, the Stallions did pretty much nothing except add Las Vegas Posse kicker Carlos Huerta. It was a smart offseason, mimicking that of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats prior to the 2020 season.

Similar to the Tabbies, the Stallions kept their coaching staff and roster almost identical to 1994 so as to remain dominant when the ’95 season came around. Baltimore had just come off a season where they had hundreds of chances to identify mistakes or shortcomings and used the offseason to fix them. So it was no surprise that the Stallions were fully expected to be the most dominant team in 1995.

Season for the History Books

1995 was when the Stallions really came into their own. Huerta proved his worth early on with multiple wins for the Stallions from field goals. Pringle reached the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second time in his career, while Ham was impeccable and showed off his dual-threat skills throughout the year. It was the season of dreams, and Baltimore clinched a playoff spot in Week 13. This time, however, they were on the road to the Grey Cup with experience, talent, and confidence. They had been the favourites in the league from day one of the season, and they knew it. All they had to do was finish the job this time.

The 1995 Grey Cup, otherwise known as the Wind Bowl, was one of the most pivotal in CFL history. The teams: the Calgary Stampeders and the Baltimore Stallions. It was a battle for the ages. The two best teams in the league, two best quarterbacks in Ham and Doug Flutie, and for the second time ever, an American team vs. a Canadian side in the Grey Cup.

This wasn’t just the league championship. This was a patriotic battle for national pride.

The score was back-and-forth in the first half, with Huerta coming into his own with three field goals. The second half saw Flutie rushing for a one-yard score, which was followed by a touchdown and two more Huerta field-goals to seal the deal for Baltimore. The Stallions won the championship 36-20 and became the first and only American team to hoist the Grey Cup, making history in the process. Sports had returned to Baltimore, and the competition and excitement had returned to the CFL.

Short-lived Celebrations

Almost as soon as the revelry died down, the Baltimore Stallions success story came to a sudden end. The CFL disbanded three of the five American franchises. The CFL integrated the remaining teams, Baltimore and San Antonio, into the East Division. Soon after, however, the Cleveland Browns announced their intention to move the team to Baltimore, instantly spelling the end of the Stallions. As then CFL commissioner Larry Smith put it, “It’s the elephant squashing the mouse. The NFL was the elephant, we were the mouse.”

There was simply no competition, and the Stallions quickly moved to Montreal after considering alternative options in the US. They became the third iteration of the Montreal Alouettes. Soon, the American experiment became a distant memory.

However, let’s not forget the legacy of the team that changed this league for the better. No US expansion could have spelled the end of the CFL, turning it into another failed league. Sacrificing national pride for a year is a small price to pay for the revival of such an incredible league, so let’s be thankful for the Baltimore Stallions and celebrate their success story and legacy on the CFL.

Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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