By J Hutcherson
In 1978, the NASL’s Hawaii franchise, Team Hawaii, was in trouble – the idea of having a professional soccer team based a thousand miles away from its nearest competitor having the obvious disastrous results. So Team Hawaii was sold to four Oklahoma businessmen who moved the franchise to the heartland of America, an area known for oil fields, flat farmland, and college football. This decision was almost as questionable as having a Hawaii franchise, but in 1978, the Tulsa Roughnecks were born.
For the first few years, the side struggled both at the gate and on the field. They never had true stars, subsisting on cheaper utility players that gave them the reputation of a dirty team. If they couldn’t win through skill, they would mark their opponent’s better players, kicking them into submission as they booted the ball upfield.
In 1983, Tulsa finished first in the Southern Division, considered the weakest division in the NASL. Referring to themselves “as a bunch of rejects” the side managed to get by the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the first round, meeting the Montreal Manic in the second. The Manic had eliminated the New York Cosmos, and were considered the surprise team of the 1983 playoffs, but Tulsa wasn’t impressed. After defeating the Manic, the Roughnecks faced the seventh seeded Toronto Blizzard in the final.
Tulsa coach Terry Hennesey was under no illusions about his side’s skill. “We’re the smallest city in the league and have a reputation for rough play, but we kept on working and it’s paid off with a chance for the title.”
In fact, they also had the lowest payroll in the league as well, though no one would mistake them for a team of over-achievers. The side played with a workman like quality little improved over their days of hacking route one play.
The 1983 Soccer Bowl was held in Vancouver’s BC Place, an indoor arena that seated over 60,000. The match was a sellout, due in no small part to the Vancouver Whitecaps’ run that ended in the conference finals against Toronto. In fact, disappointed in seeing the home side eliminated, many of the Vancouver fans turned out in support of Tulsa.
Besides having two of the NASL’s lesser lights in the final, Tulsa had lost their scoring leader, Ron Flutcher, to penalty points accumulation and a Blizzard win seemed a foregone conclusion. A one-sided win between small market teams was not what the league wanted, so NASL CEO Howard Samuels reinstated Flutcher “in the best interest of the game” on the eve of the final.
At full strength Tulsa ran roughshod over Toronto, with Flutcher claiming a goal in the 2-0 win. A thousand Tulsa supporters greeted the team at the airport with President Reagan sending a congratulatory telegram. The smallest city in the league was also home to the league champions. Then the bottom fell out.
Within a month of their Soccer Bowl victory the Tulsa roughnecks were insolvent. The oilmen who had bankrolled the league’s cheapest side had still managed to lose millions and had decided to abruptly pull the plug. By the first of November, 18 players were out of contract and the office staff payroll was due. The situation was dire, with the irony of victory celebrations spilling into talks of bankruptcy. “You know, it was exactly one month ago today that we had our championship parade through downtown Tulsa,” recalled an astonished Coach Hennessey, “It would be a great tragedy if the Roughnecks folded.”
On November 4, 1983 KMRG radio host Fred Campbell launched a “Save Our Soccer” campaign in a last ditch effort to make the payroll and save the franchise. Within hours donors were lined up outside the station, with Roughnecks players and staff handling phone pledges and Tulsa residents going door-to-door asking for donations. As Communications Director Allen McLaughlin put it, “this is more or less the fans bailing us out.”
By the next day 12,350 fans had given $65,627 dollars, $25,000 more than was needed to make the payroll.
The citizens of Tulsa had saved the Roughnecks or the short-term, but the organization still had to stabilize itself or risk missing the next payroll.
The next crisis came within weeks when their coach, Terry Hennesey, resigned. Tired of dealing with a side that could not pay its bills and without a guarantee of employment, Hennessey left Tulsa for Australia were his son was a semi-pro player.
Without an owner and struggling through an indoor season with a temporary coach, the Roughnecks missed their December payroll, once again throwing the future of the organization into doubt. The original ownership group announced that $500,000 dollars would be needed to save the team, and that they would assume the side’s massive debts. With this guarantee in place, the Roughnecks were sold to Tulsa cable in early January 1984.
With ownership in place, Tulsa hired former Dutch international Willem Suurbier to coach the team for the 1984 season. Suurbir had played 16 seasons in the Dutch league and had coached George Best with the LA Aztecs. He was ill-suited to coach a team with the obvious lack of talent displayed by the Roughnecks and by the middle of the season they were out of playoff contention. A petition to join the Major Indoor Soccer League was rejected in August, and with the same mounting debts the side announced it was folding on September 8, 1984.
This time there would be no eleventh hour savior, no outpouring of fan support, and no new money. The fans might give money, but they wouldn’t suffer through bad soccer. The 1984 season saw an average gate of 7,600 and even though the side lost the least amount of money in the NASL, Tulsa Cable pulled out. The Roughnecks, much like the league, were history.
In late January 1985 the NASL granted Tulsa a new franchise for the 1985 season. Once again called the Roughnecks, the club featured an ownership group headed by its original General Manager Noel Lemon, and the return of Terry Hennesey as coach.
Unfortunately there would be no 1985 NASL season and the Roughnecks attempted to survive by playing an exhibition schedule. On July 17, 1985 the team officially suspended operations after averaging 4,000 fans for seven exhibition games.
The saga of the Tulsa Roughnecks is important because as a team they closely reflected the quality of the American game in the early eighties. Without the stars and the money to pay them, American soccer was closer to the Tulsa Roughnecks than the New York Cosmos. Yet with the league’s lowest payroll, massive civic support, and a front office that was fiscally responsible, the franchise still fell victim to the rampant financial losses that plagued the North American Soccer League.