Trailing the Washington Federals 16-13 with 4:06 left to play last Saturday, the Oklahoma Outlaws took over at their own seven-yard line. Oklahoma's 5-2 record had been built on blind faith, acts of God and Doug Williams, and they were fresh out of acts of God. Rain had fallen intermittently on RFK Stadium (each Oklahoma win had come in the rain, the great equalizer for the Outlaws, who aren't talent rich or even talent middle-class), but now it had stopped. Ninety-three yards later, though, Doug Williams sufficed. The Outlaws won 20-16 on an eight-yard Williams touchdown pass with :57 left and now stand at 6-2, the best expansion-team record in the USFL. Considering the circumstances, Oklahoma coach Woody Widenhofer should be up for governor and Williams in line for sainthood—as in St. Jude, patron of lost causes—because the Outlaws aren't so much a team as a miracle.
The first play of that final drive was a short pass to running back George Ragsdale. Rags dropped it. Twice. The ball hit his hands and forearms, spun off, then glanced up into his eyes as he groped for it in vain. It must have been upsetting to watch it flutter away again. Yet Widenhofer clapped as if to say, don't worry, you'll get the next one. This was only the latest headache for the coach, a bearish, 41-year-old workman who sports a droopy mustache and has Pittsburgh written all over him.
On New Year's Day, Widenhofer was still the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach for the Steelers, for whom he'd worked through 11 seasons and four Super Bowls. That afternoon the Steelers had been embarrassed by the Raiders in the NFL playoffs, and Widenhofer had just returned home from L.A. and gone to sleep when the phone rang. On the line was the co-owner/president/general manager of the Outlaws. "Woody, this is Bill Tatham, Junior."
"Huhwahhuhwah," mumbled a befogged Widenhofer into the phone.
"Woody, how'd you like to be the head coach of the Oklahoma Outlaws?"
" Oklahoma who?" said Widenhofer. "I thought it was a crank call," he says now.
"I told him he had 48 hours to decide," says Tatham with a grin.
The 29-year-old Tatham seems to revel in issuing ultimatums. The Outlaws play at the University of Tulsa's Skelly Stadium, where they've averaged 19,802 in attendance for five home dates. Capacity at Skelly is 40,235, and it has no more parking than you'd find at a Broadway theater. "We will play in a major league facility," Tatham says, "somewhere. We've talked to five other cities. There has been a feasibility study done for a domed stadium in North Tulsa, but we want a commitment. By June. At the latest. Our Number One priority is to survive. Our Number Two priority is to stay in Oklahoma."
Tatham's grandparents had much the same view in 1934 when they left Sallisaw, Okla. for California's San Joaquin Valley. His grandmother was five months pregnant with his father, Bill Sr., who was to make a few timely investments around Fresno. Bill Sr. owned the Portland Thunder in the World Football League. That wasn't a timely investment. Nevertheless, last May he bought a USFL franchise, which he planned to locate in San Diego until he found he couldn't get a stadium lease. This time Bill Jr. was old enough to take over the reins, and he pulled hard.
The Outlaws' general manager was Sid Gillman, the 72-year-old Obi-wan Kenobi of such NFL brains as Al Davis and Bill Walsh. Gillman gathered some 150 players for the Outlaws' training camp, and he thought he had Jerry Rhome, the Washington Redskins' quarterback coach and a former Tulsa All-America quarterback, as his head coach.