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Just winnin' in the rain

With help from Heaven, the Oklahoma Outlaws can be tough customers

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.

Tatham Jr. fired Gillman in December. "We had different ideas as to which direction we were going," Tatham says. The bottom line was that Williams, with a five-year, $3 million contract, would be the only Outlaw making six figures a season. Oklahoma has the second-lowest payroll in the USFL: $2.1 million. Gillman had wanted looser purse strings. He now calls Tatham "The Boy Wonder." Says Tatham, "I like Sid. Really. But it was the golden rule—the guy with the gold makes the rules."

Tatham boasts that the Outlaws "were within 10 minutes of signing" the San Diego Chargers' Dan Fouts. But, luckily, that is not what happened. Fouts is a quarterback who depends on precision play by his teammates. Williams, who learned the ropes with the struggling Tampa Bay Bucs, knew how to ad-lib. With Gillman out, Rhome thought he would be in control. "But we just wanted a man to coach the players on the field," says Tatham. So Rhome stayed in Washington. Enter Widenhofer, just 11 days before the Jan. 15 start of training camp.

Widenhofer knows defensive football and he loves character. There's a lot of it in linebacker Terry Beeson, nose tackle Bob Nelson and defensive end Curtis Anderson, who help fill the inside lanes in the Outlaws' sturdy 3-4. And the Outlaws have defensive backs worthy of the name. They lead the league with 19 interceptions. The best of the secondary is free safety Kelvin Middleton, a rookie from Wichita State. Middleton intercepted two passes and knocked Federals quarterback Mike Hohensee out, and out of Saturday's game, with a smashing tackle on a blitz in the second half. "The defense just tries to give Doug a chance to win the game," says Middleton.

The Outlaws have won four times on their last possession in a game. Houston led Oklahoma 28-20 with four seconds left and the Outlaws at midfield before a Williams Hail Mary found Alphonso Williams six yards deep in the end zone. Normally flawless Michigan turned the ball over eight times in a driving rainstorm and lost to the Outlaws 20-17. On the other hand, in ideal weather the Outlaws were strung up by the Arizona Wranglers 49-7.

The rain held off until after the game when the Outlaws suffered their only defeat at home, a 17-14 overtime loss to the Denver Gold. Oklahoma had recently signed punter Bob Boris, who had won a court case against the USFL and its underclassman ineligibility rule. Boris promptly lost the Denver game, dropping two center snaps inside the Outlaws' 10-yard line. Later, he was asked if he felt like Curt Flood (the plaintiff in the landmark 1972 baseball free-agency case) and therefore had been nervous in the game. Boris said, "Who's Curt Flood?" Didn't Boris know? "I don't know and I don't care," he said. Three days later, Boris was gone.

That Oklahoma was down 16-6 to the winless, woebegone Federals in the fourth quarter wasn't anything to write home about, either. But, as Williams says, "I learned it's not how you play the game—it's who wins." He completed 24 of 45 passes—seven were dropped—for 333 yards and two touchdowns.

"The players here look to me," he says. "That's nothing new, but here they even ask me about personal matters. I'm only 28 years old, but I look around and see how much I've grown. Next year, when we get some more players in here...." Like maybe Tulsa resident and NFL All-Pro receiver Steve Largent, who does the Outlaws' color for KJRH-TV. His Seattle contract is up next year. For now, Mel Gray, 35 and nursing a bad hamstring, and A. Williams, 22 and out of Nevada-Reno, who caught a 43-yard scoring strike Saturday, are Oklahoma's deep threats. "You can only be as good as those around you," says D. Williams.

The best of his six completions in the final drive was a third-and-seven 19-yarder to fullback Sidney Thornton, the third option, to Washington's 25. On the previous down, Federals linebacker Mike Muller had dropped an interception, and Williams had looked toward Heaven. The winning touchdown pass was a sideline throw to tight end Ron Wheeler. The Federals blew the coverage, and Williams hit Wheeler right on the money.

Williams was a .500 quarterback (33-31-1) in five years with Tampa Bay. Without him, the Buccaneers are 5-47 lifetime, so Williams was a .500 quarterback for a .100 team. He has improved and is now a .750 quarterback for a .250 team. No quarterback can keep up that pace. The Oklahoma Outlaws are a good bet to come back to earth unless, of course, Williams keeps getting help from way upstairs, rain or shine.


Wheeler wheeled in with a Williams pass for the winning touchdown in Washington.


Widenhofer thought his job offer was a crank call.


"The Boy Wonder" applied his golden rule.