|Based in||Ypsilanti, Michigan|
|Home field||Rynearson Stadium|
|League||World Football League|
|Colors||Red, Gold & Black|
|Head coach||Dan Boisture|
|General manager||Sonny Grandelius|
|Owner(s)||Louis Lee (team president), et al.|
The Wheels were founded December 13, 1973 by ten investors, whose number eventually grew to 33, including singer Marvin Gaye, Motown Records vice-president Esther Edwards, Little Caesars founder (and future Red Wings and Tigers owner) Mike Ilitch, and Edward Nishon owner of Milford Fabricating. Detroit attorney and philanthropist Louis Lee was named team president. Sonny Grandelius, a former star running back at Michigan State, was named general manager.
However, even by WFL standards, the Wheels were severely undercapitalized. The owners didn't appear to make an initial capital investment; instead, team expenses were seemingly paid out-of-pocket as they arose. They initially refused to spend more than $10,000 per player. As a result, while they picked future stars as Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Rick Middleton and Randy Grossman, most of their draft picks were unwilling to play under such conditions. The Wheels signed only three of their 33 draft picks, forcing them to hold open tryouts. None of the men who tried out made the team.
Then they had trouble finding a place to play. Their first choice was Tiger Stadium, home of the NFL's Detroit Lions. However, they were unable to get a lease due to pressure from the Lions. The Silverdome hadn't been built yet, and the University of Michigan, home of cavernous Michigan Stadium, also said no (despite Lee being a Michigan alumnus). Finally, the Wheels signed a deal to play at Eastern Michigan University's Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti, Michigan, 37 miles from downtown Detroit; Rynearson had no lighting at the time, and the Wheels had to install their own (the lights remain on the stadium to this day). The club even hired EMU's head coach, Dan Boisture, to helm the Wheels.
Things weren't encouraging on the field, either. The Wheels had a decent quarterback in Bubba Wyche (brother of former NFL quarterback and head coach Sam Wyche), but little in the way of protection (Wyche was sacked eleven times in one game) or receivers. Only 10,631 people attended their first home game, and their final home contest drew an announced crowd of 6,351 fans (though actual attendance was closer to 2,000). One home game, against the Portland Storm, was moved to J.W. Little Stadium in London, Ontario; Storm owner Robert Harris was from London, and actually considered moving his club to the Ontario city and renaming them the London Lords. Harris received $30,000 from local promoters and the Storm got their first win of the year, 18-7, in front an announced crowd of 5,105 (newspaper reports indicated there were only 2,000 people there). It was the only "World" Football League game played outside the United States.
As the losses piled up, the team's ramshackle financial structure became more problematic. Boisture and Grandelius badly wanted to put together a serious football organization, but the owners refused all requests for more money. According to Grandelius, the owners "panicked" when they realized how dire the situation was, and essentially walked away from the team. The result was a team that, for all intents and purposes, was a club team in a professional league. For one home game there were no programs available because the printer hadn't been paid. Several practices were canceled because the cleaning bill went unpaid, leaving the team without uniforms. They couldn't pay their phone bill, and they were unable to reserve hotel rooms or fly to away games without advance payment. Players were forced to share food and rent due to missed paydays; several players ended up sharing a house. Wide receiver Jon Henderson had to pay his son's hospital bill out of pocket after finding out the team's insurance policy was practically worthless. The situation prompted Wyche to write to league president Gary Davidson and beg the league office to intervene.
The coaches were also feeling the effects as well. At least one assistant coach was forced to live in the basement of another coach; several landlords refused to rent houses to him when he found out he worked for the Wheels. Boisture was unable to film any games because the owners refused to provide filming equipment.
The low point came during the Wheels' eighth game, against the Philadelphia Bell. When the players arrived at John F. Kennedy Stadium, they discovered that they didn't have any medical supplies or tape. The Wheels refused to take the field until a Johnson & Johnson salesman donated tape so that the game could go on. (Philadelphia won, 27-23.)
After losing their first ten games, the Wheels got their only win, 15-14 over the Florida Blazers at Orlando. Soon afterward, the league took control of the team and began searching for a new home. Their first choice was Shreveport, but the Houston Texans moved there and became the Steamer. They then tried to move to Louisville, but talks collapsed. John DeLorean tried to buy the team in hopes of keeping it in Detroit, but he backed out at the last minute. The next choice was Charlotte, where former New England Patriots general manager Upton Bell was hoping to put together financing for a WFL team. Although impressed with Wyche, he was unable to come to an agreement, and instead opted to buy the New York Stars and move them to Charlotte as the Hornets.
On September 24, the Wheels faced the Stars in Downing Stadium, losing 37-7 in what proved to be the Stars' last game in New York. The franchise filed for bankruptcy earlier in the day. They lost to Shreveport a week later, 14-11.
As it turned out, this would be the last game the Wheels would play. On October 7, in the face of $1.4 million in claims, Davidson announced that unless new owners could be found for the Wheels within three days, the league would fold the team. No buyers cropped up, and the Wheels were folded along with the equally strapped Jacksonville Sharks. While the franchise officially folded on October 10, players and coaches had been taking their uniforms and personal items home with them for some time to keep them from being seized. The Wheels franchise was the only one not reissued when the World Football League returned in 1975.
The Wheels finished their abbreviated season with the WFL's worst record at 1-13. However, considering their dire off-the-field situation, they were far more competitive than their record indicated. Eight of their losses came by less than a touchdown, and they held fourth-quarter leads in seven games. Playing in the tough Central Division with the league's two best teams, Memphis (17-3) and Birmingham (15-5), made things even more difficult for the hapless Wheels.
Stan Hansen, the professional wrestler, had a brief stint as a player with the Wheels. Nevertheless, he was promoted as a "former star" of the team when wrestling in a promotion in his hometown of Amarillo, Texas.
1974 schedule and results
- Wed 10 July: Memphis 34, Detroit 15 (at Memphis; attendance 30,122)
- Wed 17 July: Florida 18, Detroit 15 (at Ypsilanti; 10,631)
- Sun 21 July: Hawaii 36, Detroit 16 (at Honolulu; 10,080)
- Wed 31 July: Birmingham 21, Detroit 18 (at Ypsilanti; 14,614)
- Wed 7 August: Birmingham 28, Detroit 22 (at Birmingham; 40,637)
- Wed 14 August: Memphis 37, Detroit 7 (at Ypsilanti; 14,424)
- Thu 22 August: Chicago 35, Detroit 22 (at Ypsilanti; 10,300)
- Wed 28 August: Philadelphia 27, Detroit 23 (at Philadelphia; 15,100)
- Mon 2 September: Portland 18, Detroit 7 (at London, Ontario; 5,105)
- Fri 6 September: Southern California 10, Detroit 7 (at Ypsilanti; 6,351)
- Wed 11 September: Detroit 15, Florida 14 (at Orlando; 11,511)
- Wed 18 September: Southern California 29, Detroit 24 (at Anaheim; 22,143)
- Tue 24 September: New York 37, Detroit 7 (at New York; 4,220)
- Wed 2 October: Shreveport 14, Detroit 11 (at Shreveport, La.; 22,012) [originally scheduled for Ypsilanti against the Houston Texans]
- Wed 9 October: Detroit at Chicago (cancelled)
- Wed 16 October: Hawaii at Detroit (cancelled)
- Wed 23 October: Detroit at Houston (cancelled)
- Wed 30 October: Detroit at Jacksonville (cancelled)
- Wed 6 November: New York at Detroit (cancelled)
- Wed 13 November: Philadelphia at Detroit (cancelled)