It is perfectly understandable that the Birmingham Stallions are loath to end their season, because their future beyond the playoffs has a decidedly blank look.
Former owner Marvin Warner hasn't been heard from since the second game of the season. The team has been kept alive by the kindness of the city of Birmingham, which has helped pay the bills.
The moment the Stallions' season ends, they will face the prospect of: 1) finding a new owner to take over Warner's 51 percent interest in the team; 2) being dispersed, or 3) remaining in the uncertain hands of the U.S. Football League.
In the meantime, the Stallions won seven of their last eight games, going 12-2 in the regular season and winning the Eastern Conference championship. They will meet the Baltimore Stars in the semifinal round Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in Birmingham. In the other semifinal, Oakland will play at Memphis today at 2:30 p.m.
"The guys have hung tough when it could have gone the other way," Stallions Coach Rollie Dotsch said. "They've kept their minds on their jobs. We talked about it when the roof fell in. We talk about it once a week. I just say that you can't worry about what you can't control. You worry about what you can, and that's winning games."
Warner dropped out of the Stallions' organization when his Home State Savings Bank in Ohio collapsed in March because of lack of funds to pay depositors, causing the state's biggest banking crisis since the Depression. More than 90,000 Home State depositors were left with no way to get their savings, and the Stallions suddenly were another of the many troubled teams in the USFL.
"After one game, we didn't even know if we should show up for practice again," said quarterback Cliff Stoudt. "Sometimes it got really bad, but the bottom line was, if we won some games we'd have a better chance of surviving and finding new investors. We just blocked everything out but that."
The city of Birmingham and the Stallions' remaining partners like the franchise well enough to try to keep it going in the offseason while the search goes on for a new owner.
Under an agreement with the U.S. Football League Players Association, teams will protect 35 players by Aug. 1 and give them 30 percent of their salaries to tide them over in the 14-month offseason until the fall of 1986. But without an owner, maintaining an entire team will be difficult for the Stallions.
"I don't have any idea of what's going to happen," Dotsch said. "But realistically, something is going to be cut somewhere. We'll protect 35 players. But we worked hard to assemble a good team, and those people are hard to come by."
It appears that the Birmingham Stallions probably will not survive as a whole. The bizarre prospect, should they win the title, is that the USFL championship team could be partially dispersed.
Despite the problems, the Stallions have one of the more solid pasts in the league. They were 14-4 last season and made the playoffs, losing to the defending league champion Stars in the semifinals, 20-10.
With two NFL exports -- Cliff Stoudt, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers, at quarterback, and Joe Cribbs, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, at running back -- they've had one of the best offenses in the league and were third in scoring this year, averaging a little more than 24 points.
The one thing they lacked last season was a good defense. Dotsch solved that problem, turning the Stallions into the No. 1 defense in the USFL in virtually every category. Some offseason additions helped. They signed rookie defensive tackle Doug Smith, a No. 2 draft pick out of Auburn, and acquired defensive back David Dumars from the USFL's Denver Gold.
Dotsch already has two championship rings, but they don't come from the USFL. He picked them up as an offensive line coach with the Steelers for five years during their heyday.
"A lot of guys never get to a championship game, so I'm lucky," Dotsch said. "But we don't have any rings in this league, and we'd be excited to get one. You can't put a value on it. They mean the same."