The AFL’s First Expansion


A notable mark of success for any professional sports league is when that sports entity has the ability to expand. That is exactly what the American Football League achieved in 1966 when the young circuit added a ninth franchise with the Miami Dolphins.

Miami was first considered for an AFL franchise in 1959 when Ralph Wilson, Jr. (the original owner of the Buffalo Bills) sought interest in the city but received little positive response. The lack of concern may have been due the fact that Miami had a failed effort in the All-America Football Conference with a team named the Seahawks in 1946.

The issue of placing a pro football franchise in Miami was readdressed in 1965 with many more parties exhibiting interest after seeing that the AFL was a league that was going to succeed for many years to come. AFL Commissioner Joe Foss announced in August of that year that the new franchise would be awarded to a group of investors led by Joe Robbie, a lawyer from Minneapolis, and television star Danny Thomas. Since every team needs a nickname, the Miami owners held a fan contest that produced several thousand votes with “Dolphins” coming out on top.

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The new group quickly tabbed George Wilson to serve as the team’s first head coach. Wilson had previously served an eight-year stint as the coach of the Detroit Lions. In 1957, his first year with the Lions, he led the team to an NFL championship.

Stocking the team with players was the next order of business. The earliest opportunity to do this was the annual AFL draft held on Nov. 28, 1965. In effort to make the young team competitive as quickly as possible, the Dolphins received the first two choices in the first round and the first choice in each round thereafter. Miami selected Illinois fullback Jim Grabowski and Kentucky quarterback Rick Norton with their first round picks.

An expansion draft was then conducted on Jan. 15, 1966. The Dolphins selected 32 players, four from each of the eight AFL teams, from a list of unprotected players. The most notable of these players may have been tight end Dave Kocourek who had recorded four All-AFL seasons with the San Diego Chargers.

After eagerly waiting, the new franchise finally took to the field. On Sept. 2, 1966 excited fans filed into Miami’s Orange Bowl to see the new team play the Oakland Raiders. The sun drenched admirers did not have to wait long to see positive results. Joe Auer, a local boy who graduated from nearby Coral Gables High School, took the opening kickoff and raced 95 yards for a touchdown. Although the Dolphins fell 23-14 that day, the performance was a promise of good things to come.

Miami finished the 1966 season with a 3-13 record. It would not take long for the young squad to mature into one of the most dominant teams in professional football.

Overall the AFL’s venture in league expansion was a successful one. So much so that the AFL decided to repeat the process for another expansion team in 1968 when the Cincinnati Bengals joined the league.

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