Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Remembering the USFL: 30 Years Later

March 6, 1983, 30 years ago today: The United States Football League plays its first games.

You don't remember the USFL? Even if you're over 35, that's not surprising.  Its detractors called it the USeless Football League and the Undeniably Sorry Football League.

It could have succeeded.  Indeed, the timing seemed to be right: The NFL was coming off a season in which there had been a strike, canceling almost half the season.  Fans should have been willing to take something new.

But the timing wasn't right, at least according to the calendar.  The first season started on March 6, when the NBA and NHL seasons were coming down the home stretch; the Championship Game was held on July 17.  Had the league started in early May, by which point all but a few teams would have been eliminated from the NBA and Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Championship Game on August 28, the last Sunday before the NFL season started, then, for most of the season, they would have only had baseball to contend with, as the North American Soccer League was already fading into irrelevance.

Here were the original 12 teams, and what else they had to compete with nearby at the time:

* Arizona Wranglers.  No NFL, MLB or NHL at the time, just the NBA's Phoenix Suns.  Played at Sun Devil Stadium, which was (and is) owned by Arizona State University, so even if there had been an NFL team playing there at the time, it couldn't have kept the Wranglers out.  This was a good market for the USFL.

* Birmingham Stallions.  Nothing: No MLB, no NBA, no NHL, and while the State of Alabama considers college and high school football to be religion, there is no NFL team there.  (This is also the case for several other Southern States, and for basketball in Kentucky.  It is also why the Pacers have never been more popular than IU and Purdue in Indiana, and why no pro basketball team has succeeded in North Carolina.) Played at Legion Field.  This was a good market for the USFL.

* Boston Breakers.  Everything: The Celtics and Bruins, both perennial postseason teams at that point, and the Red Sox in April.  Played at Nickerson Field, the 21,000-seat stadium of Boston University, where the Patriots played in their first few AFL seasons, because the Patriots wouldn't let them play at what was then named Sullivan Stadium (formerly Schaefer, later Foxboro) and Boston College wouldn't let them use their larger Alumni Stadium.  This franchise should never have been placed in Boston, even though the Patriots were a joke franchise at the time.

* Chicago Blitz.  Everything: The Bulls and Blackhawks, both perennial postseason teams at the point, and the Cubs and White Sox in April.  Played at Soldier Field, which was (and is) city-owned, so the Bears couldn't keep them out.  Too many distractions for the fan dollar, but Chicago was the 3rd-biggest market and a football-mad one, so they had to have a Chicago team.

* Denver Gold.  There was then no MLB or NHL team, but the NBA's Nuggets were a perennial postseason team.  Played at Mile High Stadium, which was city-owned, so the Broncos couldn't keep them out.  Still, the Broncos were a good team at the time, and the "Broncomania" that began with their first good season in 1973 had hardly abated.  So this was a bad market for the USFL.

* Los Angeles Express.  Everything: The Lakers and Kings, both perennial postseason teams at that point, and the Dodgers and the team then known as the California Angels in April.  Played at the Los Angeles Coliseum, which was (and is) city-owned, so the Raiders, then using it as their home field, couldn't keep them out.  Plus the Rams were still in the area, playing at Anaheim Stadium.  But L.A. was the 2nd-biggest market, so they had to have an L.A. team.

* Michigan Panthers.  Everything: The Pistons and Red Wings weren't very good at this point, but had solid fan bases that would not abandon them; and the Tigers in April.  Played at the Silverdome, which was owned by its municipality, the Detroit suburb of Pontiac (it is now privately owned), so the Lions couldn't keep them out.  The Lions were a good team at this point, and playing football in nice weather got canceled out by the dome, so as much as the State of Michigan loves its football, putting a franchise there was a bad idea.

* New Jersey Generals.  Everything: The Knicks, Rangers and Islanders, all perennial postseason teams at that point, plus the Nets, who were (unusual for them) in the middle of back-to-back Playoff seasons; and the Yankees and Mets in April.  Played at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, which was State-owned, so the Giants couldn't keep them out.  But New York was the biggest market, so they had to have a "New York" team, yet they took advantage of the ill feelings of New Jerseyans (including myself) who were mad at the Giants for moving to the State but not changing their names.  More on this in a moment.

* Oakland Invaders.  No NHL team then.  The NBA's Golden State Warriors were pretty weak.  Neither the Giants nor the A's were any good at the time.  The 49ers across San Francisco Bay had just had a letdown season after winning the Super Bowl the season before, and no one foresaw the Niners becoming the NFL's dominant team.  And the Raiders had split down the Coast a year earlier, leaving the Oakland Coliseum, then as now owned by Alameda County (so the Raiders couldn't have kept them out anyway), available for football all year long.  And they would pick up all the Raider fans still angry about the team abandoning the East Bay.  So the nation's 4th-largest market was a good one for the USFL experiment.

* Philadelphia Stars.  Everything: The 76ers and Flyers, both perennial postseason teams at that point, and the Phillies in April.  Played at Veterans Stadium, which was city-owned, so the Eagles couldn't keep them out.  But Philly was in a rare period where all its teams had recently been good, so while the Eagles had collapsed the preceding fall, the timing was still bad for a spring football team based in Philadelphia.  But Philly was a market both big and football-mad, and so the team was put there.

* Tampa Bay Bandits.  Nothing: No MLB, no NBA, no NHL, and the NFL wasn't starting again until September.  Played at Tampa Stadium, "the Big Sombrero," which was city-owned, so the Buccaneers couldn't keep them out.  And the Bucs stunk then, so this was a good market for the USFL.

* Washington Federals.  No MLB team at that point, but the NBA's Bullets (now Wizards) and the NHL's Capitals; neither was then good, but both were there.  Played at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, which was (and is) owned by the federal government, so the Redskins couldn't keep them out.  But while putting a team in the Nation's Capital seemed like a must, putting a team in the same town as the Redskins -- who were not only a wildly popular institution in the town but had just won the Super Bowl a few weeks before -- was financial suicide.

A league needs big names.  At first, the biggest names were the coaches.  New Jersey was coached by Chuck Fairbanks, who had led the University of Oklahoma to 3 Big Eight titles and the Patriots to their first AFC East title.  Jim Stanley had led Oklahoma State to a Big Eight title, and was appointed to coach the Michigan franchise.  Chicago was coached by George Allen, who had led the Redskins to the 1972 NFC title.  Oakland was coached by John Ralston, who had won 2 conference titles each at Utah State and Stanford, and had guided the Broncos to NFL respectability.  Ralston's successor with the Broncos was Red Miller, who led them to the 1977 AFC Championship, and was hired to run the Denver franchise.

Tampa Bay was coached by Steve Spurrier, not yet "the ol' ball coach" who led his alma mater, the University of Florida, to SEC dominance and a National Championship, but was already a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, a respected college assistant, and the biggest living name in Florida collegiate football (unless you want to count actor Burt Reynolds, a Florida State alum); the Bandits were his first head coaching job.  Philadelphia was coached by Jim Mora Sr., who was not yet a big name, but he had coached at Stanford, UCLA, and the universities of Colorado and Washington, and had been an NFL assistant; he coached Philadelphia.

Los Angeles was coached by Hugh Campbell, who was not yet a big name in the U.S., but had coached the Edmonton Eskimos to the last 5 Grey Cups, the "Super Bowl" of the Canadian Football League (and had also played on a Grey Cup winner with Saskatchewan in 1966).  His predecessor with the Esks (I know, dumb nickname, but they're a very successful franchise) was Ray Jauch, also not yet a big name in the U.S., but he had coached the Esks to the 1975 Grey Cup (and had also played on a Grey Cup winner with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1959); he coached the Washington franchise.  Boston was coached by Dick Coury, who had previous insurgent-league experience, coaching the Portland Storm of the 1974-75 World Football League.  Birmingham was coached by Rollie Dotsch, a respected assistant under Dan Devine at the University of Missouri and Notre Dame, and in the NFL under Fairbanks in New England and Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh.  Arizona was coached by Doug Shivley, who'd been an assistant in New Orleans and Atlanta and at several colleges.

*

I was 13 years old when the USFL began, and I was very excited about the New Jersey Generals.  I hated the Jets because most of their fans were Met fans.  This was due to geography (both then played at Shea Stadium in Queens and also tapped into the Long Island fan base) and timing (both arrived in the early 1960s, just in time to take on Baby Boomers not steeped in Yankee & Giant traditions, and both won their leagues' championships in calendar year 1969).  Until the Mets and Giants both won their leagues' 1986 championships (in that season if not that calendar year), it would never have occurred to 95 percent of Met fans to root for the Giants.  And I hated the Giants because of their refusal to acknowledge that they played in my home State by changing their name.  The Generals admitted that they were based in the New York City market, but playing in New Jersey.  They had Herschel, one of the best running backs the college game had ever seen, a smart, personable young man.  (It would be a long time before we knew about his personal demons, which, thankfully, haven't ruined him and now appear to be under control.) And I loved their helmet logo, a five-star general's ring of stars with leaf clusters.

As Theodore Roosevelt said about his 1912 Progressive Party, "Unhampered by tradition, uncorrupted by power, undismayed by the magnitude of the task, the new party offers itself as the instrument of the people, to sweep away old abuses." To me, the NFL represented established interest, corporate power, regimentation.  True, I wasn't yet mature enough to think in those terms, but I could certainly feel it, watching games of what was already being called the No Fun League.

The USFL represented a clean slate.  A chance to have a team without the connections to the Giants, then 27 years without a title and pretty frustrating since then, even if you did like them; or to the Jets, who had just come within 1 game of the Super Bowl, but were symbolized by Mark Gastineau, whose long hair, "porn 'stache," and obnoxious behavior made him the favorite player, and the Jets the favorite team, of "ginkers," what we called metalheads in East Brunswick in the Egregious Eighties.

The Generals had no past, and while this meant that we couldn't glory in their 1932, 1947, 1956, 1961 or 1977 titles (as we could with the Yankees), it also meant there was no dark age (as the Giants and Knicks were still in and the Yankees had been in from 1965 to 1975).  There was no glory, but no shame, either.  And this was coming on the back of the Nets, who were in New Jersey and (all too briefly) winning; and the Devils, who were wrapping up their first season, playing horribly, but the novelty hadn't worn off yet, so we new Devils fans didn't care.  The Generals, playing in a league where all the teams were expansion teams, would have a chance to win right from the start.

I was excited.  I was buzzing.  I was jazzed.

I was monumentally disappointed.

*

Is it possible for a league to be made by one game? People who study the history of the NFL seem to think so: It was when Red Grange took his "Galloping Ghost" fame from the University of Illinois into the Polo Grounds in 1925 and sold it out, and although his Chicago Bears beat the Giants that day, it saved the Giant franchise, thus making the New York market viable, thus making professional football in America viable.  (This probably also killed off the best chance professional soccer had to make it in America for half a century.)

Is it possible for a league to be ruined by one game? From my perspective, it was.  The Generals had signed the league's biggest coup, Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, lured out of his senior season at the University of Georgia and being a sure top pick in the 1984 NFL Draft by money and lots of it.  But the Generals had no defense, and their first game, televised live on ABC, with the great college football voice Keith Jackson doing play-by-play, ended with the Los Angeles Express beating the Generals, 20-15, in front of just 32,008 fans, meaning the Coliseum had over 60,000 empty seats.

Other first-week games in the USFL: In the first game to be played, Tampa Bay beat Boston 21-17, Michigan beat Birmingham 9-7, Philadelphia beat Denver 13-6, Chicago beat Washington 28-7, and Oakland beat Arizona 24-0.

The Generals lost their second game, too, losing 25-0 to the Stars at the Vet.  They lost their third game, their first home game at the Meadowlands (or, I was I was calling it then, "Generals Stadium"), 32-9 to the Bandits.  They lost their fourth game, 31-21 to Boston at the Meadowlands.

Finally, they went on a bit of a hot streak: They beat Arizona in Tempe, 35-21; then lost a home game to Michigan, 21-6, then beat Washington at home, 23-22; then lost in overtime in Chicago, 17-14; then beat Denver at Mile High, 34-29.  Winning 3 out of 5 is good.  Then they lost their next 3, killing their momentum.  They closed the season doing what a New York-area team should not do: They lost to a New England team, losing 34-10 in Boston.  In the USFL's 18-game regular season, they finished 6-12, and didn't make the Playoffs.

Philadelphia won the Atlantic Division, Michigan the Central, Oakland (with a mere 9-9 record) the Pacific, and Chicago (tied for the Central lead but lost the tiebreaker) got the only Wild Card berth for the Playoffs.  Philly beat Chicago at the Vet, Michigan beat Oakland in Pontiac, and in the Championship Game, played on July 17, 1983, on neutral ground at Mile High in Denver, the Michigan Panthers, starring former University of Michigan receiver Anthony "The Darter" Carter, beat the Philadelphia Stars, 24-22.

*

The standard of play wasn't great, but it wasn't abject misery as claimed by the media, which was in the pocket of the NFL.  Don't forget, while ABC did the USFL's games, it also did Monday Night Football, and thus had a vested interest in the NFL's dominance.  Even so, it was the 3rd-largest network, and both CBS and NBC had it in their interest for the USFL to fail.  If a sportswriter wanted to be interviewed for his football knowledge on a major network, he had to treat the USFL like a minor league.  And not like in soccer, where England's second division (now oddly named "The Championship") is a standard not that far below the first division ("The Premier League"), which would have been close to the USFL's actual performance level: The USFL was treated by the national media as if it was, truly, minor-league.  And, as baseball pitcher turned sportscaster turned author Jim Bouton taught us, "The minor leagues are all very minor." (Though Bouton made an exception for Triple-A baseball's Hawaii Islanders.)

In management terms, the USFL was a colossal mess.  The Denver Gold were a prime example: Red Miller feuded with management, so they fired him in midseason, and brought in his former Bronco quarterback, Craig Morton, who had just retired as a player and had never coached before.  The Los Angeles Express were losing money left and right, and made a huge mistake the next season, signing Steve Young, the Brigham Young University quarterback who had nearly won the Heisman Trophy the year before, to an enormous contract, comparable in excess to that of Alex Rodriguez and in results to that of Kevin Brown (who, lest we forget, was once considered good enough of a pitcher to get MLB's first contract worth a total over $100 million).

The USFL was also failing spectacularly at the box office.  Leading the league in percent of stadium capacity filled were the Boston Breakers, with 61 percent -- but that meant they were getting 12,817 at Nickerson, which seated 21,000 at the time.  Denver, which hadn't played to an unsold seat at a Bronco game since 1976 (and still hasn't, except for the Scab Year of 1987), had the highest average attendance, but even their 41,736 was only 56 percent.  Tampa Bay had 39,896, but that was just 55 percent.  New Jersey (35,004), Oakland (31,211) and Arizona (25,776) also topped 25,000, but Birmingham's 22,0046 was shockingly low for the football-mad State of Alabama, and L.A.'s 19,002 and Chicago's 18,133 were unacceptable for big markets.  Even the teams that made it to the title game weren't packing 'em in: Michigan averaged 22,250, Philadelphia 18,650.  These would have been unacceptable attendances even by the standards of 1983 baseball.  Washington bottomed out at 13,850.

Birmingham Stallions coach Dotsch, perhaps, said it best:

Every good coach has a game plan. In this case, the USFL got away from the game plan. There's no question we did, or I'll say the USFL did. I don't think we (meaning the Stallions) did, or Tampa Bay did. Hindsight is much better than foresight, I know, but things were done that hurt us. We didn't go crazy. We lost the fewest dollars of any USFL team. We were always the poorest team in the playoffs, but we held our own, and I'm proud of that. We did a good job with what we had. We won a lot more than we lost, and that's the biggest thing.

*

Clearly, the smart thing for the USFL to do was to look at which markets were doing well, and which markets didn't have as much competition in other sports, and move the failing teams (even if they were playing well) to lesser-tapped markets for the spring of 1984.

Clearly, the USFL did not do the smart thing.

They moved the Breakers from Boston to New Orleans, where the only major league team in place was the Saints, who stunk at the time.  That wasn't a bad move, and attendance did jump to 30,557 at the Superdome.

But the league made a huge mistake in expanding from 12 to 18 teams.  They added the Pittsburgh Maulers, who signed Heisman winner Mike Rozier of Nebraska.  Ed DeBartolo, owner of the NHL's Penguins, and father of 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, seemed like the right guy to own a Pittsburgh team in the USFL... if putting a USFL team in Pittsburgh had been the right thing to do.  It wasn't.  Giving them purple uniforms didn't help.  And what's a "mauler," anyway? The helmet logo was a guy in a hard hat swinging a sledgehammer, suggesting a factory or mill worker.  Right, remind the people of Western Pennsylvania of the jobs they'd been losing like crazy for the last 20 years.  The Maulers' first game saw them lose to Birmingham, whose quarterback was Cliff Stoudt, reviled as Terry Bradshaw's inadequate backup with the Steelers, and the locals at Three Rivers Stadium threw snowballs at him.  Rozier, a native of Camden, New Jersey, did not have the same impact in the USFL as Walker, and his pro career was a disappointment (although not an outright bust).  The Maulers finished tied with Washington for the league's worst record, 3-15.

Seeing the Southeast as underserved -- Texas and Florida had NFL teams, but the rest of the old Confederacy then had only Atlanta and New Orleans in the NFL -- and seeing how Birmingham was working out, the USFL expanded to include the Memphis Showboats and the Jacksonville Bulls, playing at the Liberty Bowl and the Gator Bowl, respectively.  Memphis was respectable mainly for one reason: Defensive end Reggie White, who played in the State at the University of Tennessee.  They were coached by Pepper Rodgers, who'd done well at the stadium for Memphis State (now the University of Memphis).  But Lindy Infante, already a respected NFL assistant, couldn't get much out of the Bulls.

The USFL also expanded into the Southwest.  Putting a team in Dallas to compete with the Cowboys would have been lunacy, but the Oilers were awful at the time, so they put in the Houston Gamblers, coached by Jack Pardee, a former linebacker who'd been All-American at Texas A&M and All-Pro with the Rams and Redskins, and had coached the Bears and Redskins to Playoff berths.  The Gamblers signed University of Miami quarterback Jim Kelly, and won the Central Division.

Putting a team in San Antonio seemed to make sense, as the city had only the NBA's Spurs.  But longtime Texas A&I (not A&M) coach Gil Steinke couldn't get the Gunslingers into gear.  Putting a team in Oklahoma, where they could peel off Sooner fans, and fans who were a long way from Dallas and Kansas City, seemed to make sense, and hiring former Steeler defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer as head coach and former Buccaneers quarterback Doug Williamis were good moves.  And the Oklahoma Outlaws had cool uniforms, black jerseys with a nasty-looking desperado on their helmets.  But they went nowhere.

And in the oddest transaction in pro football history, the owners of the Chicago Blitz and Arizona Wranglers traded their entire franchises.  Including rosters, coaching staffs, and front office personnel.  Where Chicago had been good and Arizona terrible in '83, the reverse was true in '84.

L.A. got Steve Young, and former San Diego Charger quarterback John Hadl as coach, and they won the Pacific Division.  Philly had the best record in the league at 16-2, edging New Jersey for the Atlantic Division title.  The Generals had been sold to Donald Trump, who brought in Walt Michaels, who'd coached the Jets to the AFC Championship Game in the '82 season, and former Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Sipe, thus giving the Herschel-centric offense more diversity.  (Supposedly, Trump originally wanted to lure Don Shula away from the Miami Dolphins, but balked when Shula wanted a condo in Trump Tower.)

The Generals lost to the Stars in the first round of the Playoffs, as former Penn State quarterback Chuck Fusina, running back Kelvin Bryant, and linebacker Sam Mills flattened Jersey's team.  In the longest game in the history of professional football, one which went to a 3rd overtime (Sports Illustrated's article on it was titled "It Was a Game and a Half"), Steve Young-led Los Angeles dethroned defending champion Michigan, 27-21.  Birmingham beat Tampa Bay, 36-17, and Arizona beat Houston, 17-16.  In the Conference Championships, Arizona beat L.A., 35-23, and Philly beat Birmingham, 20-10.  The title game was played at Tampa Stadium, and Philly beat Arizona, 23-3.

*

Did the USFL learn from its '83 and '84 mistakes? Partly.  The league was contracted to 14 teams.  Chicago and Pittsburgh were out.  Michigan and Oakland were merged, keeping the Oakland Invaders name.  Oakland and Arizona were merged, becoming the Arizona Outlaws, with the colors somewhat merged and Oklahoma's logo kept.

There were moves.  To take advantage of the fact that the Baltimore Colts had been moved to Indianapolis, the USFL should have moved the Washington Federals to Baltimore.  Instead, they moved their most successful team, the Philadelphia Stars, down Interstate 95 -- and not to Memorial Stadium, but to Byrd Stadium at the University of Maryland, inside the Capital Beltway in College Park.  So while they had the name "Baltimore Stars," they were a lot closer to Washington.  This sent their per-game attendance from 28,668 in '84 to a dismal 14,275 in '85.

The Federals were moved, to Central Florida, an untapped market, to become the Orlando Renegades.  Their coach was Lee Corso, a big name in the State as he'd been Florida State's coach.  Did this work out? As Corso would say in his later ESPN punditry career, "Not so fast, my friend!" The 'Gades finished 5-13, with an average attendance of 24,136, better than they were in Washington, but still awful.  And the Breakers were moved again, to Oregon, where they became the Portland Breakers.  True, Portland only had the NBA's Trail Blazers, but anybody who was an NFL fan in Oregon was either a Seattle Seahawks fan, or rooted for a faraway team like the Raiders, Steelers or Cowboys.  And the L.A. express crashed and burned: Their owners were bankrupt, and even with Steve Young, they were just 3-15, with an average attendance of 8,415.

In the quarterfinals, Birmingham beat Houston 22-20, Memphis beat Denver 48-7, Oakland beat Tampa Bay 30-27, and Baltimore beat New Jersey 20-17 -- another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, then considered "too short for the NFL," getting the Generals into the Playoffs, but no further.  In the semifinals, Baltimore beat Birmingham 28-14, and Oakland beat Memphis 28-19.  In the Championship Game, Baltimore (formerly Philadelphia) beat Oakland (sort of getting revenge on Michigan for the first title game), 28-24, at Giants Stadium.

The date was July 14, 1985.  The USFL never played another game.

*

Later that year, the USFL announced that their challenge to the NFL was going to be full, starting in 1986: They were going to a fall schedule, going head-to-head.  And they had sued the NFL on antitrust grounds.  The USFL sought damaged of $567 million, which, under antitrust law, would have been tripled to $1.7 billion if the jury found in their favor.

The USFL proposed two remedies: Either force the NFL to negotiate new television contracts with only 2 networks, or force the NFL to split into two competing 14-team leagues, each limited to a contract with one major network.

Each NFL franchise was named as a co-defendant, with the exception of the Raiders, whose owner Al Davis was a major witness for the USFL and had been excluded from the lawsuit in exchange for his testimony.  ABC announcer Howard Cosell was also a key witness for the USFL -- and this, more than his personality, his drinking, or his referring to a black receiver as "that little monkey" during a game, probably doomed him to being fired from Monday Night Football.


The lawyer for the USFL, Harvey Myerson, had what he felt were 3 "smoking guns":
1. A memo from March 1973 to NFL broadcasting director Robert Cochran, from attorney Jay Moyer stating that an "open network" might be open to the "invitation to formation of a new league."
2. A memo from August 1983 from Jack Donlan, NFL management council executive director, to his staff. The memo laid out plans for NFL teams to "increase salary offers to USFL to existing players or run the risk of losing them."
3. A memo from a Harvard professor named Michael Porter, which included a plan to "Conquer" the United States Football League.
The case went to trial in the spring of 1986 and lasted 42 days. On July 29, the jury handed down a verdict that was a Pyrric victory.  The jury declared the NFL a "duly adjudicated illegal monopoly," and found that the NFL had willfully acquired and maintained monopoly status through predatory tactics.
However, it rejected the USFL's other claims. The jury found that the USFL had changed its strategy to a more risky goal of merger with the NFL. Furthermore, the switch to a fall schedule caused the loss of several major markets. It has been established that Trump, as owner of the Generals, specifically wanted to force a merger knowing that the majority of teams would be eliminated.
Most importantly, the jury found that the NFL did not attempt to force the USFL off television. In essence, the jury felt that while the USFL was harmed by the NFL's de facto monopolization of pro football in the United States, most of its problems were due to its own mismanagement. It awarded the USFL only one dollar in nominal damages, which was tripled under antitrust law to three dollars. It later emerged that the jury incorrectly assumed that the judge could increase the award.
Almost immediately upon announcement of the verdict, it announced it was suspending operations for the 1986 season, with the intent of returning in 1987. Players signed to contracts were free to sign with NFL (or other professional teams) immediately.
The USFL was now some $160 million in debt. With nearly all of its players under contract to the NFL and Canadian Football League, Commissioner Harry Usher announced the league would stay shuttered in 1987 as well.  In 1990, now basically a shell of a corporation, the USFL finally received a check for $3.76 in damages in 1990, the additional 76 cents representing interest earned while the ultimately failed appeal had continued. Notably, that check has not yet been cashed.
*
So what is the USFL's legacy? Actually, when you look at it, it could hardly be seen to have been a waste of time:

* Four players from the league made the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Steve Young went on to quarterback the 49ers to a title, Jim Kelly led the Buffalo Bills into 4 Super Bowls, Reggie White became a terror on defense for the Eagles and helped the Green Bay Packers win a Super Bowl, and Los Angeles Express offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman protected John Elway for 2 Bronco titles.

* The Redskins used some players who'd gotten their profiles raised in the USFL to win the title in 1987.  Oklahoma/Arizona's Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, throwing passes to Jacksonville's Gary Clark and Houston's Ricky Sanders, and handing off to Philadelphia/Baltimore's Kelvin Bryant.

* Herschel Walker is not in Canton, but he should be: It's the Pro Football Hall of Fame, not the National Football League Hall of Fame.  He gained 8,225 rushing yards and 4,859 receiving yards in the NFL, scoring 82 touchdowns.  Put that together with his USFL stats, and that's 13,787 rushing yards, 6,843 receiving yards, and 143 touchdowns.  Although his NFL career is best remembered for the Cowboys trading him to the Minnesota Vikings for 5 players and 6 draft picks, which became a huge part of the Cowboys' quasi-dynasty of the 1990s.  Herschel never won a ring, but he made the Playoffs with the Vikings, Eagles and a return to the Cowboys.  (He also returned to the Meadowlands in 1995, with the Giants, but they didn't make the Playoffs that year.)

* Steve Spurrier moved on to Duke University, and revived their football program, giving them one of their few good periods, before going home to Gainesville and leading the University of Florida to the prominence it still enjoys.  Even if, at times, he does seem like a redneck version of Manchester United soccer manager Alex Ferguson.

* Doug Flutie was signed by the Chicago Bears after the USFL folded, but coach Mike Ditka didn't give him much of a shot.  So he went to the CFL, and won Grey Cups with the Vancouver-based British Columbia Lions, the Calgary Stampeders and the Toronto Argonauts.  Finally, the Bills gave him a shot, and, as Kelly's successor, he led them to the Playoffs.  He would also do so with the Chargers, and closed his career in with his "hometown" Patriots (he grew up in Natick, on the opposite site of Boston from Foxboro, but was actually born outside Baltimore), backing up Tom Brady and pulling off a trick that would have been in character for the USFL: On New Year's Day 2006, faking an extra point attempt as the holder, he dropped back and scored on a dropkick, something that hadn't been done, or even tried, in the NFL since 1941.  That left...

* Sean Landeta as the last former USFL player still active.  He'd been the Stars' punter, and won 2 Super Bowls with the Giants.  He then bounced around, but reached the Playoffs with the Buccaneers, Packers, Eagles and Rams, before wrapping it up with the Giants in 2006, 21 years after the last NFL game.

* Houston's Jack Pardee and Darrel "Mouse" Davis (who took the Denver Gold reins in '85) both took the Gamblers' "run-and-shoot offense" elsewhere, Pardee racking up big scores as head man at the University of Houston, and Davis becoming the offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions, helping them to what remains their last decent period.

* The USFL, like the 1960s AFL and the 1970s WFL, used the 2-point conversion.  The NFL finally adopted it after the USFL used it.

* Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the USFL is its stock footage.  Rather than pay the NFL the enormous licensing fees for use of their games, many TV shows and advertising agencies (for their commercials) have used USFL games to simulate people watching football games.

It's been 30 years.  As Billy Joel would say, "There are not many who remember.  They say a handful still survive." And many of those who do remember would like to forget.

Not me.  On the 20th Anniversary, I wrote this piece for the song-parody website Amiright.com.

Long live The Three Dollar League!

5 comments:

capt paul said...

I do recall the Generals at times outdrawing the Yankees and Mets when the teams played head to head home dates (at least one time when all three were playing home games on the same day with the Generals drawing the highest crowd)...There were often rumblings about the Generals moving to New York City, I recall Donald Trump floating the plans for a domed football stadium for their use (even after the USFL folded there was talk about building the Trump Dome for the Jets, or perhaps even a third NY area NFL team)...The Stars moved to Baltimore in anticipation of the move to a fall schedule, and I also seem to recall the Stars having to play playoff games at UPenn's Franklin Field due to scheduling conflicts with the Phillies...The Stars planned to play only the 1985 season at Byrd Stadium, and move into Memorial Stadium for the 1986 Season (when a fall schedule would have had fewer conflicts with the Orioles...Things got so bad for LA, they had to play home games at a Division III/HS Stadium...USFL also provided the first platforn for ESPN to broadcast pro football...Other legacies, the fan support for the Jacksonville Bulls was said to be a factor for the NFL awarding the Jaguars franshise to that city...Another USFL innovation that lives on was their pioneering use of Instant Replay Rules...

JBsptfn said...

I also wonder if the Stars moved because of a potential merger.

As for the Orlando Renegades, I think that team was originally supposed to be in Miami, or Miami was supposed to get a USFL team that Howard Schnellenberger was going to coach. That ended up not happening. Schnellenberger should have stayed at the U a little longer, anyway.

Uncle Mike said...

The Schnellenberger-to-the-Renegades story does sound familiar.

Personally, I think the USFL should have consolidated more franchises -- New Jersey and Houston had already been merged in anticipation of fall 1986 -- and then offered the NFL not war but peace.

That is, have some sort of merger between the 4 most successful franchises with the 4 best not-yet-NFL markets, recommend those as NFL expansion franchises (this is now looking like the ABA-NBA mini-merger of 1976 and that of the WHA-NHL in 1979), have each USFL-to-NFL team protect 5 players, then have each of the 28 teams already in the NFL each pick one former USFL player in a single-round dispersal draft, with the out-of-work players then available as free agents.

This could well have meant the Stars would have stayed in Baltimore, the Wranglers in Arizona, the Invaders in Oakland, and the Showboats in Memphis (or maybe, eventually, Nashville). Meaning that Art Modell, Bill Bidwill, Al Davis and Bud Adams would have had to consider other options. Jacksonville, and Charlotte (which had a team in the WFL but not the USFL) might still have gotten 1990s expansion teams, or one of the moved teams.

If the USFL had offered peace instead of war, 4 of its teams might well still exist, and both leagues could legitimately have declared victory.

JBsptfn said...

A poster on this alternate history site that I frequent said that there would have been no USFL if there was no strike in 1982.

If that is true, that would have had big ramifications, and that would have had an even bigger effect on the 84 draft than the 83 one.

Also, you may have seen expansion by the mid-80's. In 1984, Phoenix had a group that Bart Starr was affiliated with. They were going to call the team the Firebirds, and they purchased land on the Gila Indian Reservation for a new stadium.

Also, I think that Tex Schramm said once that Tennessee would be an ideal home to a team.

Uncle Mike said...

There were some other near-moves in the 1980s. Leonard Tose, desperate for cash to pay off $25 million that he'd gambled away in his drunken visits to Atlantic City, supposedly threatened to move the Eagles to Phoenix for the 1985 season, but the people of the Delaware Valley revolted, and instead sold the team to Norman Braman, who soon became the most hated man in Philly sports history.

Bud Adams also threatened to move the Oilers to Jacksonville after the USFL's Bulls folded, but before moving them to Tennessee. In the early 1990s, before the next round of expansion was announced, the Rams and Patriots both flirted with Baltimore.