USFL Commissioner Harry Usher

USFL: The Real Story

Below is the story of the how the USFL actually played out. The One World League will remake history by changing a few things along the way to correct the mistakes made by the people running the USFL as described in the following article.

The USFL launched in 1983 with a very solid plan as laid out by league founder David Dixon. Unfortunately, one by one Dixon’s precepts were discarded and it was not long – the first season wasn’t even yet completed in fact – before Dixon (who had been planning to launch his own franchise, likely in his hometown of New Orleans in 1984) sold out his interest and left. Here’s how and why everything came crashing down…

1983

The first of the blueprint’s pillars to be brushed aside was the league’s $1.8 million salary cap. The cap number had been arrived at through very solid calculations – the league’s television contracts with ABC and ESPN would pay each club about $1.1 million in 1983, meaning they could theoretically make up at least some of the rest through (primarily) attendance. And the owners came on board after agreeing with Dixon’s requirement that they be willing to accept some losses in the first year. So even if a team drew poorly, losses were likely going to be around $500,000.

And yet… owners generally operate under a formula that winning equals profits and the cap, though smart, put a crimp in the ability to draw top-flight talent to their teams. To put things in perspective – the average NFL salary in 1982 was just over $90,000 making the average NFL team’s total salary burden around $4.5 million per season. $1.8 million would let USFL teams pay players an average of around $35,000  – not much more than a third of the NFL average making it difficult to lure established players – or top collegians – to the league.

Herschel Walker USFL Football CardUnsurprisingly, the teams quickly came up with a way to get around the cap: personal services contracts that paid the players a fraction for playing football and a much larger portion (which didn’t count against the cap) for personal services to the team’s ownership. Before the calendar had turned to 1983, such solid collegiate stars as WRs Anthony Carter and Trumaine Johnson and RB Kelvin Bryant joined the league with budget-busting contracts with personal services clauses to circumvent the cap. And then the big one hit: Heisman-winning RB Herschel Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals for three years and $5 million. Not only was the salary far above anything pro football had seen before, but Walker was a junior and ineligible for the NFL draft until 1985 – and the move signaled that USFL teams (or at least some of them) were willing to go outside the bounds of “established” football traditions and drawing quick and fierce criticism from both the NFL and the NCAA.

The big money deals, all permitted by Commissioner Chet Simmons and the other owners, placed the league firmly on the road to ruin. Tellingly, out of 12 teams, only the Denver Gold did not exceed the salary cap – and Denver was also the only team to make a profit in 1983. Dixon saw all this and became something of a nagging presence in league circles, sending letters to league owners over and over again about their deviation from his plan. Eventually mutual frustration from both sides saw Dixon bought out in May, with his franchise rights sold to a group that formed the Houston Gamblers as one of the 1984 expansion teams.

On the field, the product was pretty good and the league appeared to be, at least on the field, a rousing success. The 12 teams were (mostly) competitive and there were enough familiar names sprinkled around to raise some interest from fans. ABC and ESPN were happy with the return on their investment in viewership. Walker was the league’s top name, and the best back, but his team struggled to a 6-12 finish and his bloated contract had owner J. Walter Duncan looking to be one-and-done. The best team ended up being the Philadelphia Stars with Bryant as the feature back, and NFL castoff Chuck Fusina at QB. With head coach Jim Mora at the helm and future NFL All-Pros at several positions, the Stars rode to a 15-3 mark and a berth in the Championship Game where they met the Central Division champion Michigan Panthers. Michigan had future NFL stalwarts Anthony Carter at WR and Bobby Hebert at QB and arguably the league’s best LB in John Corker (Philly’s Sam Mills was right there too). The Panthers won the inaugural title with an exciting 24-22 victory that capped the first USFL season on a high note.

But there were plenty of issues as the league went through it’s first offseason:

  • The Boston Breakers had been playing at Boston University’s 21,000-seat Nickerson Field after trying – and failing – to get Harvard Stadium or even the Patriots stadium in Foxboro. So despite a decent showing at 11-7, the Breakers would pick up and move to the much more spacious Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans for 1984.
  • The owners began grumbling about – and trying to renegotiate – the TV contracts with ABC and ESPN. Naturally, the broadcasters both refused to deal.
  • The Chicago Blitz spent big on NFL caliber talent for head coach George Allen. NFL vet Greg Landry as at QB and top rookie prospects Tim Spencer (RB, Ohio State) and WR Trumaine Johnson (Grambling) led a club that finished 12-6 (2nd to Michigan in the Central) but failed to draw fans’ attention away from MLB’s Cubs and White Sox (the latter of which was en route to their first postseason appearance since 1959) and played to mostly empty seats at Soldier Field.
  • The above situation led to a bizarre franchise swap where Arizona and Chicago essentially traded their entire organizations. The 1983 Chicago Blitz became the 1984 Arizona Wranglers and vice-versa. The ’83 Wranglers had struggled both on the field and at the gate, with few fans willing to sit in brutal heat to watch a bad team. Conversely the Blitz had a good team that couldn’t draw enough fans to offset the big money spent on players like Landry, Spencer and Johnson. The result in 1984 was a new power in the desert and even worse attendance in Chicago where fans now had even less reason to follow what had become a bad on-field product.
  • Expansion teams – and the money they would bring in via expansion fees – began to be announced very soon after the league began play. Dixon’s plan had called for an expansion to 16 teams – the USFL owners went to 18. The first of these was a team in Pittsburgh, where the owner would be Edward DeBartolo Sr, the father of the owner of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, an interesting twist that was certainly noted in NFL circles. On May 11 – one year after the league’s introductory press conference – the team that would have been David Dixon’s was introduced under new ownership as the Houston Gamblers. Four more clubs were soon added, a 50% increase in membership over 1983. One of these was supposed to be in San Diego, an original location that after being locked out of Jack Murphy Stadium, and a couple rounds of ownership roulette ended up being the Arizona Wranglers. The stadium issue repeated itself with the NFL’s Chargers successfully lobbying the city to keep the USFL out and the club ended up in the significantly smaller city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Jacksonville, Memphis and San Antonio rounded out the new membership for 1984, despite San Antonio being specifically marked as unsuitable for a franchise (being a smaller city). But oil tycoon Clinton Manges had enough money to wash away any concerns (like many other moves, this was a bad one for the league).
  • Fully half of the league’s 12 owners sold their teams, including Denver owner Ron Blanding who after the league collapsed went into the history books as the only owner to escape with a profit.
  • Arguably the most ominous moves of that first off-season were the sales of the teams in the nation’s two biggest media markets: LA and New York. New Jersey Generals owner J. Walter Duncan had discovered (unsurprisingly) that paying almost twice the league’s salary cap to one player was a bad financial move and the team finished in a sea of red ink. So he sought and found a buyer in real estate mogul (and future U.S. President) Donald Trump. Trump’s win-at-all-costs mentality would prove both a positive (in terms of the press coverage he brought to his team and the league) and a negative (his desire to take on the NFL head-to-head). And in LA, new owner J. William Oldenburg who would go after college stars with big money offers that would prove to be financially unsupportable.

1984

Mike Rozier USFL Football CardThe season started with a lot of promise. There were six new teams on board and again the owners had gone after – and in several cases signed – some of the biggest names in college football. Another Heisman winner signed on when Pittsburgh drafted (and signed) RB Mike Rozier. The league successfully managed to persuade QB Jim Kelly to say no to the cold in Buffalo to play indoors in Houston. LA signed QB Steve Young of BYU to a franchise-crippling contract. One of football’s most dominant defenders of all-time began his career in Memphis when Reggie White suited up for the Showboats. Trump’s money landed former Cleveland Browns QB Brian Sipe for the Generals (he also plucked several other NFL regulars to bolster his club).

The revamped league would now have four divisions and two conferences. The broadcasters benefited with the doubling of the playoff berths from four to eight. The clubs did not benefit as the TV contracts paid $16 million, meaning each club got less in ’84 than they had in ’83.

The Philadelphia Stars proved 1983 was no fluke, again posting the league’s best record – and this time finishing the season with the title. The New Jersey Generals, thanks to Donald Trump’s deep pockets, were greatly improved. Trump wanted a first-rate organization and went after it. He hired Walt Michaels, the popular former coach of the New York Jets to run the team. He gave Herschel Walker a new contract and added not only veteran QB Sipe for the offense but three-time NFL Pro Bowl safety Gary Barbaro to the defense. It all added up to a 14-4 record, good for second to the Stars in the East.

The Houston Gamblers brought the Run n’ Shoot offense to pro football and shocked everyone. With Jim Kelly running Mouse Davis’ offense, the Gamblers regularly shredded defenses and Kelly and his receivers put up gaudy numbers the likes of which had not been seen before. Houston rode to a 13-5 record and won the Central over defending champion Michigan (10-8). The Chicago Blitz were predictably awful and finished last in the division behind the expansion Oklahoma Outlaws and San Antonio Gunslingers.

The Birmingham Stallions (who had lured star RB Joe Cribbs away from the NFL) and Steve Spurrier’s Tampa Bay Bandits had a spirited battle in the South and both teams finished 14-4. The transplanted Breakers – a good team in ’83 – didn’t measure up in New Orleans and finished third. The expansion teams in Jacksonville (Bulls) and Memphis (Showboats) were not good but did draw fans in good numbers.

Out west, Oldenburg’s spending raised the LA Express to division winners over the Arizona Wranglers (nee Chicago Blitz). The Denver Gold finished third at 9-9 and the Oakland Invaders went from first to worst, finishing last in the division they won in ’83.

Philadelphia’s defense and ball control offense was too much for all comers in the playoffs as they rolled to the title, winning the championship game by a final of 23-3 over the Wranglers.

The 1984-85 offseason proved to be even more of a crazy ride than the first had been:

  • The Chicago Blitz had a financial collapse with owner James Hoffman (who had spent $7 million to buy the team) walking away before the regular season even started, making the league the team’s owner until a replacement could be found. This was shortly followed by….
  • LA Express owner J. William Oldenburg declared bankruptcy in midseason and the league had to assume control of the team. Oldenburg’s wild spending did give the team one of football’s best young quarterbacks (Steve Young) and an offensive line that some pundits ranked as the best in all of pro football. Despite the financial issues, the Express finished at 10-8 to win their division and then won a playoff game before being eliminated in the Western Conference championship by Arizona, 35-23.
  • With both the Chicago and Los Angeles teams under league control, this presented a serious problem for the league. The television contract with ABC stipulated that the league had to have teams in the top three media markets. With LA and Chicago, ranked two and three, only New York (the NJ Generals) was a stable franchise. There would be severe financial penalties if the league could not keep teams in all three markets.
  • On October 18, 1984 the league held a vote for a move to a fall schedule that would compete directly with the NFL. Pushing this vote were NJ owner Donald Trump and new Chicago owner Eddie Einhorn. The argument used was that direct competition would force the NFL to accept at least some of the USFL teams in a merger and that all owners’ investments would double if a merger occurred. Countering these claims were a study that strongly suggested sticking to a spring schedule, and the strong opinions of several owners, including Tampa Bay’s John Bassett who said if they vote passed he would take the Bandits out of the league and start a new spring league. Failing health forced Bassett to sell and the new owner sided to stick with the USFL. The vote went 12-2 in favor of going to a fall schedule in 1986.
  • The immediate fallout of the vote saw the Pittsburgh Maulers fold rather than compete with the Steelers. Einhorn – despite being in favor of the merger – opted not to field his Chicago team in 1985. The Michigan Panthers said they wouldn’t play in Detroit in ’85 (or ’86 for that matter) and merged with Oakland. Both New Orleans and Philadelphia had to relocate as neither wanted to compete with the established NFL teams in their cities. New Orleans went to Portland and Philadelphia moved to Baltimore (recently abandoned by the NFL’s Colts). Unfortunately for the Stars, a lease for Memorial Stadium couldn’t be consummated so they ended up playing in Byrd Stadium in 1985. And finally, the struggling Washington Federals sale that would have moved them to Miami was scotched because the proposed ownership would not compete with the Dolphins.
  • All of the above meant that within a few weeks of the vote, the USFL had lost four of its most viable markets, a move into a fifth was aborted and a sixth wouldn’t field a team in 1985. Ultimately, all of this meant that the viability of the league had all but vanished.
  • ABC and ESPN offered big contracts to the league if it would remain in the spring. The ABC offer would have brought in $175 million over four years and ESPN offered $70 million over three years. This would have averaged about $67 million per year for 1986, 87 and 88, infusing much-needed capital into the league. The owners refused.

1985

The 1985 season would turn out to be the swansong for David Dixon’s dream. The USFL kicked off it’s final spring season as a 14-team circuit. Gone were the Pittsburgh Maulers. The Michigan Panthers had merged with the Oakland Invaders. Oklahoma – which was never a viable location – bought out and merged with the Arizona Wranglers to create the Arizona Outlaws. Chicago was “on hiatus” for the season. And Washington had found a last-minute ownership group who moved the team to central Florida as the Orlando Renegades. The Stars were in College Park, Maryland as the Baltimore Stars and the Breakers moved into their third home in three seasons in Portland, Oregon. The league also had a new commissioner as Harry Usher replaced Chet Simmons. The four-division alignment was gone – the league was now split into two seven-team conferences (East & West).

Oh, and to avoid losing broadcast money, the league kept the LA Express alive under league ownership. While ABC was willing to let Einhorn off the hook in Chicago (where ratings were just as bad as the Blitz’s attendance had been), there was no way it would accept no team in the country’s second-largest market.

As usual, Donald Trump went for the big signing. For the third straight year, the Heisman winner joined the USFL. This time it was Boston College QB Doug Flutie, who Trump signed to another big contract. Brian Sipe, one of Trump’s big signings the year before, departed for Jacksonville.

In the East, the Stars struggled a bit. With no home in Baltimore (despite their name) the team still practiced in Philadelphia and played in a stadium closer to Washington than Baltimore. They finished 10-7-1, a significant drop from their ’83 and ’84 finishes, but still enough to get into the playoffs. New Jersey also took a step back – Flutie’s performance wasn’t great and even Herschel Walker’s continued excellence couldn’t help the Generals finish better than 11-7. Birmingham was the best team in the East. With Joe Cribbs running the ball and QB Cliff Stoudt throwing 34 TDs, the Stallions finished 13-5. Memphis also took a huge step forward as they picked up several good players in the dispersal draft (RB Tim Spencer being among them) and QB Walter Lewis finished with the league’s top QB rating at 99.8 in an 11-7 campaign. Steve Spurrier’s Bandits went 10-8 to give the East five playoff teams. Jacksonville finished 9-9 and among all East teams only Orlando at 5-13 finished below .500 for the season.

Out West, it was expected that the Arizona Outlaws would benefit from the merger of Oklahoma (with QB Doug Williams) and the Wranglers who had been Western champs in ’84. But it didn’t work out that way. Oakland had picked up QB Bobby Hebert, WR Anthony Carter and RB Albert Bentley from the merger with Michigan and rode their new players to a league-best 13-4-1 mark. Denver snatched Mouse Davis and his Run n’ Shoot offense away from Houston and though neither Bob Gagliano nor Vince Evans was as adept as Jim Kelly at running it, finished second at 11-7. Kelly’s Gamblers had some issues (including an injury to Kelly that kept him sidelined for a third of the season) but still put up gaudy offensive numbers and finished 10-8 to make the playoffs. Arizona went 8-10, the Portland Breakers 6-12, San Antonio 5-13 and the LA Express finished with the league’s worst mark at 3-15.

In the postseason, the Stars aligned themselves and rode to their second straight title, beating New Jersey 20-17, Birmingham 28-14 and in a sort-of-rematch of the first title game against Michigan, beat Oakland 28-24 in the final USFL game.

The 1985-86 offseason was planned to a be a long one as the league transitioned to the fall. Instead it turned out to be permanent:

  • The San Antonio Gunslingers were left hanging by their owner, who stopped paying his players and failed to meet a league-imposed deadline to make good on the club’s debts. The league revoked the franchise.
  • Breakers owner Joe Canizaro finally had enough after losing about $17 million over the two years in New Orleans and Portland and pulled the plug.
  • LA couldn’t even finish the season in their cavernous LA Coliseum home. The 94,000 seat stadium was a sea of empty seats as the Express averaged about 9,400 fans per game. The team ended up finishing their season at a small college stadium outside LA before folding.
  • Oakland, despite the league’s best record and a close loss in the title game, also called it quits due to financial losses.
  • Denver merged into the Jacksonville Bulls for 1986 while Houston merged with New Jersey giving Donald Trump, on paper, a monstrously talented team which never took the field.
  • Eddie Einhorn opted out again for 1986 in Chicago, which was less of an issue since the league had no TV contract for ’86 anyway.
  • Eight teams were left for the proposed 1986 season: Arizona, Baltimore, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Memphis, New Jersey, Orlando and Tampa Bay. The league planned on two divisions, one called the Liberty Division and the other the Independence Division.

1986 – Denouement

The USFL sued the NFL for monopolizing television contracts in the fall football season. The claim by the younger league was that by signing TV deals with all three networks (Fox had not yet launched), the NFL prevented the USFL from being able to get on the air for the 1986 season. The hope amongst the remaining USFL owners was that a victory in the lawsuit would not only allow them to get a TV deal, but would also pump desperately needed capital into the league via damages.

The USFL had a reasonably good case. There was evidence from NFL league memo’s that the league purposely sought contracts with all three networks to prevent an opening for another league. But the jury also heard evidence about why the USFL was moving to the fall (to force a merger) among other damaging things (including a claim by the Oakland owner that the league was its own worst enemy).

Ultimately the jury split on the issues and though it did decide in favor of the USFL, the damages were set a just $1. The USFL asked for $567 million which would have trebled under anti-trust law to $1.7 billion. Instead they got an award trebled to $3. This was a devastating outcome for the USFL. Just four days after the verdict, the league voted to suspend operations. They never started back up. The players were free to sign with the NFL. Many went on to long, productive NFL careers while four of them – Gary Zimmerman, Steve Young, Reggie White and Jim Kelly – went on to become Hall of Famers (Herschel Walker should be enshrined as well – it is the Pro Football Hall of Fame after all and not just the NFL Hall of Fame – his 25,000 combined years from scrimmage are the most all-time). USFL coaches Jim Mora and Marv Levy and front office exec Bill Polian went on to successful NFL careers themselves with Levy & Polian making the Hall themselves. The last USFL player still standing in the NFL was punter Sean Landeta who played for the Stars and went on to a very long career that ended in 2006 (he officially retired in 2008). Doug Flutie, whose career ended in 2005, was the last non-kicker who had played in the USFL.

In the final accounting, anyone who was a fan of David Dixon’s spring experiment can not help but wonder “what if….”

 

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