Reminiscing about the USFL, a.k.a. the fun league, 30 years later
Though he is almost certainly unaware of this, Tim Tebow -- the now unemployed quarterback -- should be furious with Donald Trump.
I know ... I know. Tim Tebow doesn't do furious. Or angry. Or agitated. Or frustrated. He's a happy-go-lucky guy whose faith and devotion to God warmly carries him through the most difficult of circumstances.
Fine. But he should still be furious.
Were it not for Trump, Tebow may very well have a job right now. In fact, literally right now -- lining up behind center and playing spring football for the Orlando Renegades or Arizona Wranglers or New Jersey Generals or Baltimore Stars or, just maybe, the hometown Jacksonville Bulls.
Alas, the United States Football League -- born 30 years ago this spring -- is dead.
And it's Donald Trump's fault.
If you're under the age of, oh, 40, you may well have no idea what I'm referring to. Which is a shame because for three seasons in the mid-1980s, the USFL was the most entertaining sports league around -- a combination of the NFL, the Ringling Brothers Circus and a Saturday morning cartoon. "We were the little league that could," says James Lockette, a defensive end with the Generals. "The USFL wasn't the NFL, but all of us in the league thought we could be."
The idea, officially concocted in May, 1982, called for an 18-game schedule to be played in the spring, with nine of the 12 teams located in NFL markets. Initially, no one took the USFL seriously. Then a couple of interesting transactions took place. First, the USFL hired Chet Simmons -- then ESPN's chief executive officer and a heavyweight in the sports landscape -- as commissioner. Second, the league started lining up one big-name coach after another: Oklahoma legend Chuck Fairbanks for the Generals, former Broncos guru Red Miller with the Denver Gold, Philadelphia Eagles assistant Dick Coury to the Boston Breakers, George Allen (yes, the George Allen) to the Chicago Blitz. Third, the USFL's teams decided to raid NFL rosters and go hard after college players. The Blitz signed a highly coveted Ohio State running back named Tim Spencer. Southern Miss quarterback Reggie Collier joined the Birmingham Stallions and SMU tailback Craig James went to the Washington Federals. Gary Anderson, an Arkansas tailback, became a Tampa Bay Bandit and UCLA's Irv Eatman, the country's top offensive lineman, agreed to play for the Philadelphia Stars. The biggest moment for the new venture came when Herschel Walker, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Georgia, agreed to forgo his senior season and sign a three-year, $5 million contract with the Generals. At the time, the NFL banned underclassmen from the league. The USFL saw this as an exploitable weakness. "Herschel became the USFL's Joe Namath," says Lockette. "He gave us immediate credibility, and said to the country, 'This league is for real.'"
The 1983 season was one of great highs and awful lows. On the bright side, Walker and Stars running back Kelvin Bryant emerged as two of football's elite players, and a Michigan Panthers receiver named Anthony Carter proved to be one of the most dynamic pass catchers in the sport. The league's first championship game saw Michigan edge Philadelphia in a 24-22 classic that should go down as one of the most exciting sports title games of alltime.
And yet -- the Generals, presumed to be the league's marquee franchise, finished 6-12 and often played before angry, intoxicated fans at Giants Stadium. The Federals won four games, interested no one and relocated to Orlando, and the Breakers left for New Orleans. Overall league attendance was disappointing, and at season's end a jarringly high number of owners looked to sell their franchises. Inside the NFL's officers, commissioner Pete Rozelle reassured his minions that the USFL wouldn't last for long, that the pathetic little league was a mere fly in the Vaseline.
He was terribly mistaken.
Instead of retreating, the new venture went all in. The Upstart League: 101 course syllabus suggests slow, steady growth -- a franchise here, another franchise there. Simmons and the USFL ignored this. Needing fresh capital, the league added six teams (Pittsburgh, Houston, San Antonio, Memphis, Oklahoma and Jacksonville) and went even harder after the biggest targets. For the second straight year, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Nebraska's Mike Rozier, picked the USFL, signing with Pittsburgh for $3.1 million. The Los Angeles Express made an even bigger splash, adding former BYU quarterback Steve Young by offering an outlandish $40 million guaranteed contract. Smelling all the freshly minted dough, NFL veterans flocked to the USFL. Big names like Brian Sipe, Gary Barbaro and Joe Cribbs crossed over, with more waiting to move once their contracts expired. The new league seemed to be a land of milk and honey, with high-flying offenses and brightly colored uniforms and some of the coolest helmets ever seen (I'll argue no one has ever had a better helmet than the Oklahoma Outlaws). The USFL played football like the NFL, only with a twist of refreshing reinvention and modernism. In Houston, quarterback Jim Kelly ran Mouse Davis' run 'n' gun five-receiver set to perfection. In Los Angeles, Young weaved up and down the field like a boa chasing a mouse. Players were encouraged to dance and scream and celebrate, and -- as opposed to the stodgy NFL -- earrings and tattoos were celebrated, not shunned.
Best of all, the rules were fan friendly and, ultimately, revolutionary. The USFL implemented instant replay and the two-point conversion. The college rule of stopping the clock after first downs was used only for the final two minutes of each half. Sure, the USFL was losing money. And sure, the rosters of the Chicago Blitz and Arizona Wranglers were, ahem, traded for one another. And sure, the Breakers would eventually move to Portland (their third city in three seasons) and the Stars to Baltimore. And sure, the members of the San Antonio Gunslingers rushed to the bank on pay day for fear of their checks bouncing, while the Express went bankrupt. And, sure, Rozier was kind of a bust (792 yards as a rookie) and many of the league's quarterbacks were NFL wash-outs (Birmingham's Cliff Stoudt, Philadelphia's Chuck Fusina, Chicago's Vince Evans) and David Dixon -- the man who initially came up with the idea for a USFL -- grew disgusted by the unregulated spending.
Despite all that, the USFL had a chance -- a real chance -- of surviving as a spring entity, of getting past the trial-and-error phase, clamping down upon the spending and simply playing an entertaining genre of football.
Alas, Trump wouldn't allow such a thing.
From the moment he purchased the Generals after the 1983 season, the New York real estate tycoon was viewed warily by his fellow owners. He was 37 years old and uncomfortably aggressive. When Trump spoke at league meetings, it always seemed to be about moving to fall and taking on the NFL head on. Few trusted Trump's motivations, convinced that what he really wanted was the Generals to be absorbed by the established league -- the other USFL franchises be damned.
He was, however, convincing, and on October 18, 1984, the league announced that it would begin playing a fall schedule two years later. It simultaneously filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, claiming it had established a monopoly in regards to television broadcasting rights. Trump emerged as the USFL's unofficial spokesperson, and he came off as undisciplined and unrealistic. More and more of the league's owners dropped their teams, believing (rightly) that they couldn't match up with the NFL's established entities (the Denver Gold, for example, had no hope against the Broncos; the Maulers knew they'd be mauled by the Steelers).
Ultimately, the 1985 USFL season was the end. The lawsuit became a running joke, with the NFL eventually forced to pay $3 for having violated anti-monopoly laws. Many of the league's players went on to fill NFL rosters, and Young, Kelly, Gary Zimmerman (Express) and Reggie White (Memphis Showboats) wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Although few (if any) of the men recently drafted into the NFL know of the Arizona Wranglers or Oklahoma Outlaws or Oakland Invaders, the USFL's impact remains undeniable. With the bidding war came soaring salaries. With Walker's arrival came the beginning of the NFL permitting underclassmen to enter the league. Well before Michael Vick and RGIII and Cam Newton, the USFL embraced mobile, African-American quarterbacks. The two-point conversion, instant replay -- two things in the NFL today that are attributable to a long-ago league that refuses to fade away.
Ah, the USFL.
Tim Tebow would have loved it.