Donald Trump, real estate mogul and owner-operator of what he'd like to think is the best little football team in New Jersey, was anxious to revel with his depreciable assets. But Brian Sipe, his quarterback, was going in the wrong direction. As Trump walked to his team's locker room, Sipe trotted past him, heading the other way—back onto the spongy carpet of Legion Field in Birmingham for an interview with ABC-TV. Trump's revamped and overhauled Generals, who were 6-12 last season with a different owner, different coach and different quarterback, had just won their opener, 17-6 over the Stallions, before an estimated crowd of 62,300, the largest in USFL history. Trump's football investment was already paying dividends, but then the rich always do get richer.
New Jersey beat a good team, too. Since the middle of last season Birmingham had signed three former NFL starters at scoring positions, and the Stallions featured an offensive line that last year blocked for 3,017 rushing yards, tops in the league. But the Generals' defense, purchased by Trump in the off-season—which he fondly calls "the time of controversies and raidings"—carried the day, forcing former Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Cliff Stoudt onto the bench and keeping former Buffalo Bills running back Joe Cribbs off the scoreboard. Ask any NFL defensive coordinator how easy that task is. Then duck.
"We're challenging," said Trump. "The whole concept is exciting. That was Joe Cribbs out there." Give that man another cigar. The Generals played defense. But in pro football you've got to score to win. The public demands it, you know. When it came to firepower. Trump and his general manager, Jim Valek, had promised all but a landlocked version of the U.S.S. New Jersey. Sipe's arms and Herschel Walker's legs would pound at USFL end zones. "I'm not uncomfortable with being favored," Valek had said. "We should be."
The Generals won all right, but without much from Walker. A bruised shoulder and the Birmingham defense combined to hold him to 43 yards on 17 carries. Sipe was more effective, even though he wore a rubber sleeve on his right elbow, and his knees, shins and calves were misshapen by a brace and padding. "I think the Stallions really pointed to this game," said the former NFL MVP, who completed 12 of 24 passes for 175 yards, "and we still won. I was disappointed. We'll move the ball better than that. I've been around long enough to know you can't buy a winning team. It takes time."
March 5, 1984
But money helps, and Trump has spent a lot of it—$800,000 a year for Sipe alone. And what did new coach Walt Michaels, formerly of the New York Jets, think about Sipe? "It does feel good to have a quarterback who can read a defense." Take that, Richard Todd.
Sipe's short throws—placements—were superb, even if his long passes—arm jobs—weren't. But overall his play was outstanding. Three times he pulled the Stallions offside with a broken cadence in his snap count. His only interception came on a pass that went through his receiver's hands. Sipe would fade back, scan the field and stop moving, his body dead calm, his attention seemingly unfocused. Then he would release—read that, you safeties—and submerge. The 34-year-old Sipe has presence back there.
He's obviously going to mean a lot to the Generals, even if, as he says, "I'm not going to New York to make panty-hose commercials." No, that's not Sipe's style. A man develops more modest goals during 12 years of cresting and falling with the Cleveland Browns. Sipe's most famous/infamous moment epitomized his seasons in Cleveland: During the 1980 playoffs, in polar cold against the Raiders in Cleveland, Sipe had the Browns within 13 yards of a Super Bowl shot. But he threw an interception in the end zone to Oakland's Mike Davis. After the play Browns coach Sam Rutigliano walked over to Sipe and said, "Brian...I love you." Los Angeles Raider defensive end Lyle Alzado, who was then a Brown, has often scoffed, "I thought they were going to kiss." But Rutigliano knew that Sipe had won games for the Browns with similar plays. Nevertheless, Sipe's detractors never let him forget that interception, and it became his Chappaquiddick. "I was brooding before the NFL season began. I was ready for a change," he says. "In Cleveland they said my arm might be gone after I signed here. You figure it out."
Things didn't go nearly so well for Walker, who rushed for 1,812 yards in '83. He missed most of last week's practice with a bruised right shoulder, which was sustained in a scrimmage, and was hounded by Birmingham. Walker averaged only 2.5 yards on 17 carries. Take away two carries of 16 and 19 yards, and he was running backward.
On the fourth play from scrimmage, Walker got free around left end; all he had to do was beat cornerback Ricky Ray one-on-one. The crowd's anticipation was palpable. One stride upfield and Ray would have to commit—and Walker would be gone. If Ray committed to Walker's inside leg, a simple cutback left would let Walker's world-class speed loose down the sideline. "We hear he ran a 4.25 and a 4.27 40 in camp [actually he did 4.22]," Stallions president Jerry Sklar had said. "We fear that speed." Those 40 times compute to 9.2 in the 100 and, therefore, seem a bit optimistic. Walker couldn't prove or disprove that rumor; he didn't force the issue and found Ray's tackle as much as it found him. "I ran timidly. I was cautious," Walker said later. "Herschel was a little rusty," said Michaels, who used Walker sparingly. "Good scrimmage for him, though."
Walker's Georgia Bulldog heritage makes him a poor second to former Auburn and Alabama football players in this neck of the woods, so the most lusty cheers came for "Auburn's Joe Cribbs!"—the last player introduced. Cribbs will give the Stallions credibility this season, and not only on the field, where he will average many more than the 88 total yards—52 rushing and 36 receiving—he gained against New Jersey. At 4 p.m. last Thursday, U.S. District Judge John Elfvin, sitting in Buffalo, ruled that the Bills' right-of-first-refusal clause in Cribbs's contract was unenforceable outside the NFL. At 5 p.m., ABC announced a local blackout on the Generals-Stallions game. By 10 a.m. the next day, 8,000 additional tickets had been sold.
Although Sklar also had Stoudt and former Steeler receiver Jim Smith on his roster, the NFL player he'd coveted most was Cribbs. Dr. Jerry Argovitz, part owner of the USFL Houston Gamblers and at the time Cribbs's agent, had planned on signing Cribbs for his team. Sklar said last week, "I told Dr. Argovitz that Joe Cribbs was an Alabaman, and if he played in the USFL, it would be in Birmingham." Argovitz offered a trade. Sklar said no, pointing out that under league territorial rules, rights to all Auburn players belong to Birmingham.
Then Sklar went to Stallions owner Marvin L. Warner. "I told him, 'I'm serious about signing Joe Cribbs,' " said Sklar. "He said, 'How serious?' I said, 'Real Serious. Big money.' " Warner agreed, and so did Cribbs. In July the deed was done: Birmingham gave Cribbs $625,000 a year for four years.
The Generals' defenders were real serious, too. They kept Cribbs in check, most impressively on a third and short two at the Birmingham 49 in the fourth quarter, when Stallions substitute quarterback Bob Lane tried a pass from a tight formation. Nice call, but New Jersey zoned out all the options, especially Cribbs down the right sideline. Lane, flustered, saw his gull intended for Cribbs intercepted by safety Greggory Johnson, formerly of the Seattle Sea-hawks and another one of the Generals' Trump cards. Cribbs said, "I didn't play as well as I'd like, but they were sound." Linebackers Bobby Leopold (former 49er) and Jim LeClair (Bengals) had 17 tackles. Said linebacker Willie Harper (49ers), "We took Cribbs away because he'll beat anybody." Said Sklar, "Joe made the Pro Bowl this year in his lame duck NFL season. That says what kind of player he is."
There's less enthusiasm in Birmingham for Stoudt, the seven-year NFL vet who finally got his shot in Pittsburgh this year and hit himself in the foot with it. Stoudt can throw with anybody. He can also throw over anybody, and often does, now for around $600,000 per year. He was six of 13 for 51 yards before giving way to mounting boos and Lane early in the third quarter. Gary Barbara, the former Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro safety, had played Stoudt like an old friend for the one interception Stoudt threw. Just before halftime, with the Generals leading only 7-3, Stoudt tried to hit Smith on a short corner pattern from midfield. Barbara read Stoudt's eyes and positioned himself perfectly for an overthrown pass.
Trump came across Barbara a little later in the Generals' happy locker room. "Beautiful Gary Beautiful," said Trump. "We're pushing it across. Go ahead and feel good about it. Big interception. Turned it around. So what's new? The story of your life, right?" Barbara could not get a word in edgewise, but his smile was quite genuine.
Trump, of course, had every reason to feel celebratory, even if he and Sipe have got to get their postgame act together. He's getting what he wanted, even if some people haven't liked the self-promoting way he's gone about it. Sklar, though, is a Trump defender. "I think he's the man," Sklar said. "There's some resentment of him around the league, but there's resentment of Al Davis in the NFL. There's resentment of Steinbrenner in baseball, and before him, there was resentment of Charlie Finley." Those owners have won more than their share of championships, and Trump would love to join their company.