He may be just a name in a press guide to most people in pro football, but J. William Oldenburg, owner of the USFL's Los Angeles Express, has just become Donald Trump West. On Monday Oldenburg signed Steve Young, Brigham Young University's All-America quarterback, to what is believed to be the biggest contract in pro sports history—virtually a lifetime deal that will pay Young about $36 million over the next 43 years.
The deal approved by Oldenburg, board chairman and president of San Francisco-based Investment Mortgage International (IMI), was one Young couldn't refuse, particularly since it had become apparent that he wouldn't be getting nearly as lucrative a contract in the NFL. Last week the Cincinnati Bengals finally gave Young's lawyer, Leigh Steinberg, a commitment that they would make Young the first pick in the May 1 NFL draft, but the numbers they were suggesting—a $1 million bonus and $500,000 per year for five years, unguaranteed—didn't measure up.
With Mike Rozier having gone to the Pittsburgh Maulers, the NFL has now lost two potential No. 1 picks to the USFL. And Herschel Walker, who was originally supposed to come out in this year's draft, is a third. What's going on? It now seems clear that the NFL, or a good part of it, is determined to stay out of a contract war with the USFL. After all, with stadiums filled every week and television bringing in $14 million a year per team, the NFL doesn't want to jack up its salary structure by spending big bucks for new stars. Meanwhile, it hopes that the fledgling league will drown itself in red ink.
On the other hand, how many more players like Rozier and Young, not to mention Marcus Dupree (see box, page 30) can the NFL afford to lose? Young wanted nothing more than to perform in the NFL. "I dreamed of playing on Monday Night Football," he says. "When [Bengal owner and general manager] Paul Brown said hello to me at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, I remember thinking, 'Omigod! Paul Brown spoke to me!' " For Young to have signed with the new league, the USFL would have had to make an extremely attractive offer, and the NFL would have had to do practically nothing. And that's exactly what happened. That hello from Brown was the last word he ever spoke to Young.
March 12, 1984
Clearly, Young was a VIP—Very Important Pick—not only to the Express, but also to the USFL in general. In the Bengals, on the other hand, Steinberg faced a team known for its intractability. Young and Cincinnati assistant general manager Mike Brown, Paul's son, talked briefly in Hawaii in January, the week of the Hula Bowl, but Young was turned off by the exchange.
"He said they were thinking about picking me, but that was all," said Young. "And when I worked out for [coach] Sam Wyche he said, basically, 'We'll get back to you.' That tells me nothing. That's just like a hello."
The contract with the Express, which covers only four playing seasons and is guaranteed by IMI should the team and/or the league fold, was hammered out by Steinberg and Express general manager Don Klosterman in an all-night session last Thursday at Klosterman's home in the Hollywood Hills. Its specifics:
•Young gets about $4 million up front, $2.5 million as a signing bonus, $1.5 million as a tax-free loan.
•Deferred payments totaling $30 million begin when Young, now 22, is 28, and don't stop until he's 65. That's guaranteed money, regardless of whether Young stays with the Express after his four years are up or jumps to the NFL. The payments escalate as he gets older; he reaches the $1 million milestone at age 53 and $2.4 million in the contract's final year, 2027.
•Next to those sums, his per-year salary money looks almost paltry—$200,000 for 1984, $280,000 for '85, $330,000 for '86 and $400,000 for '87.
•Young has an endorsement deal with the State Savings and Loan Association of Salt Lake City that will pay him $100,000 per year for the four years of the contract. The arrangement should be good for State Savings since Young is the biggest thing in Utah since his great-great-great grandfather, name of Brigham. Oldenburg is chairman of the board and sole owner of State Savings.
•Young's alma mater will benefit from a $180,000 contribution by IMI to its scholarship fund, spread over 20 years.
"I don't want to look like I'm money-hungry," Young said Sunday. "That's not what I based my decision on. Look at my alternative, the NFL—living in Cincinnati and sitting behind Ken Anderson. Who knows if I'd get a chance for three or four years?"
Klosterman, who as a former general manager of the AFL Houston Oilers is a signing-war veteran, began laying the groundwork for signing Young late last year. He persuaded the rest of the USFL to leave Young to the Express, which was picking 11th in the league's Jan. 4 draft. "I simply pointed out that we're the second-largest market and that whatever's good for us is good for the league as a whole," says Klosterman.
The Express began demonstrating how much it wanted Young by tailoring a number of personnel moves specifically to him. They signed Young's best friend from BYU, tight end Gordon Hudson, to a lucrative two-year deal (worth about $265,000 per year) even though Hudson will spend this season rehabilitating an injured knee. And on Feb. 13 they signed three linemen who were expected to go in the first two rounds of the NFL draft—Oregon guard Gary Zimmerman, Texas center Mike Ruether and Baylor tackle Mark Adickes. (Adickes suffered a knee injury in the Express' 21-14 loss to Birmingham on Sunday and will miss the rest of the season.)
On Feb. 21 Klosterman took Young and Steinberg to San Francisco to pay a call on Oldenburg. His offices occupy two upper floors of a building at the end of California Street with a breathtaking view of the Bay. As Young, Steinberg and Klosterman got off the elevator at IMI, they were greeted by personalized messages running across a huge board that normally contains stock quotes. Young's said: STEVE YOUNG, MR. BYU, MR. UTAH, MR. EVERYTHING.
Later, Oldenburg, a self-made billionaire and a private man who is rarely interviewed, agreed to talk to a reporter in his office. He was asked why he was spending so much time on Young; after all, he hadn't even met Tom Ramsey, his current quarterback.
"Well, I look at it this way," he said. "I hired Don Klosterman, who drives the bus from here to here. Then, Don hires [coach] John Hadl, who drives the bus from here to here. Then...." At this point Oldenburg put two fingers in his mouth and let loose a piercing whistle. "Now, what's that?" he said.
"That's the opening whistle," the reporter guessed, "and that means a quarterback like Young drives the bus from here to here."
"Right!" screamed Oldenburg, hauling the reporter to his feet, pounding him on the back, tapping him on the face and, finally, embracing him. "Now you got the idea!
"You can write this down," he said. "With or without Steve Young, the L.A. Express will be the professional team. Not just in the USFL, but in the USFL and the NFL. I'm used to winning, to nothing less than becoming the best. Donald Trump [owner of the New Jersey Generals] can get all the press he wants, but when it comes to business he can't carry my socks."
The Express gave Young until last Friday to respond to a general outline of the contract or the offer was off the table. Steinberg used that time to try to goad the NFL, specifically Cincinnati, into action. There was talk of the Bengals trading the No. 1 pick but nothing came of it, and Steinberg didn't hear the numbers he wanted to hear from the Bengals. Paul Brown is one of the NFL owners who believe that the salary line must be held, and in refusing to make a deal for the rights to Young, some insiders felt he was trying to impose his views on the rest of the league.
Last Thursday morning Steinberg went to Los Angeles to firm up the negotiations with Klosterman and IMI's chief corporate attorney, Martin Mandel. The next day Young joined them and Oldenburg at the IMI offices. But by 3 a.m. Saturday there was still no deal—the deferred payment schedule was the main stumbling block—and the impatient Oldenburg had reached his limit. He erupted in anger and called off negotiations. It took cooler heads (Mandel and Klosterman) to put the deal back together late Saturday evening.
Right up to the signing, Young was hesitant about the deal. He said all the right things, but deep inside him was a kid who wanted to be in the NFL.
"I guess my biggest worry," Young said a couple of weeks ago, "is the Broadway-Off-Broadway thing. If I make it in the USFL, will people still be saying, 'Yeah, but could he have made it on Broadway?' "
As far as the signing of Steve Young went, however, even the NFL had to agree that Off-Broadway put on a big-time production.