The latest of the Philadelphia Stars' 14 consecutive victories, last Friday night's 31-8 laugher over the Washington Federals, started out routinely enough. Quarterback Chuck Fusina handed off to running back Kelvin Bryant, who jammed for eight tough yards behind right tackle Irv Eatman. A pretty good effort by pretty good players. A pretty good team having a pretty good year.
Funny how two complimentary words like "pretty" and "good" can unite to become a near insult. When compared with "great" or "awesome," "pretty good" usually means wimping around somewhere between winning ugly and not winning at all. Surely there's a description more apt for the Stars, who go into the season's final game this Sunday against the New Jersey Generals with a 16-1 record and are the favorites to win the USFL's second championship, having outscored the opposition more than two to one (469-209) and outgained it 6,045 yards to 4,585.
How about "dominating"? No, not quite right. "Me? Dominating? Not even close," says Fusina, a study in calculated self-deprecation. With Fusina at the helm, the Stars have won 32 of 37 games in two years. Of course, he merely won 29 of 32 starts for Penn State and was just the runner-up to Billy Sims for the 1978 Heisman Trophy, and, at 6'1" and 195 nonflattering pounds, only looks pretty good—at best—in his uniform. "The mere fact that I'm up for the USFL's MVP award shows how well this team has played around me," says Fusina. "The best player in the league is undoubtedly Kelvin Bryant."
Fusina is unduly modest—three years on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' bench will do that to you—for a quarterback who has thrown for 31 touchdowns this season while hitting 278 of 430 passes (64.7%) for 3,549 yards. Until he was intercepted by Washington free safety Mike Guess in the Federals' end zone in the Stars' initial drive Friday, Fusina had thrown 112 consecutive passes without a turnover.
Fusina's consistency is representative of his team. The Stars kill their opponents with plain, simple, repetitive competence. Last year, when they went 16-4 and lost the title game to Michigan, the Stars were plus 34 in the takeaway-giveaway column. This year, they are plus 20. Despite the presence of Steve Young and his $40 million arm in Los Angeles, Jim Kelly and his record-breaking passing in Houston, Herschel Walker in New Jersey and Joe Cribbs in Birmingham, the most certain four-yard play in the brief history of the USFL is Fusina handing to Bryant (1,442 yards last year; 1,351 this season despite missing three games) behind Eatman.
The Stars have made a business of basic, bowed-neck football. Not a great business, mind you, but pretty good. "We've averaged around 30,000 at our games this year," said president and general manager Carl D. Peterson shortly before 22,582 filed into Veterans Stadium for the contest with the Federals. "Our break-even point is around 40,000. We averaged 20,000 last year. I was confident I knew a football player when I saw one, but I must admit that I knew nothing about marketing. I thought winning would take care of everything. I was wrong."
The Stars have solid organization that epitomizes the best of the USFL's intentions. "We stayed with the league's original plan of operation," Peterson, 41, says. "We signed two players per year to large contracts and kept the rest of the team's payroll under $1.5 million the first year and $1.7 million the second. That had been our gentleman's agreement among all the original USFL owners and presidents."
But then Donald Trump in New Jersey and J. William Oldenburg in Los Angeles bought in and started throwing dollars around like confetti. "Don and Bill approached it in a fashion to generate business in their markets," Peterson says. "Hey, some of the teams didn't spend anything at all. That's even worse. Don Trump's been good for the league—although I do call him Donald Duck sometimes."
In fairness to Trump and Oldenburg, Peterson could better afford to honor the gentleman's agreement concerning signings and payrolls. He knew players firsthand. By his own count, Peterson traveled 150,000 miles a year scouting football players in his six years as personnel director with the Eagles. "I knew where a lot of good football players were," says Peterson. He found players in schools like Eastern Kentucky, Towson State, Cincinnati and Lamar, and his bonus folk—Eatman and Bryant last year and defensive linemen Pete Kugler (the 49ers) and William Fuller (North Carolina) this year—are blue-chip stock. Coach Jim Mora, whom Peterson calls "a low-key Dick Vermeil," built a disciplined 3-4 defense and a diversified offense around the bodies Peterson assembled. "If a guy has ability," Peterson says, "Mora will bring it out."
Kugler, 24, is an excellent example of Peterson's nose for talent. Little-known and underrated, he was last seen butting and forearming Washington Redskin All-Pro center Jeff Bostic all over RFK Stadium during the recent NFC championship game. Kugler is a 6'5", 255-pound nose tackle, a son of Penn State and of George Kugler, a former attorney general for the state of New Jersey, and he is becoming a force.
Kugler was paid only $60,000 by San Francisco last year. By Feb. 18 he had signed with the Stars for three years at $250,000 per year. "The money that the 49ers ended up offering Pete was comparable, if not more," says Peterson. "But we offered him guaranteed years if he played 75% of the time the prior year. He knew we wanted him. Plus, I don't think he liked the Bay Area. Of course, if that's the case, we should have given him an intelligence test."
Says Kugler: "The 49ers didn't seem interested in me until it was too late." San Francisco has since made a trade for former Seattle Seahawk nose tackle Manu Tuiasosopo—not the player that Kugler is. "The 49ers didn't initiate anything," says Kugler. "To be honest, I did contact the Stars first. The 49ers left a bad taste. I thought that they should have said, 'Hey Pete, you did a great job. We'll pay you.' "
Kugler went directly from the NFL playoffs to the Stars' Florida training camp and then on to another regular season. "I've reached the point of diminishing returns," he says. "You need that six months off. You have to be mentally sharp to play this game. I'm burned out. I was bench-pressing over 400 pounds last year. Now I don't think that I can even get 300 up. I've lost solid weight. Ten, 15 pounds. I'm getting my butt kicked out there."
A few weeks ago, Peterson told the Stars they would play an exhibition against the Tampa Bay Bandits at Wembley Stadium in London on July 21. The news of this unexpected postseason bash got a rousing reception from most. But Kugler sat in the rear of the room with his head in his hands. Peterson asked what was wrong. "Carl," said Kugler, "July 21 was the day I reported to 49er camp last year." Peterson told Kugler not to worry, he'd only have to play 75% of the London game.
For a lineman who says he's getting his butt kicked, Kugler never seems to end up on his rear. He drew double-teams from the Federals and still pushed his way toward the passer. This in turn allowed defensive end Buddy Moor to beat one-on-one blocking and make two sacks.
Mora's defense has given up 100 rushing yards to but one ballcarrier, Leo Gray of the L.A. Express. That's not surprising; the 49-year-old Mora was defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots when Peterson, who had been an assistant coach with Mora on Vermeil's UCLA staff in 1974, decided to renew their acquaintance last year. Mora's Patriot defense had recorded back-to-back shutouts in 1982. When asked last week if any aspect of his team needed polishing for the playoffs, Mora said, "Not really." Hey, the man's winning percentage is .864. What can he say?
Fusina completed 12 of 18 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns in just over a half against Washington, but for drama even a Star of his quality may find it difficult to beat last year's conference championship game, in which he whipped the Stars to three fourth-quarter touchdowns in a brilliant 44-38 comeback win over George Allen's Chicago Blitz. What can Fusina and the Stars do for an encore?
"I guess that you can say we're trying," offers Fusina. "We're trying to start a tradition." That sounds like a pretty good goal.