United States Football League

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This article is about the defunct football league that was active from 1983 to 1985. For the future football league, see New United States Football League.
United States Football League
UnitedStatesFootballLeague.png
Sport American football
Founded 1982
No. of teams 18
Country United States
Ceased 1987
Last champion(s) Baltimore Stars

The United States Football League (USFL) was an American football league which played for three seasons, 1983 through 1985. The league played a spring/summer schedule in their three seasons. A fourth season played in a traditional autumn/winter schedule was set to commence before league operations ceased.

The USFL was conceived in 1965 by New Orleans, Louisiana, businessman David Dixon, who saw a market for a professional football league which would play while the established National Football League was in their off-season. Dixon had been a key player in the construction of the Louisiana Superdome and the expansion of the NFL into New Orleans in 1967.[1] He developed "The Dixon Plan" --- a blueprint for the USFL based upon securing NFL caliber stadiums in top TV markets, securing a TV deal, and controlling spending—and found investors willing to buy in.

The USFL is historically significant in part for the level of talent that played in the league. The League was noteworthy for signing three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners: Georgia running back Herschel Walker and Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie signed with the New Jersey Generals, and Nebraska running back Mike Rozier signed with the Pittsburgh Maulers out of college as well as numerous other collegiate stars. Future Pro Football Hall of Fame members defensive end Reggie White of the University of Tennessee, offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman and quarterbacks Jim Kelly of the University of Miami and Steve Young of Brigham Young University, began their professional careers with the USFL's Memphis Showboats, Los Angeles Express, Houston Gamblers, and Los Angeles Express, respectively. A number of NFL veterans of all talent levels played in the USFL. It is true that some NFL backups such as quarterbacks Chuck Fusina and Cliff Stoudt, G Buddy Aydelette, and WR Jim Smith who had limited success in the NFL become major stars in the USFL. However, many NFL backups struggled or did not make it in the USFL. Additionally, the USFL also lured in NFL starters, including a handful of stars in the primes of their careers, including the 1980 NFL MVP, Cleveland Browns' quarterback Brian Sipe, the Buffalo Bills' three-time pro bowl running back Joe Cribbs, and the Kansas City Chiefs' three-time pro bowl safety Gary Barbaro.

After deviating from "The Dixon Plan" in the league's inaugural season, the United States Football League was plagued with financial problems and consequently, franchise instability. A number of franchises either relocated or merged with others. In spite of these difficulties, the league had enough success in cities such as Jacksonville, Phoenix, and Baltimore that the NFL has placed teams there since the USFL ceased operations.

The Michigan Panthers were the first USFL champions. The Philadelphia Stars won the second USFL championship, and after relocating to Baltimore, won the final USFL championship as the Baltimore Stars in effectively a rematch of the first USFL title game. (Their opponents, the Oakland Invaders, featured most of the stars of the Michigan Panthers following a merger of those two franchises.)

In 1986, the USFL, having recently decided to compete directly with the NFL, filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the National Football League. The NFL was found to have violated anti-monopoly laws. However, in a victory in name only, the USFL was awarded a judgment of just $1, which under anti-trust laws, was tripled to $3.[2] When it folded, the USFL had lost over $163 million.

History[edit]

Organization[edit]

Official USFL football.

The USFL was the brainchild of David Dixon, a New Orleans antiques dealer, who had been instrumental in bringing the New Orleans Saints to town. In 1965, he envisioned football as a possible spring and summer sport.

Over the next 15 years, he studied the last two challengers to the NFL's dominance of pro football—the AFL and the World Football League. In 1980, he commissioned a study by Frank Magid Associates that found promising results for a spring and summer football league. He'd also formed a blueprint for the prospective league's operations, which included early television exposure, heavy promotion in home markets, and owners willing to absorb years of losses—which he felt would be inevitable until the league found its feet. He also assembled a list of prospective franchises located in markets attractive to a potential television partner.

With respected college and NFL coach John Ralston as the first employee, Dixon signed up 12 cities—nine where there already were NFL teams and three where there were not. The Dixon Plan called for teams in top TV markets to entice the networks into offering the league a TV deal. All but two of the 12 initial teams were located in the top 13 media markets in the US.

After almost two years of preparation, Dixon formally announced the USFL's formation at the 21 Club in New York City on May 11, 1982, to begin play in 1983. ESPN president Chet Simmons was named the league's first commissioner in June 1982.

According to the Dixon Plan, if the league was going to be a success, it needed television revenue and exposure. In 1983, the league signed contracts with both over-the-air broadcaster ABC and a cable TV broadcaster, the then-fledgling ESPN, to televise games. The deals yielded roughly $13 million in 1983 and $16 million in 1984, including $9 million per year from ABC. ABC had options for the 1985 season at $14 million and 1986 at $18 million. Each week, there would be a nationally televised game, as well as the USFL's own version of Monday Night football.[3]

Stumbles before play begins[edit]

Like almost all startup pro football leagues, the USFL had some off-the-field factors that prevented the league from starting out with their preferred membership. The problems started when the original owner of the Los Angeles franchise, Alex Spanos, pulled out and instead became a minority owner (and eventually majority owner) of the NFL's San Diego Chargers.

Jim Joseph, a real estate developer who had lost out to friend Tad Taube for the USFL's San Francisco Bay area franchise, had thought he would be content to be a part-owner of the Oakland Invaders. When the potentially more lucrative Los Angeles franchise became available, Joseph snapped up the rights to the area. The owners of the USFL's San Diego franchise, cable television moguls Bill Daniels and Alan Harmon, were denied a lease for Jack Murphy Stadium—in part due to pressure from the Chargers (Major League Baseball's Padres held the lease to the stadium at the time). Los Angeles was seen as critical to the league's success, and Dixon and Simmons felt that two cable moguls would be better suited to head the league's efforts there. Joseph was forced to move his operation. The team opened play in Phoenix, Arizona, where it became the Arizona Wranglers. Daniels and Harmon's team became the Los Angeles Express.

The League's Boston franchise, the Breakers, also had stadium problems. The Boston ownership group wanted to play in Harvard Stadium, but were unable to close a deal with the university. Next, they tried to organize a lease with Sullivan Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots. They were again unsuccessful. Finally they were able to negotiate a lease to play at Nickerson Field on the campus of Boston University, a tiny facility that seated only 21,000 people.

There were plans to establish four franchises in Canada prior to the inaugural season, located in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal. Being pushed by John F. Bassett, the Canadian who would go on to own the Tampa Bay Bandits USFL team. However, Senator Keith Davey warned that the Canadian government would act to protect the Canadian Football League from competition, as they had previously with the Canadian Football Act, a bill that was never approved but would have banned US football leagues from playing in Canada, which was introduced when Bassett had tried to establish the Toronto Northmen in the World Football League in 1974. This led Bassett to drop the idea.[4][5]

Once play actually started, the league experienced the same kind of franchise instability, relocation, and closures that almost all pro football leagues, including the NFL, experienced in their early years.

The 1983 season[edit]

  • The Washington Federals finished tied with the Arizona Wranglers as the league's worst team with 4–14 records. The Federals were coached by the Canadian Football League's fourth winningest coach at the time, Ray Jauch. The team was injury prone and mistake prone, on and off the field. Prior to the 1983 season, the team traded away the rights to the league's leading sacker, linebacker John Corker to Michigan for a 5th round pick. In spite of a rotating door at QB, the Federals lost 8 games by a TD or less, a fact that gave team owner Berl Bernhard hope for the 1984 season. The 1983 team finished second to last in attendance drawing 13,850 per game.
  • New Jersey Generals' running back Herschel Walker emerged as the league's first superstar running for 1,812 yards and 17 TDs. However, the team only won 6 games.
  • The Denver Gold only went 7–11 in their first year, but finished first in the league in attendance drawing an average of 41,736 fans to see a team that featured a number of former Broncos. Team owner Ron Blanding stuck to his budget, and took great pride in seeing his team defeat the big budget Chicago Blitz in Chicago 16–13 in week three on a TD run with 22 seconds to go. Blanding fired very popular former Broncos Coach Red Miller after a 4–7 start, but was still able to finish the season with strong attendance. Due to low attendance numbers and over budget spending on players on all the other teams in the league, Blanding's Gold was the only USFL team to turn a profit in 1983.
  • The Oakland Invaders finished 9–9 and won the Pacific Division behind the play of 29 year old quarterback Fred Besana and former Oakland Raiders tight end Raymond Chester and halfback Arthur Whittington. Besana had played for the Twin City Cougars of the California Football League from 1980 to 1982, but played like a proven veteran, finishing the season as the league's second rated passer.
  • In spite of a strong team led by 36-year-old former WFL quarterback Johnnie Walton and CFL veteran halfback Richard Crump, the Boston Breakers were unable to draw the regular sellouts they needed to survive at Nickerson. (Even when they sold out Nickerson, they still lost money due to its small capacity.) Boston finished the season 11–7, narrowly missing the playoffs. Walton, who had retired from pro football years earlier, and had spent the previous 3 years coaching college football, was the league's 7th ranked passer. Boston and Washington were the only USFL teams to draw less than 14,000 per game in 1983. The other 10 teams drew over 18,000 per game.
  • The George Allen-led, Chicago Blitz had been described as an "NFL caliber" team and were heavily favored to win the title and dominate the rest of the league. The team was stacked with quality players, led by NFL veteran quarterback Greg Landry, rookie HB Tim Spencer of Ohio State, and rookie wide receiver Trumaine Johnson of Grambling. In week two, Jim Joseph's Arizona Wranglers led by rookie quarterback Alan Risher of LSU came from a fourth quarter 29–12 deficit to defeat the Blitz 30–29 in a game considered by many to be the biggest upset in USFL history. The Blitz would go on to lose five more games in the regular season and be edged out by Michigan for the Central Division title. In the first round of the playoffs, the Blitz would carry a 38–17 lead into the fourth quarter vs. the host Philadelphia Stars before losing to the Stars 44–38 in OT.
  • The Philadelphia Stars finished a league best 15–3. Led by Coach Jim Mora, NFL veteran quarterback Chuck Fusina, rookie halfback Kelvin Bryant of North Carolina and a very good defense led by linebacker Sam Mills, the Stars made it to the title game where they almost came back from a 17–3 third quarter deficit before falling 24–22 to the Michigan Panthers.
  • Michigan Panthers owner A. Alfred Taubman quickly decided he was willing to pay to fill the holes on his team with NFL caliber talent. Early in the season, the Panthers signed NFL vets guard Thom Dornbrook, tackle Ray Pinney, fullback Cleo Miller[6] and defensive end John Banaszak. Consequently, after a 1–4 start, the team jelled and finished the regular season 11–2, edging out Chicago for the Central Division title. They dispatched Oakland in the playoffs 37–21 and weathered a frantic comeback by the Stars to become the first league champions.

The 1983–1984 off-season[edit]

  • The Boston Breakers were unable to find a more suitable venue in the Boston area, so the Breakers were sold to New Orleans businessman Joseph Canizaro, who moved the team to New Orleans.
  • Seeing the out of control spending worsening, Blanding sold his Denver Gold to Doug Spedding for $10 million. Blanding is widely thought to be the only owner to make a profit on the USFL.
  • Needing fresh capital, the league chose to expand league membership from 12 to 18 teams, adding the Pittsburgh Maulers, Houston Gamblers, San Antonio Gunslingers, Memphis Showboats, Oklahoma Outlaws and Jacksonville Bulls. The Dixon plan called for expansion to 16 in the league's second year. The Outlaws were originally slated to play in San Diego, but as was the case with what became the Express, could not get a lease for Jack Murphy Stadium. The Outlaws opened play in Tulsa at Skelly Stadium. The Gamblers were technically not an expansion team. Founder David Dixon had reserved a franchise for himself in founding the league. He had chosen not to field a team in 1983 to help guide the league. By 1984, Dixon was disgusted with the path the league was on and the league owners were sick of Dixon's constant complaints about them overspending. With their blessing he sold his franchise for slightly less than the $6 million expansion fee. Dixon's franchise became the Houston Gamblers.
  • After seeing the Wranglers lose ten games in a row to finish 4–14 (tied with Washington for the league's worst record) and perhaps more importantly seeing attendance wilt in the summer heat at Sun Devil Stadium, Joseph decided to sell the Wranglers. Meanwhile, in spite of having the league's highest profile coach, George Allen, and being at worst the third best team in the league, the Chicago Blitz had drawn an anemic 18,133 per game, unable to contend with Major League Baseball's Cubs and White Sox, the latter on their way to the postseason for the first time in 24 years. Blitz owner Dr. Ted Diethrich, a Phoenix resident, felt the losses did not justify an investment so far from his home in Phoenix. Diethrich sold the Blitz to Milwaukee heart surgeon James Hoffman, and then bought the Wranglers from Joseph. Almost immediately after Diethrich closed on his purchase of the Wranglers, he and Hoffman swapped their team assets—coaching staff, most of the players, and all. To Blitz fans, it seemed that Hoffman had jettisoned one of the league's elite teams in favor of a team that tied for the league's worst record. In truth it was worse than that. In a league starved for competent QB play, Wrangler triggerman Alan Risher stayed in Arizona. The new Blitz would feature longtime Bear backup QB Vince Evans (signed in November 1983 to a four-year, $5 million deal). In January, The Blitz tendered an offer that would have been the largest contract in football – $2 million a year for three years—to Bears running back Walter Payton. Payton advised he would consider the offer, but would not be rushed by the Blitz. The Blitz's 1984 season was scheduled to start on February 27, 1984, and they had little success selling season tickets. The Blitz needed Payton to sign quickly to help season ticket sales, so they had put a deadline on the offer of February 9, 1984. Before he made up his mind, the Blitz withdrew the offer realizing they simply did not have the finances. With a less talented team and no big names to excite the fans, Chicago's season ticket sales predictably flatlined, in spite of Hoffman sinking a lot of money into advertising. Just prior to the start of the season, a frustrated Hoffman walked away from the Blitz, leaving the team to the minority owners.
  • The Los Angeles Express were sold to J. William Oldenburg and the New Jersey Generals were sold to Donald Trump. The league believed that the teams based in the nation's two largest markets were owned by the owners with the deepest pockets. Trump and Oldenburg both went on signing sprees. Trump poached several NFL starters, including Cleveland's QB Brian Sipe. Oldenburg's Express went after a number of highly regarded collegiate players. This combined with a general lack of quality QBs (only 9 QBs in the 12-team league finished the 1983 season with QB ratings above 70) and HBs (even in an 18 game season only 6 rushers broke the 1000 yard mark) tipped off another explosion in league spending as USFL teams raided the NFL and college ranks to keep up.

The 1984 season[edit]

  • The USFL went to a seven man officiating crew in 1984 adding the side judge.
  • After a game 1 blowout 53–14 road loss to the expansion Jacksonville Bulls, Washington Federals Head Coach Ray Jauch was fired. In week 2, star RB Craig James was injured. The team collapsed. Despite solid play from 2nd year QB Mike Hohensee, WR Joey Walters, and HB Curtis Bledsoe, the team would finish 3–15, losing twice to the 3–15 expansion Pittsburgh Maulers and going 0–7 vs. the expansion teams. With seven games to go in the season, a press conference was held to announce the Federals had been sold to Sherwood "Woody" Weiser who intended to move the team to Miami. The team would be coached by Miami Hurricanes' coach Howard Schnellenberger.
  • After two games, William Tatham Jr., son of Oklahoma Outlaws owner William Tatham, announced Skelly Stadium was insufficient to support a pro team and that the Outlaws would be moving the following year. In spite of this lame duck status, awful spring weather, and a season-ending ten-game losing streak, the team drew an average of 21,038 fans per game.
  • A few games into the season, with the Chicago Blitz struggling and the fans staying away in droves, the team was near financial collapse. The league was forced to take over the Blitz for the remainder of the 1984 season in order to protect the league's TV deals which called for teams in the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago markets. With 4 games to go, a press conference was held announcing that Eddie Einhorn would become the new owner of the USFL's Chicago franchise. At the press conference, it was stated that although the new team would not be the Blitz, Einhorn's franchise would retain the rights to all Blitz players and coaching staff—strongly implying the team would play in the 1985 season.
  • The expansion Houston Gamblers rookie QB Jim Kelly of the University of Miami emerged as the league's second superstar carrying his team to win the central conference with a 13–5 record. Kelly threw 44 TDs and piled up over 5000 yards. The Gamblers would fall to the eventual league runner up Arizona Wranglers in the playoffs, 17–16.
  • The Los Angeles Express' signings of high profile collegiate players culminated with the signing of BYU QB Steve Young to a $40 million guaranteed contract—at the time, far and away the largest contract in pro football history. The young talent was slow to adapt to the pro game and the Express continued to hover around .500. With one of the leagues' highest payrolls and poor attendance, financial losses mounted. It is estimated that the Express lost as much as $15 million in 1984. The Express did manage to make the playoffs and defeated the defending league champion Panthers 27–21 in triple overtime, before falling to the eventual league runner-ups, Allen's Arizona Wranglers, 35–23.
  • In spite of seeing his Wranglers team make it to the title game, [2] Ted Diethrich had seen enough. He had lost millions for the second year in a row. Despite fielding a dramatically improved team, he had only had seen a negligible increase in attendance in Arizona over the previous year's numbers.
  • The Philadelphia Stars again finished with the league's best record and made it to the title game, this time defeating Dietrich's Wranglers, 23–3.

The 1984–1985 off-season[edit]

  • The owner of the Los Angeles Express, J. William Oldenburg, went bankrupt, turning his franchise over to the league. News of his financial troubles sent a collective shiver through the league in the middle of the 1984 season. With Chicago already gone, the potential loss of the Express might have put the league's contract with ABC in jeopardy. With that in mind, the league took control of the team and decided to run it on a shoestring until a new owner could be found.
  • Seeking a larger market, a larger stadium, and to share expenses, the Outlaws sought to merge with the Oakland Invaders, but Oakland Invaders owner Tad Taube walked away from the deal rather than give control of the team to Outlaws part-owner and general manager William Tatham Jr.
  • After the league officially announced plans to move to the fall in 1986 (see below), a number of teams moved elsewhere after their owners decided they could not directly compete with the NFL. The Breakers moved a second time, this time to Portland, Oregon. The defending champion Philadelphia Stars moved to Baltimore, capitalizing on the departure of the NFL's Colts to Indiana. The Michigan Panthers merged with the Oakland Invaders, while the Pittsburgh Maulers folded after losing a reported $10 million in their only season.
  • Around the same time, Weiser pulled the plug on his deal to buy the Federals and move them to Miami. Bandits minority owner Donald Disney stepped in 5 days later and bought the Federals. Under his ownership, the team was moved to Orlando, where they became the Orlando Renegades.
  • Einhorn, one of the principal advocates of fall play, decided to sit out the 1985 season. ABC cleared this move due to the league's anemic ratings in Chicago, allowing the league to shut down the Blitz, who had lost nearly $6 million in 1984.
  • The assets of Dietrich's Arizona Wranglers (see Chicago Blitz of 1983) would be acquired by the Tathams in a deal often referred to as a "merger", as the rosters were merged. The resulting Arizona Outlaws featured players from both teams but was run by the Tathams.

The 1985 season[edit]

  • The league financed and ran the Express all season, but could not find an owner. With a huge salary burden and dreadful attendance, the Express barely survived the season.
  • Owners agree to a 4 year CBA with the United States Football League Players Association. [3]
  • San Antonio Gunslingers owner Clinton Manges stopped paying the team's bills with about a month to go in the season.
  • The Denver Gold's attendance flatlined due to the planned move to the fall, as fans were not willing to choose between the Gold and the NFL's Broncos. The Gold would have hosted a playoff game against the Memphis Showboats, but ABC forced the league to move the game to Memphis rather than endure the embarrassment of playing in a near-empty Mile High Stadium.

The 1985–1986 off-season[edit]

  • The San Antonio Gunslingers had their franchise revoked when Manges ignored a league-imposed deadline to make restitution for the team's debts.
  • The Breakers were disbanded after owner Joe Canizaro suffered two-year losses in the realm of $17 million.
  • Los Angeles and Oakland announced that they would suspend operations, and Einhorn announced that his Chicago team would also not take the field in 1986.
  • Denver merged with Jacksonville, to play the 1986 season in Jacksonville, while Houston merged with New Jersey, to play in New Jersey.

Some franchises folded before or after a season's play, and others moved and/or merged. However, unlike the WFL and other leagues that have competed against the NFL, no USFL team actually folded during a season's play. This was because, with the notable exception of San Antonio, all of the league's teams were fairly well capitalized from the start, as Dixon had anticipated the league would have to absorb years of red ink before coming into its own. By comparison, most of the WFL's teams appeared to be severely undercapitalized. Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Antonio did come close to folding in midseason, but league intervention helped these teams make it through the season.

1986[edit]

Arizona, Baltimore, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Memphis, New Jersey, Orlando and Tampa Bay were scheduled to play an 18 game fall schedule season in 1986. Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett had initially declared that his team would not participate in a fall schedule with the USFL and announced his intention to start a new spring football league.[7] However, serious illness forced him to abandon his plans and sell the team to Lee Scarfone in July 1985, at which point the Bandits agreed to participate in the fall 1986 schedule. Bassett died from cancer on May 14, 1986.[8]

Competition vs. NFL[edit]

The Dixon Plan vs. building a league of stars[edit]

At first the USFL competed with the older, more established National Football League by following the Dixon plan. The plan allowed the league to compete not just by playing its games on a March–June schedule during the NFL off-season, but also by having

  • Teams play in large NFL caliber stadiums
  • Teams plan for large year 1 pre-season promotional budgets to introduce the team to the local market.
  • A tight players' salary cap of $1.8 million per team. The NFL introduced a salary cap in 1994.
  • A territorial draft, to better stock teams with familiar local collegiate stars to help the gate. (Similar to the proposed All-American Football League)

The Dixon plan laid out a budget to allow all teams to manage losses in the initial lean years. The league's TV revenue met the requirements of the Dixon plan. The Plan called for first year attendance over 18,000 per game. In 1983, 10 of the 12 teams exceed that threshold. Player spending was where the league deviated from the plan.

Although the Dixon plan called for a $1.8 million players' salary cap in anticipation of slow growth, several teams exceeded it in the pursuit of stars.

Ironically, the league's biggest splash—the signing of Georgia Junior RB Herschel Walker, a three time All-American—has been considered in hindsight to have foreshadowed the league's demise. Like the NFL, the USFL barred underclassmen from signing. However, league officials were certain that this rule would never stand up in court, so they allowed Walker to sign with the New Jersey Generals. More importantly, Walker signed a three-year contract valued at $4.2 million with a $1 million signing bonus. Due to the USFL's salary cap rules, this was a personal-services contract with Generals owner J. Walter Duncan, and not a standard player contract. Nonetheless, the other owners did not raise any objections, knowing how important Walker was to the league. The personal services contract work-around effectively ruined cost containment in the USFL.

It was a double edged sword. While out of control roster costs had the teams drowning in red ink, much of the league's credibility with fans as being a serious challenger to the establishment NFL arose from its willingness to sign a marquee talents such as high profile college stars Walker, Craig James, Anthony Carter and Kelvin Bryant as well as some familiar NFL vets like Chuck Fusina and members of the NFL vet laden Chicago Blitz, like Greg Landry.

The league also made a serious run at some other stars, such as Eric Dickerson and Dan Marino.

No one can dispute that, in particular, the signing of Walker and several other Heisman Trophy winners gave the league much-needed credibility, but the Dixon plan did not call for as much spending on talent as the league did in 1983. And it only got worse in 1984 with the arrival of free spending financial pacesetters Oldenburg and Trump.

Many teams wildly exceeded the league's player salary cap in order to put more competitive teams on the field. For instance, the Michigan Panthers reportedly lost $6 million—three times what Dixon suggested a team could afford to lose in the first season—even as they became the league's first champions. The desire to compete with other loaded USFL teams and for the league to be seen as approaching NFL caliber led to almost all of the teams exceeding the Dixon Plan's team salary cap amount within the league's first 6–18 months.

Dixon urged the members of the league to reduce spending. Rather than backing off spending, recommitting to a firmer salary cap, and dispersing some of the larger contracts to expansion teams alleviate the problem, the league sought other options to take on revenue to cover increased costs overruns. These actions magnified the problem.

The league added six more teams in 1984 rather than the four initially envisioned by Dixon, to pocket two more expansion fees. This put more pressure on the TV deal which was not designed to support an 18 team league. The league was so desperate for capital that it accepted an application from San Antonio, despite a study that advised in no uncertain terms that San Antonio could not support a USFL team. A frustrated Dixon sold his stake and got out.

With the new wave of teams, more college stars like Marcus Dupree, Mike Rozier, Reggie White, Jim Kelly, Steve Young and other young stars of the day signed high dollar contracts to play for USFL teams in 1984, as did high profile NFL stars like Doug Williams, Brian Sipe, Joe Cribbs, and Gary Barbaro.

Spring schedule vs. fall schedule[edit]

In 1984, the league began discussing the possibility of competing head-to-head with the NFL by playing its games in the fall beginning in 1986. Despite the protests of many of the league's "old guard," who wanted to stay with the original plan of playing football in the spring months, the voices of Chicago owner Eddie Einhorn and Generals owner Donald Trump and others would eventually prevail. Trump and Einhorn argued that if the USFL moved to the fall, it would eventually force a merger with the NFL in which the older league would have to admit at least some USFL teams. They sold a majority of the other owners on the gamble that if a merger did occur, the surviving teams' original investment would more than double.

A consulting firm recommended sticking with a spring season. Nevertheless, on October 18, 1984, the league's owners voted 12-2 to go along with Einhorn and Trump's idea and begin playing a fall season in 1986. Tampa Bay Bandits owner John F. Bassett, who had registered one of the two "nay" votes, declared his intention to pull his team of the USFL and organize a new spring football league.[9][10] However, failing health (he died from cancer in May 1986) forced Bassett to abandon his plans and sell the Bandits to minor partner Lee Scarfone, who agreed to keep the franchise in the USFL.[11] The spring advocates had lost, and the fall advocates now set their sights on forcing a merger with the NFL, or at the very least winning a sizable settlement and securing a TV network for fall broadcasts. Spring football had been replaced with an incredibly risky gamble for a huge return.

As a direct result of this decision, the Pittsburgh Maulers folded rather than compete with the Steelers, the sale of the struggling Washington Federals to Weiser's Miami-based ownership group collapsed, the well supported Philadelphia Stars and the New Orleans Breakers had to relocate, and the 1983 champion Michigan Panthers surprised the commissioner with an announcement that they would not be playing in Michigan for the 1985 season. (The Panthers management informed the league at the meeting that they had negotiated a conditional merger with Tad Taube's Oakland Invaders depending on the outcome of the vote.) With an expectation of fall play in 1986, Einhorn decided not to field a team for the final lame duck spring 1985 season. Within a few weeks of the decision, the USFL had been forced to abandon four lucrative markets, abort a move to a fifth and suspend operations in a sixth. In hindsight, this destroyed the USFL's viability.

ABC offered the USFL a 4 year, $175 million TV deal to play in the spring in 1986. ESPN offered $70M over 3 years. Following all the mergers and shutdowns, there just were not enough spring football advocates left in the league to accept those contracts. The owners in the league walked away from what averaged out to $67 million per year starting in 1986 to pursue victory over the NFL.

After the 1985 season, more plans were announced to accommodate the fall schedule, pool financial resources and avoid costly head-to-head competition with NFL teams. Two mergers were announced. The Denver Gold merged with the Jacksonville Bulls, with the Bulls as the surviving team. Trump bought the assets of the Houston Gamblers for an undisclosed amount and merged them with the New Jersey Generals. While the Generals were the surviving team, Gamblers coach Jack Pardee was named as the merged team's new coach. Both the Gold and Gamblers had seen their attendance plummet to unsustainable levels, as their fanbases were not willing to abandon the Denver Broncos and Houston Oilers, respectively. In spite of all of these changes, the USFL would never play a fall game.

USFL v. NFL lawsuit[edit]

In another effort to keep themselves afloat while at the same time attacking the more established National Football League, the USFL filed an antitrust lawsuit against the older league, claiming it had established a monopoly with respect to television broadcasting rights, and in some cases, to access of stadium venues.

The case was first heard by Judge Peter K. Leisure. The USFL claimed that the NFL had bullied ABC, CBS and NBC into not televising USFL games in the fall. It also claimed that the NFL had a specific plan to eliminate the USFL, the "Porter Presentation." In particular, the USFL claimed the NFL conspired to ruin the Invaders and Generals. The USFL sought damages of $567 million, which would have been tripled to $1.7 billion under antitrust law. It hoped to void the NFL's contracts with the three major networks. The USFL proposed two remedies: either force the NFL to negotiate new television contracts with only two networks, or force the NFL to split into two competing 14-team leagues, each limited to a contract with one major network.

The lawyer for the USFL, Harvey Myerson, had what he felt were three "smoking guns".

1. A memo from March 1973 to NFL broadcasting director Robert Cochran, from attorney Jay Moyer stating that an "open network" might be open to the "invitation to formation of a new league."

2. A memo from August 1983 from Jack Donlan, NFL management council executive director, to his staff. The memo laid out plans for NFL teams to "increase salary offers to USFL to existing players or run the risk of losing them."

3. A memo from a Harvard professor named Michael Porter, which included a plan to "Conquer" the United States Football League.[3]

Each NFL franchise was named as a co-defendant, with the exception of the then-Los Angeles Raiders; Raiders owner Al Davis was a major witness for the USFL and had been excluded from the lawsuit in exchange for his testimony.[3] Howard Cosell, a prominent sports journalist, was also a key witness for the USFL.

The case went to trial in the spring of 1986 and lasted 42 days. On July 29, a six-person jury handed down a verdict that devastated the USFL, even though it technically won its case. The jury declared the NFL a "duly adjudicated illegal monopoly," and found that the NFL had willfully acquired and maintained monopoly status in professional football through predatory tactics.

However, it rejected the USFL's other claims. The jury found that the USFL had changed its strategy to a more risky goal of merger with the NFL. Furthermore, the switch to a fall schedule caused the loss of several major markets (Philadelphia, Denver, Houston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Miami, the Bay Area). It has been established that Trump specifically wanted to force a merger knowing that the majority of teams would be eliminated.

Most importantly, the jury found that the NFL did not attempt to force the USFL off television. In essence, the jury felt that while the USFL was harmed by the NFL's de facto monopolization of pro football in the United States, most of its problems were due to its own mismanagement. It awarded the USFL only one dollar in nominal damages, which was tripled under antitrust law to three dollars. It later emerged that the jury incorrectly assumed that the judge could increase the award.

The verdict was a classic Pyrrhic victory. The USFL had essentially staked its future on the outcome of the suit, banking on a substantial settlement to finance the move to the fall It considered the television-related claims to be the heart of its case. On August 4--four days after the announcement of the verdict--the USFL owners voted to suspend operations for the 1986 season, with the intent of returning in 1987. Players signed to contracts were free to sign with NFL (or other professional teams) immediately. Indeed, the NFL had held a draft in 1984 for teams to acquire the rights to USFL players, in the event of the league (or teams in the league) folding. However, it is unlikely the USFL would have been able to put together a viable product in any case. Many of its players had signed contracts with NFL teams after the 1985 season, and the league was some $160 million in debt.

Five days after the verdict the Tampa Bay Bandits were effectively shut down when a judge slapped a lien on the franchise to satisfy back pay owed to former player Bret Clark. All of the team's remaining assets were seized to satisfy the debt.[12][13] With nearly all of its players under contract to the NFL and Canadian Football League, Usher announced the league would stay shuttered in 1987 as well.

The USFL appealed the award, but it was rejected by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1988. This decision ended any chance of the USFL returning to the field, and the league's eight remaining teams voted to formally disband shortly afterward. However, due to a provision of antitrust law which allows an "injured" party in an antitrust action to recover its attorney fees and costs of litigation, the USFL was awarded over $5.5 million in attorney fees and over $62,000 in court costs. That award was appealed by the NFL; it was affirmed on appeal and ultimately allowed to stand by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990, long after the USFL had ceased operations.

The USFL finally received a check for $3.76 in damages in 1990, the additional 76¢ representing interest earned while litigation had continued. Notably, that check has not yet been cashed.[14]

Aftermath[edit]

It is widely acknowledged[citation needed] that the USFL had a dramatic impact on the National Football League both on the field and off. Almost all of the USFL's on-field innovations were eventually adopted by the older league, and a multitude of star players in the USFL would go on to very successful careers in the NFL.

The NFL would also eventually have franchises in some of the markets which the USFL had proved fertile for pro football or had renewed interest in the game, including Arizona (the St. Louis Cardinals moving there in 1988), Jacksonville (the Jaguars being awarded as an expansion franchise for the 1995 season), Tennessee (the Houston Oilers, while waiting for their Nashville stadium to be completed, commuted to Memphis for home games), and Baltimore (the Ravens establishing themselves in 1996, effectively taking the entire Cleveland Browns organization except the name and history). In spite of this, it cannot be correlated that franchise locations in these cities was a direct result of the USFL's successes there, as Baltimore previously had a football team for many years prior to the relocation of the Ravens, and other markets such as Jacksonville and Phoenix had access to existing, popular college teams and games.

It was no coincidence that most of these markets were in the Sun Belt—a region where the USFL was particularly a hit. Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Birmingham and Memphis were consistently among the league's leaders in attendance, mainly because neither of them had to compete against Major League Baseball teams for the spring sports dollar. Of those cities, only Tampa Bay now has a baseball team; the Rays, formerly known as the Devil Rays, didn't arrive until 1998. Along with Philadelphia/Baltimore (the league's most successful team) and New Jersey (with Trump's deep pockets, the league's greatest player in Walker, and distance from New York's MLB teams), this collection of teams had the potential to be viable ventures had the USFL stuck to its original springtime concept and been more financially sound.

The last player of the USFL on an NFL roster was Philadelphia Stars punter Sean Landeta, who was signed in late 1986 by the New York Giants. He officially announced his retirement on March 6, 2008, the 25th anniversary of the first USFL game. (He last played in 2006 but he did not officially retire during the 2007 season.) The last non-kicker to retire was quarterback Doug Flutie, who played until 2005.

Unique traits of and curious facts about the USFL[edit]

Like the XFL that would follow them, the USFL sought to differentiate themselves from the NFL with slightly different rules, most notably:

  • The two-point conversion (since adopted by the NFL, in 1994).
  • The college rule of stopping the clock after first downs was used only for the final two minutes of each half.
  • For the 1985 season, a method of challenging officials' rulings on the field via instant replay (using a system that is almost identical to that used by the NFL today).

Dan Marino was the first player drafted by a USFL team, but never signed. In the NFL draft, Dan Marino mysteriously fell almost out of the first round. The Los Angeles Express picked him with the 1st overall pick.

Jerry Rice was also selected first overall pick in the 1985 Draft, by the Birmingham Stallions, but never played a game for them.

In addition to producing many NFL players, the USFL also produced at least two future World Champion professional wrestlers: Lex Luger & Ron Simmons.

In popular culture[edit]

Bits of USFL games can be found in TV shows, commercials and movies even today; using stock USFL footage is much cheaper than using that of the NFL. (Gary Cohen of Triple Threat TV is the exclusive proprietor of all USFL stock footage.)

The Los Angeles Express were used as the stand-ins for the California Bulls, the fictional team at the center of the HBO sitcom 1st & Ten for the show's first two seasons. Stock footage of the USFL was used during that time to simulate Bulls games. and the Bulls starting quarterback was purposely given the number 14 to match that of Express quarterback Tom Ramsey. Once stock footage of the Ramsey-led Express ran out, the series began scripting their own plays.

In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Band Geeks," there is footage of a USFL game (Memphis Showboats vs. Tampa Bay Bandits, played at the Liberty Bowl), used for the "Bubble Bowl" background in some scenes of the band's version of "Sweet Victory."

USFL footage is used in a Scientology.com commercial where there is a short clip of Anthony Carter scoring a touchdown for the Michigan Panthers.

On the penultimate episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, as part of O'Brien's "Ridiculously Expensive Sketches" routine, O'Brien used USFL footage as a fake stand-in for the much more expensive "restricted Super Bowl footage" that would cost NBC millions of dollars to air.

As part of the ESPN film project 30 for 30, filmmaker Mike Tollin produced a documentary called "Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL?" It aired October 20, 2009. As part of the project, sister station ESPN Classic aired the 1984 and 1985 USFL championship games in their entirety on the same day, leading up to the movie. ESPN Classic also aired the 1984 and 1985 championships (along with its league preview, which aired prior to the 1983 season) on the league's 30th anniversary in 2013.

A 2010 campaign commercial for US Senator Russ Feingold, aired during his unsuccessful re-election bid against Ron Johnson in the Wisconsin Senatorial race, featured footage of the Houston Gamblers' Clarence Verdin and Gerald McNeil celebrating a touchdown during a montage of unsportsmanlike football celebrations.[15]

Notable people and achievements[edit]

USFL alumni in the Pro Football Hall of Fame[edit]

As of August 2010, there are six USFL alumni who are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame:

  • Marv Levy (coach) – Chicago Blitz 1984 – HOF Class 2001
  • George Allen (coach) – Chicago Blitz 1983 & Arizona Wranglers 1984 – HOF Class 2002
  • Jim Kelly – Houston Gamblers 1984–1985 – HOF Class 2002
  • Steve Young – LA Express 1984–1985 – HOF Class 2005
  • Reggie White – Memphis Showboats 1984–85 – HOF Class 2006
  • Gary Zimmerman – LA Express 1984–1985 – HOF Class 2008

League MVP awards[edit]

Championship game MVP awards[edit]

Commissioners[edit]

  • Chet Simmons (June 13, 1982 [4]–January 14, 1985); resigned under pressure from owners.
  • Harry Usher (January 15, 1985 – 1987); league ceased operations.

All-time leaders[edit]

Teams[edit]

In 1986[edit]

Prior to the jury award in USFL v. NFL, the league had planned to go forward with a 1986 season comprising eight teams, divided into an "Independence Division" and a "Liberty Division":

Due to the legal aftermath of the failed lawsuit against the NFL, the USFL folded and this divisional format never came to fruition.

Season by season[edit]

1983[edit]

Main article: 1983 USFL season

1984[edit]

Main article: 1984 USFL season

1985[edit]

Main article: 1985 USFL season

Championship games[edit]

Date Winning Team Losing Team Location Attendance MVP Television
July 17, 1983 Michigan Panthers 24 Philadelphia Stars 22 Mile High Stadium Denver, Colorado 50,906 Bobby Hebert ABC
July 15, 1984 Philadelphia Stars 23 Arizona Wranglers 3 Tampa Stadium Tampa, Florida 52,662 Chuck Fusina ABC
July 14, 1985 Baltimore Stars 28 Oakland Invaders 24 Giants Stadium East Rutherford, New Jersey 49,263 Kelvin Bryant ABC

The country music group, Alabama, performed the national anthem prior to the 1984 Championship Game.

The 1985 game was originally to be played at the Pontiac Silverdome, but after the Panthers merged with Oakland, the game was re awarded to Giants Stadium.[5][6]

Had there been a 1986 season the championship game was scheduled to be played at Jacksonville's Gator Bowl Stadium on February 1, 1987. [7] [8]

Drafts[edit]

The USFL held its 1983, 1985 and 1986 college drafts at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York. The 1984 draft was held at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. The 1983-85 drafts were in January while the 1986 draft was held in May.

The USFL held an expansion draft in September 1983 for the 6 expansion teams that started play in 1984. In December 1984, they had a dispersal draft for Chicago, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma and Michigan.

First overall pick in college drafts[edit]

Draft Date Location Player Position College USFL Team
1983 January 4, 1983 Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York Dan Marino QB University of Pittsburgh Los Angeles Express
1984 January 4, 1984 Roosevelt Hotel, New York Mike Rozier RB University of Nebraska Pittsburgh Maulers
1985 January 3, 1985 Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York Jerry Rice WR Mississippi Valley State University Birmingham Stallions
1986 May 6, 1986 Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York Mike Haight OT University of Iowa Orlando Renegades

References[edit]

External links[edit]