In the 1980s, anything and everything was up for grabs. Tech industry advancements, hostile corporate takeovers, and mountains of sweet sweet cocaine were developing in the hearts, minds, and noses of the general public. Soon, there was an upstart football league that came to represent an incorporation of all three of these elements. The United States Football League (1983-1985) was a bold undertaking of a separate professional football league that could not only keep football fans satisfied with a pro game in the Spring, but could attract new television deals and exciting new player talent. In the end, the USFL collapsed under its own weight. The league sadly failed after its third full season, mainly due to pressures for direct competition with the NFL that were led by notable businessman and eventual “political-job-haver-for-revenge-reasons-only” Donald Trump. However, for the short time we had it, the USFL was as enthralling as it was revolutionary, and the tale of its creation remains one of the craziest stories in sports history.
Jeff Pearlman, a New York Times Best Selling author for his work on “Sweetness: The Enagmatic Life of Walter Payton,” has been feverishly interviewing hundreds of subjects about all things football, compiling a new book on the whacked out story of the United States Football League which he rightfully calls his “dream project.” Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL (slated for release on September 11th, 2018, available for pre-order) details the era of booze bingin’, fist fightin’, non-stop football action that’s become synonymous with the all-too brief period of competitive spring football. Jeff was good enough to spend some time with us to answer a few questions about the USFL’s impact and discuss its importance in 2018.
Most football fans in 2018 have probably never heard of the USFL beyond maybe, “that thing in the 80s Donald Trump was involved with,” but what makes the story of the USFL important in today’s context?
Well, first thing is, I think you’re misplacing the role and impact of the USFL for football fans over the age of, oh, 40. For a ton of us, it was a huge thing—the merging of huge names and crazy colors and wild stories and drugs and sex and greed and football. It’s simply a great story—period. Upstart league coming out of thin air to take on the giant NFL. I mean, the origins of the teams, the players … it’s really fun stuff.
But, in regards to today, I think the football impact alone is amazing. The NFL has the two-point conversion, the coach’s challenge—because of the USFL. Teams are in Jacksonville, in Tennessee—because of the USFL. Hundreds of players went from the USFL to the NFL, including Reggie White, Steve Young, Jim Kelly. Coaches ranging from Jim Mora to John Fox. On and on. And, perhaps greatest of all—salaries. Because the USFL came along and tried stealing so many NFL players (and presumptive NFL players), salaries absolutely skyrocketed.
What were some things the USFL did that was innovative to the game of football? What did they do that maybe the NFL SHOULD be doing today?
They were really smart about a bunch of things, really dumb about others (mainly business). So, innovation-wise, the USFL did something I still love. Namely, they focused on regional loyalties. All franchises were assigned four territorial schools, and the players produced from those colleges and universities were (unless they were picked in the general college draft) potential “property” (for lack of a better term) of those teams. So the Tampa Bay Bandits, for example, had dibs on guys from Florida, Florida State. That meant the fans who watched those kids coming up in college could not follow their careers into the pros. Genius concept; instant fan loyalty. Also, the USFL had (as stated above) the two-point conversion and the coach’s challenge. They allowed kickers to use tees for kickoffs. Receivers only needed one foot in to make a catch.
There were also some less-obvious-but-just-as-important factors. The USFL started African-Americans quarterbacks as the NFL was largely ignoring them or shifting them to other positions. The USFL encouraged crazy celebrations, while the NFL stifled celebrations. I can go on and on.
Even without trying to compete head-to-head with the NFL, the USFL was floundering. Would the USFL have survived if they just stayed as a spring league?
Probably not, but it’s possible. The original David Dixon plan was great. I still think it could work. Namely, spring games, regional loyalties, keep spending down and just have really competitive games. That was terrific. And wise. And revolutionary. But the owners lost patience, and fell under the sway of a certain future president.
The USFL was known for some famous ownership partners, even without including Trump. While Burt Reynolds and Tampa’s Bandit Ball was pretty successful, the “Spirit of Miami” with Hurricanes coaching legend Howard Schnellenberger is a more tragic tale. Without the spring-to-fall change, could Miami have been a two-team town?
Yes. The ownership group was set to go—they actually agreed to purchase the franchise that was the Washington Federals and move to Miami. Schnellenberger was hired to coach, Ken Herock was the general manager. They had office space. They were hiring scouts. Then—fall. Sherwood Weiser, the man who was going to buy the team, knew you couldn’t have a second Miami team in the fall; that it was certain death. So … he dropped it. And the franchise moved to Orlando.
Probably the most notable rouge roster strategy of the USFL was to cherry-pick top college prospects as underclassmen before they were eligible for the NFL. Herschel Walker was the success story, but what about Marcus Dupree? Without the knee injuries would Dupree and the Breakers have found the success that New Orleans was promised?
Probably not. Depree was a Herschel-esque talent, but just woefully immature and unwilling to put in the work. He was a kid who had always been told how great he was—and he believed it. He signed with the Breakers in 1984, when the team was in New Orleans, and played … OK. Teammates told me all about his physicality. But also about a guy who just didn’t want it all that much. The team moved to Portland for 1985, Dupree suffered a knee injury … and pfft. Over.
Also, the USFL was a hard-partying league, and the Breakers+New Orleans was an off-the-field disaster. Just too many drugs, distractions, etc. Wasn’t going to work.
So my Fantasy Football League was just transported via wormhole back in time to 1986. In this universe the USFL is alive and well…who should be our USFL centered league’s first overall pick?
I mean, probably Herschel, just because he was coming off a 1985 season during which he ran for 2,411 yards and 21 touchdowns (over 18 games, remember). And if not Walker, the Tampa Bay Bandits had a receiver named Eric Truvillion who caught 66 passes for 1,080 yards and 15 touchdowns. Not too shabby.
Ok let’s get more inside: The Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars: all-time great dynasty?
USFL-wise, absolutely. Tremendous franchise with a GM (Carl Peterson), a coach (Jim Mora) and a middle linebacker (Sam Mills) who all go down very well in pro football history. The Stars won two of the USFL’s three titles, including one when they were called the “Baltimore Stars” while never stepping actual foot into Baltimore (they played at College Park). Now, were the Stars a great NFL team at the time? No. They probably go 7-9, maybe 8-8. But they weren’t far from competing for the playoffs.
We promise this is the only direct Trump question, but just how involved was Trump in the day-to-day management of the New Jersey Generals? Was he going behind his staff’s back to sign the big stars to overhaul the team?
Oh, very involved. It was his team. He called the shots. His staff would suggest players to sign, and he would almost always sign off on them. And, with the big-name guys, it was all Trump. He went after Lawrence Taylor and Mark Gastineau. He wanted Don Shula as coach. He went hard after Doug Flutie. For the team itself, Trump was great. He spent a ton of money and seemed to care about the fans. But, for the league, he was nothing short of a cancer.
Let’s leave on this: The NFL hasn’t seen any real competition in decades, but “The League” is facing more antagonism and angered fans than in those previous glory years. Are any of the upstart leagues (XFL, AAFL etc.) we’re seeing in 2018 a possible “Next USFL?”
I don’t know. Certainly not the XFL. Maybe the AAFL. I like a lot of what I’m hearing. But, truth be told, the USFL was genuinely unique. It came along when the NFL was sorta vulnerable. It went after the best talent, and never apologized. It captured imaginations and drew a ton of fans.
There will be other leagues. But there was only one USFL.
“Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL” will be released on September 11th in print and Kindle formats. Pre-order on Amazon.
A special thanks to Shawn Jester for his research and help with putting Jeff Pearlman and tehben.com together for this interview!