“Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL” by Jeff Pearlman
Football (American), history, professional, management
September 11, 2018
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
For a brief stretch in the 1980’s, there were two professional football leagues in the United States. There was the well-established National Football League (NFL), which by then was staking its claim to being the most popular league of the most popular sport in the country. But for three years, there was another league, the United States Football League (USFL) that played its games in the spring and saw wacky games and players, innovative rules such as instant replay challenges, both good and not-so-good football and one brash, bombastic owner who tried to take on the NFL and eventually lost, meaning the end of the league just three years after it started.
The history of the USFL, from the day that David Dixon’s idea for spring football was announced by the Associated Press in 1966 to the dispersing of USFL players into the NFL after the results and award from the anti-trust lawsuit were revealed, is captured in this highly entertaining, highly informative book by best selling author Jeff Pearlman. No matter what a reader wants to learn or read about regarding the USFL, they are sure to find it in this book.
Yes, that date announcing the idea of the USFL was correct. The idea of a professional spring football league was conceived by David Dixon in 1966, the league gaining that name simply because he liked the name of U.S. Steel for a company in which he held stock. The idea went into to hiding when the NFL soon thereafter awarded a team to New Orleans and merged with the American Football League. However, Dixon never let his dream completely die and in the early 1980’s, it was reborn. Thanks to a trip to the home of legendary coach George Allen and the growth of a new product called cable television, Dixon set out to sell the idea of spring football. When a group of wealthy businessmen with deep pockets and large egos all signed on, the USFL was born, complete with a schedule for 1983 with 12 teams and more importantly, a television contract.
The first season was considered, in the big picture, a success. The attendance and television ratings were considered reasonable for a new league. The quality of football ran from ugly to spectacular. For ugly, just watch any Washington Federals game as Pearlman regularly reminded readers just how bad this team was both on and off the field. Pearlman humorously wrote that the team “led the USFL in three unofficial categories: 1. Football players no one had ever heard of. 2. Cigarette smokers 3. Coke Addicts.” Not exactly the formula for a good team. However, for spectacular football, two good examples are the triple overtime playoff game that season between the Philadelphia Stars and the Chicago Blitz, still considered to be one of the best playoff games in football history; and the championship game the following week between the Philadelphia Stars and the Michigan Panthers, won by the Panthers on a thrilling touchdown.
However, the championship game wasn’t the biggest news for the league that season. Proving that that the league was for real and to get a “big name” player, the New Jersey Generals signed running back Herschel Walker from the University of Georgia before he was eligible to play in the NFL. The story of getting Walker to sign with the new league was very interesting, especially as the league wanted to keep everything a secret until it was official. Because of this, the scout for the Generals who did the work to get Walker to sign with New Jersey, Rick Buffington, was concerned when he received a call from the Boston Globe to inquire if it was indeed true that Walker signed with the USFL. Pearlman writes about this at his best, calling Buffington the “Herschel Walker Deep Throat.”
The Generals were not only the team in the biggest market, they later on had the most brash and outlandish owner in the league’s second season in a New York real estate tycoon named Donald J. Trump. If anything could take attention away from the strangeness of two franchises swapping players and locations, as the Chicago Blitz and Arizona Wranglers did , it was the loud and bombastic announcement of the league’s newest owner. While the league already had some eccentric owners, such as Bill Oldenburg, the oil tycoon who owned the Los Angeles Express and had some wacky stories of his own shared in the book (one Pearlman description of an Oldenburg meltdown said he “went from agreeable to obnoxious to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest psychotic”), he had nothing on Trump. More on the Generals’ owner a little later.
While the signing of Walker was a boon for the league’s publicity, there were reservations inside league headquarter and from USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons. He and some other owners, most notably Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett, wanted the goal of the league to build slowly and keep salaries in check. Walker was the first signing to break that mold. However, the dam burst on salaries before that second season. Many future NFL stars were signed to huge contracts such as Jim Kelly (signed by the expansion Houston Gamblers) and Steve Young. Young’s contract, totaling over $40 million dollars when including annuity payments, was the butt end of a lot of jokes. His team, the Express, not only had an eccentric owner, but also was suffering from poor play on the field and very poor attendance, made all the more noticeable by playing home games in the massive Los Angeles Coliseum.
One other notable signing was Doug Flutie, the Boston College quarterback who made one of the most famous college football comebacks with a “Hail Mary” pass touchdown to beat Miami. Flutie was sought and signed by New Jersey. Trump wanted to sign the quarterback as he believed the popular quarterback would be good for the league – and he also wanted all of the league’s owners to chip in toward paying Flutie’s salary instead of just the Generals. Regardless of political position or affiliation, any reader will realize that sounds very familiar to something that Trump stated later in his second career. This is another example of the brilliance Pearlman brings to this book as he is able to make the reader connect the USFL to today’s events, whether or not they relate to football.
Despite the craziness, it seemed like the USFL was gaining its place for spring football. While not enjoying NFL numbers for attendance, TV ratings and quality of play, the product nonetheless was gaining respect in all those areas. For the latter of those qualities, the USFL never claimed to be on the same footing as the NFL. The players enlisted were described as “your tied, your poor, your huddled masses, your one-armed and chain-smoking and half blind and clinically insane..” by Pearlman – one of the funniest lines in a book filled with snippets that will make a reader laugh out loud.
Even though the league made a questionable decision to expand from 12 to 18 teams with some of these teams never getting on solid footing (example A is the San Antonio Gunslingers, whose woes are told in entertaining detail) there were new teams who were run well and played competitive football such as the Birmingham Stallions and Memphis Showboats. The ocean that was the USFL seemed to be settling down despite some choppiness.
However, there was some disturbance in this ocean churned up by Trump. The motives behind Trump’s purchase of the Generals were being questioned, and they became clear when he announced to his fellow owners that the USFL needed to move to a fall schedule and compete directly with the NFL as soon as possible. This would be his best way to be an NFL owner as many believed that was his goal all along.
This drama off the field was overshadowing the play on the field, which included a revolutionary offense by Gamblers' offensive coordinator Mouse Davis. Utilizing Kelly’s strong arm and a fleet of speedy receivers, the Gamblers became an offensive juggernaut, setting many professional football records for offense and becoming one of the elite teams. League officials were salivating at the thought of a Gamblers-Generals championship game for the league’s second season, but it was not to be. Instead, the Philadelphia Stars avenged their loss in the previous season by handily defeating the Arizona Wranglers to capture the 1984 USFL title.
The story of the next offseason was all about Trump. He kept on pushing his idea to his fellow owners that it would be in the best interest of the league to go head-to-head against the NFL. Just like with his businesses, he was one who got others to buy into his plan. Most of his fellow owners were on board with this plan, with the notable exception of one of the leagues more successful owners, Bassett. He was just as strong willed on his belief that the original goals of the league were to be followed as was Trump’s about playing in the fall. Sadly, Bassett developed brain cancer and as his health deteriorated, his influence on his colleagues dwindled until he passed away.
Without his biggest adversary, Trump pushed ahead with his agenda, filing an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL and also getting the league to announce that 1985 was going to be the last season of spring football and the league would begin fall play in 1986. This lead to confusion both on and off the field. What was going to become of the players during such a long downtime? How many teams would be willing to go against the NFL, as some stadiums would not allow the USFL team to play at the same time its primary tenant, the NFL team, would be using the facility? What about the college draft? Of course, these questions were small potatoes compared to the big question – what would become of the league should the trial end in favor of the NFL?
All of this overshadowed the entire third season of the league, as the dominant team of the USFL, the now-Baltimore Stars defended their league title with a win over the Oakland Invaders in the championship game. The moves and merges of the league’s franchises were numerous and often had interesting anecdotes that were shared in the book. These two teams were included, as the Stars had to play games in Baltimore after their lease to play in Philadelphia was not renewed and the Invaders had many players from the Michigan Panthers after that team merged with the new Oakland franchise rather than compete with the NFL’s Lions when the league would start fall play.
The last, sad chapter of the league was the anti-trust trial. This was to be Trump’s finest hour, even with a questionable strategy and the death of the lawyer originally hired to represent the USFL, a lawyer who gained fame in the McCarthy-era trials against alleged Communists. Even when writing about court proceedings, Pearlman is at his best. For the sake of those with weak stomachs, I will leave out Pearlman’s recap of an exchange between Trump and then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, but it is one that had me laughing so hard, I was in tears. The result is known to all interested in this league – the jury did find the NFL was guilty of violating anti-trust laws and awarded the USFL $1 – treble damages made the total amount $3. Of course, since the league was counting on this verdict for its future, it ceased operations soon thereafter and the players were free to sign with any NFL team.
Some made it, many didn’t and those whose one shot at pro football was through the USFL were saddened but look back upon those days fondly. The NFL’s product on the field, while they may not admit it, was influenced by the upstart league after its demise. The New Orleans Saints hired Stars coach Jim Mora and signed many of the players he coached and, not coincidently, went from league laughingstock to playoff team in two seasons. The most innovative rules in the USFL – the two point conversion and instant replay reviews – have both been adopted by the NFL. While the league may not exist any longer, its memories live on.
Any reader who is a fan of Pearlman’s previous work, a fan of the USFL or football history, or who just likes an entertaining book on the game, must add this to their library. An outstanding work that is one of the best books I have read on any sport.
I wish to thank Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing an advance review copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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