Ask the average fan for their thoughts on the United States Football League and you’ll likely get a shrug and this response, “That ‘He Hate Me’ was kind of cool.”
And then fire up the Kenny Loggins because they just entered the ‘danger zone’ of my blind rage.
The sad reality for the USFL is that it’s often lumped into the pile of the more spectacularly failed ventures in pro football. But just so we’re clear, it’s not the one with Mark Cuban (UFL), played indoors (that’s the Arena League, duh) or the one with psych-outs and a guy named “Squeak.”
That was the movie “BASEketball.” (Although, I do believe Al Michaels of BASEketball might have called USFL games, but it can be neither confirmed nor denied.)
What can be confirmed is the USFL was awesome. It’s time couldn’t have been better. The USFL was formed in 1982, right when the NFL was headed towards a strike. The first kickoff of the USFL in 1983 came just weeks after the Redskins were crowned Super Bowl champions after a strike-shortened nine-game season and playoff tournament.
This was the perfect opportunity for a spring football league. It should have worked. Hell, it would have worked were it not for Donald Trump.
The USFL was a wild assortment, which seemed outlandish even for the 1980s. In addition to Trump, Burt Reynolds was a minority owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits.
The coaching ranks were lined with legends like George Allen, future NFL coaches Jim Mora and Marv Levy, and some other names you might recognize – Steve Spurrier and Lee Corso.
Yes, that Lee Corso.
The logos and uniforms were pretty special, too. Just take a look. The Oklahoma Outlaws wore menacing all-black uniforms. The Los Angeles Express embraced the blue-and-silver look of the Cowboys and added a splash of red. Though not everything was a success – there was something unnatural about the blue-and-gold Oakland Invaders uniforms. How is it not silver-and-black?
And let’s talk about the players. The league served as a spring board for guys like Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Reggie White, Marcus Dupree and Anthony Carter. Three successive Heisman winners – Herschel Walker, Mike Rozier and Doug Flutie – landed in the USFL.
Veterans like Joe Cribbs and Doug Williams even made the leap over to the rival league. And in a cool twist, territorial drafts allowed a guy like Tom Ramsey, who starred at UCLA, to find a home with the L.A. Express.
There is no doubt this wasn’t NFL football, but it didn’t have to be. The offenses were innovated. Mouse Davis perfected the “Run-and-shoot” offense for Kelly and the Houston Gamblers. The two-point conversion and video replays can credit the USFL, too, as it had it before the NFL.
The league could have been something really cool. And then Trump got a little greedy.
The league had a solid plan under the direction of its founder, David Dixon. The league wouldn’t be in direct competition with the NFL. And it’s cities were smartly picked, too. While Chicago and Los Angeles were miscalculations, the USFL was in Phoenix and Jacksonville well before the NFL. San Antonio was picked. And even jilted towns like Baltimore and Oakland were brought into the mix.
In addition, there was as salary cap (again, well before the NFL) to keep a true definition of parity.
But that wasn’t good enough for Trump, who most of those in the know felt wanted to force a merger with the NFL. Yeah, given his record in real estate and other failed business ventures, you can see where this was headed.
The USFL started to get into bidding wars for players. Some teams went bankrupt. The Boston Breakers became the New Orleans Breakers and eventually the Portland Breakers. Others merged. Or worse. The Arizona Wranglers and Chicago Blitz swapped franchises. And then the Wranglers merged with the Oklahoma Outlaws to become the Arizona Outlaws.
In Los Angeles, the team was well known for the $40 million contract given to Steve Young. Nobody remembers the final games of the Express were played at a junior college field.
If they had stuck to the blueprint original, who knows what would have happened. What did happen was the league never played another game after the 1986 season. One last desperation pass appeared to land when the USFL successful sued the NFL and won! Yes, won $3.76. To quote a Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” monologue after a joke bombed, “Like the USFL, I expected a little bit more.”
With one joke, the USFL was nothing but a distant memory. Well, until people confuse it with Vince McMahon’s XFL.