The league was the brainchild of Louisiana antique and art dealer David Dixon. Dixon, remembers when 25,000 people would come out to watch Tulane have a scrimmage back in the 1930s. Now in his 80’s, Dixon said in an interview with Greg Garber from ESPN.com, “My God, why can’t we play games in the spring? I mean, LSU still draws numbers like that to this day. If Princeton and Rutgers had played that first [intercollegiate football] game in the spring instead of the fall [Nov. 6, 1869], that’s when we’d be playing football today.
“Football is such a powerful, powerful piece of entertainment,” he said. “To me, it made a lot of sense to start a new league.”
Dixon is also known as the “Father of the New Orleans Saints.” He was instrumental in getting the Saints as an expansion franchise in 1967 and was instrumental in building the Louisiana Superdome.
Teams were placed in 12 locations: Philadelphia, Boston, New Jersey, Washington, Michigan (Pontiac), Chicago, Tampa Bay, Birmingham, Oakland, Los Angles, Denver and Phoenix. True to Dixon’s words, some 45,000 fans turned out in Arizona and Denver. Washington drew 38,000 spectators, while Los Angeles and Birmingham drew more than 30,000.
The total attendance was more than 230,000; an average of 39,170 per game. The national TV ratings for all games played was 14.2, with a 33 share. The USFL kicked-off to a great start.
Originally, owners settled on a $1.8 million dollar salary cap per team, using a 38-plus 2 roster maximum. $1.3 million dollars was allotted to sign 38 players and a 10-player developmental squad; $500,000 was allotted to sign two “star” players that did not count against the cap. This last figure was not “set in stone.”
Ed Garvey, who was head of the NFLPA back in 1982, was contacted by Dixon to sit in on the owner’s meetings, says, “I thought the league would succeed because I had such trust in David and the owners trusted him. This wasn’t like the World Football League which was an agent-created nightmare.”
Many experts mocked the spring league saying it would never make it. But could a spring football league work? According to a CBS Sports/New York Times survey in 1984, 53 percent of the nation’s sports fans said they most enjoyed watching football, compared to 18 percent for baseball. This survey re-enforced the USFL’s chance of survival on the American sporting landscape.
Steve Erhart, who was the general manager and part owner of the Memphis Showboats in 1985, says, “The league was a product of the NFL’s scarcity of servicing teams, players, coaches and cities that could support pro football. There were cities that needed and wanted football. It was ironic we had great success in certain cities that already had NFL teams.”
To support Erhart’s statements, the Tampa Bay Bandits, Denver Gold and New Jersey Generals drew more than 35,000 a game in their inaugural seasons in 1983.
The Michigan Panthers averaged a little more than 22,000 in ’83, but attendance jumped to more than 32,000 in ’84, after winning the USFL Championship. What really rattled the NFL was the fact that more than 60,000 fans showed their support at the Silverdome, when the Panthers beat the Oakland Invaders 37-21 in the divisional playoffs in 1983. The fans stormed the field after the victory.
A week later, more than 50,000 enthusiastic USFL fans attended the first championship, as Michigan went on to stun Jim Mora’s Philadelphia Stars, 24-22, at Denver’s Mile High Stadium.
“At the end of the first year, the Detroit media ran a position-by-position comparison of the Panthers verse the Lions,” says Erhart. “Anthony Carter was a better receiver than what the Lions had; QB Bobby Hebert was better than Eric Hipple.”
“We were a lot more popular than the Lions were,” says Hebert, who threw 81 TD passes as a member of the Panthers and Invaders. “We won the USFL Championship after Detroit not having a champion since the Bobby Layne days in the 1950s.”
The fans showed their love for the Panthers by raising banners that read: HELLO PANTHERS, GOODBYE LIONS and LIONS EAT YOUR HEARTS OUT, decked the Silverdome at the playoff game.
“This is when the Lions ownership wondered how this one-year league had better players, was more exciting and is drawing the attention of media and fans,” says Erhart. “Tampa Bay and Michigan woke up the ‘giants’ in those NFL cities.”
Hebert, with a confident tone in his voice, says, “I think we would have been in the top 14 of the NFL if we [Panthers] played them. We didn’t have the depth as the NFL, but we had a good chance to win because the guys that started on the Panthers also started in the NFL.” After the league folded, several former Panthers went on to have extensive NFL careers: RB Albert Bentley started with the Colts, LB Ray Bentley with the Bills, OT Chris Godfrey was a starter on the Giants’ offensive line, C Wayne Radloff went to the Falcons, OT Ray Pinney with the Steelers and WR Anthony Carter was the best-of-all.
Carter amassed astounding numbers while playing for the Minnesota Vikings, after his spectacular USFL career was over. Carter played in 140 games during his 11-year NFL career; catching 486 passes for 7,733 yards and 55 touchdowns. Carter caught 37 passes for 644 yards in eight playoff games. His best playoff performance came in a stunning Viking win over the 49ers in 1987, when he had 10 receptions for 227 yards in Minnesota’s 36-24 victory at the Stick.
“The USFL’s talent never got the credit it deserved, ” says Mora, who coached the Stars to all three championship games. “The NFL would never recognize it as a good league because we were the competition.”
The Stars were filled with players that thrived in the NFL: OL Irv Eatman, C Bart Oates, DE William Fuller, LB Sam Mills and P Sean Landeta were perennial Pro Bowl players in the NFL.
Just from the Stars coaching staff alone came defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and Dom Capers — the former head coach of the Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers.
Oates, who won a total of five championships in the USFL and NFL combined, played in a city (Philadelphia), like Detroit, where the NFL team was lousy at the time. “We could have beaten the Eagles by 1985 because we were deep enough in talent by then,” he says. “Just look at all the guys that went to play in the NFL and make the Pro Bowl after the USFL folded.”“I believe we could have competed with a few NFL teams tooth-and-nail,” says Tom Thayer, who played for three seasons in the USFL before spending eight years as a starter on the offensive line for the Chicago Bears. “We had quality players who were coached by the best in George Allen and defensive coordinator John Teerlink. It wasn’t half-ass coaching staff, we had quality coaching and quality players.”
The Memphis Showboats were among one of the USFL’s most popular teams drawing more than 500,000 fans in their two-year existence. It turns out they had the best defensive lineman ever to play in the NFL — his name was Reggie White.
White recorded 198 sacks in his 15-year career. He held the sack record until Bruce Smith broke it in 2003 as a member of the Redskins.
Back in 1986, Jim Schaaf, the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs, thought the USFL might be only good for backup roles. “I see them as a source of talent that is readily available in the event of injuries,” he said in a August 18, 1986 Sports Illustrated interview with Jill Lieber. “I see a lot of teams working them out and keeping them on a ready list.”
Despite the comments by Schaaf and other general managers at the time, the USFL was forcing the NFL to make changes on how it did business. “The USFL had the NFL concerned,” says Mora, who left the Patriots after the ’82 season as their defensive coordinator. “But they [NFL] would never come out and admit it.”
Marv Levy, who coached the Chicago Blitz during their dreadful 1984 season in which they won only five games, said, “There was an awareness not discount these [USFL] guys. The NFL didn’t like the fact that they were losing players. There was definitely a bit of unease about the whole thing.”
For Levy, the foundation for the four-time AFC champion Buffalo Bills was formed in the USFL. From general manager Bill Polian, director of scouting John Butler, QB Kelly, C Brett Hull, LB Bentley and even K Scott Norwood were all part of the USFL before going to four-consecutive Super Bowls from 1990 through 1993.
In a 2005 interview with Gil Brandt, the VP of scouting for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960 through 1989, admits the Cowboys were very concerned with the new league, “We considered the league as our opponent and we tried to find out about players in their league and the type of people that attended the games. On the first week they [USFL] played, we sent a scout to the game.”
Not all NFL executives agreed with Brandt’s assessment in 1986. “We’re not looking for much help from over there,” said Mike Brown, the Cincinnati Bengals’ assistant general manager, back in that same 1986 SI article. “There are a half-dozen USFL players who will be stars. A dozen or maybe a score who will be backup players. That’s about what the impact will be. Not much.”
“The guys that had a hands-on exposure to the league, like Marv Levy and Jim Mora, knew what the talent pool was — unlike Mike,” says Dave Lapham, who left the Bengals after 10 seasons in Cincinnati. “I don’t think he paid that much attention to it. Even today he’s not a proponent of NFL Europe, he has ‘tunnel-vision’ when it comes to the NFL.”
The Bengals, who had only four winning seasons, including a trip to the Super Bowl in 1988, since the USFL folded 20 years ago, were known to be “archaic” when it came to scouting players and using modern technology in the talent evaluation process.
Teams like the Redskins, Saints, Giants, Bills, Oilers and Vikings invested heavily in USFL players and they benefitted from their investment. All these teams were pernial playoff participants into the early ’90s.
The New York Giants had an influx of four former USFL players that had an immediate impact on the team in 1985: C Bart Oates, G Chris Godfrey, FB Maurice Carthon and P Sean Landeta. “We were struggling on the offensive line before Bart and Chris came here,” says former Giants RB Joe Morris. “Chris and Bart really helped stabilize our offensive line.We really improved with those four players.”
Carthon, who blocked for Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker in New Jersey for three years, continued his crushing blocks as Morris rushed for over 1,000 yards in three of the next four seasons (1987 was a strike year). “Maurice was a runner and blocker when he got here,” says Morris. “ I realize the sacrifice he made for me. He made things easier for me all those years.”
WR Gary Clark, out of James Madison College, played for the Jacksonville Bulls before becoming one of Washington’s greatest all-time receivers. Clark recorded 549 receptions for 8,742 in his eights years as a Redskin receiver; winning two Super Bowls in the process.
Bill Tobin, then Chicago Bears’ personnel director, reconfirmed many general managers and player personnel attitudes toward USFL players in Lieber’s story. “We might get somebody who could be our 44th or 45th player. There aren’t many players who are going to help the world champions,” Tobin said 20 years ago. G.M. Jerry Vainisi, after first asserting he had no spots for USFL players, said ,”Chicago was ‘very interested’ in Stars linebacker Sam Mills,” who has been called “the Mike Singletary of the USFL.”
“It doesn’t surprise me some of them were way off base,” says Dan Jiggetts, who played and worked in the front office for the Chicago Blitz during the ’83 and ’84 campaigns. “The GM’s and front office folks who looked at the league without prejudice benefited from it. Some people thought, ‘if they were good they would have been in the NFL,’ which wasn’t the case.”
Levy, along with Polian and Butler knew the depth of the league’s talent and were able to sign players that many GM’s didn’t even consider like Hull. “Hull wasn’t even drafted out of college,” says Levy, who coached Hull until 1996 as a member of the Bills. “I’ve never seen a better offensive center in my life than Kent Hull.”
Hull made three Pro Bowl appearances in his 11-year career in Buffalo, and was a “key” element in Kelly running the K-gun offense.
Quarterbacks Young and Kelly are in the Hall-of-Fame, along with White, who passed away in December of 2004.
Players like Walker, Carter, Oates, Fuller, Godfrey, Hebert, Eatman, FB Maurice Carthon, OL Gary Zimmerman, DL Keith Millard, C Kent Hull, WR’s Trumaine Johnson and Clarence Verdin were more than the “44th or 45th player,” as Tobin said.
These players were vital to their team’s success on the field.
“I remember playing in the USFL championship game, and read some quotes from Tampa Bay Buccaneers players saying, ‘I didn’t even know there was a game. What is the USFL? Who is playing in this league?’’’ says Tom Thayer, who played for the Chicago Blitz, Arizona Wranglers and Outlaws before making the 1985 Bears roster. “Rather than opening their eyes [NFL players] for the benefits it was paying them, they became narrowed minded and didn’t accept the quality it was on the field. There was talent in the USFL – first team to first team — it was a very challengeable league.”
While Brandt admitted the Cowboys were diligent about the USFL, Tex Schramm, the Cowboys’ president wasn’t too eager to make Walker a top-paid NFL player. “Obviously, he should command a top salary for what he has done,’” says Schramm in a SI article in 1986. “I would hope, however, that they [Walker and his agent] recognize Herschel is coming into an established league with an established team. It isn’t the same situation.”
But even Mora remembers questioning himself about the effect USFL players would have once they entered the NFL.
After he was named head coach of the Saints, Mora brought his USFL All Pro linebacker to camp in New Orleans in summer of ’86. “I saw Sam in the defensive huddle around these huge linemen and he looked short,” Mora reflects. “These guys [the Saints] must think I’m an idiot for bringing him in here. Mills didn’t embarrass his former USFL coach, as the 5’9 linebacker stuffed the offensive lineman on three consecutive plays . “The team knew they had a player after that,” he says.
Mills went to five Pro Bowls in his illustrious NFL career.