The Jacksonville Bulls
In 1985, more than 72,000 fans showed up in Jacksonville to see the Bulls lose a heartbreaker to the Generals 28-26. The Jacksonville Bulls averaged more than 45,000 fans a game in their two-year existence, while the Generals averaged just under 38,000 for their games at the meadowlands. “We were the Yankees of the USFL; we had Herschel Walker and because of that we had, we drew the biggest crowds wherever we went, ” says Steiner.” There was legitmate interest among fans and the football was getting better with each year.”
The Tampa Bay Bandits, who were owned by John Bassett and actor Burt Reynolds as a partner, were on of the league’s most exciting teams. Led by coach Steve Spurrier, the Bandits were a perennial winner and outdrew the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay. The “Bandit Ball” averaged 43,758 fans per-game. Spurrier had an exciting team with QB John Reeves throwing for 28 Touchdowns and HB Gary Anderson rushing for 19 in 1984 as the Bandits won 14 games. Tampa Bay went on to win 35 games and scored 1266 points in their three years of existence. The Bucs won only__games from’83 through ’85. “Bandit-Ball was a much hotter draw in Tampa than the Buccaneers were back then,” says Steve Erhart, a former USFL executive. “In the local market place, with Steve Spurrier were a popular and more exciting in a lot of ways than the NFL team.”
Dave Lapham, who was a teammate of Reaves in Cincinnati, “Reaves and Steve Spurrier were a match made in Heaven. A couple of Florida Gators that believed in slinging it – they just clicked. It was like Spurrier was living through Reaves with that offense.”
Spurrier’s Bandit Ball was riding high, as football became fun again in the city of Tampa Bay. “We gave the fans a no-huddle offense, double reverses; we gave them something they hadn’t seen before,” says Spurrier from his University of South Carolina office in April of 2006.
After the 1984 season, with teams facing strong financial dilemmas, many teams moved to new cities or merged with existing teams. The Federals limped through two lackluster seasons in Washington D.C., before being sold and moved to Orlando to become the Renegades in 1985. ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso coached the team in its only season in Florida. RB and ABC’s college analyst Craig James made a name for himself in his time in the USFL before signing with the New England Patriots.
The Washington Federals were the second biggest disgrace in the USFL’s three-year existence – the Gunslingers take that honor. The team was a disaster on the field and at the gate. Washington drew 13,850 in ’83, and dropped to 7,694 in ’84. The team didn’t give Washingtonians a reason to come to the park, winning seven games in two years. It didn’t help the Washington football fans were in “Hog-Heaven,” as the Redskins coming off a Super Bowl win over the Dolphins in January of 1983. The Redskins were the toast of the town, while the Federals were the ugly frogs of the swampland.
The Michigan Panthers & Oakland Invaders
The Panthers were one of the league’s most popular teams with QB Bobby Hebert and WR Anthony Carter out of Michigan. More than 60,000 fans showed up to watch the Panthers win a playoff game in 1983. Hebert remembers coach Jim Stanley would always try inspire the team with sayings like: “I don’t want no dogs that won’t hunt,” meaning he wanted his players to attack. Stanley had a great mix of young talent that would make the NFL once the USFL folded, and a bunch of seasoned NFL veterans that knew how to win, like veterans Ray Pinney, Tyrone McGriff, and Ray Banaszak.
The Panthers went all the way to the USFL Championship and beat Jim Mora’s Stars. It was Hebert and Carter hooking-up for the game wining score on a 48-yard pass with 3:01 remaining, to seal what would be a 24-22 win over the Philadelphia Stars in the first United States Football League Championship game.
In what turned out to be the longest game in pro football history, the Express beat the Panthers 27-21 in triple-overtime. RB Mel Gray broke the 21-21 tie with a 24-yard touchdown run that put an end to the Panthers’ season on the sun-soaked Coliseum field.
“It was the most grueling game I was ever a part of,” says LB Ray Bentley, who consoled K Novo Bojovic on the plane ride home, after the kicker missed two potential game-winning field goal attempts. “I felt so horrible for him; he wanted to jump out of the plane. I put my arm around him, and told him ‘there are more important things in the world.’”
After losing in the playoffs in ’84, the Panthers and Invaders merged to make one of the USFL’s most dangerous teams in league history. The reason wasn’t to better the talent, rather owner Alfred Taubman didn’t want to create problems with the ownership of the Detroit Lions. “Taubman was buddy-buddy with Lions owner William Clay Ford and didn’t want to go-head-to-head against his friends,” says Hebert.” The Invaders stormed to a league best 13-4-1 record after the merger. Hebert threw for 30 touchdowns and more than 3,800 yards; Carter, Derek Holloway and Gordon Banks combined for 179 receptions and 26 touchdowns in 1985. The Invaders scored 473 points – second only to Jim Kelly’s Houston Gamblers, who lit up the scoreboard with 544 points. Oakland stormed into the USFL Championship against the Jim Mora’s Stars, with playoff wins over Tampa Bay and Memphis. Hebert and company like they were going to upset Mora for a second time in three years, but a personal foul penalty on seven-year veteran fullback Tom Newton stalled the Oakland drive.. “The guys were yelling at him in the shower because he cost us the game,” says Hebert.
The Invaders sold more than 25,000 season tickets in 1983, averaging more than 31,000 fans per game. The team was looked at as a replacement for the Oakland Raiders, who moved to Los Angeles after the ’81 season. Invaders’ management thought the team would fill the void with a football-hungry fan-base in Oakland. But attendance dropped to 23,000 in ’84, and to 17,000 in ’85, despite having an elite team with players like Carter and Hebert.
The Memphis Showboats
The Memphis Showboats, like the Panthers, Bandits, Generals, Stallions and the Gold (first year), were among the teams that drew more than 30,000 fans to their games. The Liberty Bowl was their home and Reggie White was the star player. Known as the “ Minister of Defense,” White was an All Star player the moment he stepped on an NFL field — making 13 Pro Bowl appearances in 15 seasons. White went to the postseason 10 times as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers. The culmination came in January of 1997 when the Packers beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXI – White set a Super Bowl record with three sacks. 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. White passed away in December of 2004 due to a respiratory ailment. The ordained minister was only 43.
As teams USFL merged in 1985, Frank Kush moved in to coach the new Arizona Outlaws. Spencer joined the Memphis Showboats and their zany coach Pepper Rodgers for the USFL’s final season. “When I came in to talk to Pepper, he picked me up and asked me how much money I was making,” says Tim Spencer in a surprising voice. “I knew that he knew how much money I made. Then he said, ‘if I wanted to keep making it, I better wear my seatbelt,’ and I’ve been wearing it ever since.”
Spencer was nursing an ankle injury in ’85, which limited him to 789 yards and three touchdowns. Despite Spencer’s lack of production during his injury- plagued season, the Showboats won 12 games in 1985 (including a 48-7 playoff win over Denver). Spencer had the opportunity to play with one of the greatest offensive lineman in pro football history – Reggie White. “You could instantly see he had talent and he could play anywhere,” says Spencer 20 years later. “But he was one of the funniest, quick-witted guys I ever met. He and “Gizmo” Williams could have the team laughing for hours with all the practical jokes they played.”
The Oklahoma/Arizona Outlaws
The Oklahoma Outlaws joined the league in 1984 and were led By former NFL QB Doug Williams. After a year in Oklahoma, the Outlaws merged with the Wranglers and became the Arizona Outlaws. Williams went on to win a Super Bowl with the Redskins in 1988.
“We were hoping it would be a success because it created instant leverage for us,” says Dan Fouts, who was courted by William Tatham, owner of the Outlaw franchise, which was suppose to play in San Diego before going to Oklahoma in ’84; then merged with the Arizona Wranglers the following year. “The talks were serious, but I could never see myself leaving the Chargers. It was important for me to explore the USFL, because it could help me to ‘feather my nest’ with the Chargers.”
The Chicago Blitz & Arizona Wranglers
were a strange pair of teams that swapped franchises before reality television was the in thing. The Blitz were the favorites going into the 1983 season because they had seasoned NFL veterans on the roster. Veteran NFL players like Dan Jiggetts, Doug Plank, Stan White, Perry Hartnett, Virgil Livers, Wally Pesuit, Bobby Scott, and Joe Federspiel led the Blitz to a 12-6 record under the legendary coach of George Allen. Rookies like WR Trumaine Johnson and RB Tim Spencer helped the aging quarterback Greg Landry put up 451 points in 18 games. The Blitz had a huge fourth-quarter lead over the Stars, but Philadelphia came back to beat Chicago 44-38 in OT, and go on to the USFL Championship against the Michigan Panthers.
In 1984, the owners of the Blitz and Wranglers swapped franchises: Chicago’s owner Ted Dietrich, who lived in Phoenix, bought the Arizona Wranglers and sold the Blitz to James Hoffman, the Wranglers’ owner. In essence, the 1984 Blitz were actually the 1983 Wranglers and vice versa. This was a disaster for the Chicago franchise because the Wranglers won only four games in 1983.
Ironically, the “old” Blitz fulfilled expectation as the Wranglers, making it to the USFL Championship, while the “new” Blitz suffered through a dismal season and folded at the end of the year.
Things were so bad in Chicago, that sometimes the chartered bus wouldn’t pickup the players after the game because the bill wasn’t paid.
The Blitz finished with a 5-13 record, as attendance dropped to under 8,000 a game. Things were so bad players had to supply their own toiletries for the locker room. Coach Levy said the play even had to buy their own toilet paper. “I remember players making a mad-dash for the bank to cash their checks on Fridays,” says Jiggetts with a laugh. “By the end of the day there was no money left in the account for bonuses.”
Evans returned to the NFL and played until 1995. At the age of 40, he led the Oakland Raiders to a 17-point come-from-behind win over the Jets in 1993.
The Breakers moved every year they played. They started out in Boston, MA, in 1983. They moved to New Orleans, LA, in 1984, and ended up in Portland, OR, for the 1985 season. Unlike many teams, the Breakers never changed their uniforms when they moved – it saved on the overhead.
The Philadelphia Stars
The Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars were the most successful USFL franchise. The Stars played in three of the championship games – winning two of them. Jim Mora was the coach, future All-Pro C Bart Oates and P Sean Landeta went on to successful careers in the NFL. Oates won two Super Bowls with the Giants and won another while playing for the San Francisco 49ers. Landeta was also a key part of the championship Giant teams in ’86 and ‘90 with his booming leg and remains one of two active players from the USFL — Flutie is the other. The irony for Mora, despite winning two USFL rings, he failed to win a playoff game, despite six appearance in the post-season as coach of the New Orleans saints and Indianapolis Colts. Mora retired after the 2001 season after a 16-year career as an NFL coach.
New Jersey Generals
The New Jersey Generals had the biggest stars in Walker and Flutie, but never won a playoff game in their two appearances in the post-season. The Generals won 14 games in ’84 and 11 games in ’85, but lost both years to the Mora’s Stars, despite Trump spending millions on the biggest names in college and pro football. In’84, Trump brought in former NY Jets coach Walt Michaels, and QB Brian Sipe left the Cleveland Browns to hand the ball off to Walker. Sipe was shipped to Jacksonville the following year, as the Generals signed Heisman Trophy winner Flutie before the start of the ’85 season. Flutie’s numbers weren’t great, but like college, he found a way to win. Unfortunately for New Jersey, a shoulder injury kept out of the final three games of the season and the playoffs.
Charlie Steiner, who was the play-by-play broadcaster for the Generals reminisced fondly of the spring league: “The USFL was going to be the next big thing; they signed a big contract with ABC and ESPN; the Generals were going to be the headline team in the league.”
The Generals were drawing well at the gate, and always seemed to be on the prime game on ABC or ESPN – thanks to Trump calling up and demanding that his team be on the air since it was his money that was keeping the league alive. “The market place has something to do with that, not everyone could get Jets and Giants tickets,” says Dave Lapham, who left the penny-pinching Bengals to Donald Trump’s world of extravagance. Donald Trump was a flamboyant guy, a great marketer and collected Hesiman Trophy guys. When we went down south to play the Bulls and Jaguars, they had a ‘let’s knock-off the rich team mentality’”
Steiner, whose career includes play-by-play for the New York Jets, ESPN radio, Yankees, and now the Los Angeles Dodgers, says the USFL wasn’t afraid to try anything new. “We had one of the first to use on-field radio reporters, something the NFL didn’t allow” he says. Princeton head coach Casiola along with former Jet Sam DeLuca teamed with Charlie for the radio play-by-play broadcasts. Ironically, after the USFL folded, Steiner and DeLuca went on to be the radio pair for the Jets in 1986
The Denver Gold
The Gold were the only team that made money in its inaugural season – averaging more than 41,000 a game. Real estate tycoon Ron Blanding brought spring football to the Mile High City. He turned to former Broncos’ head coach “Red” Miller. Miller was an idol in Denver because he brought the Broncos to the Super Bowl in 1978. The 1983 Gold featured former Denver Broncos Jeff Knapple and “Lumpy” Hyde.
Right from the start, the Gold were a frugal franchise that didn’t want to spend money on its draft picks. Coach Miller was fired in late May of the inaugural season. The Gold were one of the franchises that ran a tight financial ship – which kept the talent level low. Blanding had done his best too keep costs down, but he knew the fans would not support a loser for long. He demanded a better showing, and when Miller was unable to produce, he was fired – the first USFL coach to get the ax (thiistheusl – eric koppish) The Gold were off to a 4-7 start, and attendance dropped to 33,000 following Miller’s firing. Blanding looked to another Denver legend, former Bronco QB Craig Morton to coach the team. Morton won all three home games, but lost the three road games as Denver finished 7-11. Despite the franchises poor performance, Denver led the league in attendance with 41,736 fans per game.
The Gold finished the ’84 campaign by going 9-9, but attedance drop to 33,953. Mouse Davis took over for Morton in ’85, and QB Bob Gagliano started using the Run-n-Shoot offense, which would enter the NFL in a few years. The Gold finished with a 27-27 record in its three years of existence, making the playoffs once.
The Gold drew a disappointing 14,000 fans per game in ’85, after leading the league in attendance in 1983. The announcement of the move to a fall schedule really hurt the Gold because they would go head-to-head against the beloved Broncos — not a smart move. So they merged with the Jacksonville for the ’86 season – the year that never was.
RB Bill Johnson said in November 2005: “The people in Denver are just-die-hard Bronco fans, they didn’t want anybody talking bad or beating their Broncos. These fans love their football – they just didn’t want us to compete against the Broncos. This is a football city. That’s why we lost our support.”
Los Angeles Express
The perennial bottom-feeder for attendance was the Los Angeles Express. Despite having a future NFL Hall of Famer at quarterback, Steve Young was unable to lure the fans into the LA Coliseum. The Express averaged a mere 14,259 fans at each home game for its three years in the league. The Coliseum holds more than 90,000 fans, so you can imagine Young barking the calls in a barren stadium like the Coliseum.
QB Tom Ramsey, who was traded to the Invaders 10 games intothe 1984 season,said. “I remember getting a game plan on a Thursday for a Sunday game [quarterbacks usually pick up game plans on a Tuesday], with 50 errors on the 100 offensive plays. I told him about the mistakes, and he said, ‘Hell Rams, you get paid money, just fix it on the field.’” According to Ramsey, it was incidents like this that really turned him off of the organization. “John took the money and didn’t care about the team,” Ramsey said.“If you’re wrong with 50 percent of your work, you’re going to get fired.”
Jim Kelly lit-up USFL opponents for 83 touchdowns and passed for more than 9,800 yards during his two years as quarterback of the Gamblers. “I was blessed to be coached with a guy like Jack Pardee, who I admired when he played, when I was a kid growing up,” says Kelly. “He brought along offensive coordinator Mouse Davis and June Jones; we ran the Run-n-Shoot offense that was all passing — everything I loved to do.”
Dan Jiggetts, one of the better-paid offensive lineman in the USFL, joined the San Antonio Gunslingers in 1985. But this relationship didn’t last long as his contract was too much for the debt-ridden Gunslingers. San Antonio sent his salary back to the league office in New York.
If things were bad in Chicago without toilet paper, they were even worse in San Antonio. “I heard stories of players knocking-down the door of G.M. Roger Gill, and he got stuck in the window trying to escape the wrath of the team,” says Jiggetts laughingly.
Erhart: “We knew the league did a lot of tampering with players and leases because they had woken-up, but once we started taking their players they became fired up.” Did everything right until they got to the part of the damages where the presentation of the case was not well done.”
Despite original plans to keep salaries down, many owners recruited top college talent anyway and several teams were in financial trouble by the end of the season. This did not stop the league from expanding in 1984, adding six teams — Pittsburgh, Memphis, Jacksonville, Houston, San Antonio & Oklahoma. The league expanded too fast and while attendance was prospering in markets like New Jersey, Tampa Bay, Michigan, Denver, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and Birmingham, markets like Chicago, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Washington and Boston faced attendance woes.
The Washington Federals were the second biggest disgrace in the USFL’s three-year existence – the Gunslingers take that honor. The team was a disaster on the field and at the gate. Washington drew 13,850 in ’83, and dropped to 7,694 in ’84. The team didn’t give Washingtonians a reason to come to the park, winning seven games in two years. It didn’t help the Washington football fans were in “Hog-Heaven,” as the Redskins coming off a Super Bowl win over the Dolphins in January of 1983. The Redkins were the toast of the town, while the Federals were the ugly frogs of the swampland.