When the USFL hit the scene, the idea of spring football was pretty intriguing. The new league then signed Herschel Walker and notice was demanded. I probably tuned in and likely didn’t last more than a few plays. The same goes for the first USFL Championship game in 1983. More high profile signings following and the piqued interest ebbed again. None of these people were Giants, so the league was more a nuisance to me, and the move to fall sounded absolutely ridiculous. The three dollar settlement amused in the extreme, and the silliness was appropriately relegated to the dustheap. But when I heard Jeff Pearlman was writing a book, that also sounded intriguing, and I’m glad I gave it more than a passing glance.
Pearlman, for his part, was dialed in completely as an 11-year-old. “I considered the USFL to be the absolute greatest thing on Earth,” he writes in Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL.
I think we call that a lack of objectivity. But who cares, the long time sports journalist isn’t building a case to invade Iraq. He’s letting us in on a greatness that flew right under our noses.
In the Beginning
So we obviously don’t know that the league’s origins start in1961. Hoping for an NFL franchise in New Orleans, David Dixon thought expansion would come as a direct result of competition.
He didn’t see any mandate for the fall either. “Football is known as a fall sport because Rutgers and Princeton played their famous first game in the fall,” Dixon reasoned.
By 1966, the USFL was on the heels of forming, but the AFL-NFL Merger killed the idea. The reemergence, rise and fall that Pearlman documents continually gyrates between inspired genius and a lunacy that flew at the seat of its pants. The introduction of the book’s villain exemplifies the latter.
A Crazy Cast of Characters
All the owners congregating in a Manhattan hotel room, they are eagerly waiting for a young entrepreneur named Donald Trump to arrive and possibly sign on. Instead, the speaker phone finally rings and sends the owners into a panic. “No one in the room knows how to answer,” Pearlman delights in the confusion.
The cast of known and unknown characters is endless and provides no shortage of eclectic anecdotal material. Albert C. Lynch starts the list. “Lynch’s measurables were closer to those of an office receptionists than a passable football player.”
Running the 40 in 5.7 seconds, his “turtle-like speed” didn’t prevent Lynch from coming off like a hare. The wannabe walk-on realized that those sent to the table before the general manager were given pen and paper. So he simply got in line at Chicago Blitz camp and inked a contract.
Lunacy did not ultimately prevail and he never suited up, but the likes of Jim Mora get their due too. The future NFL coach ran a professional organization that won all three USFL Championships and stacked up with any NFL franchise.
Innovation with a Touch of Lunacy
But Mora didn’t one up the NFL. We instinctively assume that the run and shoot office came out of a mind like Don Coryell or Bill Walsh. So Pearlman gives us a history lesson. Ohio High School Coach, Glen “Tiger” Ellison invented the scheme in the 60’s, and Mouse Davis put it to successful use at Portland State with Neil Lomax
Looking to fly high, Houston Gambler Owner Jerry Argovitz brought in Davis to unleash the aerial assault under Jim Kelly. Still, genius had to be tempered with a lunacy that would never do in the NFL.
Jim Kelly wasn’t buying in so Argovitz replaced him with a college castoff from Long Beach State. Kelly hit the roof, and the fire lit, the Hall of Famerrelented.
Kelly proceeded to rack up unprecedented numbers, but the Houston Gamblers, didn’t just pile up points on the scoreboard. Just imagine the inclinations toward sex and drugs of any NFL player and then consider the excess with no rules.
Kelly’s brothel-eque mansion, mandatory usage of steroids and a party that never ended were all in play. Of course, the lack of restraint spilled onto the field, and the licks went hand in hand with the smack talk. Pearlman captures the tone perfectly in the t-shirt that RB Todd Fowler wore to practice everyday. KILL ‘EM ALL. LET GOD SORT IT OUT.
Remarkably, the Gamblers didn’t lead the league in excess. A whole chapter is dedicated to the San Antonio Gunslingers, and actual lore is not done justice by the snippet, according to Pearlman. A book would run 5,000 pages, joked Pearlman.
It was working and then came Donald Trump.
The fun aside, what those like me didn’t know was that the original business plan could and did work. The Denver Gold and Tampa Bay Bandits were model franchises. The blueprint called for regional rosters, controlled salaries and slow growth. The 30 to 40,000 game attendance figures and small profit margin said as much.
Of course, there were franchises that we poorly managed, and Pearlman’s accounting is hilarious. But the success stories should have led the way. Instead, Donald Trump entered and unraveled the mission statement.
He talked loud, commanded the room and the bluster and lies slowly won over enough owners to follow the USFL into ruin. Teams started shelling out large contracts, impatiently pushed for growth, expanded after year one and bought in on the fall move.
Now, if you look at Pearlman’s writing, he’s no fan of Trump so maybe objectivity is again sacrificed. On the other hand, the contemporary accounts provided are traits that unfold before us now on a daily basis. My favorite is he would sign Doug Flutie, save the league, and the rest of the owners should pay the Heisman Winner’s salary.
Otherwise, the narcissism, greed and duplicity all played a part in getting owners to embark on a suicidal fall schedule that couldn’t work. So it’s not hard to leap with Pearlman, and see that any wreckage left behind meant little to Trump. An NFL franchise is what he wanted, and the USFL was his tool.
A Sad Ending
So yes, little Jeff Pearlman was heartbroken, and we feel that. An opportunity was also lost for fans who became a living part of a very welcoming community. But aside from the 158 players who made it onto NFL rosters in 1986, there was a human cost that got past all us nonbelievers.
“I have a team photo that I’ve looked at every day for thirty years,” said Bruce Miller, a Breakers Defensive back who never reached the NFL. “It hurts. There are so many of us who moved their families, who enrolled their kids in school—and then it died. I’ve never seen more grown men cry.”
Ouch and the sting lingers for many.
So as spring football has returned, will I watch the Alliance of American Football? I’ve already seen my one game, and I’m done. Even so, I hope Football for a Buck helps ensure that Pearlman’s future sequel is not just as enjoyable but has a happy ending.
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