• Oakland Invaders

    The new team, bolstered with key players from the Panthers such as Bobby Hebert, went 13-4-1 in the regular season and advanced all the way to the 1985 USFL championship game.
  • New Jersey Generals

    The team made a big splash by signing Heisman Trophy-winning underclassman Herschel Walker, a running back from the University of Georgia.
  • Houston Gamblers

    Run & Shoot advocate and chief refiner Darell "Mouse" Davis was hired by the progressive Jack Pardee to install the offense as the team's Offensive Coordinator for the Gamblers.
  • Los Angeles Express

    Don Klosterman spent an enormous amount of money assembled an impressive stable of young talent, capped off by the signing of Steve Young.
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United States Football League

USFL

The USFL United States Football League existed from 1982 to 1985 for three full seasons. Founded by David Dixon, from New Orleans, Louisiana, the USFL announced its formation on May 11, 1982, at the 21 Club in New York City. Judge Peter Spivak, part owner of one of twelve teams, was announced as the president of the league, until the full-time commissioner could be found.

The United States Football League USFL was a spring/summer professional football league that attempted to take on the National Football League from 1983-1986. The league featured many future NFL stars, such as Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly and Steve Young, but was ultimately guilty at least in the minds of paying customers of not being the NFL.

The league was rumored to be in the works for several months, but was formally announced on March 11, 1982. The league also announced that teams from New York, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, San Francisco, Birmingham, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia plus three other cities, later said to be Houston, San Diego and Phoenix would start play in March of 1983 and play a championship game the following July 4th, and that its first commissioner would be current president of ESPN, Chet Simmons.

During 1982 - 1985, the USFL fought a bitter war with the established National Football League the NFL for players, fans, and media attention. In July of 1986, with a month before the league was to begin its first fall campaign, the USFL won its suit against the NFL, but was awarded just one dollar in damages.

USFL Timeline

1982

USFL Formulation

The USFL was the brainchild of David Dixon, a New Orleans antiques dealer. Dixon signed up 12 cities nine where there already were NFL teams and three where there were not. The Dixon Plan called for teams in top TV markets to entice the networks into offering the league a TV deal. All but two of the 12 initial teams were located in the top 13 media markets in the US. After almost two years of preparation, Dixon formally announced the USFL's formation at the 21 Club in New York City on May 11, 1982, to begin play in 1983. ESPN president Chet Simmons was named the league's first commissioner in June 1982. According to the Dixon Plan, if the league was going to be a success, it needed television revenue and exposure. In 1983, the league signed contracts with both over-the-air broadcaster ABC and a cable TV broadcaster, the then-fledgling ESPN, to televise games. The deals yielded roughly $13 million in 1983 and $16 million in 1984, including $9 million per year from ABC. ABC had options for the 1985 season at $14 million and 1986 at $18 million. Each week, there would be a nationally televised game, as well as the USFL's own version of Monday Night football.

At first the USFL competed with the older, more established National Football League by following the Dixon plan. The plan allowed the league to compete not just by playing its games on a March–June schedule during the NFL off-season, but also by having:
  • Teams play in large NFL caliber stadiums
  • Teams plan for large year 1 pre-season promotional budgets to introduce the team to the local market.
  • A tight players' salary cap of $1.8 million per team. The NFL introduced a salary cap in 1994.
  • A territorial draft, to better stock teams with familiar local collegiate stars to help the gate. (Similar to the proposed All-American Football League)
1983

The 1983 Season

The Washington Federals finished tied with the Arizona Wranglers as the league's worst team with 4-14 records. The Federals were coached by the Canadian Football League's fourth winningest coach at the time, Ray Jauch. The team was injury prone and mistake prone, on and off the field. Prior to the 1983 season, the team traded away the rights to the league's leading sacker, linebacker John Corker to Michigan for a 5th round pick. In spite of a rotating door at QB, the Federals lost 8 games by a TD or less, a fact that gave team owner Berl Bernhard hope for the 1984 season. The 1983 team finished second to last in attendance drawing 13,850 per game. New Jersey Generals' running back Herschel Walker emerged as the league's first superstar running for 1,812 yards and 17 TDs. However, the team only won 6 games. The Denver Gold only went 7–11 in their first year, but finished first in the league in attendance drawing an average of 41,736 fans to see a team that featured a number of former Broncos. Team owner Ron Blanding stuck to his budget, and took great pride in seeing his team defeat the big budget Chicago Blitz in Chicago 16–13 in week three on a TD run with 22 seconds to go. Blanding fired very popular former Broncos Coach Red Miller after a 4-7 start, but was still able to finish the season with strong attendance. Due to low attendance numbers and over budget spending on players on all the other teams in the league, Blanding's Gold was the only USFL team to turn a profit in 1983. The Oakland Invaders finished 9–9 and won the Pacific Division behind the play of 29 year old quarterback Fred Besana and former Oakland Raiders tight end Raymond Chester and halfback Arthur Whittington. Besana had played for the Twin City Cougars of the California Football League from 1980 to 1982, but played like a proven veteran, finishing the season as the league's second rated passer. In spite of a strong team led by 36-year-old former WFL quarterback Johnnie Walton and CFL veteran halfback Richard Crump, the Boston Breakers were unable to draw the regular sellouts they needed to survive at Nickerson. (Even when they sold out Nickerson, they still lost money due to its small capacity.) Boston finished the season 11-7, narrowly missing the playoffs. Walton, who had retired from pro football years earlier, and had spent the previous 3 years coaching college football, was the league's 7th ranked passer. Boston and Washington were the only USFL teams to draw less than 14,000 per game in 1983. The other 10 teams drew over 18,000 per game. The George Allen-led, Chicago Blitz had been described as an "NFL caliber" team and were heavily favored to win the title and dominate the rest of the league. The team was stacked with quality players, led by NFL veteran quarterback Greg Landry, rookie HB Tim Spencer of Ohio State, and rookie wide receiver Trumaine Johnson of Grambling. In week two, Jim Joseph's Arizona Wranglers led by rookie quarterback Alan Risher of LSU came from a fourth quarter 29-12 deficit to defeat the Blitz 30-29 in a game considered by many to be the biggest upset in USFL history. The Blitz would go on to lose five more games in the regular season and be edged out by Michigan for the Central Division title. In the first round of the playoffs, the Blitz would carry a 38-17 lead into the fourth quarter vs. the host Philadelphia Stars before losing to the Stars 44–38 in OT. The Philadelphia Stars finished a league best 15-3. Led by Coach Jim Mora, NFL veteran quarterback Chuck Fusina, rookie halfback Kelvin Bryant of North Carolina and a very good defense led by linebacker Sam Mills, the Stars made it to the title game where they almost came back from a 17-3 third quarter deficit before falling 24-22 to the Michigan Panthers. Michigan Panthers owner A. Alfred Taubman quickly decided he was willing to pay to fill the holes on his team with NFL caliber talent. Early in the season, the Panthers signed NFL vets guard Thom Dornbrook, tackle Ray Pinney, fullback Cleo Miller and defensive end John Banaszak. Consequently, after a 1-4 start, the team jelled and finished the regular season 11-2, edging out Chicago for the Central Division title. They dispatched Oakland in the playoffs 37-21 and weathered a frantic comeback by the Stars to become the first league champions.
1983

The 1983–1984 Off-Season

The Boston Breakers were unable to find a more suitable venue in the Boston area, so the Breakers were sold to New Orleans businessman Joseph Canizaro, who moved the team to New Orleans. Seeing the out of control spending worsening, Blanding sold his Denver Gold to Doug Spedding for $10 million. Blanding is widely thought to be the only owner to make a profit on the USFL. Needing fresh capital, the league chose to expand league membership from 12 to 18 teams, adding the Pittsburgh Maulers, Houston Gamblers, San Antonio Gunslingers, Memphis Showboats, Oklahoma Outlaws and Jacksonville Bulls. The Dixon plan called for expansion to 16 in the league's second year. The Outlaws were originally slated to play in San Diego, but as was the case with what became the Express, could not get a lease for Jack Murphy Stadium. The Outlaws opened play in Tulsa at Skelly Stadium. The Gamblers were technically not an expansion team. Founder David Dixon had reserved a franchise for himself in founding the league. He had chosen not to field a team in 1983 to help guide the league. By 1984, Dixon was disgusted with the path the league was on and the league owners were sick of Dixon's constant complaints about them overspending. With their blessing he sold his franchise for slightly less than the $6 million expansion fee. Dixon's franchise became the Houston Gamblers. After seeing the Wranglers lose ten games in a row to finish 4–14 (tied with Washington for the league's worst record) and perhaps more importantly seeing attendance wilt in the summer heat at Sun Devil Stadium, Joseph decided to sell the Wranglers. Meanwhile, in spite of having the league's highest profile coach, George Allen, and being at worst the third best team in the league, the Chicago Blitz had drawn an anemic 18,133 per game, unable to contend with Major League Baseball's Cubs and White Sox, the latter on their way to the postseason for the first time in 24 years. Blitz owner Dr. Ted Diethrich, a Phoenix resident, felt the losses did not justify an investment so far from his home in Phoenix. Diethrich sold the Blitz to Milwaukee heart surgeon James Hoffman, and then bought the Wranglers from Joseph. Almost immediately after Diethrich closed on his purchase of the Wranglers, he and Hoffman swapped their team assets—coaching staff, most of the players, and all. To Blitz fans, it seemed that Hoffman had jettisoned one of the league's elite teams in favor of a team that tied for the league's worst record. In truth it was worse than that. In a league starved for competent QB play, Wrangler triggerman Alan Risher stayed in Arizona. The new Blitz would feature longtime Bear backup QB Vince Evans (signed in November 1983 to a four-year, $5 million deal). In January, The Blitz tendered an offer that would have been the largest contract in football – $2 million a year for three years—to Bears running back Walter Payton. Payton advised he would consider the offer, but would not be rushed by the Blitz. The Blitz's 1984 season was scheduled to start on February 27, 1984, and they had little success selling season tickets. The Blitz needed Payton to sign quickly to help season ticket sales, so they had put a deadline on the offer of February 9, 1984. Before he made up his mind, the Blitz withdrew the offer realizing they simply did not have the finances. With a less talented team and no big names to excite the fans, Chicago's season ticket sales predictably flatlined, in spite of Hoffman sinking a lot of money into advertising. Just prior to the start of the season, a frustrated Hoffman walked away from the Blitz, leaving the team to the minority owners. The Los Angeles Express were sold to J. William Oldenburg and the New Jersey Generals were sold to Donald Trump. The league believed that the teams based in the nation's two largest markets were owned by the owners with the deepest pockets. Trump and Oldenburg both went on signing sprees. Trump poached several NFL starters, including Cleveland's QB Brian Sipe. Oldenburg's Express went after a number of highly regarded collegiate players. This combined with a general lack of quality QBs (only 9 QBs in the 12-team league finished the 1983 season with QB ratings above 70) and HBs (even in an 18 game season only 6 rushers broke the 1000 yard mark) tipped off another explosion in league spending as USFL teams raided the NFL and college ranks to keep up.
1984

The 1984 Season

The USFL went to a seven man officiating crew in 1984 adding the side judge. After a game 1 blowout 53-14 road loss to the expansion Jacksonville Bulls, Washington Federals Head Coach Ray Jauch was fired. In week 2, star RB Craig James was injured. The team collapsed. Despite solid play from 2nd year QB Mike Hohensee, WR Joey Walters, and HB Curtis Bledsoe, the team would finish 3–15, losing twice to the 3–15 expansion Pittsburgh Maulers and going 0–7 vs. the expansion teams. With seven games to go in the season, a press conference was held to announce the Federals had been sold to Sherwood "Woody" Weiser who intended to move the team to Miami. The team would be coached by Miami Hurricanes' coach Howard Schnellenberger. After two games, William Tatham Jr., son of Oklahoma Outlaws owner William Tatham, announced Skelly Stadium was insufficient to support a pro team and that the Outlaws would be moving the following year. In spite of this lame duck status, awful spring weather, and a season-ending ten-game losing streak, the team drew an average of 21,038 fans per game. A few games into the season, with the Chicago Blitz struggling and the fans staying away in droves, the team was near financial collapse. The league was forced to take over the Blitz for the remainder of the 1984 season in order to protect the league's TV deals which called for teams in the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago markets. With 4 games to go, a press conference was held announcing that Eddie Einhorn would become the new owner of the USFL's Chicago franchise. At the press conference, it was stated that although the new team would not be the Blitz, Einhorn's franchise would retain the rights to all Blitz players and coaching staff—strongly implying the team would play in the 1985 season. The expansion Houston Gamblers rookie QB Jim Kelly of the University of Miami emerged as the league's second superstar carrying his team to win the central conference with a 13-5 record. Kelly threw 44 TDs and piled up over 5000 yards. The Gamblers would fall to the eventual league runner up Arizona Wranglers in the playoffs, 17-16. The Los Angeles Express' signings of high profile collegiate players culminated with the signing of BYU QB Steve Young to a $40 million guaranteed contract at the time, far and away the largest contract in pro football history. The young talent was slow to adapt to the pro game and the Express continued to hover around .500. With one of the leagues' highest payrolls and poor attendance, financial losses mounted. It is estimated that the Express lost as much as $15 million in 1984. The Express did manage to make the playoffs and defeated the defending league champion Panthers 27-21 in triple overtime, before falling to the eventual league runner-ups, Allen's Arizona Wranglers, 35-23. In spite of seeing his Wranglers team make it to the title game, Ted Diethrich had seen enough. He had lost millions for the second year in a row. Despite fielding a dramatically improved team, he had only had seen a negligible increase in attendance in Arizona over the previous year's numbers. The Philadelphia Stars again finished with the league's best record and made it to the title game, this time defeating Dietrich's Wranglers, 23-3.
1984

The 1984 - 1985 Off-Season

The owner of the Los Angeles Express, J. William Oldenburg, went bankrupt, turning his franchise over to the league. News of his financial troubles sent a collective shiver through the league in the middle of the 1984 season. With Chicago already gone, the potential loss of the Express might have put the league's contract with ABC in jeopardy. With that in mind, the league took control of the team and decided to run it on a shoestring until a new owner could be found. Seeking a larger market, a larger stadium, and to share expenses, the Outlaws sought to merge with the Oakland Invaders, but Oakland Invaders owner Tad Taube walked away from the deal rather than give control of the team to Outlaws part-owner and general manager William Tatham Jr. After the league officially announced plans to move to the fall in 1986 (see below), a number of teams moved elsewhere after their owners decided they could not directly compete with the NFL. The Breakers moved a second time, this time to Portland, Oregon. The defending champion Philadelphia Stars moved to Baltimore, capitalizing on the departure of the NFL's Colts to Indiana. The Michigan Panthers merged with the Oakland Invaders, while the Pittsburgh Maulers folded after losing a reported $10 million in their only season. Around the same time, Weiser pulled the plug on his deal to buy the Federals and move them to Miami. Bandits minority owner Donald Disney stepped in 5 days later and bought the Federals. Under his ownership, the team was moved to Orlando, where they became the Orlando Renegades. Einhorn, one of the principal advocates of fall play, decided to sit out the 1985 season. ABC cleared this move due to the league's anemic ratings in Chicago, allowing the league to shut down the Blitz, who had lost nearly $6 million in 1984. The assets of Dietrich's Arizona Wranglers (see Chicago Blitz of 1983) would be acquired by the Tathams in a deal often referred to as a "merger", as the rosters were merged. The resulting Arizona Outlaws featured players from both teams but was run by the Tathams.
1985

The 1985 Season

The league financed and ran the Express all season, but could not find an owner. With a huge salary burden and dreadful attendance, the Express barely survived the season. Owners agree to a 4 year CBA with the United States Football League Players Association. San Antonio Gunslingers owner Clinton Manges stopped paying the team's bills with about a month to go in the season. The Denver Gold's attendance flatlined due to the planned move to the fall, as fans were not willing to choose between the Gold and the NFL's Broncos. The Gold would have hosted a playoff game against the Memphis Showboats, but ABC forced the league to move the game to Memphis rather than endure the embarrassment of playing in a near-empty Mile High Stadium.
1985

The 1985–1986 Off-Season

The San Antonio Gunslingers had their franchise revoked when Manges ignored a league imposed deadline to make restitution for the team's debts. The Breakers were disbanded after owner Joe Canizaro suffered two-year losses in the realm of $17 million. Los Angeles and Oakland announced that they would suspend operations, and Einhorn announced that his Chicago team would also not take the field in 1986. Denver merged with Jacksonville, to play the 1986 season in Jacksonville, while Houston merged with New Jersey, to play in New Jersey. Some franchises folded before or after a season's play, and others moved and/or merged. However, unlike the WFL and other leagues that have competed against the NFL, no USFL team actually folded during a season's play. This was because, with the notable exception of San Antonio, all of the league's teams were fairly well capitalized from the start, as Dixon had anticipated the league would have to absorb years of red ink before coming into its own. By comparison, most of the WFL's teams appeared to be severely undercapitalized. Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Antonio did come close to folding in midseason, but league intervention helped these teams make it through the season.
1986

John Bassett To Start A New Spring Football League

Arizona, Baltimore, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Memphis, New Jersey, Orlando and Tampa Bay were scheduled to play an 18 game fall schedule season in 1986. Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett had initially declared that his team would not participate in a fall schedule with the USFL and announced his intention to start a new spring football league. However, serious illness forced him to abandon his plans and sell the team to Lee Scarfone in July 1985, at which point the Bandits agreed to participate in the fall 1986 schedule. Bassett died from cancer on May 14, 1986.
1986

Won Suit Against the NFL and Fold

In July of 1986, about a month before the league was to begin its first fall season, the USFL won its suit against the NFL, but incredibly was awarded just $1 (trebled to $3 under antitrust law) in damages. More than $160 million in debt, the league folded before beginning its first fall campaign.