Growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, also known at Titletown, football was a big part of my life. Sundays involved crowding around the TV and watching football, watching my older brothers play football in high school, and playing football with them in the front yard. When I was ten years old, another football league formed, the USFL. They played in the spring, not competing with the NFL’s fall schedule. It was bound to be a success, until it wasn’t. Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL (Amazon) takes an unprecedented look at the league, which only lasted three short years.
“In Football for a Buck, the dogged reporter and biographer Jeff Pearlman draws on more than four hundred interviews to unearth all the salty, untold stories of one of the craziest sports entities to have ever captivated America. From 1980s drug excess to airplane brawls and player-coach punch outs, to backroom business deals, to some of the most enthralling and revolutionary football ever seen, Pearlman transports readers back in time to this crazy, boozy, audacious, unforgettable era of the game. He shows how fortunes were made and lost on the backs of professional athletes and also how, thirty years ago, Trump was a scoundrel and a spoiler.”
I have so many notes from reading this book, it’s unreal. There are so many stories revealed, and so many tidbits of information I did not know. I don’t remember much about the league, except in hindsight. I knew that the USFL snagged the Heisman Trophy winner in both of it’s first two years, I knew that actor Burt Reynolds was part owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits, I knew that the USFL eventually sued the NFL and won, only to be awarded $1 in damages. I did not know until years later that some of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s best players in the 1980’s and 90’s started in the USFL, including Steve Young, Jim Kelly and Green Bay Packers’ Reggie White, and future Packers coach Lindy Infante was a head coach in the league. A few years ago I saw the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? (Amazon) But that just scratches the surface.
The idea for the United States Football League goes all the way back to 1966, when David Dixon came up with the idea. “I’ve never believed that Americans buy chewing gum only in the spring, make love only in the fall, go to movies only in the summer,” he said. “We will play spring football. And people will watch.” It took nearly 20 years for his dream to come true. When it finally happened, there would be twelve teams: Birmingham, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Diego, Tampa, and Washington. “The USFL, she made clear, was a good idea. Spring football. Managed costs. Untapped markets. Fun promotions. Slow growth. Plugging into regional allegiances. It was smart and inventive and borderline revolutionary.”
The USFL distinguished itself with some very un-NFL-like decisions: there would be midgame sideline interviews, extra media days, endless promotional appearances and fan engagements. “The powers that be were also willing to mess with well-established pro football rules. For example, the USFL would break with the NFL and allow teams to go for a two-point conversion after touchdowns. Also, in other departures, the USFL clock would stop after first downs in the final minutes of both halves and overtime, and wide receivers had to have just one foot down—not two—for a catch. Kickers could use one-inch tees on field goals and extra points.”
The league started off well at first. But within a month’s time viewership of USFL games dropped by more than 50 percent. “The franchise owners were wealthy, egotistical men used to getting what they demanded, and this was not meeting their expectations. Although everyone was warned that professional sports teams lose money before they make money, and that crawling comes before running, which comes before sprinting, some in the USFL desperately wanted to sprint. Patience? To hell with patience. That’s why, by a near-unanimous vote, the 12 teams made the decision to expand for the 1984 season.”
One of those owners was Donald Trump, who came to the league as the owner of the New Jersey Generals. He was rumored to have wanted to buy an NFL team, but the NFL wouldn’t let him. But the USFL welcomed him with open arms–at first. Trump was one of those who pushed for the expansion for the second season. Then he said the reason he bought the Generals was so he could compete head-to-head with the NFL. He wanted the league to move their games to the fall. Most of the league officials thought he was crazy. “Behind closed doors, Trump explained to confidants that he did not aspire to build a great USFL team—but a great NFL team.” The original plan was to slowly grow the league for maybe ten years, sort of like how the AFL did against the NFL, and then they compete with the big dogs. Donald Trump was not one for other people’s plans.
“Trump told his colleagues that the USFL—a league he had barely been a part of—needed to move to fall and directly challenge the NFL. Not in 10 years, not in 5 years. Now—as soon as possible. “I guarantee you folks in this room that I will produce CBS and I will produce NBC and that I will produce ABC, guaranteed, and for a hell of a lot more money than the horseshit you’re getting right now,” he said. “Every team in this room suffers from one thing: people don’t want to watch spring football . . . you watch what happens when you challenge the NFL . . . I don’t want to be a loser. I’ve never been a loser before, and if we’re losers in this, fellas, I will tell you what, it’s going to haunt us . . . Every time there’s an article written about you, it’s going to be you owned this goddamn team which failed . . . and I’m not going to be a failure.”
Trump started spending big bucks on players. One of his deals with with Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who would join the Generals after his NFL contract expired. The contract was supposed to be a secret. “It was typical Donald Trump, who assured Taylor word of the contract would not get out until he was ready—then immediately had his publicist, “John Barron,” call the various New York newspapers to supply them with the “alleged” news. Although it went unsaid, many of the reporters receiving the information knew damn well “John Barron” was actually Donald Trump, futilely attempting to disguise his voice and score tabloid headlines.”
“It became clear that the Generals’ general would somehow scratch, claw, and shove the USFL into the fall and, as a result, his team into the NFL. “He was not an honorable man,” said Jerry Argovitz, owner of the Houston Gamblers. “The truth wasn’t his thing. But I’ve always said one thing about Donald Trump. You don’t ever underestimate Donald. He can charm you out of your pants. And he’s like getting involved with a rainbow or a tornado or a hurricane or a zombie—all at the same time depending on his mood.”
Other owners started spending exorbitant amounts of money on players in an attempt to compete with Trump, money they actually did not have. Quarterback Steve Young signed with the Los Angeles Express for $42 million multi-year contract. Less wealthy owners could not compete. Ownership changes were made with many of the teams, and several moved to different cities because of it. Players were traded, or less expensive players signed because they’d play for less money, making for sloppy and amateurish football play.
Meanwhile, Trump sued the NFL for creating a monopoly. The USFL as a whole did not file the suit, although he used their name when filing. Trump’s lawyer at the beginning was famed Communist-hunter Roy Cohn. “The lawsuit, Trump guaranteed, would bring down the NFL and prop up the USFL. In the absolute worst-case scenario, the NFL would pay out a ton of money. In the more likely scenario, the NFL would pay out a ton of money and absorb many of the USFL’s remaining franchises. It was win-win-win-win, and all the owners had to do was come along for the ride and trust in Donald J. Trump. So they did.”
“The National Football League was found guilty of violating an antitrust law. It had, according to the jury, monopolized professional football and willfully acquired its monopoly power. The United States Football League had . . . won!” The damages awarded: $1, tripled due to the type of lawsuit, plus interest, for a grand total of $3.06. All the teams were hemorrhaging money by the end of the third season and not-so-quietly disbanded.
“The USFL produced 60 Pro Bowlers and two Super Bowl MVPs, as well as four Hall of Famers (Young, White, Kelly, and Gary Zimmerman, the Express offensive lineman). Dozens of NFL head and assistant coaches got their starts in the USFL, and Steve Spurrier went from guiding the Tampa Bay Bandits to becoming one of the great coaches in college-football history. The Buffalo Bills reached four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s behind the personnel genius of general manager Bill Polian (Chicago Blitz), the coaching of Marv Levy (Chicago Blitz), the quarterbacking of Kelly (Houston Gamblers), the blocking of center Kent Hull (New Jersey Generals), and the tackling of linebacker Ray Bentley (Michigan Panthers and Oakland Invaders).”
Like I mentioned, there were so many interesting stories about the USFL that this was compelling reading. I now have a better understanding of why the team only lasted a few years. The NFL also learned from the USFL and adopted some of the rules the young league had created, like the 2-point conversion after a touchdown and bringing in instant replay.
This is the 1st book I’ve read for my Library Love Reading Challenge.
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