Atlantic Division (1983)
Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference (1984)
Eastern Conference (1985)
1983-84: Berl Bernhard
1985: Donald Dizney
1983-84: Robert F. Kennedy, Washington, D.C.
1985: Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida
Regular Season Record
1983-84: Ray Jauch (4-15-0, fired)
1984: Dick Bielski (3-14-0)
1985: Lee Corso (5-13-0)
"What's green, has an eagle on it, and is worth less with every passing day? A Washington Federal." - inside joke among USFL personnel
Within any professional sports league, there are franchises that are run well, and those which are run poorly. For every New England Patriots, there's a Cleveland Browns; for every Boston Celtics, there's a Los Angeles Clippers. In the case of the USFL, on the one end of the spectrum you had the Philadelphia Stars; on the other... the Washington Federals.
To be honest though, it wasn't all the fault of owner Berl Bernhard, head coaches Ray Jauch or Dick Bielski, or even the players who would lead the team to an abysmal 7-22-0 record over two seasons. In truth, the Federals fate was sealed 36 days before the team's first game: when their NFL counterparts earned their first league championship in four decades, besting the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII, 27-17. Had the USFL launched in 1982 rather than 1983, the outcome might at least have been slightly different; as it was, when the 1982 NFL players strike ended and Joe Gibbs squad began making its run toward a title, what trickle of Federals ticket sales there had been dried up.
Washington got the Federals more at the insistence of league founder David Dixon than the man who would own the team, prominent D.C. attorney Berl Bernhard. Despite the NFL's dominance in the nation's capital, Dixon refused to ignore the market; and poor Bernhard suffered the financial losses because of it. Over their two years in Washington, the Feds were without question the worst team in the league both on the field and at the gate.
In financial projections submitted to potential investors in "Washington Football Partners, Ltd.," the entity that technically owned the Federals, in 1983 the team was projected to lose $1.12 million, based on revenues of $4.13 million and expenses of a little over $5.25 million. While if anything the team probably came in under its expense target for the year, it missed its projection of $2.6 million in ticket revenue by at least two thirds:
- The team's inaugural game against the Chicago Blitz would draw 38,010 fans to RFK Stadium; a total that would be 3,500 more than it would attract for its next three games combined.
- A home game against the eventual USFL champion Michigan Panthers drew 11,404.
- Against the popular and entertaining Tampa Bay Bandits, the Feds would draw 9,070.
- The following week against Birmingham? 12,818.
- In a Week 12 divisional matchup against the Boston Breakers? 7,303.
- Against the playoff-bound Philadelphia Stars, the Feds couldn't even convince Stars fans to come down I-95 and cheer their team on. All of 11,039 showed up.
The product on the field was just as woeful as the attendance figures. Neither throwing the ball the third most of all USFL teams nor having standout rookie running back Craig James rush for 823 yards would positively distinguish the Federals from their NFL competition, posting just a 4-14-0 record in its maiden season. The Federals would finish last in the Atlantic Division standings, tied with the Arizona Wranglers (whom they had split a pair of 1983 games, 1-1-0) for the league's worst record. It was a far cry from the championship team celebrated that January.
Berl Bernhard, inexplicably but to his credit, decided to tough it out for a second season, though he did decide to seek out a buyer for the team. Having seen people stay away from RFK Stadium in droves for the 1983 Federals however, the interest in trying to improve a team you're trying to sell understandably isn't all that great, but Bernhard did hope for some success in 1984.
"We played like a group of untrained gerbils." - Federals owner Berl Bernhard, after the team's 53-14 loss to Jacksonville
Those hopes were dashed with the first regular season game of the year, a 53-14 drubbing at the hands of the expansion Jacksonville Bulls. Bernhard immediately fired head coach Ray Jauch and replaced him with Dick Bielski, who would patrol the sidelines as the team would complete an even more miserable season than in 1983: a 3-15-0 record that included humiliating losses to all six of the 1984 expansion teams (including two at the hands of the Pittsburgh Maulers, who like the Feds would win but three games all year).
Just as had been the case in 1983, the Washington Federals 1984 home opener would prove the team's most attended home game of the year. While the year before the Chicago Blitz drew over 38,000 fans to RFK Stadium, the '84 home opener against the Philadelphia Stars would bring out an announced crowd of... 12,067.
On April 15th, the Federals were giving away t-shirts to the first 10,000 fans who walked through the turnstiles. Only 6,075 bothered to show up. In their loss to Memphis, the paid attendance was 4,432. In every way imaginable, the Washington Federals were losers.
In March 1984, Bernhard found a buyer for the franchise; a Florida real estate developer, Sherwood "Woody" Weiser. Weiser agreed in principle to buy the Feds for $5.5 million, planning to relocate the team to Miami for the 1985 season. The league, in anticipation of the deal, went so far as to execute a lease agreement for the Orange Bowl. At a league meeting on May 9th, league owners unanimously approved the sale, with some openly speculating that Miami's Orange Bowl would soon host a USFL Championship Game.
In anticipation of closing the deal after the 1984 season was complete, Weiser opened up his wallet and hired University of Miami head coach Howard Schnellenberger as team president and head coach. Schnellenberger in turn would hire some assistant coaching staff, and the group would spend the remaining weeks of the 1984 season evaluating talent, both on the Federals and other USFL teams, preparing a plan of action for when they'd take over.
As it turned out? They needn't have bothered. Weiser had been warned by Bernhard that there were rumblings among USFL owners about the possibility of moving to a fall schedule. Having no interest whatsoever in going head-to-head with the NFL's Miami Dolphins, Weiser smartly insisted on an escape clause, triggered if the league indeed decided to adopt a fall season schedule. When the owners followed through on August 22, 1984 and in spite of recommendations made by a study they themselves had commissioned about playing in the spring versus the fall, Weiser immediately returned the franchise to Bernhard.
Fortunately for Bernhard, the void left by Weiser would be filled almost immediately. Tampa Bay Bandits limited partner Donald Dizney stepped forward, offering to buy the club for the same terms provided he could relocate it to Orlando. Here there was a sticking point: the Orlando market was clearly within the home territory of John Bassett's Tampa Bay Bandits. But rather than veto the deal, Bassett welcomed his former Bandits partner as a colleague. On September 1 the deal was announced, and the franchise that had played its 1984 season in Washington, had been sold to Miami but returned, was now re-christened as the Orlando Renegades.
Unlike Weiser, Schnellenberger and their group, Donald Dizney didn't have the benefit of months of pre-purchase research to make player talent evaluations; he didn't even initially have a head coach in mind, opting to bring in colorful former Indiana head coach Lee Corso to guide the team in 1985. The 1984 Federals would be overhauled by Corso and his staff, but not sufficiently to make the team an instant success, improving on the Federals woeful record but still going only 5-13-0 in 1985. Hoping to siphon off some Bandits fans who traveled from Orlando for home games, Dizney instead saw an average attendance of around 25,000 for its nine home dates; a notable high point being when Bandit fans traveled down I-4 to the Citrus Bowl to watch the Renegades new rivals.
Despite the lack of success comparative to the Bandits, Dizney was prepared to go forward with his team playing in the fall of 1986. In retrospect, it would've been fascinating to see how three professional football teams (the Renegades, the Tampa Bay Bandits, and the NFL's Buccaneers), all located within a 100-mile radius, would have slugged it out for fans. As it was, the outcome of USFL v. NFL dashed any hopes of that as the 1986 season was cancelled, and after just one season the Renegades were off to their happy hunting ground.
The Official Timeline of Washington Federals / Orlando Renegades
(from a corporate perspective; possibly incomplete)
- August 20, 1982: Washington Football Partners, a limited partnership ("WPF" below), is organized in the District of Columbia to hold the franchise. Berl Bernhard's Capital City Sports Management is the general partner.
- June 1984: A preliminary agreement to sell the franchise is reached between WPF and American Sports, Ltd. Upon consummation, the team was to have relocated to Miami, Florida.
- August 24, 1984: The agreement between WPF and American Sports, Ltd. is terminated two days after the USFL's announcement to move to a fall season schedule.
- August 28, 1984: A new sale agreement is reached under which Tampa Bay Bandits minority owner Donald R. Dizney will acquire the franchise and relocate it to Orlando, Florida.
- September 10, 1984: Orlando Football Partners, Inc. ("OFPI" below) is incorporated in Florida.
- December 31, 1984: Orlando Football Partners, Ltd. is organized as a limited partnership; OFPI is the general partner.
- January 25, 1988: Orlando Football Partners, Ltd. is dissolved.
- September 26, 1997: OFPI is dissolved.