Central Division, Western Conference (1984)
Western Conference (1985)
Jerry Argovitz, Fred Gerson, Bernard Lerner, Alvin Lubetkin and Kenny Rogers
Astrodome, Houston, Texas
Regular Season Record
1984 Central Division Champions
Jack Pardee (23-13-0, 0-2 in playoffs)
The United States Football League didn't have a team in the state of Texas in 1983. Why exactly that was the case may never be known for certain, but the football-crazed Lone Star State seemed more than eager to try the sport in the spring with not one but two franchises in 1984.
The first of these would be announced on the first anniversary of the league's launch announcement, on May 11, 1983; and within weeks they would make it be known that in Houston, the USFL would be done differently.
The first indicator of this? The team's name, the "Gamblers," chosen by Argovitz in part as an homage to singer/actor Kenny Rogers, a part owner of the franchise who had billed himself as "The Gambler" both in music and a series of made for television movies. The choice of the team's name would prove to be just the first of a list of things the new Houston franchise would do to give commissioner Chet Simmons fits.
The 14th Franchise... or the First?
The story of how the Gamblers came into existence was a somewhat interesting one. USFL founder David Dixon had, as part of his compensation package for doing the legwork to get the league up and running, would award himself a franchise. Choosing not to activate his franchise along with the others for the inaugural 1983 season, over the course of that year he would annoy his now-fellow owners, nagging them about their excessive player spending and other actions he found ran counter to his blueprint for the league's success.
The Gamblers ownership group, in search of an expansion franchise for 1984, would instead be steered by existing owners toward buying Dixon's franchise rights instead, in the process getting rid of their nag by allowing him to cash out in exchange for the Houston group's $6 million franchise fee. So, depending on how you look at it, the Houston Gamblers could be viewed as the USFL's 14th franchise... or it's first.
Originally, Bernard Lerner was to be the head of the Gamblers ownership group, but internal squabbles among the partners on a variety of subjects would put Dr. Jerry Argovitz front-and-center instead. Argovitz, a dentist who would give up his practice to become a sports agent, immediately would raise hackles in the league office as a number of his clients were engaged in negotiations with USFL teams: an obvious conflict of interest. Argovitz would resolve the issue by selling his agency practice, but it wasn't the type of start Commissioner Simmons had in mind for the USFL's presence in Texas.
The Run and Shoot Leads to a Division Title
On the field, the Houston Gamblers would be an unqualified success from the outset. Hiring former Chicago and Washington head coach Jack Pardee, the team would make a huge splash by signing University of Miami quarterback and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly to a long-term contract. Scoring both by the Gamblers and their opponents would be plentiful, with the team's defense giving up 400 points during the 18 game regular season - but thanks to Kelly, wide receivers Ricky Sanders and Ricky Johnson, and offensive coordinator Darrell "Mouse" Davis' "Run and Shoot" offense, they would score an unbelievable 618.
In the team's inaugural season, the Gamblers 13-5-0 record would be good enough to capture the Central Division title, eclipsing the defending USFL champion Michigan Panthers by a full three games. While the team's playoff hopes would be dashed in dramatic fashion at the hands of the eventual Western Conference champion Arizona Wranglers, 17-16, Houston's football fans had a winner in town.
1985 would be more of the same, with the high-octane Gambler passing game tempered by a running game that featured 1,000-yard rusher Todd Fowler. While over the course of the season USFL defenses would begin to catch up to the Run and Shoot concept, they would be unable to completely shut Kelly & Company down. With a 10-8-0 regular season mark, the 1985 Gamblers once again qualified for the playoffs, but once again they'd fall in the first round, this time at the hands of the Birmingham Stallions.
The Move to the Fall... and The Move to New Jersey
While the 1984 Gamblers success made the team popular in the Houston market, the decision to move the USFL's regular season to a fall schedule for 1986 effectively killed the team in its crib.
A treat to watch during the spring, Houston's fall football interests would be reserved for local high schools, then local colleges, and then the NFL's Houston Oilers, in that order, leaving no room for the Run and Shoot. Driving that point home, a "lame duck" spring 1985 season in the Astrodome would see average attendance drop by 9,000 fans; this despite robust off-season marketing efforts and a playoff-caliber team on the field.
As the 1985 season drew to a close, Argovitz and his partners had burned through millions of dollars in their effort to keep spring pro football alive in Houston. To ensure the team met its final payroll obligations of the year, the other league owners (who were also paying the full frieght on the Los Angeles Express, trying to pay the blizzard of bills Jim Hoffman had left unpaid with the Chicago Blitz in 1984, and guaranteeing obligations of the Birmingham Stallions) floated the Gamblers enough money to make it through the playoffs.
Following the 1985 season a group approached Argovitz about the prospect of buying the Gamblers and relocating the franchise to New York City for the USFL's fall 1986 season. Before that deal could get to far, however, New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump would acquire the Gamblers, merging it into his Generals and thus creating (on paper at least) a 1986 squad which would have featured Jim Kelly and Doug Flutie at quarterback, Herschel Walker at running back, and Richard Johnson and Ricky Sanders at wide receiver, all under head coach Jack Pardee. It would have been fun to see, but with the decision in USFL v. NFL, this veritable All-Star team would never take the field.
As had been the case in Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Houston's foray into spring professional football would be given insufficient opportunity to develop. The announcement moving the USFL to a fall schedule for 1986 effectively killed the league in these markets, in Houston proving that an investment in the Gamblers had proven a bad bet.
The Official Timeline of Houston Gamblers
(from a corporate perspective)
- September 30, 1983: Houston Gamblers, Ltd. organized as a Texas corporation.
- At some future, uncertain date, Houston Gamblers, Ltd. was renamed Houston Gamblers, Inc.
- At some future, uncertain date, Houston Gamblers, Inc. was dissolved.