NEW JERSEY GENERALS
Atlantic Division (1983)
Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference (1984)
Eastern Conference (1985)
1983: J. Walter Duncan and Chuck Fairbanks
1984-85: Donald J. Trump
Meadowlands, East Rutherford, New Jersey
Regular Season Record
1983: Chuck Fairbanks (6-12-0)
1984-85: Walt Michaels (25-12-0, 0-2 in playoffs)
Having followed the American Football League during its history, USFL founder David Dixon believed the AFL's success was in part due to having a flagship franchise in the New York market. But less than a month before the league would make its debut, the New Jersey Generals were anything but.
Up to that point the team's owner, Oklahoma oil magnate J. Walter Duncan, had been among those who by and large had adhered to the Dixon plan. Rather than make large investments on acquiring star player talent, Duncan took another approach suggested by Dixon: hiring a "name" head coach to be the initial face of the franchise and giving him a 10% ownership stake as an incentive.
As Ted Diethrich had in Chicago with George Allen, Duncan would bring on former New England Patriots head coach Chuck Fairbanks. But having Fairbanks wasn't doing much for season ticket sales, and instead of being an anchor franchise of the league, it would more resemble its bilge pump. Duncan knew he'd need to make a bold signing; one of a truly marketable star. And as fate would have it, one would come just in time.
Awarded the 1982 Heisman Trophy as a junior running back from the University of Georgia, Herschel Walker found himself deeply concerned about his future. While interested in playing a senior season for the Bulldogs and trying to become only the second player in collegiate history to earn two Heismans, Walker saw his 1,752 rushing yards in 1982 as hard, punishing ones.
In search of a financial stability playing a senior season in college wouldn't provide, Walker hired an agent and instructed him to begin exploring possibilities - unaware that the moment he'd done so, he'd violated NCAA rules and forfeited his remaining college eligibility. In approaching the NFL, Walker's agent was told unequivocally that their rules forbade any team from signing underclassmen. He'd be more than welcome to enter the 1984 draft, but in 1983 he was persona non grata.
Having no interest in irritating the collegiate institutions who were providing a de facto talent development system for professional players, the United States Football League had initially adopted a rule identical to that of the NFL. But USFL Director of Administration Steve Ehrhart knew that if the rule were challenged in court, the league would lose. Rather than subject the league to a lawsuit it would almost certainly lose, when Walker's agent approached Ehrhart about the possibility of his client joining the fledgling league, Ehrhart begrudgingly authorized Walker to explore his options.
Choosing the New Jersey Generals because he saw potential for greater marketing and promotional opportunities there than anywhere else, Walker would quickly come to terms with owner J. Walter Duncan on a three-year, $ 4.2 million contract, with a $1,000,000 signing bonus: a staggering sum by 1983 pro football standards that represented 78% of the league's unofficial $1.8 million salary cap. Duncan avoided the wrath of his fellow USFL owners by signing Walker to a "personal services contract" rather than a standard USFL player sheet, but given the sheer star power that Walker represented, few in the league were unhappy about the signing.
On the field in 1983, the USFL's flagship franchise had quite a few leaks, and not even Herschel Walker's ability could plug them all as the team finished its inaugural season with a 6-12-0 record. Walker did however bring drawing power to the gate, with the Generals among the league leaders in attendance in spite of their record.
While not at all disappointed in the team's performance on the field or off, Generals owner J. Walter Duncan grew tired of commuting nearly 2,000 miles from his Oklahoma home to watch the Generals play at home. Having built the team from scratch and signing the biggest name talent the league would see, on September 22, 1983 Duncan would agree to sell the team to New York real estate developer Donald J. Trump. And from that day forward, some historians argue, the USFL was doomed.
The Donald Buys Out Duncan and Ignores Dixon
Rather than adhere to David Dixon's plan as Duncan had, Trump instead followed the path that had worked in 1983 for A. Alfred Taubman and the Michigan Panthers: he tried to buy a championship. The Generals signed a number of veteran players during the 1983-84 off-season, among them Gary Barbaro, Kerry Justin, and 1980 National Football League MVP Brian Sipe to play quarterback. Trump hired popular former New York Jets head coach Walt Michaels.
Money was spent without regard to the league's unofficial salary cap structure (the contracts for Sipe and Walker alone exceeded it), but in doing so the Generals were transformed into a winner on the field. But unlike Taubman's efforts to buy a USFL championship for Detroit, Trump's effort to bring one to the New York market failed; though it did come close. The 1984 team would be a dramatic improvement over the prior season, posting two regular season wins over the eventual champion Philadelphia Stars on their way to a 14-4-0 regular season record and the team's first playoff berth. Though the team would be knocked out in the opening round of the USFL playoffs in a third meeting against the Stars, the team's improvement would serve only to spur Trump and his fellow team owners to spend into oblivion.
The new Generals owner would also immediately begin persuading fellow USFL owners that the league would be better served to move to a fall season schedule, competing directly with the more established National Football League: the diametric opposite of what league founder David Dixon had envisioned. As financial losses mounted during the 1984 season, the league's remaining owners began to be persuaded by Trump (and Eddie Einhorn, who had been awarded a new Chicago franchise to replace the Blitz) that the league would realize greater television revenue playing in the fall. Or at the very least, they figured they had little more to lose.
Trump would also serve as a catalyst for something which NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle publicly stated would be forthcoming within days of the May 11, 1982 press conference announcing the launch of the USFL: an anti-trust lawsuit, claiming that the NFL had cultivated an illegal monopoly with respect to the broadcasting of professional football on television.
The 1984-85 off-season was another one where Trump opened his wallet wide, signing another Heisman Trophy winner to join the team in Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie. Flutie, considered by many in the NFL to be too small to play quarterback in the league, signed for a contract nearly as large as Walker's: four years at $5 million. Never mind that the Generals already had a highly paid quarterback in Brian Sipe - within 24 hours, he was a Jacksonville Bull. Flutie enhanced the team's marketability, and Trump was confident Flutie's star power would help, both in the spring of 1985 and the fall of 1986.
The Final Season
If ever a professional football team's success hinged on that of one or two players, the 1985 New Jersey Generals personified it. Having traded away a quality veteran quarterback in favor of a quality but unseasoned rookie quarterback, Walt Michaels resorted to a relatively simple strategy: Flutie would hand the ball off to Walker. Flutie would then hand the ball off to Walker. And then for good measure? Flutie would then hand the ball off to Walker some more.
Carrying the ball 438 times in all, over 18 games Herschel Walker would set a professional football record that still stands, gaining 2,411 yards on the ground, and an incredible 2,878 yards overall. Flutie's first of 21 professional football seasons would be a typical one for rookie passers, throwing 2,109 yards and throwing for more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (13).
The Generals 11-7-0 regular season record would prove good enough to reach the playoffs for a second straight year, as the second place team in the Eastern Conference. With the 1985 USFL Championship Game being played at the Meadowlands, league office personnel hoped for the Generals to advance to the title game in an effort to sell more tickets and curb the league's financial losses in staging its own postseason. But this was to no avail - the seeding of teams put the Generals head-to-head with the nemesis they never could beat when it counted, the Baltimore Stars. With even Trump proclaiming his team had no chance to win, he would be proven right as the Generals fell 20-17 in what would be the team's final game.
Intended to be the start of a fourteen month pause between the conclusion of the spring 1985 season and its inaugural fall campaign in 1986, the Generals would instead host the final game in the tumultuous three year history of the United States Football League, watching Myles Tanenbaum and his Philadelphia Stars lay claim to the second straight USFL championship which owner Donald Trump had attempted to buy. During this interim Trump would buy the Houston Gamblers, merging the teams and effectively buying yet another quarterback; this time future Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly.
381 days after that championship game the verdict in USFL v. NFL, the anti-trust lawsuit Trump had championed, would provide the league with a phyrric victory, bringing with it the de facto conclusion to the Generals and the rest of the United States Football League.
The Official Timeline of New Jersey Generals
(from a corporate perspective; incomplete)
- April 29, 1982: J.W. Duncan, Inc. ("JWD" below) organized as a Delaware corporation. Also around this time, New Jersey Generals Partnership ("NJGP") is formed between J. Walter Duncan and Chuck Fairbanks in Oklahoma.
- September 30, 1983: Football Generals, Inc. is incorporated in New Jersey.
- October 1983: Football Generals, Inc. acquires the franchise and football-related assets of JWD for (per Page 6 of this document) $8.3 million.
- It is presumed that JWD, NJGP and Football Generals, Inc. have all since dissolved.