Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference (1984)
Edward J. DeBartolo
Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Regular Season Record
Joe Pendry (2-8-0, fired during season)
Ellis Rainsberger (1-7-0)
Sometimes when a baseball player goes to the plate, he's hoping to slap a single to right but inadvertently hits an opposite field home run. The USFL had an equivalent bit of serendipity when it announced it was accepting expansion applications for the 1984 season.
With the new league fast gaining awareness, and thanks to a presence on both the ABC television network and ESPN gaining a measure of credibility, it was no real surprise that the USFL's offices at 52 Vanderbilt Avenue in New York would receive two dozen applications to bring their brand of football to new markets. It didn't surprise them that three of those applications proposed establishing a USFL franchise in the football hotbed of Pittsburgh. What did prove a surprise was who one of those applications had been submitted by.
A Man Who Knew How To Close A Deal
Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr., was a Youngstown, Ohio-based shopping mall and real estate developer who, among other holdings, owned both the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins and the Pittsburgh Spirit of the Major Indoor Soccer League. A self-made billionaire and father of San Francisco 49'ers owner Edward DeBartolo, Jr., the elder DeBartolo would be about the last person the USFL expected to seek a franchise; but upon learning of his interest, they didn't hesitate to admit him.
Indicative of the way "Mr. D" conducted himself was a story from the 1950's told to yours truly by his father, who had worked with DeBartolo on a number of mall development projects. After a tornado had struck the Youngstown area and caused damage to one of his construction sites, DeBartolo would come out to assess the situation. Upon doing so, he gave workers an edict: "I'll be back here in 48 hours. When I return, all I want to see is the foundation so we can rebuild. I don't want to see a wall, a two-by-four, not even a sawhorse. I want it all gone." Amazed carpenters, bricklayers and other laymen proceeded to clear the site - "reappropriating" the material in a fashion that resulted in some new houses, garages and other structures being built in the area with the free materiel. In Edward DeBartolo, the USFL had a man of action... and one who was willing to do what was needed to close a deal.
This trait would be exhibited when DeBartolo learned that others were seeking the expansion franchise for Pittsburgh. When one of the other applicants seeking the Pittsburgh franchise held a public rally/press conference aimed at making an appeal to current USFL owners, showing public support for spring football, DeBartolo was unconcerned. When they followed it up with an announcement that if selected the Steel City's USFL entry would be named the "Pittsburgh Points" (so named after a city landmark opposite Three Rivers Stadium, marking the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers to form the Ohio), DeBartolo decided he'd seen about enough.
Through right-hand man Paul Martha, in early March 1983 DeBartolo got word to Commissioner Chet Simmons that not only was he interested in acquiring the USFL franchise for Pittsburgh, he had reached an agreement to lease Three Rivers Stadium for the team's home games. Realizing that if DeBartolo had a lease in hand and was essentially ready to roll, owners unanimously agreed to accept his application.
On March 11, 1983, DeBartolo was presented with the Expansion Grant documentation for his signature. Without more than a glance, he would sign it. What he did next was somewhat surprising to the USFL, but was typical "Mr. D.": instead of paying the league's franchise fee in accordance with the terms of the contract he'd just signed (which only required $2.5 million up front, with subsequent annual installment payments each June 1st through 1986), DeBartolo handed over a check for the full amount.
A "Name the Team" contest would produce the name "Pittsburgh Maulers," which would be followed by an inevitable explanation to fans of what exactly a "mauler" was - a maul is a sledgehammer used to shape molten metals; in steel foundries, those who wielded them were called "maulers.") As "Flash" had been a finalist name for the team (so chosen thanks to "Flashdance," a movie whose plot revolved around a Pittsburgh woman who worked as a welder by day, an exotic dancer by night), when Maulers was announced as the team's name so was its cheerleading squad, the "Flashdancers."
When team president Paul Martha and general manager George Heddleston told USFL Director of Operations Peter Hadhazy that the team was negotiating a contract with 1983 Heisman Trophy winning running back Mike Rozier and knew they could sign him? Hadhazy rigged the lottery to ensure the Maulers got the #1 overall pick in the 1984 USFL Draft. As promised, the Maulers got their man, signing Rozier to a Herschel Walker-like contract that included a $1 million signing bonus.
Fans were excited when they learned the Maulers had the #1 draft choice, but would be disappointed by their choice of Rozier, instead preferring Brigham Young quarterback Steve Young; a product perhaps of the NFL Steelers passing on fellow future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino in the first round of the NFL draft. Unfortunately, beyond Rozier the team didn't have any "name players" to speak of. Quarterbacks Glenn Carano and Tom Rozantz weren't a Young or Marino. Sam Clancy was seen as a sound defensive end, but there's no way he'd make it onto the famed "Steel Curtain" defense of the 1970's Steelers. Rozier was an okay running back in the eyes of Pittsburgh fans, but he was no Franco Harris. In short, Pittsburgh fans expected a winner - and one now rather than later - and as the days rolled toward the team's season opener, fans recognized.
The Maulers would take the field for their home opener against the Birmingham Stallions before a sellout crowd at Three Rivers Stadium. But the vast majority of those in attendance weren't there to root for their new team - they were there to heckle Stallions quarterback Cliff Stoudt, who during the off-season had left the Steelers to sign with Birmingham. During the course of the game, the audience of 53,771 took great pleasure in pelting Stoudt with snowballs as he stood on the sidelines - and in verbally berating him throughout the Stallions 30-18 victory.
On the field the Maulers would limp through an abysmal 3-15-0 regular season record, with two of those wins coming at the expense of the only team more hapless than the Maulers (the Washington Federals). Ten weeks into the campaign, team president Paul Martha would fire head coach Joe Pendry in an effort to shake things up, but interim replacement Ellis Rainsberger would fare no better.
Aside from the Birmingham sellout attendance would be about what you'd expect from a team that only wins three games: 14,418 against the New Jersey Generals, 16,832 against the Tampa Bay Bandits. Despite the losses both on the field and off (reportedly, DeBartolo had lost $10 million with the Maulers in 1984; a figure I believe if you include the $6 million expansion fee), the team was being prepared for a return in 1985. Green Bay defensive coordinator Hank Bullough had been signed on as the new head coach, and Martha and Heddleston were making "target lists" of players who would become free agents once the 1984 NFL season came to a close.
But as was the case with every USFL franchise, the October 22, 1984 vote to move the league to a fall schedule beginning with the 1986 season had an impact. In the Maulers case the impact was simple, swift, and immediate: as soon as the vote to move to the fall was carried at the league owners meeting, team president Paul Martha, representing DeBartolo, advised everyone else that the Maulers were ceasing operations - effective immediately. Thinking it a bluff or an act taken in haste, fellow owners presumed DeBartolo would change his mind, perhaps choosing instead to merge the Maulers into the cross-state (but headed to Baltimore) Stars. But three days later, with no fanfare beyond a press release, Martha left no doubt: after just one season, the Pittsburgh Maulers were dead.
The Official Timeline of the Pittsburgh Maulers
(from a corporate perspective)
- March 11, 1983: Edward J. DeBartolo is awarded the Pittsburgh franchise.
- October 31, 1983: DeBartolo and Martha organize "Pittsburgh Maulers, Inc.," transferring the franchise to the corporation.
- January 29, 1990: Pittsburgh Maulers, Inc. is dissolved.