A New League Is Born
The United States Football League made its debut with five games on Sunday, March 6, 1983. On the east coast, George Allen's Chicago Blitz would demolish the Washington Federals at RFK Stadium in what was considered the league's "kickoff" game, taking a 21-0 halftime lead and cruising for a 28-7 win. At Tampa Stadium meanwhile, the hometown Bandits drew an impressive 42,437 to the gate, then gave those fans a show as John Reaves found wide receiver Willie Gillespie to come from behind and post a 21-17 victory over the Boston Breakers.
In the ABC nationally televised game of the week, 34,002 fans filled about a third of the Los Angeles Coliseum to witness the professional debut of 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker. Walker, who the previous month had sparked controversy by signing a blockbuster contract with J. Walter Duncan's Generals, would rush for 65 yards and the first touchdown in team history; but it would be in a losing effort against the host Express, 20-15.
On the field the Denver Gold would fall to the Philadelphia Stars 13-7, but the bigger story was what was going on off the field at Mile High Stadium - the Gold had drawn a stunning 45,102 fans. The Gold used an interesting marketing technique, offering fans a "money back guarantee" in which fans who wanted one could get a full refund of their ticket price after one quarter. Very few would take them up on the offer - a good sign. Meanwhile in Phoenix the league looked even better as 45,167 fans were in attendance at Sun Devil Stadium in Phoenix to witness the Oakland Invaders shutout the hometown Arizona Wranglers, 24-0; and on the ESPN Monday night game, the Birmingham Stallions and Michigan Panthers would slug it out in a defensive duel won by the Stallions, 9-7.
The Stars Shine in the Atlantic
If there was a dominant team in the USFL's inaugural season, it would be the Philadelphia Stars. Featuring a roster crafted by General Manager Carl Peterson and coached by former Seattle and New England defensive line coach, the Stars featured a large talent pool from Penn State, fresh off their 1982 national championship. Acquiring rights to 14 Nittany Lions thanks to the league's Territorial Draft, Peterson would use the college draft to build the offensive and defensive lines: players like UCLA defensive tackle Irv Eatman and center Bart Oates. The Stars would post the league's best regular season at 15-3-0, winning the Atlantic division by an impressive four games.
Building the Boston Breakers using veterans culled from rosters of other leagues and coached by former Philadelphia Eagles receivers coach Dick Coury, few entering tiny, rickety Nickerson Field (seating capacity at the time, around 21,000) knew what to expect on the field. Coaxing 35 year old NFL and Continental League signal caller Johnnie Walton out of retirement to play quarterback and focusing the running game on CFL veteran back Richard Crump, Coury's Breakers would fall short of earning a playoff berth but would nevertheless have an impressive 11-7-0 inaugural season.
Despite having Herschel Walker leading the USFL with 1,812 yards rushing along with 17 touchdowns on the ground, the New Jersey Generals would find themselves outflanked on virtually all other fronts, going 6-12-0 in an otherwise forgettable inaugural season. Meanwhile the Washington Federals joined the Arizona Wranglers with the league's worst record at 4-14-0. And with the NFL's Redskins at the height of an early 1980's success that resulted in two Super Bowl appearances and one championship, the Federals were doomed virtually from the outset. RFK Stadium was drawing more flies than fans: 11,404 against Michigan, 7,303 against Boston, 9,792 against Los Angeles.
The Panthers Prowl in the Central
Those observing the formation of the USFL believed that with George Allen at the helm, the Chicago Blitz would be the dominant force in the new league. Allen's NFL history was one of lavish spending on acquiring player personnel, and the team's signing of NFL veterans Greg Landry and Stan White, along with high-profile rookies such as Tim Spencer and Trumaine Johnson, did little to change those opinions. While the team fared well enough to make the playoffs as the wild card, it would be the Michigan Panthers who would claim the Central Division crown.
Embarrassed at his team's 1-4-0 start and position in last place, Michigan owner A. Alfred Taubman opened his wallet wide, far exceeding the informal salary cap agreed to by owners in order to acquire the services of NFL caliber players such as LB's Ray Bentley and John Corker, and particularly former Pittsburgh Steelers Ray Pinney and John Banaszak. The team's early season acquisitions would make an immediate impact, winning 11 of their remaining 13 regular season games, including two wins over the Blitz - enough to win the division title at 12-6-0. Under coach Steve Spurrier the Tampa Bay Bandits would finish in third place with a respectable 11-7-0 record, while the Birmingham Stallions would finish in last place but still post a very respectable 9-9-0 record.
Despite their success on the field however, there were ominous signs on the horizon for the Blitz almost from the outset. With the NFL's Bears putting together the foundation of what would be their famed 1985 championship team under Mike Ditka, the Blitz would barely make a blip in the windy city's football radar, attracting only 21,949 for their home opener at Soldier Field, and less than 15,000 fans five times in nine home games. Thanks to George Allen's propensity to spend, Ted Diethrich was losing millions.
A Weak Pacific Division
While the Birmingham Stallions' 9-9-0 record would place them at the bottom of the competitive Central Division, in the Pacific Division that mark would have resulted in a championship. The division's mediocrity would be evident to anyone reviewing the standings at the mid-way point of the season: all four teams to that point had posted identical, 4-5-0 records.
Featuring quarterback Fred Besana, back Arthur Whittington, and receivers Raymond Chester and Gordon Banks, the Oakland Invaders would reach that 9-9-0 mark, ultimately good enough to capture the Pacific Division title and a berth to the inaugural season playoffs. Coached by five-time Grey Cup winner Hugh Campbell, the Los Angeles Express would live and die with defense, platooning quarterbacks Mike Rae and Tom Ramsey and a virtually non-existent running game (the 1983 Express were outgained by Herschel Walker - alone - by 72 yards). As with Washington and Chicago though, after the season opener fans didn't exactly beat a path to the Los Angeles Coliseum, drawing 17,139 against Oakland, 13,826 against Arizona, and 11,471 in the season finale against Denver.
The Gold meanwhile had the distinction of being the first team in USFL history to fire their head coach, as Red Miller got the axe after Week 11. The firing would alienate what to that point had been an unusually loyal fan base, a measure the team would try to correct soon by replacing him with popular former Broncos QB Craig Morton. Despite owner Jim Joseph's close adherence to David Dixon's player spending model and having virtually no "name" players on its roster, the Arizona Wranglers had managed a 4-4-0 record through their first eight games, only to proceed to lose their last ten on the way to tying the Washington Federals for the league's worst record.
The regular season champions of the league's three divisions along with one "wild card" team would qualify for the inaugural season playoffs, but two other teams (the 11-7-0 Boston Breakers and Tampa Bay Bandits) were in contention right up to the end of the season; and the league clearly had a dividing line in its first season between decent teams (Philadelphia, Boston, Michigan, Chicago, Tampa Bay and Oakland) and also-rans (Birmingham, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Denver, Washington and Arizona).
At Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, the wild card Blitz would hold a seemingly insurmountable 38-17 lead early in the fourth quarter of their divisional playoff game. Improbably, the Stars would rebound, scoring 21 unanswered points on Chuck Fusina touchdown passes to Scott Fitzkess, Jeff Rodenberger and Tom Donovan to tie the game and send it to overtime; and in the extra frame the Stars would complete the comeback with a one-yard Kelvin Bryant touchdown run to put Philadelphia into the championship, 44-38. In the other divisional playoff game at the Pontiac Silverdome, the hometown Michigan Panthers had little difficulty dispatching the Pacific Division champion Oakland Invaders, taking a 17-7 halftime lead and then focusing on the ground game (with second half touchdowns by Bobby Hebert, Ken Lacy and Cleo Miller) to roll on to a 37-21 victory.
The Denver Gold having earned the opportunity to host the league's inaugural championship game thanks to initial robust attendance figures (numbers which would drop off once the team fired head coach Red Miller), on July 17, 1983 the first season of the United States Football League would conclude at Mile High Stadium as (a reported) 50,906 fans would see the Michigan Panthers defense stymie the Philadelphia Stars through three periods, taking a 17-3 lead into the fourth quarter. But as had been the case the week before in the divisional playoff against Chicago, the Stars would come roaring back in the final 15 minutes, scoring 10 points in the first seven minutes to come within 17-13.
After trading punts in the mid-quarter, Michigan would put an end to the competitive aspects of the game with a four play, 63 yard scoring drive capped by a touchdown pass from game MVP Bobby Hebert (who had gone 20 for 39 for 314 yards, but had thrown 3 interceptions) to a streaking Anthony Carter. Taking possession with 3:01 remaining and down 24-14, the Stars would respond with their own touchdown drive, but by the time Rodney Parker would score on a two-yard pass from Chuck Fusina to get within two points at 24-22, the clock had run out.
- Most Valuable Player - Kelvin Bryant, RB, Philadelphia Stars
- Sporting News Player of the Year - Bobby Hebert, QB, Michigan Panthers
- Man of the Year - Raymond Chester, WR, Oakland Invaders
- Coach of the Year - Dick Coury, Boston Breakers
- Outstanding Quarterback - Bobby Hebert, Michigan Panthers
- Outstanding Running Back - Herschel Walker, New Jersey Generals
- Outstanding Lineman - Kit Lathrop, Chicago Blitz
- Rookie of the Year Award - not presented
- Defensive Player of the Year - John Corker, LB, Michigan Panthers
- Special Teams Player of the Year - Stan Talley, P, Oakland Invaders
- Leading Receiver Award - Trumaine Johnson, Chicago Blitz
- Leading Scorer Award - David Trout, Philadelphia Stars
- Sporting News Executive of the Year - Carl Peterson, Philadelphia Stars