A Wild Off-Season
The Expansion Derby
In David Dixon's original plans for the USFL and assuming all his expectations (a network television contract, average attendance of 25,000 per game, etc.) were realized, the league was to consider expanding by two, possibly four franchises for its second season. But before it would even pump up its first football, potential suitors were contacting Commissioner Chet Simmons and his chief lieutenant, Steve Ehrhart, about the prospect of joining the league for its 1984 season.
In all, the league would see a whopping 24 applications for new franchises for 1984, with entrepreneurs from Honolulu to Toronto (ironic considering it was the United States Football League) approaching Simmons, Ehrhart and original owners about a potential franchise. Early on, it seemed likely the league would add teams in Minneapolis, Seattle, Pittsburgh and Houston, but as is so often the case, as the story unfolded the tale would take a turn.
Just 63 days after the league's on-field debut, the USFL would stun the entire sports world by awarding its first expansion franchise to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That by itself was no surprise; Pittsburgh was then, and is now, a city with a rabid fan base which needed little cultivation. In 1983 the NFL Steelers had a season ticket waiting list a mile long, so it seemed only natural that the USFL might help Pittsburgh football fans get their fix.
The shockwave wasn't caused by where the first franchise was going, but by who had been awarded it: Youngstown, Ohio real estate scion Edward J. DeBartolo, who not only was envisioned as having more money than God, but who also was the father of then-San Francisco 49'ers owner Edward DeBartolo, Jr. To say this generated attention from the NFL was an understatement to say the least.
And as was typical of "Mr. D," he had acted behind the scenes. While one of the other Pittsburgh expansion applicants held a press conference to announce its team would be named the "Pittsburgh Points" (referencing a local landmark where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers met to form the Ohio, opposite Three Rivers Stadium), DeBartolo was offering USFL owners something that wasn't even being asked of him: while other expansion franchisees were expected to pay the $6 million franchise fee over a three year period, DeBartolo was prepared to pay the entire fee, immediately, and in cash.
May 11, 1983 would see what was publicized as the 14th USFL franchise to a Houston partnership that included sports agent and attorney Jerry Argovitz, Alvin Lubetkin, Bernard Lerner and Fred Gerson. In truth however, this was a franchise sale and the departure of its founder: David Dixon had been given a franchise in exchange for his services in organizing the league, but opted not to field a team in 1983. During the first season, Dixon had become something of a gadfly in league circles, writing letters to complain about how owners were deviating from his plans. Tired of hearing Dixon's protests while they were losing millions of dollars, the existing owners had their fill of the founder and orchestrated the buyout to show him the door.
Five days later, William Tatham and his son were awarded a San Diego franchise for 1984. This would be the second USFL franchise awarded with intent to play in Jack Murphy Stadium, the first having been awarded to Alan Harmon and Bill Daniels. Failing to be granted access to "the Murph" for 1983, Harmon and Daniels would ultimately forming the Los Angeles Express... and encountering the exact same resistance a year later, the Tathams would wind up in a different market: Tulsa, Oklahoma, launching the Oklahoma Outlaws.
San Diego would not be the only city in which would-be franchisees would find difficulties in securing stadium leases. Applicants in Minneapolis and Seattle would be similarly rebuffed, deterring the league's acceptance of what were otherwise qualified ownership groups.
On June 14, the third new team for 1984 would be added in Jacksonville, to Florida real estate developer Fred Bullard. This expansion particularly pleased Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett; in addition to the half million dollars that represented his share of the Bulls expansion Fee, Bassett received an undisclosed indemnity payment thanks to having previously negotiated to have the entire state of Florida as the Bandits "home territory" with David Dixon.
Being in dire need of cash to offset 1983 losses and the lure of getting $6 million a pop for expansion franchises, the original group of owners decided to grab every dollar they could, opting to go beyond David Dixon's initial plan for the second season and adding two more franchises to bring the total to 18. Despite having conducted a study of 17 expansion cities that advised under no uncertain terms that it was incapable of supporting a USFL team, and despite being somewhat aware of his odd and litigious nature, the league awarded the 17th franchise to San Antonio oilman Clinton Manges on July 11. Five days later it would add a more stable owner (and a far better market) to complete the expansion derby, selecting Memphis, Tennessee and a partnership headed by margarine heir Logan Young, Jr. and financed by local textile baron William Dunavant.
Existing Franchises: A Revolving Door
Changes were taking shape among the original twelve USFL franchises as well, with over a third of the league's teams either changing hands, or relocating, or both.
The first change occurred on September 30, 1983, when one of the more unusual transactions in major pro sports history took place as the Arizona Wranglers and Chicago Blitz effectively traded whole franchises. Phoenix-based Blitz owner Ted Diethrich, having lost millions operating in Chicago, would sell his team to (grossly underfinanced) Milwaukee physician Dr. James Hoffman, then purchased the Arizona Wranglers from Jim Joseph for a reported $7 million.
As a result of the transaction, the bulk of the 1983 Blitz roster and equipment - lock, stock and tackling blocks - went to Phoenix, and vice-versa. With '83 Wranglers head coach Doug Shively returning to an assistant's role with the NFL Atlanta Falcons, the "new Blitz" named Marv Levy as their head coach to replace him (or George Allen, depending on your point of view). The "new Wranglers" meanwhile had Allen at the helm.
The franchise swap was seen as an odd one, but it wasn't unprecedented; in fact, it had happened twice before in the NFL: at the close of the 1940 season Pittsburgh Steelers founder had effectively traded his team for a half interest in the cross-state Philadelphia Eagles, and in July 1972 Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom traded that franchise for the Los Angeles Rams, saddling Charm City football fans with the erratic Bob Irsay. But the move would all but doom the USFL in the Chicago market.
The team having played in tiny Nickerson Field for 1983, the Boston Breakers were hitting a wall finding a home for their second season. Unable to secure either Harvard or Foxboro Stadiums, in December co-owners George Matthews and Randy Vataha reluctantly gave up, selling the franchise to Louisiana real estate developer Joseph Canizaro. Canizaro quickly resolved the stadium access issue by relocating the team to New Orleans and the spacious Louisiana Superdome.
J. Walter Duncan meanwhile had grown tired of traveling half way across the continent (from Oklahoma) to watch his New Jersey Generals play, choosing to sell his franchise to someone who had been considered a potential owner in New York before Duncan expressed interest - Donald J. Trump.
Across the continent in Los Angeles, Express founders Alan Harmon and Bill Daniels decided to get out, selling the team to J. William Oldenburg, a colorful character with the nickname "Mr. Dynamite" who would proceed to live up to it - by blowing the league's salary structure out of whack and scaring the bejeezus out of team owners in both the USFL and NFL. Oldenburg would go on a spending spree unmatched even by Trump in New York, acquiring perhaps the best young offensive line pro football had ever seen at the time at full market value... then for good measure putting future Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young behind that line for a reported (and staggering) four year, $40 million contract. The dollar figure would actually be exaggerated, representing the full value of an annuity set up as part of the deal; but no one reporting the deal ever let the details get in the way of a telling an outrageous story.
Finally in Denver, after religiously adhering to the fundamental principles of the USFL extolled by founder David Dixon throughout the 1983 season and actually having a tiny profit to show for it, Gold owner Ron Blanding had seen the writing on the wall far earlier than some of his contemporaries. Approached by local car dealer Doug Spedding about selling the team, Blanding wasted little time in cashing out - for a cool $10 million no less. No one realized it at the time but by selling, Blanding would make more money on the USFL than anyone else, on the field or off.
The franchise merry-go-round would actually continue well into the 1984 season, as Berl Bernhard had had enough of competing with the NFL in Washington. An agreement was made to sell the club to Florida's Sherwood "Woody" Weiser, who immediately announced his intention to move the team to Miami in 1985 and for good measure hired University of Miami head coach Howard Schnellenberger. But immediately upon the league's vote to move to a fall schedule, Schnellenberger found himself unemployed and Bernhard would find himself trying to again unload his USFL franchise.
Realignment and Playoff Format
The additions and relocations forced a divisional realignment for 1984, with the now 18-team USFL being split into Eastern and Western Conferences and four divisions: Atlantic, Southern, Central and Pacific.
The Pacific Division would see no change from 1983, with Arizona (albeit the "new" Wranglers), Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland competing. The Atlantic Division would see one change, with the Boston Breakers being replaced by the expansion Pittsburgh Maulers.
The Central Division would see Chicago and Michigan joined by three southern expansion teams: the Houston Gamblers, Oklahoma Outlaws and San Antonio Gunslingers. Meanwhile a new Southern Division would be formed with the Birmingham Stallions and Tampa Bay Bandits being joined by the new Jacksonville Bulls and Memphis Showboats, along with the relocated New Orleans Breakers.
As with the league itself the 1984 playoff format would be expanded, with eight teams in total qualifying: the champions of each of the league's four divisions, plus two "wild card" qualifiers from each conference, regardless of their divisional alignment.
Trump and Oldenburg spend, but it's still the Stars that shine
Taking over the New Jersey Generals during the off-season, new owner Donald Trump immediately begins investing in personnel, revamping a moribund 1983 Gens roster by bringing in players such as free agent Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Sipe. Also brought in as head coach is popular former New York Jets coach Walt Michaels, replacing Chuck Fairbanks, who sold his 10% stake in the team along with Duncan and quietly retired. The spending was exorbitant even by USFL standards, but did produce results on the field as the Generals improved eight games from its 1983 record, finishing 14-4-0.
The Generals improvement however would be inadequate to beat out the Philadelphia Stars for the Atlantic Division title. Featuring a tenacious "Doghouse" defense that allowed just 12.5 points per game, the Stars feasted on a mixed diet of expansion teams (two wins over Pittsburgh, and one each over Jacksonville and Memphis) and the hapless (two wins over Washington, and one each over Chicago and Oakland) on its way to a then-unmatched 16 regular season wins. The expansion Pittsburgh Maulers and Washington Federals would win six games between them in 36 tries... but Washington would prove the more hapless, as two of the Maulers three wins would come at their expense.
In the new Southern Division it would be Birmingham and Tampa Bay squaring off for divisional supremacy, each posting impressive 14-4-0 records and making the playoffs; the Stallions earning the division title thanks to a tiebreaker advantage. The transplated New Orleans Breakers, who the year before had surprised the league by going 11-7-0 in Boston, surprised no one in 1984 and went a comparatively disappointing 8-10-0. The division's expansion teams meanwhile did incredibly well at the box office and not horribly on the field as Memphis finished 7-11-0 and Jacksonville right behind at 6-12-0.
The 1983 USFL champion Michigan Panthers were expected to steamroll their way through a weak Central Division, but the expansion Houston Gamblers had other ideas. Picking up a slew of offensive firepower in University of Miami quarterback Jim Kelly and wide receivers Ricky Sanders and Richard Johnson, Darrell "Mouse" Davis' "Run n' Shoot" offense put up an incredible 618 points - an average of 34 per game. Posting a 13-5-0 record, the Gamblers far from bluffed their way to the division title. The 10-8-0 Panthers meanwhile would settle for second place and one of the Western Conference's "wild card" berths. From there the drop-off in the standings was a steep one, with the expansion Oklahoma Outlaws (6-12-0) and San Antonio Gunslingers (5-13-0) coming in third and fourth places, respectively.
Bringing up the rear in the Central was the
Arizona Wranglers "new" Chicago Blitz. New owner James Hoffman would spend millions of dollars during the 1983-84 off-season in pursuit of talent and ticket sales. Finding neither, Hoffman would turn over his franchise to the league just months after acquiring it, having never watched his team take the field as its owner. Once wards of the league office, other USFL owners balked at the idea of funding Chicago in a manner that might produce a competitive on-field product that could defeat their own teams. The result was a painful to watch, 5-13-0 campaign in which three of the wins would come against expansion teams or the Washington Federals; and attendance figures that wouldn't support a mid-level minor league hockey team: 4,307 against New Jersey, 5,711 against Arizona, and finally, 5,557 in the team's final game, against the playoff-bound Michigan Panthers.
On the whole, the Pacific Division showed marked improvement from 1983 as the free-wheeling spending of J. William Oldenburg paid immediate dividends in the form of a division title, thanks to a 10-8-0 record and a head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over the George Allen-led
Chicago Blitz Arizona Wranglers, who also finished 10-8-0, good enough to join them in the postseason. The Denver Gold would head into the final four weeks of the season looking playoff bound at 8-6-0 only to drop three of their remaining games (against the playoff-bound Houston, Philadelphia and New Jersey) and finish in third place at 9-9-0. Finally, the 1983 Pacific Division champion Oakland Invaders would stumble, going from first to worst by posting a 7-11-0 record.
The Conference Semi-Finals: Two Snoozers, Two Thrillers
Thanks to tiebreaking procedures the 4th seeded New Jersey Generals would go on the road to Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, where they would have a third meeting against the Stars. Having won the first two meetings it seemed at least plausible that the Gens would thwart the Stars efforts to get back to the USFL Championship Game... at least, until they started actually playing. Chuck Fusina and Kelvin Bryant would clearly outdo the much higher paid Brian Sipe and Herschel Walker in this "Eastern Conference Semi-Final," shutting out the Generals through three quarters and holding a 28-0 advantage going into the fourth quarter of what would prove a lopsided 28-7 victory.
In another third meeting between teams in 1984, the Birmingham Stallions and Tampa Bay Bandits would duke it out at Legion Field. While the first half would see the Stallions and Bandits trading scores (Birmingham leading 17-11 on the strength of two Cliff Stoudt touchdown runs and a Danny Miller field goal), the second half would be as competitive as the Stars-Generals game was, with the Stallions scoring on five offensive series and pulling away from Tampa Bay in a 36-17 final.
As the Stallions were beating the Bandits in Birmingham, at the Houston Astrodome the Arizona Wranglers and Houston Gamblers were engaging in an exciting Western Conference semi-final. Down 16-3 with 13:37 left in the fourth quarter, the Wranglers would proceed to score the game's final fourteen points, capping the comeback with an 11 yard touchdown pass from Greg Landry to Doug Dennison with 1:49 remaining. Rookie quarterback Jim Kelly would drive the Gamblers down to the Arizona 40 despite having no time outs, but with :02 remaining Eddie Brown would intercept his 34th pass of the day, ending the Gamblers season and raising Arizona to the Western Conference final.
The day before however had provided a truly historic clash as the Michigan Panthers and Los Angeles Express would duel over four hours, three minutes and a record 93 minutes, 33 seconds of playing time before a less than 10% capacity (7,964) crowd in the L.A. Coliseum. Down 21-13 in the fourth quarter, rookie quarterback Steve Young (23 of 44 for 295 yards on the day) would drive the Express downfield, leading to back Kevin Nelson's second touchdown of the day with just :52 left in regulation to make it 21-19. Young would then roll left and run into the end zone for a two-point conversion to tie the game and send it to overtime. In overtime, Michigan Panthers kicker Novo Bojovic would have two attempts to send the spartan home crowd away unhappy with a field goal, but both tries missed. Finally, in the third overtime, Young would once again drive the Express downfield, the game mercifully ending thanks to a 25 yard touchdown run by Mel Gray in which the running back broke his arm trying to avert a tackle. The longest game in professional football history, played under a bright Los Angeles sun on the final day of June 1984, was over.
Conference Championship Games
In a remarkable coincidence, neither of the 1984 USFL championship games would be played at the home stadia of the teams entitled to "home field advantage." In the Eastern Conference, the top-seeded Philadelphia Stars would have issues preventing them from playing their game at Veterans Stadium (in fact, they'd never play there again), forcing their game with the Birmingham Stallions to be moved to ancient Franklin Field. In the Western Conference meanwhile, despite earning the Pacific Division title over the Arizona Wranglers on the basis of a tiebreaker advantage, the Los Angeles Express would have to give up home field as the Los Angeles Coliseum would be undergoing preparations for the upcoming 1984 Summer Olympics; but rather than rent the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the league office (which oversaw postseason games) moved the game to the Wranglers home, Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.
The Eastern final would be a tale of two halves: the first decisively won by the Philadelphia Stars on the strength of alternating Kelvin Bryant touchdown runs and David Trout field goals to provide a 20-point lead; the second a moral victory of sorts for the Birmingham Stallions, who clawed their way back to avoid a shutout and make the final score seem more close than the game actually was at 20-10. The Western final would be far more memorable of the two games played that weekend, but for all the wrong reasons. Originally scheduled for a 12:30 local time kickoff on Sunday, July 8, the Phoenix area would suffer a withering heat wave in the days leading up to the game. With temperatures soaring as high as 112 in the desert sun earlier in the week, in the name of player safety kickoff would be moved back 8 hours. This did have a positive result in that the temperature at the 8:30 kickoff time would be 96 degrees rather than the 108 degrees it had been at 12:30 that afternoon. It also had a negative impact in that thanks to the bulk of ABC television viewers being on the east coast, the 10:30 Eastern kickoff time absolutely tanked ratings for the game. Despite the oppressive, potentially life-threatening heat, the Wranglers would overcome a 17-7 deficit by scoring 28 unanswered points on their way to a 35-23 victory to give head coach George Allen a second chance at a professional football league championship.
Awarded thanks to the strength of the Bandits 1983 home attendance, a reported (truthfully, generously estimated) 52,662 fans would gather in Tampa Stadium to witness the Philadelphia Stars avenge their 1983 championship game loss by utterly dismantling the Arizona Wranglers in a game that wasn't as close as its 23-3 final score would indicate. Jim Mora's strategy for the Stars offense was simple: run the ball, run it some more, and then for good measure - run it again, dominating time of possession (43:19, as opposed to Arizona's 16:41). In all, the Stars ground game would amass 256 yards on a whopping 59 carries; 29 of them by running back Kelvin Bryant, who with 115 yards on the ground likely should have earned MVP honors over teammate QB Chuck Fusina in what would be George Allen's swan song as a professional head coach, the Stars final game representing the city of Philadelphia, and the Arizona Wranglers final game, period.
- Most Valuable Player - Jim Kelly, QB, Houston Gamblers
- Sporting News Player of the Year - Chuck Fusina, QB, Philadelphia Stars
- Man of the Year - Irv Eatman, Philadelphia Stars
- Coach of the Year - Jim Mora, Philadelphia Stars
- Outstanding Quarterback - Chuck Fusina, Philadelphia Stars
- Outstanding Running Back - Joe Cribbs, Birmingham Stallions
- Outstanding Lineman - Kit Lathrop, Arizona Wranglers
- Sporting News Rookie of the Year Award - Jim Kelly, Houston Gamblers
- Defensive Player of the Year - Marcus Quinn, Oakland Invaders
- Special Teams Player of the Year - Zenon Andrusyshyn, Tampa Bay Bandits
- Leading Receiver Award - Richard Johnson, Houston Gamblers
- Leading Scorer Award - Toni Fritsch, Houston Gamblers
- Sporting News Executive of the Year - Carl Peterson, Philadelphia Stars