Dead League Walking

While most didn't realize it while it was happening, the events of the 1984-85 off-season of the USFL were its death knell.

The revolving door of franchise ownership changes and related happenings after the 1983 season should have cautioned everyone involved in the venture to take a step or two back, re-evaluate, and stabilize.  Instead, those who had come into the league for the 1984 season - chiefly among them New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump - inexplicably decided to enter a suicide pact by trying to compete directly with the NFL - a direct, and ultimately fatal, break with founder David Dixon's original plans.

Off-Season Franchise Moves

The first sign that the proverbial wheels were falling off the USFL came not during the 1984-85 off-season, but rather in February of 1984, when just months after buying the Chicago Blitz from Ted Diethrich, Dr. James Hoffman simply walked away from his franchise, before they'd played a single regular season game and leaving a trail of unpaid debts in his wake.

Then, immediately after the '84 season concluded, J. William Oldenburg, the Los Angeles Express' "Mr. Dynamite," would implode, claiming losses of $15 million in a single year of ownership.  Eleven of the other sixteen teams from 1984 would report financial losses of at least $3 million - triple what Dixon had projected as an "acceptable" annual loss in the league's second season.

Convinced by Trump and Eddie Einhorn (who would be awarded a new Chicago franchise for 1986 and admitted to league meetings as a non-voting owner in '85) that the owners stood a better chance of making it financially playing in the fall than the spring, the pair ultimately would either convince their fellow owners to go along with the suggestion, or at least not oppose it enough to kill it.  After a lame duck spring 1985 season, the league would take a 14-month hiatus, regroup, then go head-to-head with the NFL beginning in the fall of 1986.

Recognizing that this decision would pit a number of USFL teams in direct competition with the NFL, the owners began making moves in anticipation of the switch to a fall schedule prior to the 1985 season:

  • The Tatham family, owners of the Oklahoma Outlaws, bought out Dr. Ted Diethrich and his Arizona Wranglers, merging the teams.
  • A. Alfred Taubman and Tad Taube decided to merge the 1983 champion Michigan Panthers into the Oakland Invaders, strengthening that team both on the field and financially.
  • Myles Tanenbaum relocated the defending champion Stars to Baltimore in an effort to fill the void left by the NFL Colts departure to Indianapolis the previous year.
  • The New Orleans Breakers, who had moved into the market from Boston just a year earlier, would be on the move again - this time, to Portland, Oregon.

But these wouldn't be the only franchise moves.  Having financially supported the Chicago Blitz through the 1984 season, the owners voted to disband the team.  Within hours of the decision to move to a fall schedule for 1986, the Pittsburgh Maulers, brought into the league just a year before, were quickly and quietly shuttered.  The Los Angeles Express, now ownerless, would be operated by the league in 1985.

The Washington Federals, their sale and relocation to Miami having been shattered with the vote to go to a fall schedule, would instead be sold to Tampa Bay Bandits minority owner Donald Dizney, who would move the club to Orlando and rechristen them the Renegades.  And once the season began the Birmingham Stallions hit the skids as owner Marvin Warner suddenly found himself bankrupt and facing prison time for his involvement in a wide ranging banking scandal.

Once the season began, the Birmingham Stallions faced immediate closure as majority owner Marvin Warner and his Cincinnati-based Home Savings Bank found themselves addressing losses in excess of $100 million, triggering a mini-run on savings banks throughout Ohio that would end only when Governor Richard Celeste imposed a brief banking holiday.

ABC v. USFL

The reason both the Blitz and Express didn't meet their demise after the 1984 season had to do with a clause in the USFL's television contract with ABC for the league's network television rights.

Under the ABC deal, the league was required to have franchises in the three largest television markets (New York, Los Angeles and Chicago).  Failing to do so would constitute a breach of that contract, entitling ABC to take unspecified remedial action.  Having long chafed under the ABC contract and lamenting the fact that the network had renewal options for 1986 and 1987 at far less than what market value, some owners voted to kill the Blitz in the hope that ABC would exercise the default clause and terminate the deal, thereby allowing the league to shop around for a better one.

This position had been buoyed by the recent bidding for the USFL's cable television rights.  Unlike the ABC deal which gave the network unilateral options for 1986 and 1987, the league's deal with ESPN would end at the conclusion of the 1984 season, with no option.  A bidding war between ESPN and Ted Turner's TBS would ensue, quadrupling its revenue stream and renewing with ESPN for three years at $70 million - or roughly 60% more than ABC was paying for the (presumably more valuable) network broadcast rights.

Instead, ABC decided not to terminate its USFL deal, but rather to take a two-pronged strategy.  First, before the league had finalized a separate deal with ESPN, it offered to scrap the current contract and enter a new one which would have paid the league $134 million over three years for both terrestrial and cable broadcast rights - at the time, ABC was in the final stages of acquiring ESPN.  That offer flatly rejected, ABC then invoked the default clause caused by the Blitz failure - but rather than terminating the deal, ABC withheld one-third of its 1985 rights payment, then basically dared the league to sue them to try and get the rest. 

It was a spiteful move, and one that based on the owners history with the network dating back as far as mid-1982?  They had coming.  And as if the relationship between the network and the league weren't already poisoned enough, the USFL responded by filing a $7 million suit - another round in a competition to see who could burn down whose bridge first.

Realignment and Playoff Format

Just as the expansion of 1984 caused a realignment of USFL teams into four divisions, the contracts of 1985 would prompt another.  After contemplating a return to a three-division format (in which Baltimore, Jacksonville, New Jersey, Orlando and Tampa Bay would comprise the Atlantic Division; Birmingham, Houston, Memphis and San Antonio the Central; and Arizona, Denver, Los Angeles and Portland comprising the Pacific Division).

Instead, the league opted to align teams into two seven-team conferences, with each team playing its six conference rivals twice (home-and-home) to represent two-thirds of each team's 18-game regular season schedule.  Baltimore, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Memphis, New Jersey, Orlando and Tampa would comprise the Eastern Conference, while the Western would feature Arizona, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland and San Antonio.

The playoff format for 1985 was also modified, with the first- and second-place teams from each conference guaranteed playoff berths together with four "wild card" qualifiers, chosen without regard of their division.

A Lackluster Final Season

The behind the scenes off-season turmoil would have an impact on each of the 14 surviving franchises, and in some cases a significant one.  Most impacted would be the Arizona Outlaws, Baltimore Stars, Memphis Showboats and Oakland Invaders - each of which experienced a dramatic change in their on-field fortunes.

The Eastern Conference
Unlike the first two seasons, there would be no clearly dominant teams during the 1985 season.  Fresh off their 1984 Eastern Conference final loss, the Birmingham Stallions would earn the conference's regular season championship in '85, posting an impressive 13-5-0 record.  The New Jersey Generals and Memphis Showboats would tie for second place, each qualifying for the playoffs with 11-7-0 records.  The defending USFL champion Stars, now representing Baltimore rather than Philadelphia, would be distracted by the team's migration, but nonetheless would manage a 10-7-1 record, good for fourth place and a third consecutive playoff berth.  In fifth place would be the Tampa Bay Bandits, who would go 10-8-0 in spite of having its founder and majority owner dying of brain cancer.  The Jacksonville Bulls would improve their record from their inaugural season and nearly made the playoffs, posting a 9-9-0 record in front of truly enthusiastic fans; while the freshly relocated Orlando Renegades would improve slightly playing in the Florida sun, finishing their season 5-13-0 and setting a franchise record for wins despite yet another last place finish.

The Western Conference
Bolstered by the talent that came along as part of its merger agreement with the Michigan Panthers, the Oakland Invaders clearly are the class of the Western Conference, posting the league best 13-4-1 regular season record.  In second place and in the playoffs would be the Denver Gold at 11-7-0, as were the third place Houston Gamblers at 10-8-0.

While the merger of the Arizona Wranglers and Oklahoma Outlaws was expected to produce a team that could challenge for the 1985 USFL Championship Game.  The 1984 Wranglers had made it to the title tilt, and adding the best from the Outlaws (including quarterback Doug Williams) was seen as a move that would only enhance the team's fortunes.  Instead, the owning Tatham family opted instead to leave most of their key players available to other teams via a dispersal draft, losing key personnel from the '84 Wranglers; what was left behind wasn't a truly cohesive unit that showed on the field as the Outlaws finished fourth at 8-10-0.  The twice-moved Portland Breakers would continue their slide dating back to the Boston days in 1983, coming in at 6-12-0.  The Gunslingers meanwhile had a front office that was run with all the professionalism of a local flag football league, resulting in an on-field product of equal quality, ending 5-13-0; and in Los Angeles, the wards of the league would manage just 3 wins, during one of which quarterback Steve Young spent time in the backfield as a running back due to player shortages.

The Playoffs

The Odd Couplings

While maintaining the distinction between the Eastern and Western Conferences for regular season play, come playoff time they - along with earned home-field advantage in some cases - were jettisoned in favor of putting together the best pairings of teams in each round of the playoffs.

Using the historically tried-and-true playoff bracket used by leagues since the first one was drawn up, the first round's games should have been:

  • Tampa Bay at Oakland
  • Houston at Denver
  • Baltimore at Birmingham
  • Memphis at New Jersey

Instead, USFL playoff pairings were awarded by the league office on the basis of which of the remaining playoff teams would draw the most fans to their stadium for a playoff game.  So on June 29, 1985 you could have seen the Birmingham Stallions eliminate the Houston Gambers, 22-20, in a matchup that should only have happened had both teams reached the USFL Championship Game.  Similarly, the Memphis Showboats would defeat the Denver Gold 48-7 in front of 34,528 fans instead of Houston going to Denver and Memphis traveling to New Jersey.  Baltimore, which should've played Birmingham, instead played at New Jersey, earning a 20-17 win before 26,982 fans.  And in the only game which adhered to traditional playoff bracket-like scheduling that week, the Oakland Invaders would defeat the Tampa Bay Bandits 30-17 at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum before 19,346 fans.

This method would be used for the semi-final round as well, as the #3 Eastern seeded Memphis Showboats would host the only surviving Western Conference qualifier, the #1 seeded Oakland Invaders, to whom they lost 28-19.  Meanwhile in the other semi-final, a de facto Eastern Conference Championship Game, the fourth-seeded Baltimore Stars would advance to their third consecutive USFL Championship Game by denying the Stallions their own trip to that game for the second year in a row, 28-14.  The whole "who's playing where?" episode would more fully expose the financial problems the league as a whole was now suffering.

In every show, the curtain has to close somewhere.  In the case of the United States Football League, the stage was set at the Meadowlands in New York, awarded to the city in part due to their steady attendance figures, in part because Donald Trump volunteered to host the game, and in part because no one else made a serious bid to host it.  Having gone from Philadelphia to Baltimore during the 1984 off-season and being dubbed the "I-95" Stars due to a nomadic existence (the team operated some facilities in Baltimore, some still in Philadelphia, and played games at Byrd Stadium in College Park), the team's focus on football wavered a bit as the team would go 12-7-1.  The Oakland Invaders were meanwhile reborn from their 1984 incarnation thanks to a merger with the 1983 USFL champion Michigan Panthers.  The team posted a league best 13-4-1 record (the tie coming against the Stars) and looked poised to give ex-Panthers another championship title at the Stars expense.  Jim Mora and the Stars, however, had other ideas.

An announced crowd of 49,263 braved steady rains through East Rutherford, New Jersey, but got an entertaining, competitive contest for their trouble.  Employing a strategy similar to that used the year before to defeat the Arizona Wranglers for the 1984 title, the Stars would put running back Kelvin Bryant to work, letting him carry the ball 23 times for 103 yards and three touchdowns, including one with 8:15 left to give the Stars a 28-24 lead.  Down by four points and taking possession on its own five yard line, Bobby Hebert and the Invaders would need to go 95 yards to get the comeback score.  Advancing the ball 90 of those 95 yards, a costly 15 yard unnecessary roughness penalty against running back Tom Newton with 2:38 remaining would push the Invaders back to the Baltimore 20.  Facing a 3rd-and-17, Hebert first would look for reliable wide receiver Gordon Banks on a slant pattern, but missed his mark.  A second Hebert-to-Banks attempt, this one in the end zone, would be deflected and incomplete, giving the Stars their second championship win in three tries.

League Honorees

  • Most Valuable Player - Herschel Walker, RB, New Jersey Generals
  • Sporting News Player of the Year - Herschel Walker, RB, New Jersey Generals
  • Coach of the Year - Rollie Dotsch, Birmingham Stallions