They Said It Couldn't Be Done. And They Were Right.
Upon announcing that the USFL would move to a fall schedule beginning in 1986, myriad questions were raised by fans and the media about the likelihood of a professional football league ending a season, then waiting 14 months before beginning its next. Some said the league's carefully cultivated young talent would leave the league rather than wait 14 months. Some said that once the result of USFL v. NFL came in, the older league would be vindicated and the younger circuit would fold. Some simply believed it couldn't be done. And they were right.
More Franchise Shuffles
Before players were leaving the field at the 1985 USFL Championship Game on July 14, employees of many USFL teams were being notified that their services would no longer be required; or at least, not anytime in the immediate future. As had been the case in 1983 and 1984, in the immediate aftermath of the 1985 season the league would see a number of franchises undergo significant changes:
- Two of the stalwarts for spring football, John Bassett and Myles Tanenbaum, put the Tampa Bay Bandits and Baltimore Stars up for sale. Tanenbaum quickly finds a buyer in future Miami Dolphins owner Steven Ross, while the Bandits are sold to a partnership headed by Lee Scarfone and Tony Cunningham.
- Abandoned by founder Marvin Warner during the 1985 season, the Birmingham Stallions were on life support, avoiding closure primarily thanks to a $1 million loan from the Birmingham City Council.
- The Los Angeles Express reached its last stop, being folded by the league after a year-long, futile search to find a new owner.
- The San Antonio Gunslingers become the only franchise in USFL history to be revoked, as owner Clinton Manges continually fails to meet financial obligations and deadlines to upgrade Alamo Stadium to USFL specifications.
- The Houston Gamblers and New Jersey Generals are merged, with the Generals intending to start marquee quarterback Jim Kelly.
- The Denver Gold, Jacksonville Bulls and Portland Breakers all search for merger partners. Denver and Portland are rebuffed by Birmingham despite their struggles, but the Gold agree to be merged into the Jacksonville Bulls.
When each of the now nine USFL franchises is required to post a $500,000 letter of credit guaranteeing their team's ability to complete a 1986 season, the Portland Breakers fail to meet the deadline and fold. In 1983 the amount of this type of performance bond was $1.5 million.
The Player Exodus
Further hindering any expectation that the United States Football League would make a return in 1986 was a mass exodus of the player talent it had developed:
- John Banaszak retired from football as a player and entered the business world.
- Novo Bojovic would have a brief stint in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals, but would go on to win four Arena Football championships as a member of the Detroit Drive.
- Kelvin Bryant would add to his jewelry collection shortly after leaving the Baltimore Stars, earning a championship ring with Washington in Super Bowl XXII.
- Anthony Carter left the Oakland Invaders to join the Minnesota Vikings, later returning to the Detroit area with the Lions.
- Joe Cribbs would briefly return to the Buffalo Bills after leaving the Birmingham Stallions.
- Marcus Dupree would leave pro football for three years, then launch a brief comeback with the Los Angeles Rams.
- Irv Eatman would leave the Baltimore Stars to join the Kansas City Chiefs.
- Doug Flutie left the New Jersey Generals and joined the Chicago Bears, spending two decades in the NFL and CFL.
- Chuck Fusina left the Baltimore Stars, returning to the NFL with the Green Bay Packers.
- Derek Holloway left the Oakland Invaders and joined Washington, later playing in the CFL, WLAF, and Arena Football.
- Jim Kelly left the Houston Gamblers and joined the Buffalo Bills.
- Kit Lathrop returned to the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs, ultimately winning a championship with Washington in Super Bowl XXII.
- Ray Pinney, who in 1983 left the Pittsburgh Steelers to join the Michigan Panthers, would return to the Steelers.
- Mike Rozier left the Jacksonville Bulls and joined the Houston Oilers.
- Brian Sipe retired from football as a player and entered coaching.
- Tim Spencer would leave the Memphis Showboats for the San Diego Chargers.
- Cliff Stoudt left the Birmingham Stallions, signing with the St. Louis Cardinals.
- Herschel Walker left the New Jersey Generals and joined the Dallas Cowboys.
- Reggie White left the Memphis Showboats and joined the Philadelphia Eagles.
- Doug Williams would leave the Arizona Outlaws and sign with Washington in the NFL, where he would earn MVP honors in Super Bowl XXII.
- Steve Young left the Los Angeles Express and joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Last, but not least, would be Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars punter Sean Landeta. After leaving the USFL he would sign with the NFL's New York Giants, earning two Super Bowl rings over eight years with the club. His career would then take him to Los Angeles, St. Louis (twice), Tampa Bay, Philadelphia (twice), Green Bay, then back again to the New York Giants for his final season in 2006 - the last active USFL player still in professional football.
Planned Divisional Alignment
With teams folding and merging left and right in the interim between the 1985 USFL Championship Game and the planned start of the league's inaugural fall season in 1986, the surviving eight teams were realigned into two divisions. With only one team operated west of the Mississippi River (the Arizona Outlaws) however, maintaining the 1985 nomenclature of Eastern and Western Conferences seemed absurd.
To address the situation, the league took an approach similar to what the National Hockey League was doing at the time, naming its divisions non-geographically:
- Baltimore Stars
- Birmingham Stallions
- Memphis Showboats
- New Jersey Generals
- Arizona Outlaws
- Jacksonville Bulls
- Orlando Renegades
- Tampa Bay Bandits
Schedule and Playoff Format
As with each of the league's three prior seasons, the 1986 USFL campaign was to feature 18 regular season games by each of its member clubs, starting on September 13-14, 1986 and concluding the weekend of January 10-11, 1987.
With the number of teams reduced and the divisions realigned for 1986, so too would be the league's playoff system. For this the USFL took a novel approach: five of the league's eight teams would qualify for the postseason: the regular season champions of the Liberty and Independence Divisions, along with three "wild card" qualifiers, without regard to divisional alignment.
On the weekend of January 17-18, the lowest seeded "wild card" qualifiers were to meet in what was effectively a play-in game... the winner would have advanced to a Divisional Playoff against the division champion with the best regular season record, while the other division's champion and the surviving wild card qualifier would have met each other; the winners of those games, in turn, would compete in the 1986 USFL Championship Game, played in Jacksonville's Gator Bowl. On Sunday, February 1, 1987.