Reeths, Paul. The United States Football League, 1982-1986. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2017. Pp. 428, photographs, bibliography, and index. $39.95.
Reviewed by Jorge Iber
At the start of The United States Football League, 1982-1986, author Paul Reeths harkens back to his youth in the early 1980s and recounts his excitement at the possibility that professional football would now be, joy of joys for its aficionados, played on a year-round basis. As a slightly older football fan at this moment in time, I can attest to sharing some of young Reeths’ excitement at this delightful possibility. Frankly, it is possible that this reviewer went even beyond the youthful Reeths’ anticipatory elation, as I recall not only my ties to the NFL and collegiate football, but also being enthralled by the brief existence of the WFL, particularly the title run by the 1974 Birmingham Americans, which were quarterbacked by one of my childhood heroes, George Mira. It was with great anticipation that I awaited the arrival of this book, hoping to recapture some of the wonderful memories that the three seasons of the USFL provided. This book certainly accomplishes its proposed mission, and goes well beyond a recounting of individual games, players, teams, and owners of what turned out to be a doomed venture.
Reeths’ extensive research, featuring a plethora of interviews with participants, sheds light on the initial concept for the enterprise, the proposed payroll structure designed (theoretically) to achieve stability and future success, the initial optimism of the TV deal with ABC and ESPN, the impact of the new league on NFL salaries, and, eventually, how it all went to hell in a handbasket. The book does provide a definitive perspective, and Reeths proffers it clearly at the end of his introduction. Contrary to recent articles and documentary work laying most (some might even say, all) of the blame at the feet of Donald Trump, this book is not necessarily about “who or what killed the USFL” (though this is most definitely part of the work’s coverage), but rather totality of the league’s existence.
The book provides far-reaching discussion on how the USFL got off the ground and the halcyon early days of the late David Dixon’s brainchild. Having seen what happened to the WFL (as well as the myriad of difficulties confronted by the ABA and WHA), and recognizing the NFL as the 800-pound gorilla of professional sports, it was indeed wise not to take on the titan head on; or at least that was the initial scheme. The USFL was envisioned as a way of providing junkies with their football fix during the long and eventually hot days after the end college bowls and the Super Bowl. Plans were modest at first, as Reeths’ sources attest. The payrolls were supposed to be restrained and the teams were not envisioned as challenging the larger league for primo talent. Indeed, at the core of the concept was the idea that the hundreds of colleges playing football produced a wealth of talent that did not have an opportunity to display its prowess on the fields of the NFL.
The history of the USFL clearly attests to such openings. For example, one need only review the careers of Sam Mills and Bobby Hebert (just to name two) to comprehend the value of the opportunities the fledgling association provided to athletes. Additionally, the USFL placed franchises in cities with a (hopeful) possibility of supporting professional football, such as Birmingham and Phoenix (before the arrival of the Cardinals), as well as those recently deprived of their NFL franchises (Oakland and later, Baltimore) to further spread the game to “new” or in the case of the Bay area and Maryland, jilted, fans. Later, with expansion and relocation, teams moved into Memphis, Tulsa, Orlando, San Antonio, and Jacksonville. Reeths does an excellent job of providing details on each of the teams, from training camp through the regular season, as well as the playoffs for each of the years of the league’s existence. While there are a couple of typos (at one point he noted that Oakland finished the 1983 season 7-9, which should have been 9-9), these are but “small potatoes” (pardon the pun) in an otherwise excellent blow by blow recounting of the league’s history.
Of course, all the best laid plans went out the window soon after the initial agreements. As the legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson noted about the league (and life in general?), “greed and patience don’t live very well together.” An early example of this trend can be seen in the disastrous leadership of George Allen with the Chicago Blitz. Allen, a legendary coach with the Redskins and other teams in the NFL, began to recruit higher level (read that to mean more expensive) talent for his squad. This helped to divide the teams into those who sought to stick with the initial plan (such as the Denver Gold, the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars and the Tampa Bay Bandits) and the more “free spenders” such as the Blitz, the New Jersey Generals (even before Donald Trump came on the scene), and (the appropriately named freight train disaster) Los Angeles Express. Although buoyed by a substantial TV contract, and good attendance league-wide in the initial campaign, not sticking to its limited budgets spurred a drive for expansion and an inflated price of $6.5 million per entry from teams such as the Pittsburgh Maulers (owned by the DeBartolo family) and the star-crossed and always under-funded San Antonio Gunsligers (as well as the Memphis Showboats, the Jacksonville Bulls, Houston Gamblers, and Oklahoma Outlaws). Into this boiling cauldron of ravenousness and impetuosity stepped the closest personification of these traits (short of the fictional Gordon Gekko), Donald J. Trump.
From the get-go, Trump wanted to turn the Generals into the “elite” franchise of the USFL, and he spent freely (though he was not the only owner to do so). While dominance on the field was his short-term goal, it was not the ultimate prize. No, Trump was not content with dominating the spring league; he wanted entry into the NFL to turn his relatively miniscule investment (he claimed to have paid less for the Generals than did the owners of the expansion squads) into a windfall. This, Trump argued, required the USFL to move to the fall and directly challenge the behemoth. Eventually, by a vote of 12-2, (and Reeths provides extensive detail on the “battle” between Trump and John Bassett, the Bandits’ owner and most adamant opponent regarding the move to the fall) the other owners agreed to cast their lot with this dramatic change of plans. To make this bold move succeed, it was necessary to further increase the talent on the field, as well as to bring about legal action claiming that the NFL monopolized TV revenues.
Any aficionado of professional football is at least tangentially familiar with the lawsuit filed by the USFL versus the NFL in 1986. Reeths does a superb job of providing a blow by blow account of this melodrama, and points out key mistakes by the nascent association in its legal strategy. Did the NFL lock up all TV rights to professional football? Not really, as the USFL had an offer for $175 million in television rights, but only if it were to continue in the spring. Thus, it was hard to overcome the notion that if the league had retained its initial blueprint, that there was the possibility of money to be made (eventually). The ultimate result was the famous $3 check from the NFL to its courtroom rival.
Overall, Reeths is to be commended for his excellent research and writing for this work. Not only do we see the genesis of the USFL and its day-to-day operations through the various franchises as well as the league, but readers also get a sense of what this endeavor meant to the players and owners. It is worthwhile to see quotes from the likes of Steve Young, Jim Kelly (both now Hall of Famers) and Myles Tannenbaum (owner of the Stars) about their pride in what the league accomplished and the talent (both as coaches and players) it helped develop. Reeths also is to be commended for at least including Donald Trump’s reasoning for doing what he did within the USFL. Finally, it can be argued, that the arrival of the Wranglers in Phoenix, the Bulls in Jacksonville, and the Showboats in Memphis helped to pave the way for eventual moves by the NFL into those cities and the state of Tennessee.
One final note concerning this book ties in directly to the current political climate in the United States. As I always indicate to students in my History of Sports class at Texas Tech, there are many important interrelations between the endeavor of athletics and American history. This book on the USFLprovides both supporters and detractors of President Trump with ample ammunition for their diametrically opposed positions. On the supporter’s side of the isle, this population can see, up-close and personal, the aggressive, take-no-prisoners, bull-in-the-china-shop personality that helped to install the brash personae in the White House. These folks elected him to “drain the swamp,” and by golly this work shows Trump at his aggressive “best” in moving the action along; for good or ill. For detractors, the portrait presented of Trump’s actions in the USFL provide validation for their fear and loathing of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This book, in addition to presenting a definitive history of the USFL, can also be utilized to teach Americans of varied political stripes important lessons in the spheres of politics and civics. Not a bad new life for a football league that existed for but a brief time.
Jorge Iber is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His area of specialization is the study of Latino/a participation in the history of American sports. He is the author/co-author/editor of nine books. His most recent work, Mike Torrez: A Baseball Biography, is a biography of former Major Leaguer Mike Torrez (he of the pitch to Bucky “Bleeping” Dent in the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees) published by McFarland.