Pearlman, Jeff. Football for a Buck: The Crazy Ride and the Crazier Demise of the USFL.New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2018. $18.30 paperback.
Review By Jon Hart
This review originally appeared on Stadium Journey. Re-posted with author permission.
Prolific author Jeff Pearlman, @jeffpearlman, has written eight books. By his own admission, he had the most fun working on his latest. In Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and The Crazier Demise of the USFL, Pearlman chronicles the rise and fall of the United States Football League (USFL), a spring professional football league which existed, only barely, in the 80s. After three years of hits and misses, the league disappeared into the abyss like a one-hit, new wave band, a victim of greed and mismanagement, among other factors.
When it kicked off in 1983, the USFL looked like it had more than a Hail Mary shot. Fans tuned in on television, at least out of curiosity, and fans showed up, well, sometimes when there wasn’t a monsoon. Some teams like the fan-friendly – yes, think lots of fun minor league baseball promotions – Tampa Bay Bandits thrived. With stellar running back Kelvin Bryant leading the way, the Philadelphia Stars were the league’s class, winning two of three USFL crowns. The Stars birthed the careers of 5’9” linebacker Sam Mills of Division 3 Montclair State and Towson State punter Sean Landeta, both future NFL all-pros. Giving a shot to those that were deemed to have no shot was much a part of the USFL’s beauty. And on every page, one can feel Pearlman rooting for these underdogs to somehow find a way. However, on-field success didn’t necessarily translate to fiscal stability. At one point, the Stars became the Baltimore Stars while residing in Philadelphia – and played in College Park. Often, the USFL could feel like amateur hour – or happy hour. Drugs, everything from cocaine to steroids, were rampant in the spring league. Meanwhile, other teams like the Los Angeles Express went no where fast, even with Heisman winner Steve Young at the helm.
The USFL lacked no shortage of, ah, quirky personalities, whether it be on the field, the sidelines or in the owner’s box. The USFL didn’t have former Miami Dolphin kicker Garo Yepremian, but they had a Garo lookalike try out. No one was crazier than monster, LA Express defensive lineman Greg Fields, who pummeled running backs and assaulted his own coach. In San Antonio, their head coach sat in the stands with his wife during the game. Indeed, the USFL boasted no shortage of eccentric owners. San Antonio owner Clinton Manges was excessively frugal, and the San Antonio turf was a bacteria-infested, concrete health hazard. Quite memorably, Manges insisted that the team suit up one of his very unqualified ranch hand employees to handle the team’s punting duties. Donald Trump, yes the current President, was the owner of the New Jersey Generals. He signed Heisman winners Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie and the Generals attracted crowds, albeit not nearly NFL crowds. Trump, as well as some other USFL owners, often over paid for name players, straying from the USFL’s business model, making long term success a long shot.
Ultimately, Trump wanted no part of spring football, later referring to the USFL as “small potatoes.” Ultimately, in a last gasp attempt to save the league or perhaps gain some form of entry into the NFL, the USFL – with Trump leading the charge – filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL. The USFL won the case technically. In every other aspect, the USFL lost, collecting just a single dollar in damages, thus Pearlman’s title. And with that, the USFL vanished, though dozens of its players were picked up by the NFL. Bottom line: If the USFL was as good as Pearlman’s often humorous, detail-filled account, it might have just made it.
Or maybe not.
Perhaps football was built for fall. If it got a do over and learned from its missteps, could the USFL make it work? Of course, there are no do overs, and the USFL is not making a comeback. However, there’s another spring football league on the horizon. In early February, the Alliance of American Football, aaf.com, is scheduled to kick off.
At the very least, San Antonio will once again have a team!
You can follow Jon Hart at @ManVersusBall