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#38 – Denver Gold

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I don’t care who’s playing.  I will watch ANY football game when it’s played in snow so deep you can’t see the field markings.  Add in a last minute victory celebration and the masterful play-by-play of ABC’s Keith Jackson and this long-ago clip from the United States Football League is pure pigskin bliss, even if you’ve never heard of the Denver Gold or the Chicago Blitz…

This was one of the early games of USFL – in fact it was the inaugural home game for the Blitz at Soldier Field on March 20th, 1983.  The USFL was a springtime league and didn’t expect to play a whole lot of games like this one – with a wind chill of 4 degrees at kickoff and snowplows criss crossing the field throughout the afternoon.

Quarterback Ken Johnson’s last second scramble for victory over the Blitz turned out to be a rare highlight for the Denver Gold and their Head Coach Red Miller.  Miller was a tremendously popular figure in Denver.  The temperamental former Broncos Head Coach (1977-1980) led that team during its “Orange Crush” years, racking up 42 wins in four seasons, including the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance and three trips to the playoffs.  Then, in early 1981, he rubbed new Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser the wrong way and was abruptly fired.

Miller signed on with the Gold and the fledgling USFL in 1982 and, in the absence of any stars on the roster, served as the face of the Gold’s marketing heading into the league’s inaugural season in the spring of 1983.  The Gold sold more than 30,000 season tickets at Mile High Stadium.  But once again, Miller had owner problems.  Miller  clashed with Gold chief Ron Blanding over Blanding’s penny-pinching on player personnel and team operations.  Blanding fired Miller in midseason on May 19th, 1983 after a 4-7 start, including four straight losses in Miller’s final month at the helm.

Blanding became the first owner to fire his coach in the history of the young league and, less than a month later, the first owner to put his club up for sale.  Although Blanding refused to say the public outcry over the Miller firing led to his decision to sell, he did cite his family’s discomfort with the public criticism of his personnel moves and low payroll.

Blanding replaced Miller with Craig Morton, the former starting quarterback on Miller’s Broncos teams.  Morton had just concluded his playing career the previous fall with the Broncos and had no previous coaching experience.  The Gold finished the 1983 season 7-11 and out of the playoffs.

In April 1984, in the middle of the Gold’s second season, Blanding found his buyer in Denver-area auto dealer Douglas Spedding, who also owned the city’s Colorado Flames minor league hockey franchise.  Blanding acquired the Gold franchise by posting a $1.5 million letter of credit in 1982 when the league formed, then operated the Gold in the black during the 1983 season by adhering to the league’s original (but largely ignored) model of tight expense controls, solid marketing and and a roster composed of anonymous and inexpensive journeymen.  The reported sale price to Spedding was $10 million dollars, meaning Blanding became one of the very few – quite possibly the only – franchise owner to get more out of the USFL than he put in.

With Craig Morton back for his first full season handling the Head Coaching duties, the 1984 Gold raced out to a 7-1 record, despite fielding another team of relative unknowns.  2nd year fullback Harry Sydney rushed for ten touchdowns.  Four different Gold quarterbacks attempted 100 or more passes in 1984, with Craig Penrose, one of Morton’s former back-ups with the late 1970’s Broncos, handling the bulk of the signal calling.

Coincidentally or not, the wheels came off right around the time Spedding took over at midseason.  After that 7-1 start, the Gold dropped eight of nine games, heading into the final weekend of the season with a 8-9 record and needing a win (and help) to make the USFL playoffs.  Spedding, meanwhile, made it clear that he was going to be a hands-on owner.  VP and General Manager Bill Roth resigned several weeks after the sale and Spedding assumed GM duties himself.  Among his first decrees – front office workers would now open all of the players’ personal mail.

“I’m just saying that I want love letters from their girlfriends and other personal matters delivered to their homes, not to the office,” Spedding told a bemused press corps.

More significantly, Spedding sparred publicly with Craig Morton.  Spedding attributed the club’s collapse to Morton’s less-than-obsessive 9-to-5 work habits, suggesting that Morton start putting in 12 hour days or be fired at the end of the season.  The Gold won their final game of 1984 to finish 9-9, but failed to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year.  Spedding fired Morton on June 27th, 1984 and then embarked on a public flirtation with Houston Gamblers offensive coordinator and run-and-shoot offense innovator Darrel “Mouse” Davis.  Trouble was, the Gamblers were still active in the USFL playoffs.  Spedding got his man a few weeks later, but USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons later revoked the Gold’s 1985 1st round draft pick and slapped the team with a $50,000 fine as a penalty for tampering with Davis.

Under the spendthrift Blanding in 1983, the Gold were the only team in the USFL to turn a small profit, while leading the league in attendance with a reported average of 41,735 fans per game.  The 1984 Gold, under the dual managements of Blanding and Spedding, lost approximately $2 million as announced attendance declined almost 20% to 33,953 per game.  Worse news was coming.  In August 1984, the USFL owners, following the lead of New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, voted to move to a fall season beginning in 1986.  Spedding had owned the Gold for all of four months and now his top-drawing spring football franchise was staring at a head-to-head fall showdown with Denver’s beloved Broncos.  That would be suicide and everyone knew it.  USFL owners in other NFL markets began a series of relocations and mergers to position themselves for fall football in 1986.  Spedding stayed put…for now.

Despite the August 1984 vote, Spedding, like Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett, remained a vocal proponent of spring football.  In February 1985 on the eve of the USFL’s third and final spring season, Spedding told the media: “If the $15 million contract we have (with ABC-ESPN) turns around and becomes a $30 million contract – and they’re not offering us anything in the fall – we’ll play in the spring.”

Myles Tanenbaum, owner of the defending champion Philadelphia Stars franchise, had moved his club to Baltimore over the winter, in anticipation of the 1986 move to the fall, which would have placed the Stars in direct competition with the NFL Eagles.  He was swift to publicly chide Spedding for deviating from the party line:

“Spedding probably will get fined for saying that,” Tanenbaum told Ken Murray of The Baltimore Evening Sun.  “He’s a used car salesman in the league for one year.  He probably thinks he’s learned a lot.”

Spedding’s comments underscored the fact that the fall vs. spring debate was not entirely settled, despite the league vote the previous August.  While the Trump contingent argued that the league could only thrive in football’s traditional season, there was a gaping hole in this logic: the television networks had zero interest.  USFL TV negotiator Eddie Einhorn resigned in February 1985, unable to make any headway with the three broadcast networks on securing a rights fee for a fall season.  In fact, current partner ABC was demanding a nearly 50% rebate on the 1985 spring rights fee because the USFL had exited key TV markets such as Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington.  And the impetus for leaving the NFL markets of Detroit and Philadephia had been the planned move to the fall.  It was circular illogic.

Nevertheless, when the USFL owners convened on April 29th, 1985 to settle the matter once and for all, the vote was 13-2 in favor of switching to the fall, even with no hope of a network television contract.  Tampa Bay’s John Bassett and Gold owner Spedding – the two clubs who had thrived in NFL markets during the first two springs – were the only dissenting votes.

The Gold opened their third – and presumably final – season of spring football at Mile High Stadium on March 10th, 1985 against the Portland Breakers.  With tickets sales flagging, the Gold announced it would offer a full refund to any fan unsatisfied with the product on opening night.  Gold minority partner Barry Fey, a concert promoter who devised the promotion, reportedly expected the money back guarantee would produce a Mile High crowd of 40,000 to 50,000 – the kind of support to which the team was accustomed in 1983 and, to a lesser degree, 1984.  Instead, an all-time franchise low of just 17,890 turned out.  Despite a 29-17 Gold victory, a crowd of 1,484 fans endured boos and catcalls from their fellow spectators and long lines to collect $22,000 worth of refund checks on the way on the way back to their cars.

“I think this is the first and last money back guarantee you’ll see from the Denver Gold,” General Manager Rich Nathan told the press.  “It’s one thing to think about giving money back to people.  It’s another thing to stand here and watch it happen.”

The next home game two weeks later was even worse, with a new record low of 13,901 in the house for a 16-2 victory over the San Antonio Gunslingers in beautiful weather.  But the Denver faithful who stuck by the Gold were rewarded with an exciting high scoring club for the first time in three seasons.  Mouse Davis transformed the plodding Gold offense as promised.  The big fullback Harry Sydney, who had keyed the Gold’s grind it out offense for two seasons, was shipped out to Memphis.  As he had done with the Houston Gamblers in 1984 and the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, Davis implemented the run-and-shoot, surrounding a mobile quarterback (in this case a platoon of Vince Evans and Bob Gagliano) with a squad of quick, shrimpy wide receivers l(Leonard Harris, Marc Lewis and Lonnie Turner) who ran short precise routes and racked up big reception totals.  Although infamous as a pass happy scheme, Davis’ Run n’ Shoot had traditionally produced big numbers for its single set back running backs as well, who ran a lot of draws and were expected to catch passes out of the backfield.  In the Gold’s case, Davis made a star out of Bill Johnson, a rarely used benchwarmer for the Gold in 1984 who exploded for 1,261 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns as a second year player in 1985.

The Gold finished the 1985 regular season in 2nd place in the Western Conference at 11-7, the best record in franchise history and good enough for their first ever playoff berth.  The 3rd-seeded Gold should have hosted the Eastern Conference’s 5th-seeded Memphis Showboats at Mile High.  But attendance in Denver had crashed 57% in 1985 to just 14,519 while Memphis drew 30,941 on average, so, in a departure from previous seasons, the league adjusted home field advantage based on revenue potential and moved the game to Tennessee.  After losing their final regular season game 42-6 to the Jacksonville Bulls, the Gold came out flat again in Memphis.  The Showboats routed the Gold 48-7 in the 1985 USFL quarterfinal, in what would prove to be the final game the Gold would ever play.

In November 1985, the Gold announced a move to Portland, Oregon to replace the Joseph Canizaro’s defunct Portland Breakers, who left town just a few months earlier owing over a million dollars in  unpaid salaries to its employees.  Unsurprisingly, Spedding found Portland’s civic and corporate leaders unreceptive to another ride on the USFL bandwagon and scrapped the planned move after a month later.  The Gold finalized a merger with the Jacksonville Bulls on February 1986 which would have seen Mouse Davis take over as Head Coach in Jacksonville.  But the move was rendered moot in August 1986 when the USFL “won” its $1.32 billion anti-trust suit against the NFL but was awarded only $3 in damages by the jury.  Deprived of revenue from either the lawsuit or a television contract, the league suspended operations indefinitely  in August 1986 without ever playing a down of fall football.


Red Miller never held another pro head coaching job after being fired by the Gold in 1983.  He continued to live and work in Denver and became a successful stock broker for Dean Witter in the late 1980’s.

Several former Gold players returned to and started long careers in the NFL after the demise of the USFL, including quarterbacks Vince Evans and Bob Gagliano, wide receiver Leonard Harris, and fullback Harry Sydney, who earned two Super Bowl rings as a member of the San Francisco 49ers and a third as an assistant coach on Mike Holmgren’s Green Bay Packers staff.

Douglas Spedding passed away in November 2007 at the age of 72.

Sources & Further Reading

More great USFL game video on Kenn Tomasch’s Youtube Page and USFLGuy83’s page.

Denver Gold Article Sources


Written by andycrossley

August 28, 2011 at 12:18 am

Posted in Football

Tagged with ,

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