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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

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Written by andycrossley

August 28, 2011 at 12:18 am

Posted in Football

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#10 Oklahoma / Arizona Outlaws

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The United States Football League awarded an expansion franchise to Fresno businessman William Tatham, Sr., his son William Tatham, Jr. and San Diego political consultant Ken Rietz on May 16th, 1983.  Tatham Sr. was the former owner of the World Football League’s short-lived Portland Thunder franchise.  The investors paid a $6 million expansion fee to join the springtime football league for its second season.  Tatham and the USFL sought to place the club – due to begin play in March 1984 – at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium.  This marked the second time in two years that the USFL attempted to plant its flag in San Diego.   The new league was first rebuffed by the city’s stadium committee in 1982, when investors Bill Daniels and Alan Harmon were turned away and moved their franchise to the Los Angeles Coliseum instead.

Both USFL bids faced opposition from Jack Murphy’s three existing tenants, the San Diego Padres baseball team, the NFL’s San Diego Chargers and the San Diego Sockers of the North American Soccer League.  While the Tatham group awaited a response from the City Council, the proposed club moved forward in other areas, hiring Pro Football Hall-of-Fame and longtime San Diego Chargers head coach Sid Gillman as General Manager and negotiating with Chargers All-Pro free agent quarterback Dan Fouts.  But in mid-June 1983, the City Council voted 4-3 not to open lease negotiations with the USFL, leaving the Tatham group without a home.

The Tathams now looked eastward to Tulsa, Oklahoma.  On July 7th, 1983, the USFL formally announced the Oklahoma Outlaws as a new franchise for the 1984 season.  The move was part of an aggressive expansion campaign by the young league, which would add six new cities for its second season after beginning play with twelve clubs in 1983.  The Outlaws signed a lease with the University of Tulsa to play at 40,000-seat Skelly Stadium, which also played host to the Tulsa Roughnecks of the North American Soccer League.

On August 9, 1983 the Outlaws announced the signing of Tampa Bay Buccaneers free agent quarterback Doug Williams.  The Bucs drafted Williams in 1978 out of Grambling, the first black quarterback ever selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.  Between 1979 and 1982, Williams led the Bucs to three playoff appearances in four seasons including an appearance in the 1980 NFC Championship Game.  Yet by the end of his fifth season, Williams remained one of the lowest paid starting quarterbacks in the NFL, having earned $120,000 for the 1982 campaign.  He rejected a  new contract from Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse to jump to the USFL.

After the Williams signing, the Outlaws seemed to stall for the remainder of 1983.  The club made no other major free agent signings.  29-year old President William Tatham, Jr. fired Hall-of-Famer Sid Gillman in December and assumed the General Manager reigns himself.  Tatham openly courted Washington Redskins quarterbacks coach and former University of Tulsa star Jerry Rhome for the head coaching post, only to be rejected by Rhome on January 1st, 1984, three days before the USFL’s college draft. 

By this point, the Outlaws were the only team among the USFL’s eighteen members without a coaching staff, with the 1984 season opener less than two months away.  The Tathams scrambled to hire longtime Pittsburgh Steelers defensive assistant Woody WidenhoferBy Widenhofer’s own account, Tatham Jr. called him at 6:00 AM in the morning on January 2nd to offer him the job.  Widenhofer didn’t know who Tatham was and had to call a former Steelers colleague working in the USFL to confirm that Tatham actually owned the team.  Nevertheless, Widenhofer accepted the job the next day, with one day to prepare for the 1984 USFL draft, in which the Outlaws held the #2 overall selection.  Only four of the Outlaws twenty-six open draft picks made the 1984 roster and the club failed to sign either of its first round selections, Ron Faurot or Conrad Goode.

The Outlaws made their USFL debut on February 26th, 1984 taking on the Pittsburgh Maulers at wet, frigid Skelly Stadium.  The 20-degree windchill depressed attendance, with Outlaws officials providing unusually specific figures to the press: 11,638 in attendance with 4,300 no-shows.

Less than a month into the Outlaws debut season in Tulsa, Owner/GM Bill Tatham Jr. announced that the club was unlikely to remain viable in Skelly Stadium.  Tatham went on to claim that Honolulu, Indianapolis, Miami, Portland (Ore.) and Seattle had expressed interest in hosting the franchise, effectively putting Tulsa on notice that the Outlaws were lame ducks after only two home games. 

On the field, the Outlaws raced to a surprising 6-2 start.  Ralph Wiley of Sports Illustrated profiled the team on April 23, 1984, noting that the Outlaws had achieved their success despite a payroll of $2.1 million, second lowest in the 18-team USFL.  The article also painted an unflattering portrait of the young Tatham, noting that the novice football exec “seems to revel in issuing ultimatums”.  After the Sports Illustrated feature appeared, the Outlaws lost ten consecutive games to finish the season at 6-12.  Williams had a poor season, hobbled by a knee injury and a weak supporting cast.  Over 18 games, the Outlaws could not produce one running back who accumulated 300 yards rushing.  Williams passed for 3,084 yards in 15 games, but completed less then 50% of his passes and threw 21 interceptions.

Shortly after the Outlaws season ended in early July 1984, Tatham Jr. declared the team would not return to Tulsa, again citing the deficiencies of Skelly Stadium.  Announced attendance had improved from the freezing opener, totalling 189,342 for an average of 21,038 per game.  Nevertheless, the Tathams projected losses of $3 million for the 1984 season.  At the USFL owners meetings in August,  a faction of USFL owners led by Donald Trump of the New Jersey Generals pushed through a resolution to move to a fall season in 1986, after one final spring campaign in 1985.  The move, combined with the substantial financial losses of many franchises, set off a flurry of merger and relocation talks.  At the same August meeting, the league approved the merger of the Outlaws with the Oakland Invaders.  The merged club would remain in Oakland under the Invaders name, with William Tatham Sr. and Invaders owner Tad Taube as equal partners.  But by early October, the planned merger was scrapped.  The Invaders went on to merge with the Michigan Panthers.  The Tathams shifted their sights to Arizona Wranglers owner Dr. Ted Diethrich.

Diethrich, a Phoenix-based heart surgeon, was an original USFL investor.  Although his Wranglers club appeared in the 1984 USFL Championship game, he was approaching financial exhaustion with the league, having lost approximately $14 million between May 1982 and October 1984.  Reported as a merger, the transaction saw the Tathams purchase controlling interest in the Wranglers in December 1984.  The team took the name Arizona Outlaws, relocating to the Wranglers old home at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.  Widenhofer and the Outlaws coaching staff were dismissed, while Wranglers Head Coach/part-owner George Allen stepped down, along with his son, Bruce Allen, the Wranglers General Manager.  William Tatham Jr. remained as President/GM of the Outlaws and hired controversial long-time Arizona State Head Coach Frank Kush to coach the club.

Kush’s return to Tempe was expected to boost enthusiasm for the Arizona Outlaws.  It didn’t.  Season ticket sales declined from 17,000 for the 1984 Wranglers to only 12,000 for the 1985 Outlaws.  Announced attendance for the season was 160,929 for an average of 17,881.  This was a decline from the 1984 figures of both the Wranglers and the Outlaws.  Although the merged rosters ostensibly represented the best of the two clubs, many of the stars who led the Wranglers to the 1984 USFL Championship Game were gone.  NFL veteran quarterback Greg Landry retired.  USFL All-Pro wide receiver Trumaine Johnson held out the entire season in a contract dispute.  The Outlaws finished 8-10 and out of the playoff hunt.

After the USFL’s final spring season in 1985, the wave of mergers and bankruptcies accelerated.  The Tathams hung in as one of eight USFL clubs prepared to endure a 14-month offseason in preparation for a fall season in 1986.  Meanwhile, the entire league pinned its future on the outcome of a $1.69 billion anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL.

As the lawsuit went to the jury in the summer of 1986, the Outlaws sold season tickets, held mini-camp and even made a serious pitch to sign Tony Casillas of the University of Oklahoma, the #2 overall selection in that spring’s NFL draft.  The pursuit of Casillas seemed odd, given the USFL’s general belt tightening and the Tathams’ historic reluctance to chase high priced talent in Oklahoma and Arizona.  At the end of July, 1986 the USFL jury found the NFL guilty of anti-trust violations…but awarded the USFL only $1.00 in symbolic damages (trebled under anti-trust law to $3.00).  Without a windfall from the lawsuit or a major network television contract, the USFL suspended operations in August 1986, never to play again.

A court appeal moved forward the next year, but the Tathams withdrew from the suit in March 1987.  “The league is basically a lawsuit,” Tatham Jr. told journalists. “We’re out of it and good riddance.”

##

1984 proved out to be a rough year for the Tulsa sporting scene.  The city’s long-time minor league hockey franchise, the Tulsa Oilers, folded in the spring, along with the rest of the Central Hockey League.  The Outlaws announced their departure in July and their fellow Skelly Stadium tenant the Tulsa Roughnecks soccer team folded in September.

Doug Williams returned to the NFL with the Washington Redskins in 1986.  On January 31, 1988, Williams quarterbacked the Redskins to a 42-10 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, becoming the first black quarterback to start in and win a Super Bowl.  He also became the first of two USFL quarterbacks (Steve Young being the other) to win a Super Bowl.  Ironically, the game was played at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium, where the Outlaws odyssey began.

In early 1988, St. Louis Cardinals (NFL) owner Bill Bidwill moved his club to Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, former home of the Outlaws.  When the move occurred, the terms of an unusual agreement between the defunct Outlaws and Arizona State University came to light.  All fans who put $125 down towards 1986 Outlaws season tickets were offered the right of first refusal on NFL season tickets if and when the USFL folded and an NFL team came to Tempe instead.  The agreement was good for up to two years from the date that the USFL ceased operations, which meant the contract was still binding when Bidwill and the Cardinals arrived in early 1988.  The former Outlaws season ticket holders now controlled nearly 12,000 prime loge season tickets.  Further, Outlaws officials had horse-traded with the tickets, transferring the rights to various people in lieu of payments and salaries.  By the time the deal was revealed, Bill Tatham Jr. personally controlled the rights to 1,728 prime season tickets for the city’s new NFL franchise.  The revelation caused an uproar in Phoenix.  Tatham was investigated by the university on allegations of ticket scalping and the resulting bad publicity over the handling of ticket sales (and the Cardinals league-high pricing) helped cement negative perceptions of the Bidwills in Arizona for years to come.

Downloads:

2011 Interview with Oklahoma Outlaws PR Director Gil Swalls

Article Sources

Written by andycrossley

April 24, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Posted in Football

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#2 – Pittsburgh Maulers

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1984 Maulers Media Guide

In the spring of 1983, Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr. purchased an expansion franchise in the fledgling United States Football League to begin play in February 1984.  DeBartolo Sr. had created something of a cottage industry running Pittsburgh’s least desirable professional sports franchises at the time.  He already owned the NHL’s sad sack Penguins, who would finish the 1983-84 season with the league’s worst record and barely 2,000 season tickets holders, and the Pittsburgh Spirit of the Major Indoor Soccer League, who lost millions each year, but still drew better crowds than the lowly Pens at Pittsburgh Civic Arena.

Nevertheless, the USFL welcomed DeBartolo Sr. with open arms.  Listed on Forbes‘ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, the shopping mall magnate had deeper pockets than most of his new colleagues.  The DeBartolo family also had a better track record when it came to football than they did with their other sports investments.  In 1977, Debartolo Sr. bought the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and gave the team to his son, Edward DeBartolo, Jr.  Under his son’s stewardship, the 49ers hired Bill Walsh, drafted Joe Montana and turned one of the NFL’s perennial also-rans into a Super Bowl champion inside of five years.

Throughout the fall of 1983, Maulers General Manager George Heddleston and Head Coach Joe Pendry assembled a motley band of NFL and CFL castaways.  Former Dallas Cowboys clipboard man Glenn Carano would handle starting quarterback duties.  The Maulers counted on journeymen linebackers Ron Crosby and Bruce Huther, along with ex-New York Jets corner Jerry Holmes, to lead the defense.  It was a far cry from Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Donnie Shell.

The  Maulers would make their headlines in the college draft.  The USFL held its college draft in January a few days after the top college seniors’ amateur eligibility expired in the New Years Day bowls.  The 1984 draft was a deep one and exuberant USFL owners were ready to open their wallets and challenge the NFL for the best prospects.  The Maulers held the #1 overall pick, positioning them to select either Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mike Rozier of Nebraska or Brigham Young quarterback Steve Young. 

The choice was Rozier.  He signed quickly – suspiciously quickly – after Nebraska lost to Miami in the Orange Bowl on January 2nd, 1984.  Rozier became the second consecutive Heisman winner to choose the USFL, after Herschel Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals the previous spring.  The fact that Rozier was able to sign with agent Mike Trope and agree to terms on a three-year, $3.1 million USFL contract in a matter of hours after playing in the national championship game raised eyebrows.  Had Rozier signed with either Trope or the USFL before the Orange Bowl, his NCAA eligibillity would have been forfeited.  As it was, Nebraska lost the game and Rozier banged up an ankle which would nag him for the entire 1984 USFL season.  Months later, Rozier claimed in Sports Illustrated that he did, in fact, receive cash payments from a Trope associate during his senior year.

After two road losses to open the season, the Maulers debuted in Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium in March 1984 against the Birmingham Stallions.  A sellout crowd of 53,771 turned out for the first home game.  Sports Illustrated reporter Franz Lidz covered the Maulers debut and pointed to the main reason for the big box office: the chance for Pittsburgh fans to boo (and hurl snowballs at) unpopular former Steelers signal caller Cliff Stoudt, now quarterbacking the Stallions.

Head Coach Joe Pendry was fired in midseason as the Maulers staggered towards a 3-15 record, tied for worst in the 18-team USFL.  Two of their three victories came over the hapless Washington Federals – the other team that finished 3-15.  Carano threw 19 picks and Rozier was merely ordinary, rushing for only three touchdows.  On the defensive side of the ball, the Maulers were even worse, giving up a league-high 27.3 points per game.  In May 1984 the Maulers lured NFL defensive coordinator Hank Bullough away from the Green Bay Packers as the Head Coach-in-waiting for the 1985 season.  Only 16,832 turned out for the Maulers final home game at Three Rivers.

The Maulers gained little relief as the USFL headed into the offseason in the late summer of 1984.  Rozier was disgruntled.  His agent groused in the press and attempted to buy out his contract in order to sign with the NFL’s Houston Oilers.  A group of owners headed by Donald Trump of the New Jersey Generals pushed through a plan to move to a fall season in 1986 and take on the NFL head-to-head for fans and TV dollars.  The move imperiled clubs like the Maulers, Philadelphia Stars and Tampa Bay Bandits, who shared cities and stadiums with established NFL clubs. 

On October 25th, 1984, DeBartolo folded the Maulers without so much as a press conference.  The club had existed for eighteen months, won three games, and lost between $6M – $10M of DeBartolo Sr.’s money, depending on which estimates you believed.

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Glenn Carano’s daughter Gina Carano, two years old during the Maulers era, grew up to become a famous mixed martial artist, model and actress.

Mike Rozier played one final spring in the USFL with the Jacksonville Bulls in 1985 before the league folded.  He joined the Houston Oilers in the fall of 1985, and recorded one 1,000-yard rushing season in the NFL in 1988.  He retired in 1991 at the age of 30.  In 1996, he was shot in his hometown of Camden, New Jersey, but recovered from his injuries. 

It’s worth noting that Rozier was one of two #1 overall draft picks for DeBartolo Sr.’s Pittsburgh franchises in 1984.  The other was Penguins center Mario Lemieux.  Lemieux’s rookie contract paid $600,000 over two seasons with a $150,000 signing bonus – pale by comparison with Rozier’s $3.1 million USFL rookie deal.    Lemieux led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992, two of many highlights of his legendary Hall-of-Fame career.  DeBartolo Sr. described the Penguins first Cup win in 1991 as “possibly the happiest moment of my life” according to his Wikipedia page.  The elder DeBartolo passed away in 1994 at the age of 85.

Written by andycrossley

February 27, 2011 at 11:57 pm

Posted in Football

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