Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL.
Jeff Pearlman, veteran sports author, wrote a book about a defunct league more than 30 years after it imploded in on itself and it’s the most fascinating football book I’ve read in years. In the acknowledgements section, Pearlman says when shopping the book idea around he was told “no one wants a book about the f******* USFL.” I disagree.
Not only is this book somehow topical, it serves as a retrospective a generation later that only the passage of time allows us to truly appreciate. The concept of the USFL was completely reasonable. The league would provide football fans with a counterpoint to the NFL by offering a more exciting game where excessive celebrations were encouraged rather than penalized and played in the spring where it wouldn’t compete directly with the behemoth. They would focus on a few under-served cities and a few big markets and provide a home for local collegiate heroes who didn’t have the skills to make it in the NFL. Start slow. Use creative marketing techniques to gain a fan base. Build up from there.
The problem, of course, is that famous line from John Steinbeck / Robert Burns “the best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.” Start with a group of egotistical millionaires or, in some cases, egotistical con-men that paraded around like millionaires. Place them in cities that may or may not be inclined to support a spring football team with no assurances of stadium rights. Hire a mixture of coaches from the legendary George Allen to, well, a guy who was famous for coaching games from the bleachers so he could get a better view. Populate the rosters with ex-NFL players on their last legs, ex-NFL players with drug problems or worse, and maybe one or two star players mixed into each roster with the former collegiate players of the region. Expand the league in year two, well before the league is viable. Force a move to the fall to challenge the NFL head-on in the most boneheaded of decisions. Mix in spring monsoons and blistering summer heat, bizarre uniform colors and logos, and you’ve got the basics of the setup.
Oh, did I mention Donald Trump? Yes, the 45th POTUS plays an integral role as owner of the New Jersey Generals. I won’t spoil all the good nuggets in this book but suffice to say that many of the tactics used by Trump will be very familiar to anyone who follows US politics (some may find the letter written to Trump by Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett of specific interest). This is particularly true in the detailing of the USFL’s anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL. The result of that suit is the infamous settlement that inspired the title of the book and delivered a beautifully poetic coup de grâce to the league after turning leadership over to Trump.
The USFL is filled with characters that would be difficult to believe in a work of fiction. There are stories of rampant drug use, fights on commercial airline flights, races to the bank to cash paychecks before the money ran out, and more than one owner abandoning his team. An entire roster was traded for an entire roster because an owner didn’t want to travel to the home games. No, seriously, the Chicago Blitz roster was transferred to Arizona for the entire Arizona Wranglers roster. That doesn’t even happen in fantasy football. The NFL is closing in on 100 years as a league but I’d be willing to bet the crazy stories from 3 years of the USFL are greater in size and scope.
For all that insanity, it’s amazing how many top flight players came through the USFL. Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Reggie White, and Sam Mills all started their careers in the USFL. NFL star Lawrence Taylor signed a futures contract at one point with the Generals. Walter Payton was offered a similar deal. That’s not to mention guys like Hershel Walker, Doug Flutie, Anthony Carter, Keith Millard and many more guys that had success in the NFL after the USFL folded. There was plenty of talent in that league. Maybe the most lasting impacts of the USFL were some of the elements the new league incorporated on a whim. Instant replay was first used in the USFL and later adopted by the NFL, as was the two-point conversion.
In the modern day NFL, with salary caps increasing at a crazy rate and franchises worth billions of dollars, could a spring league work? I think it could – but it would almost certainly have to be led by or associated with the NFL. If the NFL treated a spring football league not as a competitor, but a developmental league, I think there’s a chance for success. No, the Jim Kelly’s and Steve Young’s of the football world aren’t going to play there, but think of the fringe players that get cut every year or the college heroes who will never make it to the league but want to keep playing. There’s almost certainly a bigger market for players now than there was back in the 1980s to keep the dream alive to earn an NFL contract. Small number of teams, under-served cities, start slow… wait, I’m talking myself into the set up again.
Pearlman is a gifted writer and his handling and pacing of a chaotic three year experiment is flawless. There are so many interesting stories that you could be tempted to lose track of the narrative thread, but the book is a page turner that weaves together interesting personalities, football history, and an anti-trust lawsuit. Not an easy task. This is one of those books that will appeal to all football fans, not just those that get the added bonus of a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
The best thing I can say about this book is that, much like the USFL to some of the players and founders, this was a passion project for Pearlman. The prologue starts by detailing a writing assignment from Pearlman’s high school AP English class where he wrote about the league he loved that had at that point only recently gone under. After doubling the length requirements and pouring everything he had into the paper, the grade came back as a disheartening B+ with the note “Solid job. But I feel like there’s much more to this story.” There was, and Pearlman has now told it well. Buy this book. It’s an A+ product.
If you’re on the Twitter machine, consider following me @gridironborn