The Truth Behind Donald Trump’s Failed USFL Experiment
Donald Trump, for better or worse, is a household name in America (and possibly the world some day soon), but TV’s love affair with Trump started over 30 years ago as owner of the New Jersey Generals in the United States Football League. The USFL was a spring football league that rivaled the NFL from 1983 through 1985, before an ill-fated antitrust suit against the NFL doomed the rebel league – and Trump was at the center of it.
Before the USFL came around, Trump was just another real estate tycoon in New York. “By buying the Generals, he bought the back page of the New York tabloids, he was everywhere," says veteran sportscaster Charley Steiner in December 2005. “This was his foray into the New York spotlight. He thought, ‘let's go to the big time’ and they [NFL] swatted him away like a fly at a picnic."
Local and network television fell in love with the Donald because of his charisma, plus he spent the big bucks on high-profile players. Trump signed college’s best talent like ’84 Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie or NFL veterans like Brian Sipe, Dave Lapham, Jerry Holmes, Bobby Leopold and Jim LeClaire. When it was time to hire a coach, Trump took aim at Dolphins’ legend, Don Shula. But according to reports, Shula wanted a condo in Trump Tower.
Trump didn’t go for it and hired former Jets’ head coach Walt Michaels. No player was untouchable, including Giants’ All-Pro linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Taylor agreed to a personal services contract with Trump while playing with the Giants, then LT would play for the Generals in 1988 season. Imagine a team with Taylor on defense and Heisman Trophy winners Herschel Walker and Flutie on offense?
However, the league never made it past 1985.
In the 1980s, Howard Cosell was still the Kingpin among sports broadcasters and it was normal to see players like Walker or Flutie appear on his “SportsBeat” magazine show on ABC. The USFL had a TV contracts in place at the time with ABC for the game of the week, along with the new kids on the block – ESPN (the USFL was ESPN’s foray into pro football play-by-play broadcasting). Trump’s Media Machine was beginning to churn.
The Generals were successful on the field and at the gate as well. The team won 14 games in ’84 and 11 in ’85, normally drawing over 40,000 fans at their home games at the Meadowlands (known as the Temple of Doom). Trump’s Troops were a big draw for fans on the road, just like George Steinbrenner’s Yankees. In March of ’84, a crowd of over 73,000 watched the Jacksonville Bulls host the Generals at the Gator Bowl in a game New Jersey won 28-26.
Like Steinbrenner, Trump could be a polarizing figure not just among other team owners, but his own coaches and players. If you were a player or coach, you didn’t want to cross Trump. When fullback Maurice Carthon signed with the Giants in ’85, Trump told offensive coordinator Chris Palmer he’d be fired if Carthon scored another touchdown. Most USFL owners couldn’t compete with Trump’s money, but it didn’t result in a championship on the field as the Generals lost to the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars in the first round of the playoffs in ’84 and ’85.
By ’84, the league expanded to 18 teams, but several teams were not on sound financial ground like the L.A. Express, San Antonio Gunslingers and Chicago Blitz, so the league contracted to 14 teams for the ’85 season. In essence, Trump’s money was helping keep the league alive and he would complain if the Generals weren’t on national TV.
“Trump would call our control room and say it was his money that was keeping the league afloat and his team should be on TV,” says Bob Ley, veteran ESPN broadcaster.
Owners may have disliked the boisterous Trump, but players loved him because he made them wealthy. Veterans like Sipe were at the end of their NFL careers and didn’t mind getting money from Trump to play in the USFL. But the bigger impact came in the NFL in years to come as salaries almost doubled, because the USFL forced the NFL to spend money to keep and sign players.
Like Steinbrenner, who made baseball players rich, but was disliked for his spending and high payroll by other owners, Trump secured the financial well being of players and coaches alike.
“Trump has proven to be genius marketer since the USFL with. I remember him flying down to Jacksonville in a helicopter; it was like the president was arriving, says Dave Lapham, who played for economically conservative Cincinnati Bengals for 10 years before jumping ship to the USFL. “It was like a grand arrival with Ivana by his side. It was a dynamic thing to witness. Whenever he was mentioned in the print, the Generals were always mentioned after his name. You can’t buy that kind of publicity and promotion. The Generals were his toy, but he used it to market everything else like the casinos and hotels. He was acutely aware of getting exposure for all his ventures, including the Generals.”
There is no question Trump’s money and marketing helped keep the USFL afloat, but it was his eye on the NFL that may have caused the league’s quick demise.
“When Donald Trump got involved and forced his hand to go head-to-head with the NFL, that wasn't a wise decision on the league's part," says quarterback Bobby Hebert, whose Michigan Panthers won the first USFL championship in 1983.
As in today’s GOP race, Trump was considered a bit of a misfit, at least football-wise back then.
“Donald was always about Donald. When he first bought the Generals, at the first meeting he was like a panther in the back of the room,” says Carl Peterson, former general manager of the Philadelphia Stars. “He got up and showed everyone at the meeting all the press coverage he got from buying the Generals. He said, ‘My great USFL partners, it would have cost me a million dollars to get this kind of coverage in the real estate industry. This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.’ We all looked at him each like, ‘this is a real football oriented guy.’”
Despite having TV in contracts in place if the league remained in the spring, Trump led the push to a fall schedule. The move to the fall would nullify the TV contract with ABC.
According to reports, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle threatened to pull “Monday Night Football” from the network if ABC negotiated a deal that would place the USFL in direct competition with the NFL in the fall. With the announcement of the fall move, owners of the Stars and Panthers thought going head-to-head against the NFL was ridiculous move. In hindsight, if the league would have stayed in the spring, controlled payroll and contracted a bit more, the league could have survived if not thrived with the growth of cable television through the years.
Football remains the highest rated programming on television to this day. An estimated 120.8 million viewers watched the Super Bowl last year with :30 second ads running $4.5 million. But with Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett seriously ill, there was no one to really stop Trump’s drive to the fall schedule for the ’86 season.
In 1986, the USFL didn’t play spring football but the USFL brought an antitrust suit against the NFL for $1.70 billion dollars for violating the Sherman Act that summer.
“It was high drama as Raiders’ owner Al Davis and Cosell testified against the NFL,” says Ley, with a sound of thrill in his voice as he reflected on the case.
It was rumored that Trump just wanted an NFL team and brokered a “backdoor deal” with the NFL commissioner Rozelle. There were several reports that the two met at a New York City hotel, but no witnesses were privy to the “alleged” rendezvous. There was talk of two teams being absorbed, most likely the Stars in Baltimore and the Invaders in Oakland, as those cities recently lost their NFL franchises.
“Donald was one of the owners whose ultimate goal was to be part of the NFL. When he got ownership, he was thinking long-term to be merged into the NFL like the old AFL,” says Lapham. “Many owners were hoping to swallowed up by the NFL. But when they went to the fall, they were head-to-head with the ‘giant’ [the NFL]; they were going to get squashed.”
All the wind came out of the USFL sails as the rebel league was awarded $1 in damages, which was trebled totaling $3 (with interest added up to $3.76).
Interestingly enough, the jurors did find that the NFL enjoyed monopoly power and conspired to gain a competitive edge and violate antitrust laws. In the end, the jury felt that Trump and the USFL had no one to blame but themselves for their financial misfortunes. The USFL never played a down after 1985, but several players like quarterbacks Jim Kelly, Steve Young and defensive end Reggie White went on to have Hall of Fame careers in the NFL.
Other players like Walker, Carthon, Hebert, Anthony Carter, Ricky Sanders, Gary Clark, Doug Williams, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson, Mike Rozier, Irv Eatman, Kent Hull, Sean Landeta, Keith Millard, Scott Norwood had a tremendous impact on the landscape in years to come. The same goes for coaches like Jim Mora, Steve Mariucci, Dom Capers and Vic Fangio, Jack Pardee, Mouse Davis, Chris Palmer and Jim Fassel. The most famous of all the coaches landed in the college ranks. His name was Steve Spurrier.
As for Trump, maybe he saw the bigger picture. If the Generals were absorbed into the NFL, his modest investment would have been worth $2 billion today. And maybe the USFL as whole kind of knew what they were doing as far as talent since Dan Marino was selected as the overall No.1 pick in their ’83 draft.
What did they know that 27 other NFL teams didn’t know back then?
Mike Damergis is the author of “The USFL – The Rebel League Didn’t Respect but Feared” and can be reached at Mad-Sports.com
*All quotes in this piece excerpts from the book which was published in 2007
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