November 29, 2000
Chapter 10: A USeFuL Diversion
by Bob Hulsey
About as often as a full solar eclipse, another pro league springs up to challenge the NFL. This one learned from some of the mistakes made by the AFL (’60s) and the WFL (’70s) but they didn’t learn them quite well enough and, in the end, had three dollars to show for their efforts.
The United States Football League, or USFL, was the inspiration of David Dixon who was convinced that the NFL’s huge popularity could be multiplied into more games and more markets. Unlike Lamar Hunt and Gary Davidson, Dixon was content to let others run the league and own the teams. He attracted several owners who wanted to be part of the NFL and had the money to build a league from the ground floor. Former WFL owner John Bassett was willing to build from another risky start-up. Soon, a headline-grabbing billionaire named Donald Trump bought the New Jersey franchise which was to represent the New York area. The announcement of the league’s formation came in March of 1982 and play was slated to begin the following spring.
Yes, SPRING! The new league saw the forlorn faces of diehard football fans across America once the NFL and college seasons ended. What was a young football fanatic to do for the six month wait between seasons? The USFL would fill that void – a shrewd move that made penetration in existing markets easier and attracted television dollars which might otherwise be wasted on things like figure skating and seniors golf.
In fact, deals with ABC and a still-new ESPN were quickly made. The first commissioner was a former television executive, Chet Simmons, who had a key role in getting ESPN off the ground. The original 12-team circuit placed teams in Boston, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, Tampa Bay, Birmingham, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego (which was quickly relocated to Phoenix). The rules would be generally the same as the NFL except it would have a two-point conversion and would use "instant replay" to overturn calls on the field – both of which were eventually adopted by the NFL.
It was agreed to have a salary cap and to draft players with local connections to build a fan base but, early on, the more aggressive owners began bringing in college stars. And who could complain when New Jersey signed Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker to give the USFL a marquee name? The "haves" and "have nots" of the league quickly took sides. The Detroit team, called the Michigan Panthers, won the first league title behind QB Bobby Hebert and WR Anthony Carter over the Philadelphia Stars who were led by QB Chuck Fusina and RB Kelvin Bryant. The Stars would wear the league crown the next two years. Overall, attendance and TV ratings were good but not great in their initial season.
To bring in more cash, the USFL expanded to 18 teams the following year. Dr. Jerry Argovitz, a Houston dentist, brought an expansion franchise to Houston and appropriately named them the Gamblers. The other new cities were Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Memphis, Tulsa, and San Antonio. The Boston franchise relocated to New Orleans. In an odd twist, the entire Chicago franchise was traded for the entire Arizona franchise.
The checkbooks opened and the rush to sign college talent was on. Los Angeles brought in QB Steve Young and OT Gary Zimmerman. Pittsburgh signed Heisman winner Mike Rozier. Memphis inked DT Reggie White. The college cupboard was raided before the NFL teams had even drafted. One of the unintended victims was the Oilers who were in prime drafting position after horrible 1992 and 1993 seasons.
Argovitz and his partners made three signings that would put a stamp on the Gamblers’ brief history. One was Head Coach Jack Pardee, a former Texas A&M linebacker that had been a winner everywhere he went – as a player with the Los Angeles Rams and the Washington Redskins of the NFL, then as a head coach with the WFL Florida Blazers and the NFL Chicago Bears. The second was offensive coach Darrel "Mouse" Davis who brought a bizarre offensive concept called the "Run and Shoot" with him from Portland State University where he had made a star of QBs Neil Lomax and June Jones. The third was Jim Kelly, a gifted quarterback to run this new offense.
Kelly was a Pennsylvania lad that had always wanted to go to Penn State. When their coach, Joe Paterno, wanted to make the rugged Kelly into a linebacker, Jim left and migrated to the University of Miami. Kelly had a quarterback’s arm and a linebacker’s attitude. At Miami, Kelly became a star. The thought of running Houston’s pass-happy new attack appealed greatly to him.
The Run and Shoot offense, which Houstonians would come to know well, consisted of one running back and no tight end. Four wide receivers, often small and quick, were deployed on every play. The offense was based on reading the defense and determining plays and pass routes based on how the defense aligned. It was said to have an answer for every defensive ploy. College coaches were dumbfounded and Mouse Davis’ teams at Portland State ran up scores at alarming rates. The USFL would be its first test on the pro level.
Talented receivers were needed to make the offense work. Although they were not household names at the time, the collection of Richard Johnson, Gerald "Ice Cube" McNeil, Clarence Verdin and Ricky Sanders would have NFL success in later years. The running back, the lone person left to pick up a blitz, was not a job for little scatbacks. However, when they were allowed to run, Todd Fowler and Sam Harrell saw plenty of daylight through spread-out defenses.
The Gambler defense was dotted with decent talent like DEs Pete Catan and Hosea Taylor, NT Tony Fitzpatrick, and LB Kiki DeAyala, but it was the offense that commanded the spotlight. Oiler legend Toni Fritsch was brought in for placekicking.
The first game for the black-red-and-white Gamblers was an exhibition in Victoria against the San Antonio Gunslingers. Houston won, 19-17. Their regular season debut was a 20-17 loss in Tampa. This was followed with road victories at San Antonio and Chicago before winning their home opener, 32-25, over Walker and the New Jersey Generals before over 35,000 fans at the Astrodome. Ironically, Kelly had just one touchdown pass while Harrell ran for two scores. The Gamblers would go on to lose the next two, win three, then lose twice in overtime before finishing with seven straight victories to claim the Central Division title with a 13-5 record.
Once the offense started clicking, the scoreboard operator stayed busy. Kelly and the "Mouseketeers" averaged 39 points a game during their seven-game streak, including a 54-7 blowout of Jacksonville and a 47-26 manhandling of Rozier’s Pittsburgh Maulers.
Personal stats were eye-popping as well. Kelly concluded the 18-game schedule with 5,219 passing yards and 44 TDs, completing 63% of his throws. He also ran for 493 yards and five scores. Johnson and Sanders brought back memories of Bill Groman and Charley Hennigan as they each had over 100 catches and 1,300 yards receiving. Fowler rushed for 1,003 yards. Harrell topped 1,000 combined yards and reached paydirt 16 times. The Gamblers averaged 28,000 fans at the Dome their first year.
Houston had earned the home field advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. The 10-8 Arizona Wranglers, coached by Pardee’s mentor George Allen, came to town led by veteran QB Greg Landry and RB Tim Spencer. Allen’s pass rush disrupted Kelly but the Gamblers still held a 16-3 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Suddenly, the defense failed and Arizona scored two late touchdowns to walk away with a 17-16 upset. The raucous Astrodome crowd, so eager to embrace the Gamblers while the NFL Oilers were drowning in their own ineptitude, left stunned. Meanwhile, opposing coaches took note of old man Allen’s defensive gameplan.
The 1985 Gamblers saw little reason to tinker with the previous year’s success, although Davis moved on to become head coach of the Denver Gold. They got a wake up call in the opening week when the Los Angeles Express held the Gamblers down, 33-13, with ten minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Kelly shocked the sparse L.A. crowd with TD tosses of 52, 40 and 39 yards to steal a 34-33 win. Kelly had 574 yards passing and 5 TDs. Houston reeled off five straight wins.
Teams picked up on Allen’s genius and began blitzing the Run and Shoot and bumping Houston’s smurfish receivers. Kelly began to feel the effects of so many hits and missed time under center due to an injured knee. With Todd Dillon running the offense, the Gamblers were less effective. Houston won two revenge matches against Arizona and twice spanked their San Antonio neighbors but could not find much consistency from week to week. They limped into the playoffs with a 10-8 record.
Though still impressive, the numbers didn’t match the year before. Kelly had 4,623 yards passing and 39 TDs (how’s that for an off year?) while Johnson, Verdin and McNeil each gained over 1,000 yards receiving. Between them, Verdin and McNeil ran back five kicks for touchdowns. Veteran DB Luther Bradley picked off 12 passes. Home attendance was down to 19,000 and red ink continued to bleed from the ledgers.
The Birmingham Stallions hosted the Gamblers at Legion Field in the first round of the playoffs. The Stallions featured RB Joe Cribbs, whom Kelly would learn to count on when they both later became Buffalo Bills in the NFL. If the Gamblers played with some hunger, it might have been that Argovitz had failed to meet payroll the final two weeks of the season. The defense kept the Stallions out of the end zone most of the day but Jim Miller booted five field goals to offset Kelly’s heroics. Down 22-20 with five seconds left, Fritsch missed a 49-yard field goal attempt. The Gamblers suffered a heartbreaking first-round playoff loss for the second straight year.
Like the Gamblers, the USFL was coming up short. Although the play around the league was good, the financial competition with the NFL and the limited earnings niche of the spring and summer forced the USFL to search for a way to escape their economic plight. They looked to the courts for their way out.
Announcing they would switch to the fall for the 1986 season, the USFL took the NFL to court on anti-trust charges because the NFL pressured the three major broadcasting networks (all with NFL contracts) not to sign a fall deal with the rival circuit. USFL lawyers argued that the NFL was acting as a monopoly. Al Davis, the Los Angeles Raiders owner and NFL pariah, testified on behalf of the USFL. The jury eventually agreed that the NFL was a monopoly and, under federal anti-trust laws, the USFL would be awarded three times the damages. For a moment, the new league must have envisioned full parity with the NFL.
The jury, however, had no sympathy for the USFL’s self-inflicted problems. The jury award was the minimum allowed – one dollar. Tripled, that meant the USFL had won three dollars. This was not nearly enough to neither sustain the league nor pay off the lawyers used to challenge the NFL. It was as hollow a legal victory as could be imagined.
Had the USFL gone on, the Gamblers would not have gone with them. Argovitz’ last act was to sell what was left of the team to Trump’s New Jersey Generals. Unable to find a fall television pact or secure adequate facilities, the USFL folded in 1986 and the better players fled to the NFL.
DeAyala spoke for many Gamblers when he said of their last hurrah, "One thing this season has taught us is humility." Then, as a final swipe at the Oilers, he added, "The City of Houston will witness the departure of the last exciting football team."
Fortunately, DeAyala’s prophecy was soon proven wrong.
Bob Hulsey has a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked in print and radio covering sports throughout Texas since 1976. He presently works for a telecommunications company in Austin. Jim Kelly Home