|Tuesday, March 4
Updated: March 24, 12:36 PM ET
USFL made an impact in three-year run
By Greg Garber
David Dixon made his living as an antiques and art dealer on Royal Street in New Orleans' French Quarter. He appreciated the subtle shades of color and light in the canvases of Henry John Boddington, the 19th Century British landscape artist, the aesthetic yet punctual qualities of the Scottish drumheads and Lancashire moonroller clocks. But he loved college football.
Back in the 1930s, when Tulane was a national football power, Dixon would sit among the 25,000 spectators -- for a spring football scrimmage.
"It got me to thinking," Dixon said last week from New Orleans. "My God, why can't we play games in the spring? I mean, LSU still draws numbers like that to this day. If Princeton and Rutgers had played that first (intercollegiate football) game in the spring instead of the fall (Nov. 6, 1869), that's when we'd be playing football today."
Dixon, a few months shy of his 80th birthday, has a resume littered with accomplishments. He was instrumental in landing an NFL expansion franchise in 1967, the Saints, and in building the Louisiana Superdome. He is also the creator of the late, lamented United States Football League, whose crazy, cathartic three-season run began 20 years ago.
"Football is such a powerful, powerful piece of entertainment," Dixon said. "To me, it made a lot of sense to start a new league."
The idea was not a new one; the World Football League of the mid-1970s had failed miserably, dying of poor execution on all fronts. The key to Dixon's vision was a lucrative television contract and modest player salaries. The product that debuted on March 6, 1983 fell markedly short in both categories. Still, the buzz created was extraordinary. Some 45,000 fans turned out in Arizona and Denver. Washington drew 38,000 spectators, along with Los Angeles (34,000) and Birmingham (30,000).
The league expanded from 12 teams to 18 in 1984, then contracted to 14 before imploding in 1986 after a proposed move to a fall schedule and a celebrated anti-trust lawsuit brought an award of only $1 (the actual check was for $3.76 due to anti-trust law and interest).
The quality of the venture, from administration to coaching to the players, was, in retrospect, impressive.
Today's NFL is rife with USFL talent. Five current head coaches -- Detroit's Steve Mariucci, Washington's Steve Spurrier, Carolina's John Fox, Houston's Dom Capers and Jim Fassel of the Giants -- all toiled in the USFL. The same is true of three general managers -- the Chargers' John Butler, Terry Bradway of the Jets and the Rams' Charley Armey -- and two team presidents -- Kansas City's Carl Peterson and Bill Polian of Indianapolis. In addition, there are 10 offensive or defensive coordinators.
Five men enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for their exploits in the NFL, served time in the USFL: Marv Levy, Jim Kelly, George Allen, Sid Gillman and Fred Biletnikoff. Four others are probable or possible future Hall of Famers: Steve Young, Reggie White, Gary Zimmerman and Polian. Two Super Bowl MVPS, Doug Williams and Young, played quarterback in the USFL. They were joined in the NFL by Herschel Walker, Sam Mills, Kelvin Bryant, Gary Plummer, Doug Flutie, William Fuller, Bobby Hebert, Brian Sipe, Gary Anderson, Joe Cribbs, Kent Hull, Sean Landeta, Keith Millard, Mike Rozier, Dan Ross, Anthony Carter and Tony and Luis Zendejas. In all, 187 players from the USFL ultimately landed on NFL rosters.
"If you go back to those NFL drafts, '83 and '84, you will find the most nondescript drafts in the NFL's history," Polian said. "Many of the good players were going to the USFL."
And everybody's salaries -- against the advice of Dixon, the founding father -- were going up sharply.
"Every NFL player that's getting paid right now ought to thank the USFL," said Irv Eatman, an offensive tackle for the Philadelphia Stars and today a Kansas City Chiefs assistant coach. "That's where it started to proliferate."
Bart Oates, a Stars teammate of Eatman's and later a Pro Bowl center for the New York Giants, agreed. "Track the league's average salary and see what happens in 1984," Oates said. "Put it on a chart and watch it spike."
The NFL's average salary in 1983 was $152,800. A year later, after the USFL began paying fat salaries and creating a bidding war with the NFL, the average salary was $225,600, an increase of 47.6 percent -- the largest jump in the league's history.
Maybe that was why so many men spoke with a sincere tone of fondness, spasms of energy inflecting their voices last week as they remembered their brief tenure in the USFL. Then again, perhaps there was more to it than money.
Charlie Steiner, of the YES Network and radio voice of the New York Yankees, claims to be the only human to witness all 56 of the New Jersey Generals games in person. His first big break in play-by-play announcing was with WOR radio as the voice of the Generals.
"The reason everyone remembers it so fondly is that it was truly fresh and new," Steiner said from his New York City apartment. "Remember, we were all 20 years younger. We all felt like we were part of something new from the ground up with a more than legitimate chance to make it."
"Everybody likes to be a pioneer," said the Chiefs' Peterson. "Because of that, there was a real spirit of camaraderie."
Maurice Carthon's diverse, 20-season career in football began in the USFL. He blocked for Herschel Walker as a fullback for the Generals and actually cleared 1,000 yards himself. He won two Super Bowl rings with the Giants, then joined Bill Parcells' Patriots and Jets coaching staffs. After a year in Detroit, Carthon is Parcells' new offensive coordinator in Dallas.
"It really went by fast," Carthon said from his Cowboys office. "Just this morning one of our young linebackers was asking me about the USFL. I was telling him some stories. And then the media guy comes in and says it's the 20th anniversary. What? Twenty years? Are you kidding me?"
Dixon feels the same way. Even now, he said the USFL comes up in conversation a couple of times a week.
"I hear those initials and it brings back great affection for all the people who were involved," Dixon said. "And yet, there are pangs of regret. We made it, and we blew it in a certain way."
It was that kind of yin-yang, make-or-break league.
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.