Thursday, October 29, 2009

Small Potatoes, Large Memories


As I watched ESPN's Presentation "Small Potatoes" which featured the demise of the USFL, this program brought back some great memories.

It's hard to believe that the league played only three seasons from 1983-85 and lost $163 million, yet it was a formidable competitor to the NFL during this time period. Today's players definitely know that without the USFL, their salaries wouldn't be as high as they are now.

When I spoke to my close friend Gus Pantelides the day after "Small Potatoes" aired, we reminisced about the 1984 USFL Championship Game we covered at Tampa Stadium for the now defunct Hallandale Digest. That weekend, I stayed with Gus at his beach house on Clearwater Beach.

His brother Mike Pantel, another close friend, also attended this contest featuring the Philadelphia Stars against the Arizona Wranglers. The Stars defeated the Wranglers 23-3.

Gus was my photographer for the game and we strategized how we were going to cover the contest. One thing we didn't prepare for was that Gus would be bombarded with autograph requests from fans as a result of him winning a Tom Selleck lookalike contest at the Clearwater Mall. My photographer was forced to do double duty and he managed quite well.

I'll never forget the events leading up to the game as I worked at the downtown Tampa Sheraton Hotel seeking story-lines.

I had the opportunity to talk to late Tampa Bay Bandits Owner John Bassett and his right-hand man Miami based attorney the late Steve Arky. I also met with Donald Trump and we talked about the second year league's progress.

What made the USFL special was the players, coaches and executives, who went on to great careers in the NFL.

Former Kansas City Chiefs President/General Manager Carl Peterson was the mastermind behind two championships for the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars.

Hall of Fame Coaches Marv Levy and George Allen roamed the sidelines while the league was a stepping stone for Jim Mora Sr. who would eventually pilot the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts.

Other coaches who roamed the sidelines included Red Miller, Darrell "Mouse" Davis, the Run N Shoot guru, Jack Pardee, Steve Spurrier, Frank Kush, Lee Corso and John Ralston.

Current Florida Atlantic University Coach Howard Schnellenberger was lured from the Miami Hurricanes in 1984, to coach the Washington Federals, who would be relocated to Miami, but that situation never materialized.

There would be 179 former USFL players who also played in the NFL.

Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young and Jim Kelly highlight a list which includes, Greg Landry, Chuck Fusina, Brian Sipe, Vince Evans, Bobby Hebert, Doug Flutie and Doug Williams.

The USFL snapped up some good running backs. Heisman Trophy Winners Herschel Walker and Mike Rozier head a list which includes Kelvin Bryant, Joe Cribbs, Craig James, Gary Anderson, Tim Spencer and Marcus Dupree.

Former Detroit Lions running back Billy Sims nearly played in the USFL. He signed two contracts, one with the Lions and Gamblers which were owned by his former agent Jerry Argovitz but would end up staying in Detroit after a major legal mess to determine which deal was valid.

There were some good wide receivers. Anthony Carter, who starred for the Michigan Wolverines, won a title with the Michigan Panthers in 1983. Jim Smith, Eric Truvillion, Trumaine Johnson, and Raymond Chester were excellent performers.

On defense, John Corker, Sam Mills, Reggie White and John Banaszak. The USFL produced two future World Champion professional wrestlers: Lex Luger and Ron Simmons.

As of 2008, the USFL alumni in the Pro Football Hall of Fame includes: Levy, Allen, Kelly, Young, White and Gary Zimmerman. The three MVP Awards belong to Bryant (1983), Kelly (1984) and Walker during the USFL's final season in 1985.

What made the USFL so unique was the use of the territorial draft where teams could select stars from their own region. The Michigan Panthers selected Carter from Michigan using this rule to win the 1983 title.

If only the Detroit Lions could ever take advantage of the Wolverines as their one time Pontiac Silverdome neighbors did.

Truvillion did play for the Detroit Lions as a replacement player in 1987 as their starting receiver and retired from pro football when the NFL strike ended.

There was the use of instant replay and the two point conversion which the NFL has now decided to utilize.

Why did this league crumble? In my opinion, Trump was the major reason the USFL failed.

Competing with the NFL in the fall was a tragic strategy which caused stadium conflicts and teams were forced to move to different markets without NFL teams.

Over expansion was also part of the demise and getting into a bidding war with the NFL for star players caused USFL owners to go broke by promising large contracts to players with personal services clauses attached.

Trump over spent to get players with large contracts but never did win a championship.

What Trump was too ignorant to realize is the USFL had earned it's place as a spring league as the public was getting used to the idea of spring football. Even though the TV ratings were declining, the league needed more time to determine which markets would work.

I'm not going into detail about the USFL's lawsuit with the NFL that earned the USFL a check for $3.76 because even though there was indeed a monopoly by the NFL. But to think the USFL would succeed during the fall was absurd! Just ask the defunct World Football League.

As I look at my leather work bag from the 1984 USFL Championship Game in Tampa in my office, plus the fact that I won an award with Broward Community College For the Best Sports Reporter in the State of Florida for writing on the USFL, the USFL meant a lot to me early in my Journalism career.

It seems like a pipe dream now with our troubled economy that there is no spring football league at the moment. As more and more college football programs appear at all levels, there are enough players to stock two football leagues. Should there be another major football league, a salary cap is vital. Patience and controlled growth should factor into the equation.

If another league does get created, just say "No To Donald Trump." Since Trump wrecked the USFL, it appears as though his name has been black balled by the other major sports leagues.

What made the "Small Potatoes" documentary great was watching Trump look like an idiot when he was asked about his role in the failure of the USFL. He was short and defensive towards the reporter. He costs a lot of players, coaches, executives plus other front office people opportunities and fans quality entertainment.

But the legacy that the league has in American Sports History lives on. It also had legendary broadcasters like Keith Jackson and Jim Simpson doing the national broadcasts for television partners ABC and ESPN.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at

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