When the USFL's owners met in New York Aug. 4 to determine the league's future, six wanted to play this fall. Stephen Ross of the Baltimore Stars and Donald Trump of the New Jersey Generals did not. "I believed as late as [the night before] that we would play," said Lee Scarfone of the Tampa Bay Bandits. "We voted by teams alphabetically. When Donald Trump voted no, that was it. The ESPN television contract required that there be a New York area team. When he said no. it didn't matter how the rest voted." Trump said his main objective now was to pursue further legal means of attempting to win hefty damages from the NFL. "I am not interested in owning an NFL franchise," he said. "I am looking for a victory in court."
The league, down to 8 teams from a high of 18 in 1984, had already lost an estimated $200 million in its three years of operation, and, without a network television contract for 1986, it was projecting additionl losses of up to $5 million per team. If the USFL doesn't resume play in the fall of '87, as planned, it will be missed in Sunbelt cities such as Jacksonville, Memphis and Tampa, where it had developed loyal followings. One spring afternoon in 1984, 73,227 Jacksonville Bulls fans turned out to watch a game with the Generals in the 80,000-seat Gator Bowl.
Even while voting to suspend operations, real estate man Trump said, "There is only one owner who can afford to play this year. And that's me." In fact, the league had brought together several wealthy owners, including real estate magnates Trump and A. Alfred Taubman of the Oakland Invaders, who are estimated to be worth $600 million each, and William B. Dunavant Jr. of the Memphis Showboats, a cotton merchant said to be worth a mere $150 million.
But not everyone in the league was flush. In Tampa, as the league was voting to suspend operations for '86, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's office confiscated weights, equipment and souvenirs from the Bandits' offices to satisfy a $150,000 judgment awarded former safety Bret Clark, now with the Atlanta Falcons. Clark had received the loot in an arbitration settlement for money owed to him by the late John Bassett, the team's original owner.
The Bandits had once been the league's model franchise. Bassett, who died of cancer on May 14, had boasted that he was the only owner who didn't overspend and that he was able to put together a playoff team on a shoestring. Last week. Bandits center Chris Foote showed up at the team's practice facility. "I came in to lift weights," he said, "and they weren't there."
As for the rest of the country, it's debatable how much the league will be missed, if it is missed at all. It had its moments. The run-and-shoot offense of Jim Kelly and the Houston Gamblers produced some dazzling passing statistics, and the Generals some dazzling media fleaflickers, thanks to Trump. The Baltimore/ Philadelphia Stars won two of the league's three championships—Michigan won the other one—and helped coach Jim Mora land the head job with the New Orleans Saints this year. The USFL also had the distinction of staging the longest game in pro football history. In 1984 the Los Angeles Express and the Michigan Panthers went to triple overtime—93 minutes and 33 seconds in all—and the Express won 27-21. And give the league credit for pioneering the use of instant replay for officiating. The NFL is following suit this year.
"Everybody looked down on us," says Walker, who rushed for 100 yards or more in 11 straight games in 1985. "That made us play so hard. The USFL was fun. It was what the NFL used to be. I'm not much for dancing, but I loved to watch the shimmies in the end zone, the high fives, the sack dances. The league where I'm going to now, you can't do that stuff."