Book Review: Football for a Buck

by Ryan McCarthy, BBM Staff Writer

In 1983, a group of businessmen were sold a vision of Spring football to fill the void left by the National Football League and maybe someday compete against that same league.
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The USFL Logo. (Photo Credit: Pinterest.com)

That vision was the United States Football League. But by the end of its third season, the vision and the dream of many who participated in the league was gone. The ESPN documentary “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL” by Mike Tollin gave us a small glimpse of what the USFL was in its hay day. For a sports fan like me that also happened to love the USFL as a young boy, it wasn’t enough.

And for Jeff Pearlman, it wasn’t enough, either. He searched for answers as to why the league disappeared. Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL was released on September 11th. What was Pearlman’s passion project morphed into the definitive journal of the USFL’s wild ride over its short existence.

Pearlman writes the book in four acts, chronicling the peaks and the valleys that the league encountered during its short stint in attempting to be a successful and viable sports league. The league would lure high profile college football stars such as Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, Steve Young, Reggie White, and Jim Kelly to play in the league. But in addition to the college stars, other players who were either unhappy with their treatment in the NFL or were trying to keep their professional football dreams alive became stars in the USFL: Sam Mills, Bobby Hebert, Billy Sims, Doug Williams, and Kelvin Bryant.

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Kelvin Bryant of the Philadelphia Stars was the 1983 USFL MVP. He would later enjoy a long career with the Washington Redskins. (Photo Credit: Paul Spinelli/SI)

In addition to its players, Pearlman highlights some of the coaches that were amongst the league’s colorful characters. George Allen of the Chicago Blitz and Arizona Wranglers was as much of a hard-assed coach who looked for any advantage in the USFL as he was in the NFL with the Washington Redskins. Gil Steinke of the San Antonio Gunslingers, a Texan who was hired away from Texas A&I, was known for sitting in the stands at Alamo Stadium to get a better view of the field. Dick Coury, the Breakers’ head coach in three different cities, was known as one of the most creative coaches in the league as he held contests to for local fan bases to create a play for the team, which would actually be run by the Breakers! Other USFL coaching alumni includes former University of Florida head coach Steve Spurrier, ESPN College GameDay analyst Lee Corso, and former New Orleans and Indianapolis head coach Jim Mora. 

Steve Spurrier – Tampa Bay Bandits Head Coach | Usflking's ...
Steve Spurrier was coach of the Tampa Bay Bandits. He would go on to enjoy a successful coaching career with Duke, Florida, and South Carolina's football programs. (Photo Credit: usflking.workpress.com)

Celebrities would also get in the football ownership game; Lee Majors (of The Fall Guy and The Six Million Dollar Man) would become a minority partner with the Los Angeles Express and Burt Reynolds (RIP Bandit!) was a minority partner of the Tampa Bay Bandits. The Bandits were primarily owned by John Bassett, a business owner who was known for his brand of marketing. One of his successes included a contest that chose a million-dollar winner in the crowd (which was an annuity to be paid $50,000 a year for 20 years… starting in twenty years). He was one of the owners who believed that Spring football could work. His primary opposition? Donald Trump, who owned the New Jersey Generals during its final two seasons and wanted to take the league to the Fall. There is plenty written about the man who would become our President in 2016 in this book.

Some of the stories that Pearlman highlights include:

-          The Chicago Blitz and Arizona Wranglers teams LITERALLY being traded for each other because the Blitz’s ownership didn’t want to travel back and forth between Chicago and Phoenix during the season; 

-          The Los Angeles Express, its wild owner J. William Oldenburg, and how they went from playing at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to a junior college football field in its final game ever;

-          The hapless Washington Federals, who started off in the league on the wrong foot and never seemed to get back to solid ground before relocating to Orlando in 1985;

-         The goat rodeo known as the San Antonio Gunslingers, who stopped paying their players after the second week of the 1985 season and turned promises for payments into a literal gumball rally.

Pearlman’s account of the league’s history is full of successes, mishaps, and eventual downfall of the league after the anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL when the USFL looked to move to the Fall of 1986. Regardless of whether you’re a football fan or a fan of sports nostalgia, the book is worth the time investment.

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