Drawing Some Obscure Parallels

I watched both football games on Sunday, even though I’m still smarting over how the Titans absolutely threw away their chance to host the AFC Championship. I now know who I will be rooting for in the Super Bowl – the Rams. The week between the Titans and the Chiefs games, the Bengals fans and players did nothing but talk trash about the Titans. The players said that the Titans were scared of them even before kickoff. I guess that would explain how the Titans sacked Joe Burrow nine times, because they were so scared. Titans QB Ryan Tannehill? He may have been scared, based on how he played. But Bengal fans were so obnoxious that following week, I decided to pull for whoever they played for the remainder of the playoffs.

For those like me that love football, along with racing; you probably know that there will be yet another spring football league to make its debut for those that can’t get enough. There is a racing connection here, so stay with me.

What is different about this latest version of spring football is that it is a reboot of the United States Football League (USFL) – arguably, the most successful spring football league and undoubtedly the most successful aimed at competing against the NFL.

For whatever this is worth, I consider myself quite the authority of the original USFL, which played from 1983 through 1985. That and ten dollars will buy me a tenderloin at IMS this May. My immediate post-college years were spent in Memphis and I was all in, when the Memphis Showboats began play in 1984. I had already immersed myself in the league that was outbidding the NFL for top players and had lured Herschel Walker to leave school early, which was never done in those days. For whatever reason, most of this very obscure and totally useless information has stuck with me.

The USFL was no joke, when it came to players. For three years in a row, Heisman Trophy winners Herschel Walker (New Jersey Generals), Mike Rozier (Pittsburgh Maulers) and Doug Flutie (New Jersey Generals) all chose to play in the USFL, instead of the established NFL. Reggie White began his pro football career as a Memphis Showboat. Outstanding running back, Marcus Dupree, left Oklahoma early to become a member of the New Orleans Breakers. Anthony Carter began his career as a Michigan Panther. Steve Young signed an unheard-of $40 million contract to play for the Los Angeles Express. Jim Kelly played for the Houston Gamblers in the first known version of the run & shoot offense. Terry Bradshaw’s successor, Cliff Stoudt, decided to leave Bradshaw’s long shadow in Pittsburgh and chose to play for the Birmingham Stallions.

Future NFL Hall of Famers were not the only ones that made their name in the USFL. Several coaches did as well. Before he became a legendary coach for the Florida Gators, Steve Spurrier was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Bandits. Future Houston Oilers coach Jack Pardee, was the coach of the Houston Gamblers. Jim Mora coached the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars in all three USFL Championship games, winning the final two. He would later coach the New Orleans Saints to their first-ever winning record and playoff appearance, before moving on to coach the Indianapolis Colts (playoffs??).

While the USFL had plenty of talented players and coaches, what they lacked was solid ownership. Some owners were very financially strong, such as the Showboat’s Billy Dunavant, Tampa Bay’s John Bassett and New Jersey’s Donald Trump (no political discussions, please). But there were more fly-by night owners that caused teams like the Breakers to move each year from Boston, to New Orleans and then to Portland. The Washington Federals ended up becoming the Orlando Renegades. After one year, the Chicago Blitz and Arizona Wranglers swapped franchises, before the new Blitz folded in Year Two. Then the Wranglers merged with the Oklahoma Outlaws to become the Arizona Outlaws.

It all became too much. The few strong teams voted to suspend play in spring of 1986, with an eye on playing in the fall, going head-to-head with the NFL. The real goal, for the Showboats anyway, was to have a few strong teams absorbed into the NFL in a merger – much like the AFL in the sixties. What messed up that plan was the USFL filing a $1.7 billion anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL. The trial lasted over a month, and the USFL was victorious. However, they were awarded only one dollar, which was trebled to three dollars under anti-trust laws. That spelled the immediate end of the USFL.

Why the history lesson on a failed sports league from almost forty years ago? Because there are a lot of interesting (to me, anyway) parallels between the formation of a spring football league and the early start-up days of the Indy Racing League. I say this as a point of interest, and not to start a debate over The Split.

While I seemingly ruffled a few feathers last week with what was perceived as a pro-IRL and anti-Champ Car post, I was solidly against the formation of the IRL, and I very much sided with CART in those early days. I really appreciated where CART was in the mid-nineties, and saw no reason for a start-up league.

When I look back at the IRL from 1996 to 2000, I still view that time frame as being filled with very dark days – especially at the Indianapolis 500. I still made it a point to watch every CART race on the schedule. I would catch the IRL races if I had nothing else going on. I viewed the IRL as an inferior product, much the same way that football fans viewed the USFL.

The USFL, provided a lot of opportunities to many players and coaches that had been ignored by the NFL. The IRL did the exact same thing for drivers and team owners. Some USFL players and coaches had been passed over by the NFL for one reason or another. Some, like Tampa Bay’s John Reeves and Chicago’s Doug Plank, were simply extending their careers after being considered done by the NFL.

Buddy Lazier was going nowhere in CART. He had a few scattered starts between Hemelgarn, Coyne and Walker Racing. Then he went with Leader Card Racing, a proud name that was now a shadow of its former self, in 1992 – mostly with a Buick engine, which was very ineffective at tracks like Road America. In 1995, Lazier was with Project Indy, Dale Coyne and was in a Menard car at Indianapolis. To say his racing career was going nowhere is an understatement.

With the launch of the IRL in 1996, Buddy Lazier won the 1996 Indianapolis 500 and won the IRL championship in 2000. Lazier was also the only driver that made Juan Montoya break a sweat in the 2000 Indianapolis 500. He had suddenly earned a reputation for being a driver you didn’t want to see in your rear-view mirror.

After winning the IRL championship in 2000, Lazier finished second in 2001, eighth in 2002 and nineteenth in 2003 – his last year at Hemelgarn. Coincidentally, it was 2001 when teams from CART really started migrating over, By 2003, several of the top teams in CART had moved over. It begged the question; were Lazier and Hemelgarn tapering off as happens sometimes, or had they enjoyed being a big fish in a little pond but were they now suddenly facing serious competition that showed where they always belonged in the first place?

Regardless, Buddy Lazier probably would have drifted off into obscurity had it not been for an alternative league, just like the USFL.

While the USFL lured many big stars out of college, there were many unheralded players that flourished in the USFL and ultimately got a decent shot in the NFL. Bobby Hebert comes to mind. I had never heard of Hebert until he was the starting QB for the Michigan Panthers. He ended up playing for twelve NFL seasons with the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons. He never went on to Super Bowl glory, but chances are – we would still have never heard from him today, had it not been for the alternative league, just like the IRL.

I could pound out a lot more paragraphs about all of the similarities between the USFL and the IRL, but we all know the one striking difference between the two upstart leagues. The USFL never had a cornerstone event like the Indianapolis 500. That was the difference between surviving and dying, plain and simple.

I will upset many, but in my opinion – the early days of the IRL (pre-2003) showcased an inferior product. The teams, drivers, tracks, cars, engines and sounds were much better in CART than in the IRL. But ultimately, CART did not have the Indianapolis 500 and the IRL did. It was not uncommon for a mid-pack IRL team to fold in the middle of the season, just like some of the low-budget USFL teams. That usually didn’t happen in CART.

CART had Penske, Ganassi, Rahal, Newman/Haas, Unser, Andretti, Moore, Franchitti, Castroneves and Tracy. The IRL had Hemelgarn, Kelly, Panther, PDM, Cheever, Lazier, Dr. Jack Miller and Dennis Vitolo.

With apologies to John Oreovicz and his well-written account in Indy Split, the whole battle came down to one thing – had it not been for the trump card that was the Indianapolis 500, the IRL would’ve been nothing more than a slight annoyance to CART, just like the USFL was to the NFL. But whoever had the Indianapolis 500 in their back pocket, was ultimately going to win the war. That’s exactly what happened.

Is this a stretch? Probably so, but hey – it’s the offseason. So, when the new version of the USFL starts up on April 16, enjoy it for what it is – a slight diversion that will not get in the way of racing. Without stealing the glitz and glamour of the NFL’s Super Bowl, it will hardly show up on anyone’s radar. But perhaps a few players and coaches will get another opportunity that they will make the most of.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Drawing Some Obscure Parallels”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Great USFL history lesson, George. It is interesting to me that the new USFL is trading so much on the nostalgia of the old league, down to not only team names but the logos too.

    Despite the seemingly endless appetite for football in the US, spring football leagues have long struggled to get a foothold (The USFL being the only one to perform reliably for multiple seasons, the new XFL may have made it work had COVID not interrupted them). Indycar’s minor leagues may be decidedly minor when it comes to fan and media attention, but they’ve managed to find a niche that spring football simply has not been able too.

  2. northeastvista Says:

    Here in Michigan the Michigan Panthers won the USFL at least one, if not both years in the league! Better than our Lions.
    Did I hear correctly that all USFL games will played in Birmingham, AL? How can the league gain any local support if they play all games in Birmingham?

  3. This is an interesting post. I had not heard about the new USFL. I followed the previous version closely and watched every game I could. I enjoyed their games and felt they rivalled the NFL in quality. And I still believe most the USFL teams had the best looking helmets ever. Had they kept playing in the spring, football might look a lot different in the U.S. today. Trump was the owner that insisted on suing the NFL and moving to fall.
    I mostly ignored the IRL until 2000. After being at the 500 all but two years from 1963 through 1995, I skipped the races from 1996 through 2000 before returning to cover the next three. I made it a point to net even be in the U.S. in May of ’96 and ’98. I agree that without the 500, the IRL would have withered away in two to three years if it lasted that long.
    BTW, if you wat to see really good, entertaining pro football, check out the Canadian Football League. The Gray Cup game this year was a classic!

  4. I usually agree with most of what you say, but not today.

    I know that was a tough game for the Titans to lose, but Cincinnati is looking like a team of destiny. I’m sure KC fans are saying the same things this week. I only heard one or two comments from players/fans about the Titans after the game and the comment about the Titans being scared is new to me. And I live 20 miles north of Cincinnati so I’m surprised I didn’t hear of it. If nothing else, maybe a rivalry is building between the two teams, which would be pretty cool. There was “bad blood” between the Bengals and Oilers players/ fans but I’ve never felt any of that with Tennessee.

    I don’t follow the NFL any more and haven’t for quite a few years but I was a long time Bengal season ticket holder who never thought I would see the Bengals back in the Super Bowl (at least not while Mike Brown was still alive.) So I really want them to win a week from Sunday. And I think they have a good chance.

    Also I know the CART fans love to look down at the IRL. This gets into all the split issues of which there is so much passion so no point in bringing all that up. But I will say those years you ignored were a lot of fun. Including the Indy 500s. My first streak of Indy 500s ended after the 2002 race but lasted 19 of 20 races. Tony Stewart was a rising star, and all those oval races were a blessing. Tony George just was not the businessman to get done what needed to be done. But, in a lot of ways I enjoyed the overall “League” more then than I do now.


  5. The thing with the infamous split is that you cannot have both Jim Guthrie win a race and AJ Allmendinger win a championship.

    Even though, looking back, the split years were a weird era, you have to wonder if CART would also have brought the world the SAFER barrier.

    Motor racing has come a long way since the split, especially when it comes to safety, bolting the aeroscreen and halo on top of it all.

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