Mr. Trump Goes to Birmingham

In 1984, Donald Trump marched his New Jersey Generals football team into the Football Capital of the South.

 

“Life is a risk.” -Donald Trump

 

WAR! GENERALS TO MARCH ON BIRMINGHAM! Invasion Plans Revealed; New Jersey To Attack Legion Field! Opposing Armies in Place; Battle Begins at 1:30 Today! EXTRA EXTRA!

In February 1984, the Birmingham Stallions of the United States Football League (USFL) reserved two full-page ads in The Birmingham News in anticipation of their opening game at Legion Field against the New Jersey Generals, owned by none other than Donald Trump. The “special edition” advertisement was cleverly called The Birmingham Stallion and took on a wartime theme.

One article read, “The New Jersey Generals are camped in Birmingham and have moved into position for their assault on the Football Capital of the South, Legion Field. The battle will begin at 1:30 today. Fighting is expected to be heavy both in the air and on the ground.” Another article called for “support personnel,” i.e., a few good (70,000 or so) men, women, and children to fill the Legion Field seats—“The Stallions can’t turn back the ruthless invaders without you!”

The ad as it appeared in The Birmingham News

That winter, USFL fever had struck in the Heart of Dixie. Several days in advance of the game, Stallions articles dominated the headlines as columnists centered their thoughts on the newfound professional football franchise housed in a city that had historically reserved its adoration for the amateur game. Folks surmised that Paul “Bear” Bryant would allow such rebellions, now that he was dead.

Still in their infancy, the year-old Stallions were founded by Marvin Warner, an Ohio financier who owned Home State Savings bank and was once part owner of the New York Yankees. The Stallions went 9-9 in their inaugural year and crowds at Legion Field were sparse. Only 5,000 showed up for a game against the Arizona Wranglers on March 26, 1983. But something happened in the offseason, and the city of Birmingham was infected with the desire for professional football. Perhaps an Iron Bowl for the ages, pitting the University of Alabama (8-4) against in-state rival Auburn (11-1) at Legion Field, left fans bloodthirsty for more pigskin, whatever the form.

Another game advertisement in The Birmingham News

Now that the Stallions had ingratiated themselves with skeptical fans, nascent franchises like the Michigan Panthers, Chicago Blitz, Memphis Showboats, Oklahoma Outlaws, and Tampa Bay Bandits remained relative unknowns, juxtaposed against NFL blue bloods. One encouraging aspect of the league was that many of the franchises were led by great coaches: Steve Spurrier of the Bandits; Pepper Rodgers of the Showboats; George Allen and Marv Levy of the Blitz; Woody Widenhofer of the Outlaws; Lindy Infante of the Jacksonville Bulls; Jim Mora of the Philadelphia Stars; Lee Corso of the Orlando Renegades; and Jack Pardee of the Houston Gamblers.

Things were dicey at first, and league administration wanted growth at a snail’s pace. But while the league was trying to lift the wobbling machine off the tarmac, Trump was already in the clouds. He envisioned the esteemed “Galaxy Bowl,” pitting the NFL champion with the USFL champion for Milky Way domination. Some felt that Trump’s true intent was NFL ownership, and if a merger could occur, he could somehow backdoor his way into the league.

Regardless of the extent of dreams, Trump remained the sexy, high-profile interview for sportswriters. “They dine at tanned goatskin tables in their own Manhattan condo overlooking Central Park, wear designer clothes and ski in Aspen, Gstaad, and St. Moritz when not weekending at their Greenwich, Conn. estate,” wrote Robert H. Boyle for a Sports Illustrated article entitled “The USFL’s Trump Card.” The cover photo shows the striking 37-year-old real estate tycoon at a desk in his 26th floor office in downtown Manhattan. Trump is holding the phone, presumably in the middle of an important business deal. In front of him papers are scattered about, and beyond the glass office window behind him, skyscrapers rise.

In September 1983, Trump bought the Generals for $6 million, a number that seems awfully modest today, given that the worth of many pro franchises have ascended into the billions with a “B” category. (To compare, Denise DeBartolo and John York bought the San Francisco 49ers in 1977 for $13 million.) J. Walter Duncan, a wealthy oilman from Oklahoma who was the original owner of the Generals, had grown weary of managing the team from afar and dumped the franchise in Trump’s lap after just one season.

Part of the reason why Trump purchased the team was for the challenge, but it also brought him more notoriety outside of his Manhattan enclave. Trump was already a well-known real estate mogul, but owning a pro franchise would give him Steinbrenner-level clout. Besides, he wasn’t afraid to take on the establishment—the esteemed National Football League—which delivered a brand of football he viewed as increasingly dry and unexciting. Come to this new league! Trump touted, as he branded the USFL a more interesting foil to the staid and dusty NFL.

But where better to look for talent than the NFL, Trump concluded, and he immediately began pilfering through the elder league for players to complement Herschel Walker, the running back from Georgia who shocked the world by signing with the Generals in ‘83. He stole Brian Sipe, the aging but still capable quarterback who was the NFL Player of the Year in 1980, from the Cleveland Browns. Sipe, 34 at the time, said his decision to sign with a USFL team had much to do with Trump, and he was optimistic that within a short time the new league would be comparable to his old one. Sipe later told the papers he was “pleasantly surprised” with the talent on the roster.  

Walker won the Heisman Trophy in 1982 | Photo courtesy Georgia Athletics

In addition to Walker, several other NFL defections stocked the Generals’ menu of studs. Gary Barbaro was an All-Pro safety for the Kansas City Chiefs; Dave Lapham and Jim Leclair were longtime veterans of the Cincinnati Bengals; and Willie Harper and Bobby Leopold had been linebackers for the San Francisco 49ers.

Trump had stolen another member of his team from the NFL—his head coach. Walt Michaels led the New York Jets to the doorstep of the Super Bowl in 1982, losing in the AFC championship to Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins. But Michaels mysteriously walked away from the Jets after the season, saying he’d “had enough” and issuing his retirement papers. But his name continued to surface as a candidate for the Generals’ job after Trump purchased the team on September 22.

Oddly enough, as the Jets and New York Giants foundered, Michaels’ stock seemed to rise in his year away from football. “Walt Michaels has gained more stature by not coaching than he ever did by coaching,” wrote Dave Anderson for the New York Times. Anderson went so far as to call Michaels the “best coach in the New York era” (a yet unproven Bill Parcells led the New York Football Giants). Trump had moved out Chuck Fairbanks, who had great success as the head coach of the New England Patriots in the 1970s, before installing Michaels as the Generals’ new skipper. “I fully expect it to be a team that gets ready to hit people,” Michaels said in his introductory press conference. ”If you don’t, you don’t win. It’s a game of blocking and tackling, and when it changes I guess I’ll be gone.”

On the opposite side of the ball, the storyline for the Birmingham Stallions was whether or not their $2.35 million running back, former Auburn great Joe Cribbs, would be eligible to play. Cribbs rushed for more than 1,000 yards in three of his four seasons in Buffalo and was a three-time Pro Bowler, but his future with the team was tied up in a federal lawsuit instituted by the Bills, who claimed that a right-of-first-refusal clause exempted him from signing with another club. Cribbs, who had grown increasingly disinterested in the harsh Buffalo winters and longed for milder climates, signed with the Stallions two weeks before the Bills’ training camp. His case was soon thrown into a federal courtroom, where the terms of his contract would be disputed. To the chagrin of the Bills, U.S. District Judge John T. Elfvin, a Gerald Ford appointee, ruled that the clause was unenforceable and that Cribbs was eligible to play for the Stallions. “I am happy about the decision,” Cribbs said. “This is where I want to play. It’s fantastic. Fantastic.”

Leading up to the game, sportswriters touted the two former Southeastern Conference running backs. “Cribbs gives the team breakaway potential,” wrote Jimmy Bryan, who would cover the game for The Birmingham News. “A threat to score from anywhere, anytime.” Walker, the former Heisman Trophy winner, drew the most headlines, including a cover page spread entitled “Here comes Herschel!” the Wednesday prior to the game.

Although Walker galloped through the SEC in his three years at Georgia, he had yet to play in Birmingham and was a virgin to the Legion Field turf. In 1983 when the two teams matched up in New Jersey, Walker’s effectiveness had been mitigated by a stout Stallions’ defense that held him to only 28 yards on 11 carries in a 22-7 Birmingham victory. Now Herschel was descending on Birmingham with revenge in mind. “The man generally identified as the greatest running back of our time makes his first-ever appearance at Legion Field when the Birmingham Stallions open the USFL season against the Generals at 1:30,” wrote Bryan.

Adding more fuel to the fire was the parody ad, which quoted Cribbs as saying, “Herschel hadn’t lived ‘til he’s died on Legion Field. I know. It’s my home. When he sees the likes of our big tanks like Pureifory, Spencer, Walker, and Sales, he’ll wonder why he ever accepted this mission.”

By Year Two of the fledgling league, it was clear the USFL had pivoted in its overall philosophy to a more Trumpian stance. No longer would it be shy in its disdain for the NFL. No, the plan was to be brash, combative, and go toe-to-toe with the enemy. “We originally felt that was the way to build the league, building on a very quiet, slow basis,” said USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons. “It didn’t take long for folks to change their minds. And it’s probably the right way to go. Because this country has a very healthy appetite for stars.”

And stars put warm bodies in the seats.

Not all owners agreed, including Tampa Bay’s John Bassett—“philosophically, I don’t approve,” Bassett said. Trump, on the other hand, not only approved, he lusted to go a step further. His vision was for the USFL to switch to a fall league in two or three years’ time and compete more directly with the NFL. This, Trump said, would occur for three principal reasons: “For football tradition, for a rivalry with the NFL and most importantly because more people are watching TV that time of year.”

In his discussions with the Birmingham paper, Trump underscored that some league ownership was not up to snuff, but lauded the administration of his first week’s opponent. “Its ownership is very strong,” Trump said of Stallions’ owner Warner. “I’d say near the top. And I’d prefer playing a lesser football team on opening day.”

A 2018 photo of Legion Field, where the Stallions and Generals met up on February 26, 1984 | Photo by Al Blanton

By kickoff on February 26, the largest crowd to ever watch a USFL game had jammed into Legion Field, 62,300 total, breaking the previous record set the previous year by the Pontiac Silverdome crowd at the Michigan Panthers’ playoff game versus the Oakland Invaders. Temperatures hovered in the 60s, and it was a perfect day for February football. Overall, attendance for all USFL events that weekend was 273,771, an average of over 34,000 per contest. But the Generals’ owner wasn’t as concerned with the big picture as he was what was in front of him at Legion Field.

From a booth straddling the 50-yard-line, Trump peered down at the game glowingly as he shared his accommodations with fellow dignitaries: then-wife, Ivana, and Jason Seltzer, Generals team president. In the papers, one could almost see Trump scanning his investment as if he were looking down on Manhattan from one of his towers. “Look at that,” Trump gushed to the New York Times. “They didn’t have that many more people at the Super Bowl.”

At halftime, both owners reserved time to interview with ABC announcer Keith Jackson, Trump sitting to Jackson’s right, Werner flanking him to the left. “The quality of the league, you see it just in the play today, it’s an exciting game, the people are going wild,” Trump said.

Then Trump gave a nod to Alabama’s tradition, saying, “I suspect that ‘Bear’ Bryant might be looking down on the stadium right now.”

Warner, arms folded over his satin Stallions’ jacket, appeared much more gruff than his younger counterpart. “I heard that Don Trump went in and gave a pep talk before the game started,” he said. “I’m going to go in and give a big pep talk in just a few minutes. He’s a great talker, but I’m going to have to try to emulate him in some way.”

Though the offensive explosion promised in the papers did not pan out that Sunday, Trump took devilish delight, not only in the crowd, but that his team also put a good product on the field. Michaels’ defense proved to be much stingier than that of his predecessor, and the Generals stymied the Stallions’ offense all day long by holding Cribbs and quarterback Cliff Stoudt in check. Cribbs was limited to only 52 yards and Stoudt was 6 of 13 passing for a meager 51 yards. “I feel like I could go out and play a couple of games of racquetball,” scoffed a near-fresh Generals lineman Tom Woodland after the game. In addition, the Generals’ offense took the air out of the ball, hogging the rock for more than 31 minutes in the 17-6 victory. The Stallions lone scores came on a pair of Scott Norwood field goals.

As always, the game was told from two perspectives. For the losers, pundits were disappointed to see such an offensive letdown and poo-pooed the Stallions’ performance. “They could have won 62,300 hearts,” wrote Neal Sims. “Instead, they broke them.” Billy Mitchell of The Tuscaloosa News wrote, “Outside the stadium before kickoff, souvenir hawkers were making a mint peddling anything with Stallions on it…Alka-Stallion-seltzers were the only hot items going when it was over.”

But no one was happier than Trump. After the game, Trump navigated the Legion Field corridors, eventually finding his way to the team’s locker room. He rapped on the door, and as he was let in, the Generals were furnishing a raucous ovation for their coach, who had just been presented the game ball. Trump offered his congratulations and everyone in the Generals organization was elated to go back home to New Jersey with a hard-fought victory.

Ever the promoter, Trump continued to hail the glamour of the new league while railing on the establishment. “There’s a fever for this sport,” he said. “The National Football League is the Establishment, and we’re confronting it. You look at this crowd. You look at this scene, and you see us taking the next step: Going head to head with the N.F.L. in the fall.”

The Generals turned out a stellar year, going 14-5 and losing to the eventual league champions, the Philadelphia Stars, in the first round of the playoffs. But in a portent for things to come, the crowd for the playoff game at Franklin Field in Philadelphia was sparse, as only 19,038 attended. But Trump remained undeterred.

He continued to spearhead the move to a fall schedule, and by 1986, the league finally agreed. By that time, however, franchises were either dropping like flies or being gobbled up by the fittest. There were varying reasons for teams’ demise; lack of attendance and poor leadership certainly factored in. But in the case of the San Antonio Gunslingers, the league revoked the franchise when owner Clinton Manges ceased paying the team’s debts in June 1985.

Eventually the USFL tried to eat the elephant in one bite, filing an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Trump’s home turf. The USFL claimed $1.69 billion in damages, and that the NFL held monopoly power on professional football, violating Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act. A jury of six concurred with the new league on the latter, but disagreed on the former, awarding the USFL a nominal sum of $1 on July 29, 1986.

The league soon disbanded, and Trump’s dreams of a fall schedule were never realized. Across the years, many have blamed Trump’s bravado as the axe that felled the USFL, and in the end it was a colossal loss for many of the owners.

If America has learned anything from Trump’s foray into professional football ownership and later the presidency, it’s that Trump isn’t afraid to get up in the face of the establishment. The USFL was Trump’s football version of “Draining the Swamp” and though he lost bigly, as he might say, he learned that sometimes, it’s much harder to take down than it is to build.

But for one sterling moment in Birmingham, Alabama, the possibilities were endless. H&A

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Cover photo: In this March 8, 1984, file photo, New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, left, shakes hands with Herschel Walker in New York after Walker agreed to a 4-year contract with the USFL football team. A spring football league, done the right way, could work. The United States Football League came up with the most feasible concept back in the 1980s, only to crumble after just three seasons. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff, File)

 

 

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