With the National Spring Football League over before it even started in 1990 – and the World League of American Football a few months from kickoff – the battle to fill the spring football void should’ve been over.
Before anyone could ask, “What was the NSFL, again?” the United States Football Association entered the picture. On October 8, 1990, it was reported that the USFA would hold a news conference in Portland on October 10 to announce the Oregon city as the first member of the new league. Dick Seuss, coach of the Oregon Thunderbolts semi-pro team, was leading the Portland effort.
“I was in on the first two or three United States Football League meetings, and I think their thoughts at the time were absolutely correct,” USFA commissioner Lou Saban told The World newspaper. “We think spring football can work. Our people have learned from what happened with the USFL. We know that we’re only as strong as our weakest link.”
Saban, of course, was already well-established in the football world, having coached in the NFL, American Football League and college ranks, and earning back-to-back AFL Coach of the Year nods while guiding the Buffalo Bills in 1964 and 1965. By the time the 68-year-old assumed his USFA duties, he had held 15 different coaching posts. The last was a four-game stint with a Minor League Football System team in Georgia (the Middle Georgia Heat Wave) and the three previous to that were at the high school level.
He had developed a reputation for abruptly quitting jobs, leaving the Bills twice.
But this was a new gig and new adventure, and he hoped he could help the upstart circuit cull the best parts of the USFL.
“We’re trying to borrow from the USFL name as close as possible,” he said. “We’re still trying to establish a financial foundation. We’re still in the preliminary stage. I think within the next week or so, we’ll have a platform to work from.”
Original plans called for eight to 10 teams to play a March through early July schedule. The first franchises announced were the Portland Predators and Tampa Bay Bandits, and Saban said the league had contacted potential investors in Jacksonville, Miami, Mobile, Salt Lake City, Norfolk, Sacramento, Oakland, Fresno and Scranton.
Jim Spavital, who was coach of the World Football League’s Chicago Fire and general manager of the USFL’s Michigan Panthers, was supposed to help put together the Tampa Bay entry.
The player pool would be made up of athletes “not quite good enough for the National Football League,” Saban said.
Portland set up tryouts for October 21, and two weeks later, Tampa held its camp with Saban on hand to observe.
“I’ve been involved in football tryouts every year that I can remember for a long time,” Saban told the Tampa Tribune. “I just went through a tryout in Macon where we had 150 guys in the first camp, 100 the second and 125 in the third, and I can tell you they don’t fool you too many times.
“Usually, they can look at the guys running the 40 and doing chin-ups and know right away whether or not they’ve got a chance.”
I have no idea how any of the hopefuls fared in those events.
In fact, I don’t know much of anything involving the USFA after its initial announcement and news of the Oregon and Florida tryouts. Like many other leagues that exist only in theory, it just disappeared.
In February, 1991, Saban announced he was interested in becoming the athletic director at the University of Miami, where he coached from 1977-78. But just a couple of months later he was back coaching, this time at NAIA Division II Peru State in Nebraska. Every story I could find mentioned his job history – sometimes in great detail – but none referenced the United States Football Association or its would-be commissioner.
So we’ll never know what kind of cool rules the USFA would’ve come up with, whether it could’ve snagged a TV contract, and how it would’ve fared trying to occupy the same space as the WLAF. And that’s a shame, because I’ve always felt the rivalry between the Portland Predators and Tampa Bay Bandits could’ve been one of the best in all of sports – at least until the league folded.