I love doing research, so one of the most rewarding things about writing my first book (the working title is Cheers Through The Years: My Hot (And Sometimes Cold) Bromance With Birmingham Pro Football) is digging into history.
As someone who is obsessed with the Magic City’s frequent brushes with the play-for-pay gridiron game, I pride myself on having a good bit of walking around knowledge when it comes to the World Football League, United States Football League, World League of American Football, etc.
But sometimes you forget a detail here and there, and that’s when it’s time to take a deep-dive into newspaper archives.
And while doing a second draft of Cheers Through The Years and cross-referencing the section devoted to the USFL’s Birmingham Stallions recently, I came across some pretty cool stuff.
And I was reminded that when it comes to alternative football leagues, there’s really nothing new under the sun.
I knew, for example, that the United States Football League (1983-85) was the brainchild of Louisiana sports executive Dave Dixon, who had the idea for it nearly two decades earlier.
What I didn’t realize, however, was that he not only planned the league back in the mid-1960s, but was on the verge of actually getting it up and running.
On April 11, 1965, the Dallas Times-Herald ran a story announcing the formation of the United States Football League, which would begin play in 1966 with franchises in Anaheim, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, New Orleans and either San Francisco or Seattle.
But instead of going head to head with the National Football League and the American Football League, the USFL would – you guessed it – play in the spring.
The season would begin in January and end in May, with the championship game staged on Memorial Day.
Aside from the gimmick of offseason football, the league was to feature a central scouting system that would draft players and assign them to teams, and encourage “non-standardized professional offenses” by including the I-formation, double-wing and single-wing.
And the players would need to be in top physical shape; there would be no halftime intermission. The idea was to fit a contest into a two-hour window and make the USFL a made-for-TV football production.
Dixon was also courting both the NFL and AFL in hopes of landing an expansion team in New Orleans, so a cynic might wonder whether or not his formation of the USFL was more about leverage than creating a legitimate third major league.
“I do think pro football is just in its infancy,” Dixon told the Associated Press. “There are a number of other deserving cities – at least a dozen besides New Orleans – who want and can support pro football.”
But wait – as the obnoxious TV announcer might say – there’s more!
Remember the World League of American Football, which had North American-based teams in 1991 and 1992 before being reformed as NFL Europe?
It had roots in 1965, too.
Almost immediately after Dixon announced the formation of the USFL, Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm said the NFL was also considering its own January to May league.
The difference between the NFL’s circuit and the USFL was that it would be something of a farm system, which would feature some NFL players but mostly hopefuls working to earn a place on a big league roster.
Teams would be placed in cities that didn’t have NFL or AFL franchises.
“We have thought of going into this as an adjunct to our own league,” Schramm told the Los Angeles Times. “Television is very anxious to have us get involved in it.”
Obviously, the earliest iterations of Dixon’s and Schramm’s leagues never made it from the drawing board to the field. Yet the seeds were planted.
The USFL we know and love started 18 years after Dixon proposed it, and played three glorious spring seasons.
It featured some of the best football players in the game (eight USFL alumni are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame). In fact, four Hall of Famers began their careers in the modern USFL – Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Steve Young and Gary Zimmerman.
Aside from introducing concepts such as the coach’s challenges and two-point conversion, it also forced the NFL to dramatically increase player salaries.
As for an NFL spring farm system, Schramm finally got his World League up and running 26 years after he thought it up – with the NFL underwriting it. Ironically, the closer the league came to fruition the more Schramm wanted to make it less a feeder league and more of an “aggressive, broad world league.”
That difference in philosophy ended up getting him fired before the WLAF ever played a down.
So, what’s the moral of this story?
Well, as much as goobs like me love the idea of “new” football leagues, the ideas behind them aren’t really new at all.
Creating one built to last, though … now that would be a first.