Remember the United Football League?
Don’t worry … I doubt there are many people who do beyond those who put their time, money and effort into a league that played in obscurity for four truncated seasons.
Its commissioner was Michael Huyghue, who was general manager of the World League of American Football’s Birmingham Fire before moving on to NFL jobs with the Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars.
And, when the UFL was in its formative stages in 2007, Birmingham was mentioned as a possible franchise location.
Granted, Birmingham is always mentioned as a possible franchise location when a new football league pops up, but this league caught my attention because – at the outset – it had designs on becoming a second major tackle football league.
And also, because I was homesick.
I started a newspaper job in South Carolina on Dec. 26, 2006, marking the first time I had lived and worked outside of Alabama. I found myself longing for touches of home, and having a pro football team in Birmingham might help reconnect me a bit.
In December, 2007, Huyghue visited the city to tout the fledgling league, which was set to start play in October, 2008.
Of course he knew it well from his time in the WLAF, and talked of Birmingham’s rich football tradition. (What he didn’t talk about was the Fire’s attendance during its final season of 1992, which was last in the 10-team league).
Incidentally, 2008 was also supposed to be the inaugural season of the All-American Football League, which had already announced “Team Alabama” as a charter member.
The gimmick of that spring minor league was that the players had to be college graduates.
That’s admirable, but when people watch football they don’t particularly care if a guy who rushes for 180 yards and three touchdowns has an engineering degree or got a DNF from University Tech.
Ultimately the AAFL signed coaches and players, but never made it to the field.
The UFL, on the other hand, seemed to have its ducks in a row. And what piqued my interest in it originally was its audacious plans.
Instead of playing in the spring or serving as a developmental league, officials wanted to actually compete with the NFL.
By starting in October, UFL teams could sign late cuts from NFL rosters. Even better, the eight inaugural franchises would have $90 million payrolls.
That kind of money could land some star power. No, they probably weren’t going to lure Tom Brady and Brett Favre away, but they might have a shot at some “B-list” NFL starters that first season.
Billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was expected to be involved, and the league already had multimillion dollar investors on board.
This venture seemed quite serious, especially with all the serious money at its disposal.
Once the UFL got established, it could then go hard after All-Pro-level players and top draft picks, and the real battle with the NFL would commence.
It would probably be a losing proposition, but stepping into the arena took guts and that made me an early supporter.
The arrival of the UFL would mark the first time since the days of the USFL that a new league with major league aspirations had been formed in the United States.
I thought for sure Birmingham would be part of it, especially since Huyghue said the league was targeting “underserved” markets. When the Football Capital of the South doesn’t have a pro team, that counts as underserved in my book.
Sadly, no such luck.
Delayed until 2009, the UFL jettisoned most of its big ideas before it was ever fully organized. It had only four teams in its first year – the California (San Francisco) Redwoods, Florida (Orlando) Tuskers, Las Vegas Locomotives and New York Sentinels.
As for rule innovations, there were none of any significance.
Its games were shown on the Versus cable network, and I can’t imagine any league in the history of athletic competition doing a worse job promoting itself.
I don’t have access to Neilson records from the time, but I might’ve been the only person to have actually watched the games on TV.
Year One was billed as a “soft launch,” with a six-game regular season that kicked off on October 8. With no Birmingham team to cheer for I threw my support behind the Sentinels, who finished 0-6 and thus continued my hard luck (since January, 1969) with New York-based gridiron teams.
The games were fairly entertaining, but they certainly weren’t NFL caliber. And soon Huyghue and everyone associated with the league walked back their major league challenge.
Still, after the opening season more than 30 UFL players were snatched up by NFL teams and Jim Haslett, who led the Tuskers to an unbeaten regular season, was hired away as defensive coordinator of Washington’s NFL team.
Yet the October start, which I thought would be an advantage, was actually a big disadvantage. Since the NFL and college ball were well under way, fans had already settled into a viewing routine and the UFL generated zero buzz.
Crowds were pathetic, especially in the big TV markets of New York and San Francisco.
During its four-year lifespan, it had name coaches such as Marty Schottenheimer, Dennis Green and Jay Gruden, and QB Daunte Culpepper was arguably its best-known player.
It lasted until 2012, but never had more than five teams in a single season, never managed to sign any real superstars, and never lived up to its original billing as a possible alternative to the NFL.
Obviously, Birmingham was not part of the circuit, denying it the chance to compete in another failed outdoor football league.
It also denied me the chance to show a little long distance love to my city.