The United States Football League (USFL) had a good thing going for three years. The problem was, most of the owners wanted to become a part of the National Football League (NFL) and had hoped that one day their teams would merge into the established league. That never happened. Instead, the USFL closed shop.
The USFL had a great concept. The idea was that since football was now America’s favorited sport over baseball, the organizers of the league banked on the premise that folks would have a hankering for the game all year long and would watch and attend more games if they were available.
So, they started their own brand new pro football league and it was played in the spring/summer - not the traditional fall schedule. And for the most part, it worked.
Selection of Franchises
Back in 1965, David Dixon of New Orleans had an idea about a spring league. He presented it to the NFL owners about perhaps a farm system league that would help develop young talent. The owners said no. Dixon later would be instrumental in the building of the Louisiana Superdome and also helped the New Orleans Saints secure an NFL expansion team.
But the spring football league was always on Dixon’s mind. He came up with a design he called the “Dixon Plan.” Within this blueprint of ideas he set guidelines of not just a minor league farm system, but a viable professional football league that would vie for NFL talent on the field, the front office and in the coaches’ box.
The plan laid out which cities would be the best to attract new teams, how to secure large stadium leases, TV revenue, salary structures, spending controls and revenue sharing.
Like any other pro league, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York were important franchises to install and make successful. The USFL named the Chicago Blitz, New Jersey Generals and the Los Angeles Express as their pivot clubs. Of course, each of these were placed in current NFL cities. The plan specified that new cities should be explored such as Phoenix (Arizona Wranglers), Memphis (Showboats), Jacksonville (Bulls), Birmingham (Stallions), San Antonio (Gunslingers), and later Portland (Breakers), Oklahoma City (Oklahoma Outlaws) as well as Orlando (Renegades).
The Oakland Raiders had already bolted for Los Angeles, so the USFL Oakland Invaders took their space instead. Other teams in established NFL cities came into the fold such as the Washington Federals, Boston Breakers, Philadelphia Stars, Michigan Panthers (based in Detroit), Houston Gamblers, Tampa Bay Bandits, Pittsburgh Maulers and Denver Gold.
Denver Strikes Gold
Denver is a very good football town. The Denver Gold received a warm welcome right off and rented Mile High Stadium - home of the NFL Broncos - in expectation of large crowds. Plus, part of the USFL’s plan was to appear to be another major league that would require the larger NFL-caliber arenas.
Colors chosen were black, gold and white. The team name “Gold” came from the 1859 gold rush in Pike’s Peak where over a hundred thousand prospectors made their way through Denver from all over the country to find their fortune in gold in small streams that fed the South Platte River. Before the rush, “Denver City” was just a spit of a mining settlement. In 1850 the population was just over 2,000. Several years later it had swelled to 107,000.
Red Miller was hired as the Gold’s first head coach while real estate investor Ron Blanding was the owner. Former Broncos’ QB Craig Morton was hired as the offensive coordinator. Miller had been a coach for the Broncos from 1963-1965 and then later was named their head coach from 1977-1980 during the franchise’s “Orange Crush” years. Miller’s stay with the Broncos was successful and very brief. After going to the playoffs during his first three seasons and a loss in Super Bowl XII, the club went 8-8-0 in 1980 and the new owner, Edgar Kaiser, fired him.
Several former Broncos were signed to the roster including QB Craig Penrose who had played for Miller in the later 1970s.
The USFL was supposed to stick to the “Dixon Plan” especially within the financial guidelines. In fact, each owner in the new 12-team league promised to stay with the blueprint set-up. However, it didn’t take long for several owners to break that treaty and begin to overspend on star players.
Blanding did not. He thought the plan was stout, reasonable and would make the league solvent as well as successful. In doing so, he underspent. This caused friction between himself and Miller and at one point became a feud.
The Gold’s first game was against the Philadelphia Stars at home in front of 45,102 patrons. Despite a 13-7 loss, the defense was recognized as the strength of the club. This would continue for the entire season. Attendance continued to remain high in subsequent home games including 46,848 in an overtime loss to one of the USFL’s best clubs the Bandits and 47,940 in another loss to the New Jersey Generals and their superstar RB Herschel Walker who had won the Heisman Trophy in 1982.
After starting the season 4-3-0, the team went into a four-game skid to fall to 4-7-0. Miller had become a constant problem for Blanding regarding expenses and with the losing streak the head coach was fired. Morton took over to which the Gold finished their maiden season 7-11-0 and a third place Pacific Division finish. But the fascinating statistic was that this non-playoff team had led the league in attendance with a 41,736 average.
A League of Wealthy Players
It did not take long for certain owners in the USFL to open up their checkbooks to superstar players. Initially, each team’s salary cap was set at $1.8 million. New Jersey Generals’ owner Walter Duncan signed Walker to a “personal services contract” in order to sidestep the USFL salary cap. The contract was for $4.2 million if all incentives were achieved. Walker was a college junior and at the time the NFL did not allow juniors into their league. The USFL wanted Walker’s superstar status to draw attention and fans to their league and decided that they would allow underclassmen to sign. Years later the NFL would follow suit.
Before Walker’s signing there were other large contracts signed by college players which did not fit into the league’s financial plan and salary cap. University of Michigan’s all-time leading receiver Anthony Carter inked with the Michigan Panthers worth $2 million over four years. RB Kelvin Bryant of North Carolina signed with the Philadelphia Stars for $2 million on a four-year agreement and Grambling WR Trumaine Johnson signed a 10-year multi-million dollar contract with Arizona.
These high-dollar USFL players were all signed to personal services contracts in order to circumvent the league’s salary cap.
But one thing changed instantly for the USFL – respectability. Then another thing changed for players in the NFL – more money. With the threat of a new league with larger contracts, suddenly NFL clubs had to dig deep in order to retain their own players. In 1982 the NFL players had gone on strike. In 1983, the USFL gave them what the NFL owners refused to do to end the strike: increase payroll. Players selected in the first-round of the 1983 NFL draft made an average of $110,000 more per season than players drafted in the 1982 draft.
And the thing about it, regardless of whether the USFL survived and continued on, their salary legacy would live on in the new lengthy contracts with beefier paychecks of NFL guys. And there were many name players who became stars eventually in the NFL such as Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Reggie White, Bobby Hebert, Greg Landry, Frank Minnifield, Tim Spencer, Vince Evans, Larry Bethea, Sean Landeta, Sam Mills, Irv Eatman, Marcus Dupree, Ross Browner, Archie Griffin, Joe Cribbs, Keith Millard, John Fourcade, Ricky Sanders and Toni Fritsch.
Denver’s Second Season
The Gold did not get into the rookie mega-contract wars. Blanding felt that the league would implode if the huge paydays were still being doled out like candy on Halloween night. He didn’t like what other owners were doing, but understood that as a new league they needed the public’s interest and a reason to put butts in seats. He, however, wasn’t interested in going against the premise of how the league should be run and stayed true to its initial plan.
Which hurt him as far as being competitive.
Going into the 1984 season, oddly enough for a second-year league, the USFL expanded into six new cities: Jacksonville, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis and Pittsburgh. The Generals were sold to Donald Trump and the Boston Breakers moved to New Orleans. There were some problems that evolved, however, as several franchise owners began to wage war against NFL clubs for star players plus college rookies such as QB Doug Flutie and RB Mike Rozier and signing many of them. This made the other USFL owners feel that to become competitive in their own league, they had to do the same. And many did. After all, this was a pro football league.
The Gold was operating on a minimal operating budget. Blanding had actually made a small profit in 1983 which was rather surprising, but was opposed to abnormal spending. As a real estate investor, he knew that there were times when things go great, and then you have to weather the times when the cupboard is bare. Blanding traded away his two best defensive players, and then in an odd maneuver, he sold the club to Doug Spedding, a local auto dealer for $10 million.
The Gold had one of the league’s lowest payrolls in the USFL. Spedding was a lot like Blanding in that he believed in the original plan and was skeptical to overspend on star talent.
After the first eight weeks, the Gold was 7-1-0 and one of the league’s three best clubs. However, injuries decimated the roster in the second half of the season. At one point, four different QBs were used and the better defensive players all saw the injury list. The Gold finished 9-9-0 and again missed the playoffs. In Game 15 the Gold lost to the Jim Kelly-led Houston Gamblers at home in front of 50,057 patrons. For the season, they averaged 33,953 per game - good enough for fifth in the league.
Final Year for the Gold
The year 1985 was supposed to become the final year the league would play in the spring. After that, it was supposed to go to a fall format and compete head-to-head with the NFL.
The Los Angeles Express went bankrupt and was being run by the league. One of the best teams in the league, the Chicago Blitz, struggled to draw fans although they did promote their franchise very well. They ended up folding as did the Pittsburgh Maulers because they didn’t want to compete with the NFL Steelers. The Michigan Panthers and Oakland Invaders merged into one club. Philadelphia relocated to Baltimore and the Washington Federals moved to Orlando. The New Orleans Breakers became the Portland Breakers.
Obviously, the league as a whole had issues but many clubs were very solvent and in fact making money. They also fielded winning teams were and popular with their fan base.
The Gold still remained in Denver, although Craig Morton was no longer head coach due to the fact that the franchise did not make the playoffs which had sealed his demise in Spedding’s eyes. In his place was run-and-shoot architect Mouse Davis who had been the offensive coordinator of the explosive Gamblers’ offensive wonderment. Davis is credited with being the father of the run-and-shoot offense and had made QB Kelly a household name.
The Gold received QB Vince Evans from the defunct Chicago Blitz. Evans had a stellar career at USC, was drafted by the Chicago Bears and had played for them for seven years. He was a good scrambler and had a strong arm, just not as accurate as most coaches would like. While with the Bears Evans always tossed more INTs in a season than TDs.
Under Davis’ system, it required a QB who could run, throw a lot and take hits. Evans and backup QB Bob Gagliano could run the offense, but neither was a superior runner nor had any great accuracy. Both played quite a bit. Despite this, the Gold finished as the fourth best offense in the league and ended 11-7-0 with the third-seed in the playoffs. Despite having a winning club, the attendance dropped off dramatically to only 14,457 per game mainly because it had been known that the league would eventually switch to a fall schedule and compete directly with the NFL Broncos. Fans were fine with the Gold as a separate team, but not against their beloved Broncos so they basically lost interest.
For the year, Evans had 2,259 yards with 12 TDs and 16 INTs. Gagliano passed for 2,695 yards as he tossed 13 TDs with 17 INTs. Together, they attempted more passes than any single QB in the USFL. WR Lonnie Harris placed second in the league with 1,432 receiving yards along with WR Marc Lewis’ 1,207 yards.
The USFL changed the format for the playoffs. With Denver being the third-seed, they should have been matched up with Houston, the sixth-seed, in a home game. Instead, the league decided which playoff matchups would be better games and draw the most fans. Since the Gold struggled at the gate this year, they squared off against the league’s second-rated defense, the Memphis Showboats led by future Hall of Famer DE Reggie White. The Showboats were one of the league’s top attendance teams. An announced crowd of 34,528 saw the hometown Showboats dominate the Gold 48-7.
At the conclusion of the 1985 season, the USFL owners voted to definitely move to the fall season. The Gold’s owner Spedding was one of two owners who had voted to remain a spring league. What was not anticipated, however, were stadium conflicts. During the spring, the clubs that were situated in NFL cities had been able to rent the same stadiums that the NFL teams were using. But these franchises had exclusive-use clauses built into the contract so that the NFL team would be considered first with any planned event at the stadium.
These stadiums were happy to take the USFL’s money in the spring, but were prohibited to seeking them out as a tenant during the fall. In USFL cities such as Jacksonville and Memphis, the only other team in competition with the stadium were college football teams which a common schedule could be worked out. But New Jersey, Tampa, Houston, Denver, Baltimore and Los Angeles were suddenly without a viable venue; or were forced to rent older, outdated facilities or smaller college stadiums.
Faced with this dilemma, a lawsuit against the NFL was filed claiming the established league had a monopoly. The jury agreed on all three counts and awarded $1 per count. Without the huge lawsuit money they were expecting, any merger into the NFL was now off the table. Several financially troubled clubs simply folded while several teams that had good rosters, drew well and made money had to close shop because they would no longer have a viable place to play their home games.
A 1986 season was planned with an 18-game schedule with only Arizona, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Memphis, New Jersey and Orlando as active participants. Houston and New Jersey combined rosters while the Gold merged with Jacksonville.
And with that, the Denver Gold was no more.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.