(Carl Peterson photo courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs)
(Reggie White and Steve Young photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles)
By Rick Gosselin
Talk of Fame Network
It’s been 30 years since the USFL closed its doors.
It was a league that brought professional football to cities that could not land NFL teams, such as Baltimore, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Memphis, Phoenix, Portland, San Antonio and Tulsa. It also had the funding to lure some high-quality players, such as Anthony Carter, Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Steve Young and Heisman Trophy winners Doug Flutier, Mike Rozier and Herschel Walker.
It was a league that had a chance to succeed – if it continued playing in the spring. But after three entertaining seasons, a handful of USFL owners, led by Donald Trump, pushed to move the schedule from spring to fall. That shift never got off the ground and the league wound up folding.
But validation for the USFL and its caliber of players would soon follow.
USFL alums Gary Zimmerman, Reggie White, Keith Millard and Sean Landeta were voted to the 1980s NFL all-decade team. Zimmerman, White and Landeta also were voted to the 1990s all-decade team along with Mel Gray. Young was voted NFL MVP in 1992 and 1994. White was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year in both 1987 and 1998 and Keith Millard won the honor in 1988. Jim Mora was voted NFL Coach of the Year in 1987 with Lindy Infante winning the honor in 1989 and Dom Capers in 1996.
(Gary Zimmerman photo courtesy of the Denver Broncos)
Young, Kelly, White, Zimmerman, Marv Levy and Bill Polian have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame out of the USFL.
Yes, indeed, there were some talented folks spending time in the spring football league. Carl Peterson was the most successful executive of the USFL. He was the general manager of the Philadelphia Stars and built a team that would play in all three USFL title games, winning the last two.
“The USFL was professional football at a very high level,” Peterson said. “Unfortunately, it was motivated by a few people who were quick to try to get away from our plan of five years in the spring and then let’s see where we are. They tried to push it from three years into the fall.”
Peterson hires included Jim Mora, Dom Capers and Vince Tobin, all of whom become NFL head coaches. His front-office hires included Terry Bradway, Rod Graves and Bill Kuharich, all of whom became general managers in the NFL.
Peterson himself moved on to Kansas City where he engineered the turnaround of a dormant franchise. The Chiefs won only 65 games in the 1980s with no division titles and just one playoff berth. Under Peterson in the 1990s, the Chiefs won 102 games, three division titles and reached the playoffs seven times.
During his time in Kansas City, the USFL championship trophy sat in Peterson’s Arrowhead office. The USFL remains close to his heart, so we asked Peterson to put together his all-time team for us.
Carl Peterson’s all-time All-USFL team:
QB—Chuck Fusina, Philadelphia/Baltimore
Others considered: Bobby Hebert, Jim Kelly, Steve Young.
RB—Herschel Walker, New Jersey
RB—Kelvin Bryant, Philadelphia/Baltimore
Others considered: Gary Anderson, Tim Spencer, Buford Jordan, Joe Cribbs.
WR—Anthony Carter, Michigan/Oakland
WR—Trumaine Johnson, Chicago/Arizona
Others considered: Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders, Jim Smith, Eric Truvillion, Joey Walters
(Anthony Carter photo courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings)
TE—Dan Ross, New Orleans/Portland
Others considered: Sam Bowers, Raymond Chester
OT—Irv Eatman, Philadelphia/Baltimore
OT—Gary Zimmerman, Los Angeles
Others considered: Dan Fike, Ray Pinney.
G—Buddy Aydelette, Birmingham
G—Wayne Harris, New Jersey
Others considered: Chuck Commiskey, Tyronne McGriff, Nate Newton, Tom Thayer.
C—Bart Oates, Philadelphia/Baltimore
Others considered: Kent Hull.
DE—Reggie White, Memphis
DE—William Fuller, Philadelphia/Baltimore
Others considered: Sam Clancy, Keith Millard.
DT—Pete Kuglar, Philadelphia/Baltimore
DT—Kit Lathrop, Chicago/Arizona
Others considered: Jackie Cline, Dave Tipton, Eddie Weaver, Brett Williams
LB—John Corker, Michigan/Memphis
LB—Sam Mills, Philadelphia/Baltimore
(Sam Mills photo courtesy of the Carolina Panthers)
LB—Gary Plummer, Oakland
Others considered: Ray Bentley, Willie Harper, Mike Johnson, Vaughan Johnson.
CB—Luther Bradley, Chicago/Arizona
CB—Jerry Holmes, Pittsburgh/New Jersey
Others considered: Mossy Cade, Kerry Justin, David Martin, Frank Minnifield.
S—Chuck Clanton, Birmingham
S—Mike Lush, Philadelphia/Baltimore
Others considered: Antonio Gibson, David Greenwood, Mike Guess, Doug Plank, Marcus Quinn.
K—Novo Bojovic, Michigan/Oakland
Others considered: Tony Zendejas.
P—Sean Landeta, Philadelphia/Baltimore
Others considered: Jeff Gossett.
KR—Derrick Crawford, Memphis
Others considered: Clarence Verdin.
PR—Mel Gray, Los Angeles
Others considered: Gerald “Ice Cube” McNeil.
(Mel Gray photo courtesy of the Detroit Lions)
The most controversial of Peterson’s choices was Fusina over Bobby Hebert and Jim Kelly. Bobby Hebert was the All-USFL quarterback in 1983 and passed for a league record 13,137 career yards. Kelly was the All-USFL quarterback in both 1984 and 1985 and set a league record with his 83 career touchdown passes. Fusina was the only other USFL quarterback to pass for 10,000 career yards, and his 67 touchdown passes rank behind only Kelly and Hebert (81).
But Peterson went with Fusina for the same reason Joe Montana was selected as the NFL’s 1980s all-decade quarterback over Dan Fouts. Fouts had the stats but Montana had the rings. Fusina won more games (48) and more championships than any USFL quarterback. He was the MVP of the 1984 title game when he passed for 158 yards and ran for a touchdown as the Stars controlled the clock for more than 43 minutes in a 23-3 victory over the Arizona Wranglers. Fusina then passed for 155 yards and a touchdown in a 28-24 victory over the Oakland Invaders in the 1985 title game.
“The criteria you need to evaluate a quarterback is does he help you win,” Peterson said. “Without question, Chuck Fusina helped us win 48 of 60 games. He was the consummate quarterback, one of the brightest people I’ve ever been involved with. Even the late great George Allen, who was coaching the Arizona Wranglers, put Chuck up there in his Top 5, which included every NFL quarterback he ever faced or coached.”
(Chuck Fusina photo courtesy of Penn State University)
Peterson’s Stars were the dominant team of the USFL era. But he only put nine of his Stars on the 26-member team. HIs selection of White was maybe the most obvious of all his selections.
“It didn’t take but a few snaps to see this guy’s size, strength and unbelievable quickness,” Peterson said. “The Memphis Showboats knew they had something special there, and Reggie probably made the fastest transition to the NFL. He had a great rookie season there. He as well as these other guys benefitted greatly from their three seasons in the USFL.”
Appreciation for so many of these players grew in the years that followed their USFL careers.
“There were a lot of people in the NFL who didn’t think the players in the USFL were capable of playing in the NFL,” Peterson said. “It may have taken (some of them) a year or two extra to get into the mainstream of their careers. Steve Young played for Sid Gillman at the L.A. Express and even went back to Sid for advice on how to become a better quarterback when he was with the Buccaneers. Time was the only negative for some of these players. Certainly they blossomed and showed their capabilities and went on to great careers.”