The man has the perfect resume. Berl Bernhard, 52, former high school all-state basketball player, former college halfback, president of the student government at Dartmouth College (now a trustee); former director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; campaign manager for Edmund Muskie in 1972; founding partner of his own law firm.
So why does a man with all this decide to create a football team out of whole cloth, as one friend put it? Leon Billings, director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign and a friend and colleague from the Muskie campaign, said, "What do you do after you've run a presidential campaign? There's a lot of similarities between professional athletics and politics. At the end of every season, there's another one."
Bernhard's first season as the owner of a United States Football League franchise in Washington won't begin until next March. The USFL intends to make football a sport for all seasons. So far, the team is unnamed and nameless (no coach, no general manager, no players) except for Bernhard. Right now, he is the team.
Maybe this will help, he says, handing over a copy of a poem, "Invictus," which means unconquered. That is the name of his boat, which placed first in class and second in fleet in last year's open sea race to Bermuda. "Do you know it?" he asks.
Almost everyone knows this much of it: "Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloodied but unbowed."
Several years ago, at the end of the race to Bermuda, Bernhard, who has a bad back, flung his soggy back brace into the sea. A symbolic gesture? "It was wet," he said, laughing.
Bernhard's friends say he does not give in easily to limitations. He likes a challenge, perhaps a risk. Now he has a new one. "You have to take advantage of opportunities," he said. "You meet them or you walk away."
It is not surprising that he says he does not find enough time to read or go to the theater. "There are times I say, 'Sit back, relax.' I have that instinct," he said. "Just practice, take life easy. I have strong urges for that."
Apparently, they don't last. Why a football team, why now? "It's out there, an important part of American life whose inner workings I don't really know," he said. "I've been on the commission for civil rights. I've worked at the State Department (as an adviser to Muskie). I've always had an interest in politics. This is a big cut of American life that I'd like to know more about."
He paced the corner office and looked out the window, seemingly restless. "I don't know," he said, shrugging. "I'm crazy?"
Then he burst out laughing.
There are those, not including Bernhard, who might regard his plunge into football as a high dive into an empty pool. David T. McLaughlin, president of Dartmouth, said, "Berl has the uncanny good luck to take a dive off a high board and by the time he hits the bottom, it will be full of water. He is an incredibly intuitive man."
A two-year contract with ABC television, reportedly worth $20 million, to televise 40 USFL games has helped fill the pool somewhat. The league is counting on its owners, no fly-by-night operators, and the allegedly insatiable appetite for football to do the rest.
Former Redskin coach Jack Pardee, who also coached in the now-defunct World Football League, said, "I felt the WFL should have made it, if it had decent owners. The people they had were promoters. Spring football can make it if it's run right . . . They're not competing head to head with the NFL . . . There's enough good players around . . . I don't know if there's enough fans around."
According to a marketing survey done for the USFL by Frank Magid Associates Inc. and circulated to investors (one of whom made a copy available), 63.2 percent of those answering said they were very interested in football and 99 percent said they watched on television.
After the premise of the new league and new season was explained, 54 percent said it was a good-to-excellent idea, and 75 percent said they would watch on television.
"How will people respond? No one knows," Bernhard said. "All the reports say they will respond spectacularly."
Especially, he says, in Washington where 10,000 people are waiting to get season tickets to the Redskins, and there are no baseball and professional soccer teams.
If the team has nearly the number of devoted fans Bernhard seems to have, there will be no problem at the gate. "I don't think the man has any enemies," said Bob Squier, media consultant to the Muskie campaign, who describes him as "a serious man with a light touch."
Muskie says, "Berl has a lot of adrenaline flowing all the time."
Bernhard's friends say he loves country music, and the underdog, that he never does anything halfway, that he may appear like the consummate Washington insider but, as Billings put it, "There's a certain amount of disingenuousness about a 'Washington insider' and he's no phony."
They also say that he is driven, that he hates to lose, loves a challenge and does not give up on one easily. They point to the waning days of the Muskie campaign as evidence of that. "He was the only real fund-raiser we had," Muskie said. He persisted "over the last couple of discouraging months of the campaign. He stuck, not only because of friendship but because, by God, it was a challenge."
Bernhard, who tore knee cartilage playing freshman football at Dartmouth, says he is not a fanatic about the game, nor is he avenging a football career cut short. Sailing, he says, is his first love in sports.
His friends say he is willing to fight for the right things. Long before John F. Kennedy appointed him director of the Civil Rights Commission, he led a fight at Dartmouth to prohibit fraternities from discriminating against blacks.
Part of the appeal of this new project, Bernhard says, is the chance to be "involved in something that gives pleasure. I haven't ever been involved in something like that."
As a lawyer, Bernhard has represented the Democratic National Committee, the Washington Star and Pan American Airways, one of his law firm's clients. William T. Seawell, retired chairman of the board of Pan American, says Bernhard is the type of lawyer who will go to the mat for a client but "will also tell you that certain things are not doable."
Lawyers are always picking up the pieces, Bernhard says, or "carrying out the responsibility for someone who has made the prior decisions. I'd like to make some prior decisions."
There are a number to be made. He says he will not name a coach or general manager until early July, in part because he has not decided whether he is looking for one man or two. He says Pardee would be "in the final group I would certainly think about" but that he had indications Pardee was not interested.
Pardee, who recently left the job as defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers to enter private business in Texas, says, "It would be a remote possibility. I haven't talked to anyone. I don't know if I'd have any interest if I did."
Bernhard is in the process of putting together the financing for the team. He says he expects to have 20-25 general and limited partners, but is not at liberty to disclose their names until the arrangements are final.
Bernhard said that R. Robert Linowes, an attorney and chairman of the board of Montgomery Cable Communications Inc., will be one of the investors and has been participating in negotiations for a lease already under way with RFK Stadium.
Unlike the WFL, which Bernhard says was underfinanced, "every team will have to have monies available of $6 million going in" in cash and credit.
Sources say owners can expect possible losses of $2 million for the first two years of operations.
One reason, Bernhard says, the USFL will not go the way of the WFL is that it is geared to playing in major markets only, and in major league stadiums. Robert Sigholtz, general manager of the D.C. Armory Board/Starplex, has told Bernhard that RFK Stadium and its facilities will be available to the team. "We have exchanged letters of intent," Bernhard says. "We have a basic agreement subject to detailed negotiations. The negotiations will probably begin next week."
However, there is a clause in the Redskin lease that gives the NFL franchise exclusive use of the stadium for football. The legality of the clause under antitrust laws was challenged by Norman Hecht, who tried to put franchises in the stadium in the 1960s. After a long court history, involving several trials and appeals, Sigholtz said, the case was settled out of court. Sigholtz said he believed, based on the court history, "we can't deny a tenant the right to rent a public place."
Larry Lucchino, an attorney for the Redskins, said there has been "no definitive ruling on the validity (of the clause)."
Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of the Redskins, said he had no comment on the new league: "I have not had the opportunity to examine or investigate it."
So far, the new team in town is unbeaten, unbloodied, unbowed. Invictus. This week, the captain is going sailing.