Chet Simmons sees the world through a lens darkly. As the former president of the video-sports marathon known as ESPN, it is only predictable that he would use a television metaphor to describe the U.S. Football League's first year.
"I look at this league as if it were a new television series," the league commissioner said while meeting the press in Orlando during the Herschel Walker storm. "A new series has to attract attention in the first few weeks. Otherwise you are nowhere."
Of course, Simmons is being literal as well as figurative--the USFL is a television show, thanks to contracts with ABC and ESPN. But the metaphor holds as well. The USFL has made sure to attract attention, some of it controversial, before a game is played.
While the New Jersey Generals' signing of Heisman Trophy winner Walker is easily the league's most significant preseason event--and one that may succeed in making the USFL play Iago to the NFL's Othello--it was preceded by a brief, yet dense, organizational history.
The USFL has its roots in television. Marketing tests persuaded the league's founders that the key to success was avoiding direct competition with the NFL's hold on autumn weekends. Instead, the league decided to play in the spring, ending its season before baseball's pennant races begin attracting attention.
It was the decision to play from March until mid-July, a time of year that is relatively open according to television sports executives, that helped attract ABC and ESPN's interest and money.
Money. That, of course, is the ruling factor in any business venture's chances, and the USFL made sure it would be rich to begin with.
Of Tampa Bay Bandits owner John F. Bassett, Federals President Jim Gould has said, "In the World Football League, John was one of the richest owners in the league. In the USFL, he's one of the poorest."
The USFL is blessed with wealthy owners, especially Oklahoma oil executive Walter Duncan (New Jersey Generals), shopping center developer Alfred Taubman (Michigan Panthers) and banker Marvin Warner (Birmingham Stallions).
"Besides not having a national television contract, the big thing that held back the WFL was that they just didn't have the cash," said Gould. "When they signed (Miami Dolphins players) Paul Warfield, Jim Kiick and Larry Csonka it just about busted them."
In meetings in New York and Tampa, league officials continually stressed that the owners would avoid hiring stars merely as gate attractions. But obviously, Simmons' notion that the USFL needed immediate attention won out. Nearly every team has at least attempted to sign a top-flight college player or NFL free agent.
Many of the first-round choices in the USFL open draft--Craig James (Washington) Tim Spencer and Trumaine Johnson (Chicago) among them--likely would have been first-round picks in the NFL's draft in April. As a result of the USFL's success, the NFL is considering moving its draft up to compete.
Some owners also recognized that hiring a few aging players who had been popular in their cities would give a team popularity as well as experience. Hence, Coy Bacon is playing for the Federals after playing for the Redskins. Raymond Chester is the tight end for the Oakland Invaders after a career with the Raiders.
In addition, the owners instituted a regional, as well as open, draft so area college players would bring their fans with them.
A week ago, one could have looked on the USFL with astonishment. In no time at all, the league seemed to have acquired increasing credibility. It was getting ready to play after the NFL's most disastrous season in some of the NFL's most prized areas. And while the rosters were filled with castoffs and has-beens and never-weres, there were enough legitimate players around to demand a measure of respectability.
Then came Walker and his eligibility controversy. Even though the USFL got a great running back and Walker got what he wanted ($5 million for three years), theirs was a Pyrrhic victory.
Walker's image was tarnished. And college coaches were warning USFL scouts to stay away lest they sign more undergraduates as "special exceptions." Federals Coach Ray Jauch admits he views Walker's entrance with "mixed emotions."
Simmons, however, said, "I think this will die down soon and we can play football."
The Federals, for their part, trained here, three hours northeast of controversy. With the contract bargaining for Craig James behind them, Jauch, General Manager Dick Myers and Director of Player Personnel Mike Faulkiner were able to count on a reasonably strong running game and were free to concentrate on the problem spots--the offensive line, the linebackers and the secondary.
Jauch's trickiest decision concerns the starting quarterback position. Kim McQuilken has shown himself experienced and effective on short and medium-range passes. Mike Hohensee arrived late in camp from the University of Minnesota. After a difficult, confused start, Hohensee showed a strong arm and good running ability.
With the likely signing of Joe Walters, the Canadian Football League's leading receiver, the passing game will be a worthy complement to James' ground game. The most serious problem on offense so far has been erratic pass protection, especially against a 3-4 defense.
On defense, the Federals are led by an experienced line.
What the Federals and every other team in the league needs is time and a gradual development of personnel.
If the Federals are to start strongly--if they are to be as good a television series as Chet Simmons hopes for--they will have to minimize their mistakes and wait for experience to take hold.