The New Jersey Generals, awaiting the arrival of Doug Flutie at training camp, are secure in the knowledge that if they don't win a U.S. Football League championship, at least they can fill up the trophy case with Heismans.
It's no accident that of the last three Heisman winners, all wooed and won by the USFL, New Jersey has two -- Flutie and Herschel Walker. Flutie, the spectacular Boston College quarterback, is expected to sign formally early this week and arrive in camp soon after.
The Generals are widely considered to be among the most solid teams in the USFL, where owners bow in and out more often than a vaudeville act. They have set the pace in spending, name players, flashy publicity and managerial flair. With their payroll, attendance and talent, they like to think of themselves as the fastest-growing team in football.
"We believe we're the flagship team in the league," said Jim Valek, the Generals' vice president and general manager. "It all starts and ends in New York. There is an air on the team that is championship caliber, and that filters down to all of us."
The operation is as smooth as the club owner, real estate tycoon Donald Trump, a creative boy genius with a penchant for gilt-trimmed skyscrapers. Trump, 37, sets the speed for the Generals, turning it up or down according to his mood of the day.
"He brings a lot of spark to the team," said Walker. "He's a young guy, he's very hyper and he makes things happen. He takes chances, but you've got to do that, or you don't find things out."
Any skepticism about the Generals' staying power has disappeared since Trump acquired the team in September 1983 from original owners J. Walter Duncan Jr. and Chuck Fairbanks. His first move was to go after the most experienced players available. By early December, he had signed five NFL veterans, including Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Sipe. Under a new coach formerly of the NFL, Walt Michaels, a 6-12 team improved to 14-4 last season.
Trump was primarily responsible for luring Sipe from Cleveland, where he held every Browns record for career, season and single-game passing. Trump did it with charm as well as checkbook, and Sipe landed a contract reportedly worth $1.9 million over three years.
"A lot of my enthusiasm was because of his approach," Sipe said. "He assured me he was going to make every effort to get the best, and I believed him. I'm as certain of that as I ever was."
The Generals have since continued the effort to go after proven talent, particularly of the NFL variety. Of 72 players in camp at Central Florida University, 21 have pro experience other than the USFL, 16 with five years or more. The Generals also are trying to sign Redskins' offensive lineman Mark May, a free agent they are prepared to pay $400,000 a year over the next three years.
"The gap is not nearly as large as a lot of NFL people like to think it is," Sipe said. "And it's closing rapidly."
The Generals have paid for the name players. Last year their payroll was reportedly between $6 million and $7 million, in comparison to the NFL average of about $13 million. That was second in the USFL only to the profligate Los Angeles Express, who later went bust and have since been taken over by the league office. With the signing of Flutie, at an estimated cost of between $5 and $7 million, the payroll will go up.
The Generals, however, are careful as to whom they toss gold coins. Beneath the apparently carefree exterior of the team lurks a stern fiscal sense. The front office is also made up of veterans, some of them longtime associates of Fairbanks. For his president, Trump brought in Jason Seltzer, a New York City lawyer and businessman. Seltzer was a longtime friend of Trump who represented him in his acquisition of an Atlantic City casino, Harrah's at Trump Plaza.
Valek, a holdover from the Fairbanks days, is next in line. He has spent much of his career as a Fairbanks aide, as an assistant coach with the New England Patriots and later assistant general manager. He went along as assistant athletic director when Fairbanks went to the University of Colorado in 1980, and he used to be a talent scout for the Dallas Cowboys.
"We don't throw our money around," Valek said. "You have to have some kind of fiscal sanity in everything. In the case of Walker and Flutie, they were marketable athletes; people would buy tickets to watch them."
Players whose salaries are not to up to the levels of Walker and Flutie would agree that the Generals can show a tight-fisted side.
"Salarywise, we're probably close to the NFL with the new quarterback (Flutie)," said linebacker Jim LeClair, who was with the Cincinnati Bengals prior to signing with the Generals last season. "But that doesn't filter through to the whole team.
"It's an extremely sound club," added LeClair, who spent 12 years in the NFL. "It's a good organization, and the owner is probably as good as there is. I've got a lot of respect for them as businessmen."
While the Generals might be able to play with the NFL when it comes to salaries and management, the jury is out on how they would do on the same field. They have yet to attain the winning level of the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars in their own league. How well the Generals would do in the NFL is the subject of frequent speculation.
"Probably 16-2," Walker said, laughing.
"There are a lot of teams in the NFL we could have handled," Sipe said. "But a 14-4 record isn't very realistic at this point. We could be competitive, but I'm not ready to concede playoff status."
"We could use a player here or there, but so could a lot of NFL teams," said LeClair. "Our shortcoming is a natural one, in age and experience. But that's no indication of quality. It's a matter of time."
Even given the Generals' stability relative to other USFL teams, there is nothing static about their situation. There are the USFL's switch to a fall schedule in 1986 and rumors that Trump would like to move the team the few miles into New York City.
Sipe, for one, rolls his eyes and says, "We've experienced no major shakeups, so that's helped the continuity of the team. But let's say it's always interesting."
To other NFL veterans, the adventure is a refreshing departure.
"It's kind of a testing field," LeClair said. "You can try something that hasn't been tried in the NFL. If you're successful, you're a great innovator. If it fails, you get criticized for being unsound. People are bolder here."