The focus has been on the league and not the game. As such, the third U.S. Football League title game has taken on the air of a party in Jericho, long after the walls started shaking.
"It's gotten to the point this season where we are always wondering, 'What bomb will drop next?' " said nose tackle Pete Kugler of the Baltimore Stars.
The Stars will play the Oakland Invaders at 8 p.m. Sunday (WJLA-TV-7) for the USFL title and a crowd of about 40,000 is expected at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands.
The game might be pegged as a match between Invaders quarterback Bobby Hebert, the Little Lamonica with the propensity to throw deep, and the Stars' cool, competent defense, which yielded a league-low average of 14 points per game. The only time they faced each other this season, the teams played to a 17-17 tie.
But for every mention of Hebert's passing, there is equal mention of how it is likely that the USFL's career passing leader will jump to the National Football League after Aug. 1 when his USFL contract expires.
Likewise, for every mention of the Stars' defense, there comes word from the agent of quarterback Steve Young that his client's $40 million contract with the foundering Los Angeles Express might have been breached and that Young also may join the NFL, in Tampa Bay.
For every mention of Stars' running back Kelvin Bryant and his 4,055 yards rushing over three years (second to Herschel Walker's 5,562 yards), there is talk of how USFL ships are sinking financially in Houston, San Antonio, Los Angeles and Birmingham.
For every mention of the USFL's gradual on-field improvement, there is mention of how the league has not secured a network television contract for next year.
The USFL owners met for 10 hours in nearby Teaneck, N.J., today and discussed how the league might remain solvent and in the public eye from the moment the title game ends Sunday night to the moment the USFL opens its fourth season in the fall of 1986. Commissioner Harry Usher left the meeting saying, "These decisions are hard, these conversations long and exacting."
The league's most seriously discussed plans are to trim two teams next year, down to 12, according to Myles Tanenbaum, owner of the Stars. Several participants in today's meeting said the league owners discussed divesting themselves of some of the high-salaried players signed during the USFL's spending spree of 1982.
Already, former Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mike Rozier has jumped from the Birmingham Stallions to the NFL's Houston Oilers. Now, Young and Arizona Outlaws' wide receiver Trumaine Johnson are talking about doing the same. Some feel that by divesting themselves of these high-salaried players, the USFL merely is giving face-saving consent to players who would leave anyway.
The USFL has placed its hope for the future on the $1.32 billion antitrust suit against the NFL, a move USFL officials hope will prevent the NFL from appearing on all three major television networks.
"The real issue," said Tanenbaum, "will be determined in the courts. If we can get access to the tube, we will be able to sell our product and market it effectively."
Perhaps it is ironic that the teams in this USFL title game hail from the cities that recently lost NFL franchises. The Invaders, the league's most consistent team this season with a league-best 15-4-1 record, are coached by Charlie Sumner.
Sumner was the Los Angeles Raiders' assistant coach who forewarned linebacker Jack Squirek to keep an eye out for Washington Redskins' former running back Joe Washington, just in case the Redskins tried a Rocket Screen pass late in the first half in Super Bowl XVIII. The Redskins did try it, Squirek intercepted and ran five yards for a game-swaying touchdown, and the name Charlie Sumner rose to prominence.
Sumner, in his first year as a head coach, has a legitimate gripe: his team, despite possessing the USFL's best record, was not on the ABC game of the week once during the regular season.
"It's because of that East Coast mentality," he said.
Hebert comes equipped with three fast and capable receivers, Anthony Carter, Derek Holloway and Gordon Banks -- all with a spectacular 18-yards per catch average. The Invaders achieved offensive balance with a running game that featured fullback Albert Bentley (1,020 yards) and running back John Williams (857 yards).
The Invaders defense, led by all-league safety David Greenwood, has proven vulnerable at times. In the third game of the season, Houston quarterback Jim Kelly beat the Invaders senseless, 42-7.
Without question, these Stars (12-7-1) have been the league's most consistent team, dating to the birth of the league. Coach Jim Mora's three-year record is 47-13-1.
This season, life hasn't been easy for the defending league champions. "Chaotic and bizarre," is how quarterback Chuck Fusina termed the season. The Stars were evicted from their offices in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. They practiced in Philadelphia, played in College Park and used the name Baltimore. They started 5-6-1. They finished the season with their offices located in the ROTC offices at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I guess about the only thing that didn't happen that would have been worse," said Kugler, "would have been if they took away our shower facilities."
"The hardest part," Fusina said, "was feeling like we played 18 games on the road."
Kugler says he has only been to Baltimore twice this year. "Once to see my agent," he said, "and once to go to a pep rally where nobody showed up."
Mora said his team overcame the distractions. Except maybe once. "People came in on a Monday and told us that we had to be out of our (Veterans Stadium) offices by midnight the next day," Mora recalled. "They were tearing down the chalkboards and taking away the furniture and I was sitting on the floor and watching the game films against the wall."
Through it all, the Stars of past glories re-emerged in the playoffs to defeat New Jersey (20-17) and Birmingham (28-14), the two best teams in the Eastern Conference during the regular season.
Sumner sensed his team also has played well in the eye of the USFL storms. But he, too, senses an uncertain future for the team and the league. "I think some of our players probably won't be back. It's sad that just when we've put it together and got things running smoothly, that things might break up," he said.