It may have been a bit brazen for U.S. Football League Commissioner Harry Usher to preface his post-title game comments at a news conference this morning by saying, "Eat your heart out NFL."
But when gentle Jim Mora stepped to the podium to discuss his Baltimore Stars' 28-24 victory over the Oakland Invaders in the USFL title game No. 3 in the rain and mugginess at Giants Stadium Sunday night, the bravado disappeared. No bragging, just facts.
"Two-thirds of the way through this season, our team grabbed a sense of purpose, a sense of urgency," said Mora, the USFL's winningest coach.
"You read about all of the other clubs having problems and not getting paychecks and we haven't had any of that . . . The stability and the confidence this team has in management got us through this thing. That's the reason we've won the most games in the USFL."
Dare anyone doubt now that these Stars (13-7-1) are the USFL's version of Gibraltar, a two-time league champion surrounded by so much swirling USFL weakness, confusion and organizational ineptitude? Dazed and bruised at the start of the playoffs, these Stars retooled and defeated New Jersey, Birmingham and Oakland, merely the teams with the USFL's three-best regular-season records.
On Sunday night, Gibraltar came in the form of running back Kelvin Bryant's 103 yards and three touchdowns, safety Scott Woerner's two interceptions and cornerback Garcia Lane's almost constant denial of the big play to Invaders receivers Derek Holloway and Anthony Carter. Quarterback Chuck Fusina's latest effort typically was not textbook clean, but was enough to win.
Even with the title victory, it seems that there is discord, however. Last week, Baltimore city officials proposed a parade for the Stars for noon today, but the Stars said they would only attend if they won the game. So the city didn't plan a parade.
"If we lost and they had a parade for us and nobody showed up . . . people would be laughing at us," Myles H. Tanenbaum, the Stars owner, said. "I couldn't expose the players to that."
Pat Bernstein, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaeffer's office, said today, "It must be a shallow victory not to have the city share it with them."
Now, facing a 14-month layoff, the USFL faces its greatest tests. Usher announced today that league owners voted Sunday to incorporate the USFL, a similar concept to that of the Major Indoor Soccer League. He said the move was done for tax and organizational advantages. He also said that this will allow the league more power to control potential franchise shifts in the future.
There still are many problems. The USFL ratings on ABC have dropped from 6.0 in the first season to 5.4 last season to 4.2 this season, according to USFL spokesman Bob Rose. Also, attendance dropped nearly 3,000 per game in 1985 to an average of nearly 24,500.
The USFL does not have a contract with one of the three major networks for its scheduled move to the fall of 1986. Worse yet, ABC has withheld payments of rights fees worth $7 million to the USFL this year because of lower ratings. The USFL has sued for damages.
Florida's three teams seem bent on somehow merging into two. The Orlando Renegades hope to merge with the Tampa Bay Bandits, but the Jacksonville Bulls are wooing the Bandits, too.
Houston could lose its team, too. Jerry Argovitz, part owner of the Gamblers there, says an agreement for the sale of the team to New York real estate developers could be finalized and presented to the league by the end of the week.
"My gut feeling is that we will get an agreement worked out the first part of the week and be able to bring it to the league later this week," he said after USFL owners held a three-hour meeting. "Then it will be subject to the approval of the league and the approval of (New Jersey Generals owner) Donald Trump to move it to New York."
The USFL teams will retain only 35 of 50 players after Aug. 1 and teams are not obligated to pay those players until March 1, 1986. USFL stars such as running back Maurice Carthon (New York Giants), Mike Rozier (Houston), Trumaine Johnson (San Diego) and Tony Zendejas (Redskins) already have jumped to the NFL and quarterbacks such as Steve Young and the Invaders' Bobby Hebert (who reportedly has talked with Seattle and the Raiders) are said to be ready and hoping to jump soon.
Usher said today that he isn't concerned about USFL stars jumping leagues. "It's not such a critical thing to the league," he said. "New stars will develop in our league."
Through it all, one thing seems certain: the USFL's $1.32 billion antitrust suit filed against the National Football League, which, among other things, seeks to enjoin the NFL from appearing on all three networks, is considered the only chance the USFL has for survival and/or merger by numerous league officials. The trial date has been set tentatively for February, 1986.
"If we can't win that case," Tanenbaum says candidly, "we're out of business. On the other hand, the case is so crystal clear. The matter goes beyond television. We've got them cold with some of the things we have uncovered."
Usher said of the suit against the NFL, "It's extremely important -- and I underline that word, capitalize it and italicize it -- to the future of this league."
Can the USFL continue to exist in 1986 and beyond if it does not win the lawsuit against the NFL and with the only certain television revenue in 1986 coming from a $23 million contract with ESPN?
"I'm not saying it can't exist," Usher said. "I'm just saying it's extremely important. The real world of 1985-86 is that, unless you are on a television network, you have a hard road to hoe. There's no question that Pete Rozelle and the NFL knew exactly what they were doing when they tied up all three networks.
"I don't think football is a form of religion. I think it's a form of entertainment. Unfortunately when there is only one god, small 'g' there," Usher said, taking a shot at the NFL, "it becomes a religion."