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Jeff Fisher returns to pro football as a head coach in the fledgling USFL

Jeff Fisher’s 173-165-1 NFL record leaves him tied for the most losses by a head coach in the league but also 12th in wins. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
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The USFL unveiled on Thursday the biggest name to join the fledgling league as a head coach: Jeff Fisher. The former coach of the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans and St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams, whose last NFL season came in 2016, will try to help the Michigan Panthers hit the ground running.

This version of the USFL is not directly linked to the USFL that existed from 1983 to 1985 and managed to sign several marquee players who would eventually go on to star in the NFL, including Steve Young, Herschel Walker, Reggie White, Jim Kelly and Doug Flutie. However, it is using many of the same team names, such as the Michigan Panthers, who won the inaugural championship of the original USFL.

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The other team names being used by the new, eight-team USFL are also derived from its predecessors: the Tampa Bay Bandits, New Orleans Breakers, Houston Gamblers, New Jersey Generals, Pittsburgh Maulers, Birmingham Stallions and Philadelphia Stars. The league is set to kick off in April and play a 10-game schedule followed by a postseason, with all games being played in Birmingham, Ala.

Other USFL coaches with NFL head coaching experience include Todd Haley (Bandits), who led the Kansas City Chiefs from 2009 to 2011, and Mike Riley (Generals), who ran the San Diego Chargers from 1999 to 2001. The new league also features three head coaches notable for their work at the college level: Larry Fedora (Breakers), Skip Holtz (Stallions) and Kevin Sumlin (Gamblers).

Fisher spent 22 years as an NFL head coach, the final five with the Rams, including a 2016 campaign that was the first for the team in Los Angeles after it relocated from St. Louis. He was also on hand for the Oilers’ 1997 move to Tennessee and name change to the Titans, experiences that could help him handle an uncertain situation with the USFL, which will probably want to move at least some of its teams to their home markets over the next few years — assuming it lasts that long.

Two other spring professional football leagues have failed in recent years to finish their first seasons, although the XFL may return after hastily suspending operations when the coronavirus pandemic disrupted sports all over the world in 2020. The Alliance of American Football quickly collapsed in 2019 amid reports of financial instability.

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The new USFL is owned by Fox Sports, which could bode well for its prospects of sound backing and national promotion. The league may have signaled an intention to lure audiences with high-scoring games in the fact that seven of its eight head coaches have offensive backgrounds, with Fisher the only exception.

A former defensive back with the Chicago Bears, Fisher strove to craft an identity with his Oilers and Titans teams as hard-nosed squads that played a ball-control style and were tough to score against. That approach helped the 1999 Titans reach the Super Bowl and come agonizingly close to upsetting the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams, but Fisher gradually became associated, fairly or not, with relentless mediocrity. Over his 22 seasons as a head coach, he posted winning records just six times while 12 times finishing between 6-10 and 8-8. Fisher’s 173-165-1 overall record leaves him tied with the late Dan Reeves for the most losses by an NFL head coach but also 12th in wins.

“I miss the game … [and] the players,” Fisher, who has maintained a relatively low profile since parting ways with the Rams, said last year in an interview with a Nashville radio station (via the Nashville Post). “My hope is to get back on the sideline. In the meantime, I’ve been doing things I haven’t been able to do in a long time. Family and grandkids. Watching the NFL and the college game. Deep down, I don’t feel like I’m done. But if I am, that’s okay.”

The other two USFL head coaches have not held that position in the NFL or at a major college program. Kirby Wilson (Maulers) is a longtime running backs coach in the NFL who had stints in New England, Washington, Tampa Bay, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Cleveland and Oakland/Las Vegas. Bart Andrus (Stars) was an assistant to Fisher for four seasons in Tennessee and has been the head coach of NFL Europe’s Amsterdam Admirals, the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts and the United Football League’s Omaha Nighthawks.

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Haley described his hiring by the USFL as “a tremendous opportunity for me to get back into coaching at the professional level.”

“It’s been a while since I led a team on-field, and I’ve missed it,” Haley, who has been out of professional football since being fired as the Cleveland Browns’ offensive coordinator midway through the 2018 season, said in a statement. “It’s also rare that a head coach, as it was once put, gets to pick all the groceries and fix the meal.

“This is going to be a lot of fun, and I expect the fans to enjoy the competition.”