Los Angeles Express
Despite having a future NFL Hall of Famer at
quarterback, Steve Young was unable to lure the
fans into the LA Coliseum in 1984 and 1985.
The Express averaged amere 14,259 fans at each
home game for its three years in the league.
The Coliseum holds more than 90,000 fans, so you can imagine Young barking the calls in a barren stadium like the Coliseum. But the big effected the Express franchise was the change of ownership from Bill Daniels in 1983 to William Oldenburg in ’84.
In the inaugural season, Express ownership looked to the CFL to hire their first coach – his name was Hugh Campbell.
Campbell just led the Edmonton Eskimos to their fifth-consecutive Grey Cup Championship in the CFL when the USFL came calling. Three teams were in the market for Campbell’s services including the Express of Los Angeles. “I liked the ideal of coaching in the off-season, this way I could scout players in the fall,” says Campbell more than 23 later. “It looked like it would be good for football at the time.”
The Express were initially set to play in San Diego, but ownership had to scrap that idea and were forced to move the franchise up the freeway to Los Angeles, because their request to use Jack Murphy Stadium was rejected.
This was a sign of things to come for the franchise. Los Angeles already had two NFL franchises with the Rams and Raiders, not to mention the USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins. So a fifth football team in L.A. seemed a bit sketchy.
But Campbell faced adversity before in the CFL and
wasn’t afraid of the challenge. He looked at it as a way
to get some experience in the U.S. and re-establish
himself in his native California. “Some of the NFL
guys like Paul Brown told me that I was young enough
to do this, but I was going to face several challenges,”
says Campbell in a soft and reflective voice from his
Edmonton, Alberta office. Brown was referring to the
empty stadiums and financial hurdles he faced as
head coach and general manager of the Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), which was established in 1946. The Cleveland Browns became part of the NFL in 1950.
Los Angeles didn’t draw well at the Coliseum and the team was losing money for owner Bill Daniels, as the franchise struggled at the gate, averaging only 19,000 a game in Los Angeles.
The Express courted players like QB Dan Marino and RB Eric Dickerson out of college, but both players waited for the NFL draft in April. Campbell recalls the meeting with Marino was very positive. “He gave us a good-look, but we went with Tom Ramsey, after Dan decided to wait for the NFL draft,” says Campbell, 22 years later. “Dan was very mature and handled things gracefully. Even if Dan knew he was going to the NFL, he never let on.”
“Owner Bill Daniels sent his private jet to pick Dan up,” says Campbell. “I went to the airport along with actor Lee Majors [Lee had a small share of the franchise], to pick him up, and we spent the weekend with Dan.” Daniels, Majors, Marino and Campbell showed the star quarterback out of Pittsburgh what Los Angeles was all about, attending Hollywood events and some fine dinners.
Campbell doesn’t remember what figures were offered back then, but says laughingly: “I’m sure it was more than most NFL quarterbacks.”
Campbell turned to UCLA quarterback Tom Ramsey to lead the Express offense. Ramsey was from Southern California, and was coming off a 24-14 win in over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. While Ramsey didn’t expect to be a No. 1 pick in the ’83 draft, which was quarterback-rich in talent that year, he looked to the USFL as an option, at the urging of his agent, Marv Demoff. “Marv told me the NFL was no sacred cow,” recalls Ramsey from his Littleton, Colorado office.
Demoff, also represented John Elway and Dan Marino, who were courted by the USFL as well. Elway by the Invaders, and Marino by the Express. With the advice from his agent, and the fact that the USFL had a TV contract in place, Ramsey felt the Express would be a good fit for him. Ramsey’s ultimate decision to sign with the Express was because of head coach Hugh Campbell. Campbell just led the Edmonton Eskimos to five-straight CFL championships and was instrumental in the success of quarterback Warren Moon, who threw for more than 20,000 yards and 139 touchdowns in his last five seasons in Edmonton. “ I met with Hugh several times, and he was one of the best people in pro football I ever met,” says Ramsey. “He was honest, forthright, a true players’ coach.” Ramsey recalls things being a bit “rough” in terms of organization when he arrived at camp. “It was like the movie ‘North Dallas 40,’” says Ramsey of his training camp in Los Angeles. “It was almost comical at times. I asked myself, ‘what the hell I got myself into?’”
While there was a high level of quality players, there were guys that were true NFL rejects. Ramsey wondered who was letting these people on the field. “There were some real ‘bozos’ out there,” says Ramsey with an amusing tone in his voice. “There must have been guys that never played in college.” While most USC and UCLA players were talented for pro football, Ramsey, with a pause in his voice, says some of the players were so bad that he called the talent “shocking.”
After the first year, the Express were in financial trouble, and owner Bill Daniels was looking to sell the team. “The reason I went to the team was because of Hugh and Bill,” says Ramsey. Once it was clear Daniels was selling the team, coach Campbell looked to the Oilers, who offered him a job, which initially was turned down by Campbell. Ramsey, like Campbell, wasn’t thrilled with the new owner William Oldenburg.
Ramsey remembers Oldenburg telling the team “he was going to buy the best team in pro football. “We had a guy that was throwing money around like it was monopoly money, which it was,” says Ramsey wryly. “He was an ego-maniacal, self-proclaimed billionaire. I knew when Hugh left things were not going to change for the good.” Ramsey put his head in his heads and thought, “here we go.” “We had a owner with a lot of money and nothing else,” says Ramsey, who currently works for CSTV. While Ramsey wasn’t impressed with the new owner in town, he was less than enamored with Campbell’s replacement, John Hadl.
Hadl was a star from the old AFL days with the San Diego Chargers. Hadl played pro football from 1962 through 1977, with the Rams, Packers and Oilers as well. Hadl threw for more than 33,000 yards and 240 touchdowns, but was a disaster as coach of the Express. “John Hadl was just miserable as a coach, and was a complete flop as a leader,” says Ramsey, who was traded to the Invaders 10 games into the season. “I remember getting a game plan on a Thursday for a Sunday game (quarterbacks usually pick up game plans on a Tuesday), with 50 errors on the 100 offensive plays. I told him about the mistakes, and he said, ‘hell Rams, you get paid money, just fix it on the field.’”
Marino was the USFL’s No. 1 selection but decided to wait for the NFL draft
Steve Young in 27-21 triple-OT win against Michigan Panthers in 1984 playoffs.