When Lamar Hunt hired Carl Peterson in January of 1989, Carl saw the AFL trophy in the Chiefs’ offices at Arrowhead. Peterson asked Hunt if he could bring his USFL championship trophy there as well. Hunt said, “I know something about being part of a rebel league. I started one myself.”
The USFL trophy has been sitting in Arrowhead Stadium since Peterson arrived as the general manager 17 years ago.
Peterson was the player-personnel director for the Eagles from 1977 through 1982 when he got the chance to be the general manager of the USFL’s Stars. The Eagles were only two years removed from playing in the Super Bowl against the Raiders, when head coach Dick Vermeil urged Peterson to take the job with the fledgling league.
After eight years with the Eagles, Peterson made the jump to the Stars. “It forced me to get in the totality of the NFL --marketing, tickets, sales and more,” says Peterson from his home in Kansas City, MO., in May 2006. “We just lost to the Giants in the playoffs, and I went on vacation when Dick [Vermeil] called me about this new league. I didn’t want to leave the Eagles; things were going very well. But Vermeil said they were talking big numbers and big responsibility. They offered me 10 percent ownership, and the title of president and general manager.
The ownership of the Stars included general partner, Myles Tannebaum, whose group owned over 30 shopping malls. When Peterson learned of the groups solid backing, his interest was really peaked.
Peterson said, “the concept of football in the spring would be beneficial because the USFL would have its draft three months before the NFL and could entice some real talented college players to the league.”
The USFL also worked out a TV deal with ABC and this new venture backed by Getty Oil, called the Entertainment Sports Programming Network. “ESPN needed programming in the spring and they thought people would watch football and they were right,” says Peterson. “We were the highest rating they had until they got the NFL a few years later.”
Chet Simmons, the former president of ESPN, was named the USFL’s first commissioner and was the one that was truly responsible for bringing instant replay to the USFL according to Peterson.
Instant replay, was just one of the many USFL innovations the NFL adopted after the spring league’s demise in 1986.
Peterson started working for the Stars in July of 1982. By then, ownership was already in discussions with George Perles, the defensive coordinator from the Steelers, to be the head coach of the Stars.
Peterson agreed to hire Perles, but trouble was brewing. Perles was still commuting from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia as the team was being assembled. Then, one December morning Peterson got a call from Perles from his hotel outside of Philadelphia. Perles was very upset and Carl rushed over to see what was wrong. Little did Peterson know he would be looking for a new coach a month before the draft and three months before the season started. “He [Perles] said, ‘Carl I would never do this to you, but the one other job I wanted my whole life, at my alma mater, Michigan State, has called me,’” says Peterson in precise detail of the conversation between himself and Perles.
The Spartans flew Perles in the night before and offered him the job at Michigan State.
"He felt awful that he was leaving us in the lurch," says Peterson. "I told him to take the position and I would find another coach. We’ve been dear friends ever since."
Peterson was now in the hunt for a new coach just three months before the season started. Tannebaum wanted Peterson to hire Sid Gillman, the former Rams and Chargers coach that introduced the West Coast offense to football. But Carl pointed out that Sid was 70-years-old and he really wanted someone that was younger and a teacher.
In late December of 1982, Peterson targeted Penn State’s Joe Paterno. After Penn State won the national championship, Peterson and ownership met with Paterno. But Joe Pa told the Stars, “I’ve given this a lot of thought, but this is where I need to be.” Years earlier, Paterno turned down the heading coaching job with the Eagles before Vermeil accepted the position.
After Paterno pulled his name from the mix, the Philadelphia ownership began to panic a bit says Peterson. But Carl remained cool, as he had a short list of coaches and Jim Mora was on it.
Peterson knew Mora from his days as a coach at UCLA. “I needed a teacher,” says Peterson, who was facing the team’s first crisis five months into the job. “I needed someone that could teach young and new players the game.”
Mora was the defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, who were in the middle of the playoffs. Mora didn’t want his attention taken away at the task at hand, so he was hesitant to meet with Peterson until after the playoffs.
Mora finally agreed to meet Peterson at the Marriott in Newton, Mass., but Mora said he couldn’t focus on another job at the moment. After the Patriots lost to the Dolphins in the first-round, Mora flew down to Philadelphia to meet with Carl and was ready to listen. But Jim didn’t bring his wife, Connie, which concerned Peterson because he thought Jim really wasn’t interested.
Peterson interviewed Jerry Glanville and a few other guys, but Mora was his man. As Mora was getting ready to board his flight from Philadelphia, Peterson told Mora he had 24 hours to make his decision. Mora called back the next day and told him he’d take the job. “I told Tannebaum and the other owners who we hired. They said, ‘Who the hell is Jim Mora?’” says Peterson with a laugh in his voice.
Right after Mora accepted the position of head coach, Peterson remembers Jim being in one hotel room interviewing possible assistant coaches like Dom Capers, Vince Tobin, Carl Smith and Joe Marciano, while Peterson was in the adjacent suite interviewing players like Irv Eatman and Kelvin Bryant down in Mobile, Ala., at the Senior Bowl. “I was trying to entice them to start their pro football career now,” says Peterson. “I told them they could use their signing bonus money right away and we go to camp in two weeks.”
The list of players and coaches from the Stars reads like an All Star cast: C Bart Oates, T Irv Eatman, RB Kelvin Bryant, LB Sam Mills, Mike Johnson and DE William Fuller. But before they made their mark in the USFL and NFL, this group was relatively unknown.
From the coaching ranks came: Dom Capers, Vic Fangio, Joe Marciano, Vince Tobin and Carl Smith. It’s safe to say those rooms in Mobile, Ala., must have been blessed by the football gods.
The Stars marched through the first two seasons like rhinos on a daisy field. They pounded opponents with the run, as the offensive line made gaps for Bryant, and a knockout defense led by Mills, Fuller, Johnson and anchored by former NFL NT Pete Kugler, punished opposing quarterbacks.
Philadelphia won 35 of 41 regular and post seasons games over the course of ’83 and ’84. “Donald [Trump] would say, ‘I spend money on the best college and NFL players. You have a bunch of no names; how do you do it?’ I told Donald, ‘it’s a team game, it’s the sum of all the parts, not the individual parts,” says Peterson.
Mora and Peterson’s Stars ousted the Generals from the playoffs in ’84 and ’85, on their way to back-to-back USFL Championships.
Trump's millions couldn't buy him a playoff win.
Ironically, it would be two NFL castoffs that would propel the Stars to three straight championships: LB SAM Mills and QB Chuck Fusina.
A big source of players for the USFL was the final cut from the NFL teams at the end of camp. Peterson had an agreement with Lynn Stiles of the Eagles, that any players that were cut, would be sent Peterson’s way. “We pretty much had a bus outside the parking lot,” says Peterson, as he was formulating the foundation of the USFL’s only dynasty.
Sports agent Marv Demoff called Peterson about the possibility of having Fusina tryout for the Stars, after the Penn State quarterback was cut by the 49ers in the fall of 1982. Peterson looked to Paterno to get the breakdown on Fusina. “Paterno told me, ‘Carl, this guy looks awful in a uniform; he’s not very fast; when he runs he looks awkward; when he throws he looks awkward. But he does the one thing that we love most because it keeps us employed – he wins. If you have a chance to sign him, I would strongly suggest it,’” recalls Peterson.
Fusina didn’t sell tickets with his quarterbacking prowess, but he won two championships for the Stars. “Chuck Fusina was the most resourceful quarterback I’ve ever been around,” says Peterson. “He did exactly what Joe [Paterno] told me he would do - win!”
Sam Mills was another castoff from an NFL team – the Cleveland Browns. Peterson got a call from the Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano after the pre-season ended, “He said, ‘I know you’re starting that new league and looking for players. I think we’re making a mistake cutting this guy. The only reason we’re cutting him is because he’s short; He’s not even 5’10, but don’t cut him until you see him hit,’” says Peterson, repeating Rutigliano’s advice.
Mills came down to Philadelphia at the Stars’ mini-camps and Peterson signed him to a two-year contract at $20,000 and $22,000, plus a $500 signing bonus.
But Perles, who hadn’t jumped ship to the Spartans yet, said to Peterson, “We’ve got to cut that kid Mills. It’s an embarrassment; he’s too short.”
“I told George we weren’t doing anything until we see him hit,” says Peterson, as the players weren’t in full pads yet -- only shorts and T-shirts.
Months later, as the Stars were gearing up for the season with another mini-camp, Mora, now the coach, told Peterson the same thing about Mills: “We’ve got to cut that kid. It’s an embarrassment, he’s too short, this is pro football.”
Again, Peterson had to stand his ground on Mills and take the advice of Rutigliano.
Once the training camp started in DeLand, Fla., Peterson said the coaches would rate players at the end of each day to determine who was the best. “ At the end of each day, Sam Mills was the best defensive player on the field,” says Peterson.
Now, Mora and the defensive coordinator Vince Tobin raved about Mills.
The proof came in the Stars first game against the Generals when Mills hit Herschel Walker so hard it looked like the Heisman Trophy winner was “hit a fire hydrant,” recalls Peterson. “I asked Jim if you think Herschel asked Sam how tall he was?”
Mills earned the nickname of the “Field Mouse” because he could destroy elephants. “ He could light up like you wouldn’t believe,” says Peterson as he talks proudly of the undersized linebacker with the heart of a lion and the hitting ability of a rhino.
When Peterson hired Marty Schottenheimer in 1989, he never let Marty hear the end of it for cutting the future five-time Pro Bowler Mills.
After the USFL folded, the NFL teams were now battling over the linebacker. Mora, who was now coach of the Saints and Tobin, who was now with the Bears, were the two front-runners to land Mills according to Peterson. Chicago G.M. Jerry Vainisi, thought Mills would fit in perfectly alongside Mike Singletary as one of the Monsters of the Midway. Mills was looked at as the Singletary of the USFL.
Mills, was once spurned by NFL player personnel, was now a hot commodity by those same people after three years in the USFL. But some NFL general managers and team presidents like Mike Brown and Tex Schramm still took shots at the USFL and the impact, if any, the players would have on the NFL.
Schramm, who offered Peterson a job on two different occasions after the USFL folded, was combative toward accepting USFL players. “Those players and coaches in the NFL are second rate and we’ll have nothing to do with them,” Schramm told Peterson 20 years ago. “They’re not NFL caliber.”
Ironically, Schramm drafted Herschel Walker while he was playing for the Generals, and signed Nate Newton, who was a key on the Cowboys offensive line that led Dallas to three Super Bowl wins in the 1990s.
“Tex was a dear friend, but how wrong he was,” says Peterson, as he reflects on his conversations with Schramm. “The USFL players filtrated pretty darn quickly into the NFL.
“Our Stars would have competed very strongly with the mid-level teams in the NFL,” says Peterson. “The fans were clamoring for a Stars-Eagles match at the Veterans Stadium.”
Oates, who won a total of five championships in the USFL and NFL combined, agrees with Peterson about the talent on the Stars. “We could have beaten the Eagles by 1985 because
we were deep enough in talent by then,” he says.
On the Stars alone -- Oates, LB Mills, Johnson, DE Fuller and P Sean Landeta played in a total of 18 Pro Bowls during their NFL careers. These refugees had a huge impact on the teams they signed with, once the USFL folded in 1986.
In 1985, the Stars played their home games at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland, because in 1984, the owners voted in favor of a fall schedule and go head-to-head
against the NFL.
The Philadelphia ownership, which was building a sound fan-base with attendance rising to close to 30,000 in ’84, voted against the fall move. But two owners in particular,
led the charge for the fall schedule.
After the second year, Trump, owner of the Generals and the new owner of the Chicago Blitz, Eddie Einhorn, pushed for the fall move. Einhorn was a part owner of the White Sox and was also on the broadcasting baseball committee, “Einhorn stood up and said, ‘We'll be part of a broadcasting deal within 90 days when we make the announcement that we’re going to the fall or the NFL will come after some USFL expansion teams,’” says Peterson, as he recalls the meeting. “When he talked about the TV deals, this really put some owners over the top.”
Einhorn's speech about lucrative TV deals and a possible absorption of teams, motivated the majority of the owners, who saw the dollar signs in the fall schedule, to switch seasons.
Peterson's group voted against moving to the fall schedule, despite Einhorn's promises of big bucks. “The original premise of the USFL was to start slowing with a pro league in the spring - crawl before we walk, walk before we run – lets get through five years and see where we are,” says Peterson as he relives the original plan. “The NFL might say we like this league and we want to have a pro league in the spring, which they did anyway with NFL Europe. I’ve sent
guys like Dante Hall to go there and get better and now he’s a pro bowl player. It was just rushed to fast.
“The NFL did talk about the possibility of acquiring two teams from the USFL, but this wasn’t enough for some owners,” says Peterson. “They said, ‘We’ll win this litigation,’ which they were right on that. The NFL violates the anti-trust in regards to TV rights, but we didn’t anticipate the decision. The NFL counsel convinced the jurors that these wealthy USFL owners knew what they were doing and the NFL didn’t harm them financially.”
The NFL knew they were in violation of Sherman Antitrust Act, so they tried to "feel out" the USFL owners according to Peterson. "There were settlement talks, but unless they
made it financially rewarding to all the USFL owners, a deal wouldn’t be reached," he says.
Peterson said there were two mistakes that doomed the USFL:
1- Expanded too fast from 12 to 18 teams. "We brought in some strong cities and some weak cities, " says Peterson. "John Bassett was in charge of expansion in the USFL in addition to his partnership in the Bandits. He was embarrassing the Buccaneers down there. Outdrawing them, more exciting play and juts better football with Steve Spurrier’s Fun and Gun. Bassett wanted to expand by 10 cities, then was looking to go into International – adding teams in Toronto and Mexico City."
2- The aforementioned push by two owners: Trump and Einhorn for the fall schedule
Trump was considered a bit of a misfit when it came to his sports knowledge and his “love” for football. “Donald was always about Donald. When he first bought the Generals, at the first meeting he was like a panther in the back of the room,” says Peterson with a note of amusement in his voice. “He got up and showed everyone at the meeting all the press coverage he got from buying the Generals. He said, ‘My great USFL partners, it would have cost him a million dollars to get this kind of coverage in the real estate industry. This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.’ We all looked at him each like, ‘this is a real football oriented guy.’”
With the announcement of the fall move, the Stars like the Panthers, thought going head-to-head with the NFL was ridiculous. The Panthers merged with the Invaders and played their games in Oakland because the NFL didn’t have a team there. Bobby Hebert’s team that created so much buzz in Detroit, was now just a two-year memory. Ownership in Philadelphia also chose not to compete with the Eagles and would play their home games in Baltimore, because the Colts vacated the city two years earlier.
Also, the Stars had lease issues with the Vet if they moved to a fall schedule. Things got so tense in Philadelphia, that the Vet kicked the Stars out of their offices and the coaching staff was forced to take up space at the University of Penn.. “About half-way through the season , the Vet kicked us out of our offices, and we had to move to the ROTC building at the University of Pennsylvania,” says Mora with a note of disdained in his voice. “All the coaches were in one classroom, in separate corners, coming up with the game plans.”
After posting a 31-5 regular-season record in the first two seasons, the Stars dropped to 10-7-1 in the ’85 campaign. “The moving really had an effect on us that year,” says Mora.
“We were 7-6-1,” says Peterson, “ but Mora got the team together and said, ‘It’s time to stop feeling sorry for ourselves. We're the champions, we should start playing like champions. I expect we’re going to get back there and we’re going to start winning. It’s a road game every week, but we’ve got to deal with it and I’m not going to expect anything less.’”