The USFL used the old AFL strategy of going after the big name quarterbacks like Steve Young, Jim Kelly and Bobby Hebert. “We borrowed the strategy from Al Davis to sign the quarterbacks,” says Steve Erhart, the former GM of the Memphis Showboats. “In our three years of existence, we swept the Heisman Trophy winners [Herschel Walker, Mike Rozier, Doug Flutie]. We tried to get the best young players into the league.”
True to Erhart's words, quarterbacks Kelly, Young, Hebert, Flutie, Walter Lewis, Tom Ramsey and Rick Neuheisel were signed out of college. The USFL also turned to veteran NFL quarterbacks like Cliff Stoudt, Brian Sipe, Doug Williams, Greg Landry and Vince Evans for instant respectability.
No quarterback was beyond approach -- not even Dan Marino or John Elway. The Invaders made a 64-year, $6.4 million offer to Elway. According to Ralph Wiley in the March 24, 1983 issue of Sports Illustrated, the $6.4 million was the base pay, at $100,000 a year through 2046, being the least Elway could make.
Elway turned down Oakland's generous offer.
While 26 NFL teams passed on Marino in the 1983 draft, the Los Angeles Express chose Dan as the league's first-ever selection.
“Owner Bill Daniels sent his private jet to pick Dan up,” says Hugh Campbell, head coach of the Express in the ’83 inaugural season. “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 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. “Dan was very mature and handled things gracefully. Even if Dan knew he was going to the NFL, he never let on.”
Campbell doesn’t remember what figures were offered back then, but says laughingly from his Edmonton Eskimos' office in November 2006, “I’m sure it was more than most NFL quarterbacks.”
The NFL's average salary was $152,800 in 1983. A year later, the USFL began paying fat salaries and creating a bidding war with the NFL; the average salary increased to $225,600, an increase of 47.6 percent -- the largest jump in the league's history.
“It was like the old AFL days with a spike in salaries,” says Hebert." It was just like
when the Jets signed Joe Namath in 1965.
Pat Deering, a sports agent that negotiated the Stars Kelvin Bryant's $2 million deal, said 22 years ago, “I’m happy to see it come. The NFL has been able to take advantage of its monopolistic position for too long. It’s healthy. The owners aren’t going to like it. It’s going to cut their profit margin down. But it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to a players.”
Former Giants running back Joe Morris supported what Deering said in 1983. “Players liked the USFL because it raised salaries,” says Morris, in a 2005 interview from the Giants Stadium media center. “What it also did was change people’s mind on things like the Run-and-Shoot offense, which the Houston Oilers and Detroit Lions employed for years.”
Ed Garvey, the former head of the NFLPA, says, “anytime there was competition with the NFL, salaries have doubled or tripled.” Garvey points to All-American Conference from 1946 through 1949, where salaries doubled and when the AFL came on the scene in the 1960s, salaries tripled. “We knew the only thing that would make a difference in wages was competition; there was great joy in ‘Mudville’ when the USFL got under way,” he says.
Suddenly, the NFL felt an impending threat from this spring league. “There was a real net effect on salaries that a player might end up in the USFL,” says Dan Jiggetts, who was a player-representative during the '82 strike that cancelled seven games. “There was always a threat when players were dissatisfied with playing time, now they had a chance to go to another league and get some seasoning. All of a sudden the NFL had to bid-up on contracts with free agents.”
“The hope of the players and the NFLPA was that the USFL would make it and help everybody,” recalls Garvey from his Milwaukee law office.
“We were hoping it would be a success because it created instant leverage for us,” says Dan Fouts, who was courted by William Tatham, owner of the Outlaw franchise. “The talks were serious, but I could never see myself leaving the Chargers. It was important for me to explore the USFL, because it could help me to ‘feather my nest’ with the Chargers.”
The Outlaws were suppose to play in San Diego before going to Oklahoma in 1984, then merged with the Arizona Wranglers the following year.
Dave Lapham, who bolted the Bengals, along with teammates Jim LeClaire and Dan Ross for “greener” pastures in the USFL, says, “The USFL went after a lot of Mike’s [Mike Brown] players, because they knew he wouldn’t compete to keep them. Mike looked at the USFL as a threat, he saw what was going to happen before it happened.”
The Bengals were an economically run franchise. The Brown’s just didn’t want to spend the money to pay coaches, players and technical equipment for scouting.
“The USFL had the NFL reeling for some time,” says former Bear and Blitz player Jiggetts, who wasn’t welcomed back in the NFL circles after the 1982 strike. “The USFL did a great job of taking the college talent and developing it.”
“We hired somebody fulltime to scout their league in case any of their players became available,” says Gil Brandt, a former Dallas player personnel executive. “We were more concerned with the young guys coming out of college than the older players like Brian Sipe leaving.”
Besides salaries, the USFL forced the NFL to implement the supplemental draft. When the NFL was in the midst of the playoffs, the USFL was holding its first draft in January of 1983.
The NFL was considering moving up the draft because of this. NFL teams didn’t have a chance at the college players if the USFL was holding a January draft, four months before their April draft.
This rankled many NFL coaches because they didn’t have enough time to evaluate talent.
In an interview with Joe Stein of USA Today, former Saints coach Bum Phillips pointed out that he liked to watch films of the collegiate players after the NFL season, with an NFL draft moved up he would have time to evaluate the talent. Our system wouldn’t be as effective because I want the coaches coaching during the season. They wouldn’t have time to look at the film,” he says.
The first pick of the new league was Tim Spencer out of Ohio State. Spencer signed with the Chicago Blitz; Anthony Carter out of the University of Michigan signed with the Michigan Panthers, but the blockbuster signing was Herschel Walker out of Georgia.
Walker signed a deal worth $1.2 million per year with a $1 million- dollar signing bonus.
To the NFL, it was sacrilege to sign an underclassman. But the USFL was looking to make a splash -- and they did!