Jeff Pearlman’s book, Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL is a fascinating read that brilliantly weaves in multiple narratives of an upstart football league, politics, and larger than life personalities of players, coaches, and owners.
The USFL, aka The United States Football league, was in operation for 1983-1985 and was a spring American football alternative to the NFL. Pearlman’s research is thorough and describes how the idea for the USFL actually dated back to 1961, when New Orleans business owner David Dixon conceived of a spring football league. However, it wasn’t until the early 1980s before his idea came to fruition.
The USFL had teams in established NFL territories such as Houston (the Gamblers), Tampa Bay (the Bandits), Philadelphia (the Stars), and Chicago (the Blitz) to name a few. There were also teams in other cities where there was no NFL presence: Jacksonville (the Bulls), Memphis (the Showboats), Orlando (the Renegades), and San Antonio (the Gunslingers). The USFL played an 18 game regular schedule compared to the NFL’s 16 game regular season schedule.
Pearlman’s book has many stories of the gross mismanagement and incompetence of multiple USFL franchises, but teams were not short on talent. Four players from the USFL- quarterbacks Steve Young and Jim Kelly, defensive end Reggie White, and offensive lineman Gary Zimmerman went on to have hall of fame careers in the NFL. The USFL also managed to snag three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners away from the NFL- running back Herschel Walker, quarterback Doug Flutie, and running back Mike Rozier. In many ways, the USFL was ahead of its time. Several USFL innovations- a salary cap to control team spending, an instant replay challenge system, and the two point conversion have been adopted by the NFL during the last three decades.
The USFL was not without its growing pains, but the league tried to do too much too fast. Pearlman’s book shows how politics and greed led to the USFL’s downfall. The politics has an effect on our world today. Donald Trump, the current President of the United States, purchased the New Jersey Generals and was instrumental in convincing team owners to play a fall schedule in order to compete head on with the NFL. The move lead to the USFL filing an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, in which the USFL won, but received $1 in damages. One dollar. The USFL closed its doors prior to the start of the 1986 season.
Overall, I enjoyed Football for a Buck, as it combined two of my interest- history and American football. Pearlman does a great job in bringing parallels of the USFL’s politics into our current political environment and he also focuses on stories of lesser known USFL players. I would recommend Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL for anyone interested in sports, history, and politics.