Donald Trump and the USFL: 'Bombastic from the Start ... a Jerk on Purpose'

jeff pearlmanFeatured Columnist ISeptember 5, 2018

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Editor's Note: In this excerpt from Jeff Pearlman's upcoming release, Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL, the story picks up in the early days of 1984 heading into the second season of the spring football league. Having pulled off a relatively successful debut campaign (with stars ranging from Herschel Walker and Kelvin Bryant to Sam Mills and Bobby Hebert), the league happily welcomed a new owner of the New Jersey Generals into the fold—one with deep pockets and promises of greatness. One Donald J. Trump...

                   

"I think without Donald, the league, in his words ... it would have been small potatoes. But you know what? Nothing is wrong with small potatoes. They're very tasty and they can be successful food."

— Bill McSherry, former USFL executive director

BECAUSE EDWARD DEBARTOLO was a busy man with bigger things to worry about than a football team, the owner of the Pittsburgh Maulers often sent his general manager to the league meetings.

At but 35 years old, George Heddleston generally stood out as the youngest man in the room. He had spent the past four years as the public relations director for the San Francisco 49ers, and before that served as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys, as well as the sports information director at both Mount Union College and Capital University. Such positions require a person to observe before speaking; to take mental notes not merely on rushing yards and touchdown passes, but mannerisms, decorum, methodology. A public relations chief is not part of the story, so much as a chronicler and preserver of the story.

"I was an untraditional choice to be general manager," he admitted years later. "But Mr. DeBartolo saw something in me."

Upon being hired, Heddleston steeled himself for irksome contract negotiations, cumbersome player transactions, nonstop roster shuffling. These are the things one must do, he rightly presumed, with a new franchise in a new league. What Heddleston could not have foreseen, however, was the absolute nuttiness that awaited him.

Three decades after the fact, Heddleston still vividly recalled his first encounter with Donald J. Trump, owner of the New Jersey Generals, at a USFL meeting in New York City. "Mr. DeBartolo stayed in Youngstown, Ohio, to work, so I was there representing the Maulers," he said. "It was craziness. You had the owner of the Michigan Panthers [A. Alfred Taubman] and the owner of the Philadelphia Stars [Myles Tanenbaum] screaming at each other in Yiddish over some matter of unimportance.

"And then Donald Trump walks in. And he's bombastic from the start. He's loud, he clearly wants to be noticed. Just a jerk, and a jerk on purpose. He sits down, and the meeting starts and he's reading the New York Times. We're meeting, voting on things and he's reading the newspaper. Finally, we get ready to hold a vote and Donald holds open the New York Times, stands to get attention, talks over whoever's speaking and says, 'Look at this! Look at this! I build a skyscraper and nobody cares! I sign some obscure defensive back and I get three paragraphs in the Times. That's why I bought the Generals!"

Ray Howard/Associated Press

Later that day, the gathering broke off into an executive session, and Trump continued his verbal roller coaster. "I don't know about the rest of you people, and I don't know how much money you guys have, but I have the money to get into the NFL," he said. "And that's where I plan on being. And I have more money than anyone in this room, except for maybe that guy right there." He pointed directly at Heddleston, whom—despite a nearly 40-year age difference, a $33,000 salary, and no physical similarities—Trump somehow confused for DeBartolo.

"I just froze," Heddleston recalled. "Here's this loudmouth guy ... this outrageous guy, pointing at me. And, looking back, I believe he started to single-handedly take the league down that day. Nobody in that room wanted to move the USFL to fall. Nobody. Not one person. But there was something about Donald Trump..."

Indeed, there was something about Donald Trump. Beginning shortly after he purchased the Generals, Trump made it his objective to force the USFL's hand and convince his peers—often against their own best interests—to change directions and switch seasons. Initially, the words were thought by some to be mere chatter. But as the second campaign headed from March into April and May, Trump shifted his movement to the next level, and it became clear that the Generals' general would somehow scratch, claw and shove the USFL into the fall and, as a result, his team into the NFL. "He was not an honorable man," said Jerry Argovitz, owner of the Houston Gamblers. "The truth wasn't his thing. But I've always said one thing about Donald Trump. You don't ever underestimate Donald. He can charm you out of your pants. And he's like getting involved with a rainbow or a tornado or a hurricane or a zombie—all at the same time depending on his mood."

"Trump was an intimidating, domineering force in a meeting," said Ted Diethrich, the Wranglers owner. "Even though the owners were very powerful businessmen, when Trump came into the room, he dominated."

Trump worked every angle. He devoted a large amount of time to undercutting [Chet] Simmons to his fellow owners; trying to convince everyone within earshot that the commissioner—known first and foremost as a television guru—had damned the league with pitiful ABC and ESPN deals (that, in truth, were not Simmons's doing). Trump's words were poison, and they found the intended target. Simmons was one of the few USFL executives who saw Trump for what he was. Though loath to bad-mouth an owner behind his back, Simmons made an exception for Donald Trump. The man was a huckster. Expensive suits and cheesy hair and a way of walking past people without looking. Yes, Trump owned the New Jersey Generals. But Simmons wouldn't have trusted him to hold his wallet.

Donald Trump, far right.
Donald Trump, far right.Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press

The optimism that carried the league through tough times was slowly being replaced by the whispers of a charlatan, dead set on getting his way. It wasn't that Trump disliked Simmons on a personal level, or even thought him to be a bad commissioner. Trump's brain didn't work in such a way. Like? Dislike? Neither mattered. He simply realized that the collective goal of the USFL was long-term viability, while his goal was to use the USFL as a quick ticket to NFL riches. "I was the chairman of our long-range-planning committee," said Joe Canizaro, owner of the Breakers. "And Donald would call me every night at 6:30 to tell me how important it was for us to move to fall. If nothing else, he was persistent."

Against Simmons's wishes, the league's executive committee (comprised of Trump, [John] Bassett, [Tad] Taube, and Taubman) took Trump at his I-can-get-things-done word, and gave him permission to negotiate with the various networks on their behalf. But it was all a sham. Trump met with Neal Pilson, the president of CBS Sports, and Michael Weisman, executive producer of NBC Sports, and focused upon one hypothetical: If the USFL played in the fall, would they carry the games? Both men presumed Trump was asking on behalf of the league, and said, sure, they would consider the idea. This, of course, was not relayed by Trump to his USFL peers. Instead, he told them that the networks preferred the USFL exist as a fall entity. As far as many of the owners knew, he was doing his altruistic best to help the league survive and thrive. Wrote Jim Byrne in The $1 League: "[Donald Trump] would keep after Pilson and Weisman and try to get one or both of them to make a commitment to the USFL in the fall. There was no reason to inform Simmons or the executive committee of the gist of his conversations or that they had even taken place. It was premature."

Although he was now one of professional sports' most high-profile owners, Trump mastered the shadows. In public, he loved the USFL and believed in its splendor. In private, he considered the USFL—in his future words—"small potatoes." Those wooed by his big talk and promises of riches defended the man as a visionary. Trump was the greatest salesman anyone had ever seen. His thinking was grand, huge, enormous, spectacular—hypnotic. He held sway, even when his sway made no sense. Those who didn't buy a bit of it considered him a Svengali of the selectively blind. "I think he became a Pied Piper," Simmons said years later. "He spun a web of stories to the rest of the owners that all this could be accomplished, and it could be accomplished if you followed what he believed in and the people that he knew and his ability to get to people who we couldn't get in order to raise the level of income from the networks, to get the interest of Pete Rozelle and the rest of the National Football League in terms of the accommodation of a few teams. And away he'd go being the savior of what was the United States Football League."

John Bassett, owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits, was particularly horrified by Trump's ability to woo and coerce. Though far from the league's wealthiest man, Bassett grasped the perils of a sports entity moving too fast, too hard. He believed in the USFL because it committed itself to a slow, steady pace. Trump was anything but slow and steady. "My overall observation was that  [Trump] was kind of like a self-appointed savior of the league," Bill McSherry, the USFL's executive director, told the Washington Post. "That self-appointment was accepted by many of the owners, if not all of them. Maybe the only one that didn't was John Bassett. John Bassett was the smartest guy in the room. And Trump always thought he was the smartest guy in the room, so you can imagine how well that went with anybody."

Bassett was particularly agitated when, on April 15, 1984, the New York Times ran a piece headlined USFL ENVISIONS FALL SCHEDULE BEGINNING IN 1987. The article featured insights from "two prominent USFL executives," and included the nuclear quote, "It was an executive decision made by the people who control the league. It is the only logical way for the league to continue. There's virtually no chance that it's not going to happen." The words, he knew, belonged to Donald Trump—and they undercut the very mission of the USFL. Trump actually put his name behind a few passages in the story, including this: "If I thought this league would not have gone for a fall schedule, I wouldn't have come into this league."

When asked about the article by Paul Domowitch of the Sporting News, Bassett refused to hold back. "The New York Times is supposed to be the most respected newspaper in the world and all they listen to is Donald Trump, who has duped them," he said. "[The story] is absolute nonsense. I hate to see [the Times] used by a conman. It upsets the hell out of me. Donald Trump is trying to manage the news and browbeat the rest of the owners in this league. In the end, his philosophical view may be correct, but his tactics stink. At this point, there is absolutely no basis to [the story] whatsoever."

Bassett's outrage was palpable, and he didn't even know the worst part. Shortly after the Times piece went to print, Trump arranged a secret meeting with (of all people) Pete Rozelle, the NFL's commissioner. It was held inside a room of New York City's glitzy Pierre Hotel and paid for by Trump. For the next three decades, the reason for and content of the sit-down would be debated. Was Trump trying to get into the NFL? Was the NFL trying to get Trump? Was this about killing the USFL? Merging the USFL? All of the above? None of the above?

Pete Rozelle
Pete RozelleSusan Ragan/Associated Press

When asked, Trump and Rozelle offered differing accounts. Here is what we know:

1. The meeting was arranged so Trump could see what he had to do to wind up in the NFL.

2. Trump made clear to Rozelle that the USFL was relatively unimportant.

3. Trump explained to Rozelle that the other USFL owners mattered not to him.

Three other men were invited to the otherwise private meeting. Two never discussed it. A third was Leslie Schupak, cofounder and senior managing partner at KCSA Worldwide, the USFL's marketing and public relations firm. Trump formed a tight bond with Schupak, and 30 years later, the memory remained vivid. Schupak stayed for the early portion of the session then left. In the immediate aftermath, however, he was briefed by one of the two men. "He told me that before Pete could start talking on a casual basis, Donald started his diatribe on how great he would be for the NFL, and what it would mean to the NFL to have him as a franchise owner," Schupak said. "Donald was apparently going on in his typical style, telling Pete Rozelle what he believes in, why he would be wonderful. It was typical Donald, in that Rozelle couldn't get a word in." According to Schupak's colleague, at the conclusion of the meeting, Rozelle looked at Trump and said, "Mr. Trump, as long as I or my heirs are involved in the NFL, you will never be a franchise owner in the league."

"And that was that," said Schupak. "It was over."

Trump—gifted with the ability to hear and ignore information as he saw fit—remained undeterred. He was building something big, and he knew it. The sorrowful New Jersey Generals finished the 1983 season with a 6-12 record, and now—following a 31–21 Week 10 thumping of Michigan before 50,908 fans at the Meadowlands—his team was 8-2 and one game behind Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division. That the Generals' $5 million payroll was the league's second-highest (behind the estimated $13.1 million spent by Los Angeles) was of no matter to Trump. He was a winner, dammit, and winners spent whatever it took.

The truth of the matter was the original USFL model actually worked—if anyone dared pay attention. In Jacksonville, the first-year Bulls were averaging a league-best 46,730 fans per game with not even a single household name or $1 million player on the roster. Bassett's Bandits, composed largely of former Florida Gators and Florida State Seminoles (and with only one huge salary—running back Gary Anderson's $1.375 million over four years), were averaging 46,158—largely based on quirky marketing and fun promotional giveaways. Yes, the majority of organizations were in the red. And, yes, TV numbers rose and dipped like an ocean wave. But the franchises losing the most were their own worst enemies. The Michigan Panthers, for example, dropped $6 million in 1983—but spent outlandishly on three NFL offensive linemen. The Chicago Blitz (now Arizona Wranglers) reported losses of $3 million. Much of that, though, was due to George Allen's willingness to throw cash everywhere. Trump's Generals were hemorrhaging dollars. But whose fault was that? Who decided to hurl around money as if it were confetti?

Robin Graubard/Associated Press

Under David Dixon's initial plan, franchises were supposed to be losing money. It was an understood by-product of beginning a football league. Trump, though, was a master of, in one colleague's words, "banging the bruise." Instead of reminding people that most investments (including his own myriad real estate holdings) struggle before they surge, Trump mocked his peers for watching their dollars blow away. Tellingly, in all his the-USFL-is-a-disaster spewings, Trump never (not once) referred to its ultimate success story and (in a sense) model franchise.

In Denver, the Gold played in relative obscurity. Their black-and-gold uniforms were uninspired; their helmet design (an exploding gold starburst) among the league's dullest. In 1983, the club was owned by Rob Blanding, a notoriously thrifty construction executive. He sold the organization to Doug Spedding, an even thriftier head of a chain of used-car dealerships. "I don't want to frame the Denver Gold as cheaping out," said Jim Van Someren, the team's media relations director. "But for a year or two, the idea was to keep expenses low, don't go crazy with contracts, and work within the framework of the USFL."

Over its first two seasons, Denver's roster was home to (count them) zero household names. The coaches—first Red Miller, then Craig Morton—were ex-Broncos with high regional appeal. Otherwise, it was a whole lot of Darryl Hemphill and Tom Davis; of Greg Gerken and Pat Ogrin. Their star, running back Harry Sydney out of the University of Kansas, had been cut in camp by the Seahawks and Bengals. He would not have been recognized had he walked through the city's downtown wearing his own jersey. "That's probably true, but the fans loved the Gold," said Sydney. "The spring weather in Denver was great, the people were passionate about their football. It wasn't fancy or especially electrifying, but the Gold was working."

For the 1983 season, Denver turned a small profit. For the 1984 season, the team lost a reasonable $1 million. They ranked first and fifth in the USFL in attendance, respectively. On the one hand, it wasn't always an ideal spot to be a player. "Spedding was a very bad guy. ... A crazy man," said Morton. "He started reading the players' mail, marking notes in the letters. It was bizarre. I actually told the team in a meeting, 'I've always told you the truth, and this guy will not be a blast to play for.'"

And yet, Spedding did the organization well. Fred Mortensen, one of the quarterbacks, was simultaneously playing football and pursuing his MBA from Arizona State. He viewed the league with the intrigue of a player and the curiosity of a financier. "You could see how the Gold—for their flaws—resisted the temptations that killed other organizations," Mortensen said.

"The original owners knew what the plan was. But too many got lost. Denver did not." It bothered no one that the Gold lacked a Herschel Walker or Steve Young. They played sound football and kept the payroll down. "The Gold were run exactly as the USFL model dictated it to be run," said Craig Penrose, a Denver quarterback. "We didn't have problems getting paid. Expenses were taken care of. Guys like Donald Trump wanted to be in the NFL. They didn't appreciate what we had in the USFL. They never gave it a chance."

Excerpted from FOOTBALL FOR A BUCK: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL. Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Pearlman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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