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Michael Nelson

Michael Nelson is contributing editor and columnist for The Daily Memphian, the political analyst for WMC-TV, and the Fulmer professor of political science at Rhodes College. His latest books are “Trump: The First Two Years” and “The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2018.”

Nelson: Here’s hoping the Memphis Express make it

(They’ve got a good shot with Trump tied down in the White House)

By Updated: February 07, 2019 4:00 AM CT | Published: February 06, 2019 10:53 AM CT

Will professional football succeed in Memphis?

The Memphis Express’ opening game in Birmingham on Sunday, Feb. 10, will provide one set of clues. The team’s home opener at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Feb. 16, will tell us even more.

But if history is any guide, the Memphis franchise will do fine. The big question concerns the league, the new eight-team Alliance of American Football.

Twice in the past half-century, Memphis has fielded teams in newly formed, initially well-financed leagues whose purpose was either to provide an alternative to the NFL or to force a merger.

In 1974, the Memphis Southmen debuted as part of the World Football League, which went head-to-head with the NFL in the fall. The team name didn’t stick – it was a knockoff of the stillborn Northmen, the franchise meant for Toronto until Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau kicked it out for being insufficiently Canadian. Memphis fans informally changed the name to Grizzlies and it stuck.

The Grizzlies were terrific. They went 17-3 in 1974, drew some decent crowds, and got ready for 1975 by signing Miami Dolphin stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield. But the much weaker overall league folded partway through the 1975 season.

A similar tale of hope-yielding-to-woe followed about a decade later. As chronicled in Jeff Pearlman’s new book, “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL,” in 1984 Memphis became part of another serious effort to launch an alternative pro conference: the United States Football League.

The USFL did not make the WFL’s mistake of going head-to-head with the NFL – or with college and high school football, for that matter – in the fall. Its season ran from February to June. “Fans wouldn’t have to drive through sludge and sleet to sit in sludge and sleet,” Pearlman notes.

The recently launched ESPN, starved for big-time sports, agreed to air USFL games every Monday and Saturday night, and ABC, eager to program football year-round, showed a Sunday game of the week.

Television contracts gave the new league “instant credibility,” says Steve Ehrhart, who’s been honchoing the annual Liberty Bowl since 1994 but back then was the USFL’s executive director. He soon became general manager of Memphis’ entry, the Showboats, when they joined the league in its second year.

The Showboats were 7-11 in 1984, but unlike most USFL franchises, their attendance grew from about 10,000 in March to more than 30,000 in April and May and more than 50,000 in their final game of the season in June against the Birmingham Stallions.

With SEC player of the year Reggie White, a former Tennessee Vol, at defensive end and Pepper Rodgers as coach, the Showboats got even better in 1985.

Asked how he persuaded a college player to choose Memphis over an NFL team, Rodgers said, “I take him out for a big spare ribs dinner, show him Memphis and take him to my big ol’ house overlooking the beautiful Mississippi. Then I ask him, ‘Do you really want to play in Buffalo?’”

Attendance settled into the 30,000 range in 1985. The team went 11-7 and won a first-round playoff game before being eliminated in the semifinals. “The Showboats were a model USFL franchise ...,” writes Pearlman. “They relied on a roster made up primarily of regional college stars to establish fan loyalty, played hard, and got involved in the community.”

Into this Edenic setting slithered the 37-year-old owner of the New Jersey Generals. Forget spring football, he said. Let’s go head-to-head with the NFL by changing to a fall schedule in 1986. As Pearlman paraphrases the new owner’s seductive argument, “Riches awaited on the other side of the seasonal rainbow.” Most of the other owners, including the Showboats’ William Dunavant, were persuaded.

The Generals then organized a $1.32 billion anti-monopoly lawsuit against the NFL on the grounds that its games were shown on all three broadcast networks.

The jury found for the USFL but it regarded the Generals’ owner, who was the league’s main witness, as so “arrogant and unlikeable” that it awarded only $1 in damages – actually, $3 in triple damages and an additional 76 cents in interest. The USFL folded. The fall 1986 season was never played.

That owner? Donald J. Trump.

“Why did he buy into the league?” asks Bill Simmons, who created ESPN’s “30 for 30” and in 2009 appeared in its third episode, “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?”

“Trump with the USFL has always struck me as somebody that couldn’t get into the NFL, and he was so desperate to own a football team, this was the next thing. It was like a guy who, like, all the Beamers that he wanted were sold out, so he goes to the Saab dealership. Says, ‘Give me a Saab. Give me any Saab, I don’t care.’ And then he complains about the Saab.”

Charlie Steiner, the Generals’ announcer, adds, “He figured that he could buy his way onto the back page of the New York Post, he could move to Page Six, the gossip page, and then ultimately the front page. Donald Trump was no longer a Donald, but The Donald.” Shown that quote on camera, Trump’s Trumpian response was, “I hope he remains loyal but if he doesn’t, let me know and I’ll attack him.”

In a bonus feature called “Who is Donald Trump?” on the Blu-ray edition of the “30 for 30” series, USFL commissioner Chet Simmons says, “He would try to bully you. ... He couldn’t care less about these other guys if it came down to it. He’d kill them all, leave them in blood on the street. ... He was disturbing, he was irascible, he was the worst thing in the room.”

Trump’s own verdict? If the USFL had lasted, “it would have been small potatoes. ... I actually think I got the league to go as far as it went. I think without me this league would have folded a lot sooner.”

The new AAF and the Memphis Express have a lot going for them. The league wants to be the league, not a collection of NFL franchise wanna-haves. Playing in the spring is as good an idea now as it was a quarter century ago. CBS is airing the opening game one week after the Super Bowl and then a game of the week on CBS Sports Network.

Among the smart rules innovations the AAF is making are two that elevate running and passing over kicking, which has become way too important an aspect of the modern game. One is to make teams go for two after a touchdown. The other is to replace onside kicks by instead allowing teams to run a play from their own 35. One play, 10 yards, or forfeit the ball.

And, oh yeah: 30-second play clocks instead of 40, no TV time outs, and fewer commercials, culminating in games that last about 2 1/2 hours.

Most encouraging for the future of the AAF is that unlike the WFL and the USFL, the teams are owned by the league. The poisonous bidding wars between franchises that made the earlier leagues economically fragile have been taken off the table. Even so, most of the Express players have local connections – more than half played college ball in Tennessee or Mississippi.

Season tickets for the new team run as low as $75 for five home games that wrap up with a season-ending April 13 contest against the Atlanta Legend. Unless, that is, the Express make the playoffs.

<strong>Michael Nelson</strong>

Michael Nelson

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Memphis Express Alliance of American Football

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