A CENTRAL ODDITY of Donald Trump's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is how little he has let it interfere with his traditional and impossible-to-delegate duties of being Donald Trump. His industriousness is admirable; he has seamlessly added feuds with fellow candidates Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina to ongoing ones with Rosie O'Donnell and Jon Stewart. So naturally Trump began a week that included a debate in California and speeches in three other states on the phone with a reporter talking about a spring football league that had folded nearly 30 years prior and disputing what an ESPN movie once said about him.
In 2009, ESPN ran a 30 for 30 documentary by Michael Tollin, a former filmmaker for the USFL, called Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? The film left no doubt as to its director's opinion: It was Trump, the owner of the New Jersey Generals, who deep-sixed the league out of ambition and greed. What, in turn, does the Republican front-runner make of Tollin? "I didn't even know him," Trump says. "But I guess he worked for us in some capacity. He was let go, and he had a real axe to grind. The guy's bad news. It was such a false report, such a stupid, false report."
Small potatoes, you say?
Trump insists that his entry into the USFL differed from his many other business deals. He builds luxury buildings; he doesn't bet long shots. He did it just this once: "I bought [the Generals] for peanuts. And I played the game for a little while. It was a shot in the dark. I knew that."
Trump purchased the team from Oklahoma oilman J. Walter Duncan and then-Generals-coach Chuck Fairbanks for a reported $10 million (he has said he paid less than half that amount) in 1983, the same year Trump Tower opened on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The Generals played at Giants Stadium in New Jersey's Meadowlands, but they were an essential piece of The Donald's New York society debut. Back then he presented himself as a suave sportsman, boasting a self-forged war chest of indeterminate but surely fearsome size. Dominance, whatever the price tag, was his aim. "When I went in, I said, 'Look, I will do this, and I'll go in and I'll do a good job because I do a good job at stuff,'" Trump says. "And I had a really good team. I had a team that would have been a really good NFL team."
From the moment Trump landed the Generals, he went about trying to build a juggernaut. He inherited Heisman Trophy--winning running back Herschel Walker, and that winter he signed former NFL MVP quarterback Brian Sipe and three-time Pro Bowl safety Gary Barbaro. In 1985 he drafted another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, and signed him to what was then reported to be the largest rookie contract in sports history, five years and $7 million. And he hired former Jets coach Walt Michaels for that role after the Dolphins' Don Shula rebuffed him. (Shula, Trump said, had insisted on an apartment in Trump Tower as part of his compensation.)
Trump even signed Giants superstar Lawrence Taylor to a future contract before the 1984 season, offering him an interest-free loan on the condition he would play in the USFL in '88, when his deal with New York was up. Taylor eventually got a new contract with the Giants that reportedly required him to pay Trump $750,000 (Trump says it was a million) and repay the loan to get out of his Generals contract.
Trump says, "The reason I sold him back was something—it wasn't for the money. [It was] because I thought it was unfair to Lawrence Taylor, to be honest. By the way, he then got a much better contract from the Giants. So I helped him a lot, and he's a great guy."
"We were trying to build America's team," says Jimmy Gould, an NFL player-agent who was then the Generals' president. (Gould likes to say he was Trump's first apprentice, having forced the developer to take his call by flying dry-ice ice cream, special from Cincinnati, to his secretaries. "You've put my office in total disarray. What can I do for you?" Trump said.) "We were always on The NFL Today, every Sunday," says Gould, who fondly recalls how he and Trump would "plot" ways to get stories about the league on the air. Leveraging the press to build his mythology became a Trump trademark.
"It sure as hell was amusing," says Tollin. "I remember being in his office, and he'd ask, 'Do you think Walt Michaels is a good coach? Do you think I should fire Walt Michaels?' He was kind of an open book. Whatever someone said last might stick."
The Generals went a combined 25--11 in 1984 and '85 but lost in the first round of the playoffs each year. What few outsiders realized at the time—but all would realize soon enough—was that Trump had ambitions that were far greater than winning a spring-football title or flipping his franchise for a few million dollars. He wanted the Jets and Giants to quiver before the Generals, and he wanted the USFL to buffalo its way into Pete Rozelle's league through a merger or to try its luck as a direct competitor.
Steve Ehrhart, who was then president of the USFL's Memphis Showboats and now runs the Liberty Bowl, says, "Donald was like the sun. He's got so much power and intensity that people just orbit him."
Says Trump now, "You have to understand, this is very important: I'm a big-picture guy, not a small-picture guy. And I went in [on the USFL] on the basis that the league would move to the fall. You know, I came up with a statement that if God wanted football to be played in the spring, he wouldn't have created baseball. Have you heard that before? That was originally from me. That was something I came up with a long time ago."
With Trump as the driving force, the spring league made plans to move, after the 1985 season, to the fall for '86, where it could, in theory, attract a more lucrative TV deal. The USFL had lost nearly $200 million in its first three seasons.
Ehrhart says, "He didn't do it on his own. He was able to convince the other people to vote with him." A chunk of the electorate cheers, another shudders.
The cash-strapped league also brought an antitrust suit against the NFL and all its member clubs, except the Raiders. (Owner Al Davis testified on behalf of the USFL in exchange for not being sued.) The suit charged the NFL with conspiring against the USFL. The reasoning: because the NFL had TV contracts with all three networks, and because a Harvard Business School professor had once presented to NFL executives on how to vanquish the USFL, the NFL had created a monopoly on pro football and thus violated antitrust law. The USFL sought recompense of $1.7 billion, knowing that without a major jury award the fall '86 season would never happen. The lawsuit had not been Trump's idea, but he did support it.
At the time Rozelle, who died in 1996, said publicly that a merger would never happen. But according to Trump the NFL commissioner had been keen on a merger before the trial—until word got out about how much money some other USFL owners needed. "We were killing the NFL," says Trump. "They were ready to come to their knees. And then, you know, there were stories in different places that [some USFL owners were] running short and may not be able to play next week's games. And all of a sudden Pete Rozelle calls me, 'Well, let's meet in a couple of months, instead of next week.'"
The leagues would make their cases in the summer of 1986 in a trial in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. The jury sided with the USFL on the matter of fact but not damages; the NFL was indeed a monopoly, but it wound up paying the upstarts just $3.76, including interest, plus $5.5 million in lawyers' fees. After multiple appeals were rejected, the USFL vanished.
Says Trump, "[The NFL] was judged a monopoly. We won. That was all we were claiming."
Trump's football interest outlived the league. In 2014 he even bid on the Buffalo Bills. He says he offered $1 billion, all cash. Fracking magnate Terry Pegula landed the team instead for a reported $1.4 billion. "I'm glad, because if I bought the Buffalo Bills, I probably would not be doing what I'm doing now, which is much more important," says Trump. "I would have done a good job with the team, but I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. So you understand. Now, that's today. I'm No. 1 in the polls. Ask me that question in two months; who knows, right?"
Trump had ambitions far greater than winning a spring- football title or flipping his franchise for a few million dollars.
According to Trump, Rozelle had been keen on a merger before the trial. "We were killing the NFL," Trump says. "They were ready to come to their knees."
Faces in the Crowd
LANE STEWART FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Jersey Boys Trump's ownership was marked by splashy moves like hiring ex--Jets coach Walt Michaels (left) and drafting Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie.
[See caption above]
RONALD MODRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Giant Plans Trump made a move to get Taylor from the Giants, but the star linebacker never suited up for the USFL.