Born: 1983 – USFL expansion franchise.
Died: October 25, 1984 – The Maulers cease operations.
Stadium: Three Rivers Stadium (60,000)
Owner: Edward DeBartolo, Sr.
In the spring of 1983, Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr. purchased an expansion franchise for $6 million in the fledgling United States Football League to begin play in February 1984. DeBartolo Sr. had created something of a cottage industry running Pittsburgh’s least desirable professional sports franchises at the time. He already owned the NHL’s sad sack Penguins, who would finish the 1983-84 season with the league’s worst record and barely 2,000 season tickets holders, and the Pittsburgh Spirit of the Major Indoor Soccer League, who lost millions each year, but still drew better crowds than the lowly Pens at Pittsburgh Civic Arena.
Nevertheless, the USFL welcomed DeBartolo Sr. with open arms. Listed on Forbes‘ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, the shopping mall magnate had deeper pockets than most of his new colleagues. The DeBartolo family also had a better track record when it came to football than they did with their other sports investments. In 1977, Debartolo Sr. bought the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and gave the team to his son, Edward DeBartolo, Jr. Under his son’s stewardship, the 49ers hired Bill Walsh, drafted Joe Montana and turned one of the NFL’s perennial also-rans into a Super Bowl champion inside of five years.
Throughout the fall of 1983, Maulers General Manager George Heddleston and Head Coach Joe Pendry assembled a motley band of NFL and CFL castaways. Former Dallas Cowboys clipboard man Glenn Carano would handle starting quarterback duties. The Maulers counted on journeymen linebackers Ron Crosby and Bruce Huther, along with ex-New York Jets corner Jerry Holmes, to lead the defense. It was a far cry from Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Donnie Shell.
The Maulers would make their headlines in the college draft. The USFL held its college draft in January a few days after the top college seniors’ amateur eligibility expired in the New Years Day bowls. The 1984 draft was a deep one and exuberant USFL owners were ready to open their wallets and challenge the NFL for the best prospects. The Maulers held the #1 overall pick, positioning them to select either Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mike Rozier of Nebraska or Brigham Young quarterback Steve Young.
The choice was Rozier. He signed quickly – suspiciously quickly – after Nebraska lost to Miami in the Orange Bowl on January 2nd, 1984. Rozier became the second consecutive Heisman winner to choose the USFL, after Herschel Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals the previous spring. The fact that Rozier was able to sign with agent Mike Trope and agree to terms on a three-year, $3.1 million USFL contract in a matter of hours after playing in the national championship game raised eyebrows. Had Rozier signed with either Trope or the USFL before the Orange Bowl, his NCAA eligibillity would have been forfeited. As it was, Nebraska lost the game and Rozier banged up an ankle which would nag him for the entire 1984 USFL season. Months later, Rozier claimed in Sports Illustrated that he did, in fact, receive cash payments from a Trope associate during his senior year.
After two road losses to open the season, the Maulers debuted in Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium in March 1984 against the Birmingham Stallions. A sellout crowd of 53,771 turned out for the first home game. Sports Illustrated reporter Franz Lidz covered the Maulers debut and pointed to the main reason for the big box office: the chance for Pittsburgh fans to boo (and hurl snowballs at) unpopular former Steelers signal caller Cliff Stoudt, now quarterbacking the Stallions.
Head Coach Joe Pendry was fired in midseason as the Maulers staggered towards a 3-15 record, tied for worst in the 18-team USFL. Two of their three victories came over the hapless Washington Federals – the other team that finished 3-15. Carano threw 19 picks and Rozier was merely ordinary, rushing for only three touchdows. On the defensive side of the ball, the Maulers were even worse, giving up a league-high 27.3 points per game. In May 1984 the Maulers lured NFL defensive coordinator Hank Bullough away from the Green Bay Packers as the Head Coach-in-waiting for the 1985 season. Only 16,832 turned out for the Maulers final home game at Three Rivers.
The Maulers gained little relief as the USFL headed into the offseason in the late summer of 1984. Rozier was disgruntled. His agent groused in the press and attempted to buy out his contract in order to sign with the NFL’s Houston Oilers. A group of owners headed by Donald Trump of the New Jersey Generals pushed through a plan to move to a fall season in 1986 and take on the NFL head-to-head for fans and TV dollars. The move imperiled clubs like the Maulers, Philadelphia Stars and Tampa Bay Bandits, who shared cities and stadiums with established NFL clubs.
On October 25th, 1984, DeBartolo folded the Maulers without so much as a press conference. The club had existed for eighteen months, won three games, and lost between $6M – $10M of DeBartolo Sr.’s money, depending on which estimates you believed.
Glenn Carano’s daughter Gina Carano, two years old during the Maulers era, grew up to become a famous mixed martial artist, model and actress.
Mike Rozier played one final spring in the USFL with the Jacksonville Bulls in 1985 before the league folded. He joined the Houston Oilers in the fall of 1985, and recorded one 1,000-yard rushing season in the NFL in 1988. He retired in 1991 at the age of 30. In 1996, Rozier was shot in his hometown of Camden, New Jersey, but recovered from his injuries.
It’s worth noting that Rozier was one of two #1 overall draft picks for DeBartolo Sr.’s Pittsburgh franchises in 1984. The other was Penguins center Mario Lemieux. Lemieux’s rookie contract paid $600,000 over two seasons with a $150,000 signing bonus – pale by comparison with Rozier’s $3.1 million USFL rookie deal. Lemieux led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992, two of many highlights of his legendary Hall-of-Fame career. DeBartolo Sr. described the Penguins first Cup win in 1991 as “possibly the happiest moment of my life” according to his Wikipedia page.
Pittsburgh Maulers Memorabilia
Pittsburgh Maulers Video
Clash of the Heisman winners … Mike Rozier and the Maulers host Herschel Walker and the New Jersey Generals before only 14,418 fans at Three Rivers Stadium. April 22, 1984.
Former Maulers owner Edward DeBartolo Sr. passed away on December 19, 1994 at the age of 85.
Maulers tight end Mike Shaw passed away on April 27, 2011. Obituary
Fullback Walt Easley died at age 55 on February 14, 2013 after a years-long struggle with kidney disease. Obituary.