The spring of 1984 marked the sophomore season of the United States Football League. This Week 3 match-up was the home opener for the expansion Pittsburgh Maulers, who faced the Birmingham Stallions at Three Rivers Stadium.
Maulers owner Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr. made headlines in January 1984, selecting running back Mike Rozier of the University of Nebraska with the #1 overall pick in the USFL college draft and then luring the Heisman Trophy winner away from the NFL with a three-year $3.1 million contract. Compare this figure to DeBartolo’s other big rookie signing in 1984. His Pittsburgh Penguins held the #1 overall pick in the NHL draft. But future Hall-of-Famer Mario Lemieux got just $600,000 over two years from DeBartolo.
But Rozier wasn’t the main attraction for the Maulers home debut in March 1984. No, the big draw was an unheralded career back-up named Cliff Stoudt who came to town as the starting quarterback for the opposing Birmingham Stallions. Little known outside of Pittsburgh, Stoudt rode the Steelers bench as a back-up quarterback behind Terry Bradshaw for six years. From his rookie year in 1977 to 1982, Stoudt started one NFL game. He spent most of his time polishing one-liners about life as a two-time Super Bowl champion benchwarmer and became a popular resource for sportswriters. But with the aging Bradshaw hurt in 1983, Stoudt got his opportunity and started 15 games for the Steelers. After a 9-2 start, the Steelers lost their final four games under Stoudt. Although Pittsburgh still won the AFC central title in 1983, Stoudt was booed mercilessly every time he took the field during the team’s late season collapse. Stoudt’s contract expired as soon as the season ended and he immediately jumped to Birmingham of the USFL, lured by a three-year $1.2 million contract and the presence of Stallions Head Coach Rollie Dotsch, a former Steelers assistant.
Steelers fans, eager for another chance to unload on Stoudt, gobbled up tickets at record pace. A week ahead of the game, the Maulers front office announced a sellout – the first time a USFL team sold out its debut. Maulers Director of Marketing Tim Pearson credited Stoudt to the The Associated Press:
“I wish I could tell you they’re all Maulers fans, but I can’t,” Pearson said. “You wouldn’t believe how many people requested tickets on the visiting side of the field so they can boo Stoudt.”
53,771 fans turned out for the game on March 11, 1984. Franz Lidz of Sports Illustrated showed up and wrote a lengthy and entertaining feature on Stoudt’s return to the Steel City, without once mentioning Rozier’s name. The rabid crowd pelted Stoudt with snowballs and other projectiles. Stoudt obliged by playing rather terribly, completing 2 of 16 passes for 29 yards. But Dotsch’s Stallions offense didn’t rely on the quarterback to put up big numbers. Former Buffalo Bills running back Joe Cribbs torched the Maulers defense for 191 yards and two touchdowns. Stoudt added another ground score on a 10-yard scramble. Rozier was unremarkable with 52 yards on 16 carries. The Stallions won 30-18.
Despite Stoudt’s miserable performance in Pittsburgh that March afternoon, he proved himself an able starter in the USFL. The 1984 Stallions finished 14-4 and advanced to the USFL semi-final, falling one game short of the championship game. In 1985, Stoudt led the Stallions to a 13-5 record and back to the semi-final game. In both seasons, Stoudt and the Stallions lost in the playoffs to the eventual champion Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars.
After the USFL folded in 1986, Stoudt returned to the NFL and finished out his career as a journeyman back up in St. Louis, Phoenix and Miami, retiring in 1989 at the age of 34.
Without the box office catnip of Cliff Stoudt, the Pittsburgh Maulers never again drew a crowd larger than 25,000 at Three Rivers Stadium. The team was terrible in 1984 and finished with a league-worst 3-15 record. Edward DeBartolo, Sr. folded the club in October 1984 following just a single season of play, after his fellow USFL owners voted to switch to a fall season in 1986 and challenge the NFL head-to-head.