The Michigan Panthers were a very strong pro football entry in the United States Football League. A popular springtime alternative to the Lions for Detroit gridiron fans, the team was soon pushed out of business by the USFL’s decision to abandon its spring schedule in favor of head-to-head competition with the NFL in the fall.
During the league’s first season in the spring of 1983, the Panthers were one of the top-spending teams in the USFL. and put together a blend of NFL veterans and talented rookies. The offense, in particular, relied on a trio of rookie skill position players – unheralded Cajun quarterback Bobby Hebert out of Northwestern State (Louisiana), running back Ken Lacy from the University of Tulsa, and star wideout Anthony Carter of Michigan, who would have been a top NFL draft pick in 1983 had the Panthers not lured him away from the senior circuit.
The defense was keyed by NFL washout John Corker, who would terrorize the USFL in 1983 with 28.5 sacks from his outside linebacker position, and rookie safety David Greenwood out of Wisconsin (who doubled as the Panthers’ punter).
The Panthers got off to a weak 1-4 start before catching fire midway through the season. They won 11 of their final 13 to finish the 1983 season with a 12-6 record. As the wins mounted, fans began to take notice. When the Panthers hosted the Western Conference championship playoff game against the Oakland Invaders at the Silverdome on July 10th, 1983, a USFL record 60,237 fans showed up.
The following week, the Panthers travelled to Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado for the first USFL Championship Game against the Philadelphia Stars. The Panthers won the game 24-22 with the decisive play coming on a 4th quarter touchdown pass from Hebert to Carter.
The script flipped for the Panthers during the 1984 USFL season. Michigan got off to a hot start, racing out to a 6-0 record through the first third of the schedule. But in Week Six against the San Antonio Gunslingers, Anthony Carter broke his arm and was lost for the remainder of the season. The team went into a prolonged funk, losing eight of their next ten before rallying to win their final two games and sneak into the playoffs with a 10-8 record.
On June 30th, 1984 the Panthers played the Los Angeles Express, quarterbacked by future Hall-of-Famer Steve Young, in a first round playoff contest. The quarterfinal game turned into an epic battle, although fewer than 8,000 fans were on hand to watch it at the Coliseum. The Express finally triumphed 27-21 in the third overtime period, on a long touchdown run by future Detroit Lion Mel Gray. At three overtimes, the game remains the longest pro football game in history.
It was also the last game ever played by the Panthers. At the end of the 1984 season, USFL owners voted to shift to a fall season in 1986. The Panthers were against the move, not wishing to compete head-to-head with the NFL’s Detroit Lions. The business model shift set off a wave of relocations and mergers among the USFL franchises located in NFL markets. In the fall of 1984, the Panthers merged with the Oakland Invaders. Most of the top Panthers players, with the exception of John Corker, moved to Oakland for the USFL’s final spring season in 1985.
The Invaders, led by Hebert, Carter and other Michigan holdovers, returned to the USFL championship game in 1985. There they met the Baltimore Stars in what was to some degree a rematch of the 1983 USFL title game against the then-Philadelphia Stars. (The Stars were another relocation born out of the USFL’s planned switch to the fall). This time the Stars came out on top with a 28-24 victory at Giants Stadium on July 14, 1985. This was the final game in USFL history, as the league folded before staging its planned fall season in 1986.
==Michigan Panthers Games on Fun While It Lasted==
It was the final weekend of the 1984 United States Football League regular season in June 1984 and at stadiums across the league, a smiling Washington Federals cheerleader beckoned to fans from the cover of the USFL’s KICKOFF Magazine game program. But in the nation’s capital, there was little to smile about as the woeful, lame duck Federals played out the final 60 minutes of football of their bleak two-season run at RFK Stadium.
The Federals were reported sold a month earlier to Miami hotelier Sherwood Weiser, who planned to move the team to the Orange Bowl for the 1985 season. The deadman-walking state of the team along with the Feds’ pathetic 2-15 record meant 7,495 no-shows compared to just 6,386 in the stands
The Feds were seemingly overmatched against the New Orleans Breakers, who started the season 6-1 and seemed destined for relevance. But the Breakers were in the midst of the own collapse, losers of eight of their last 10 to fall out of playoff contention. Ancient quarterback Johnnie Walton of New Orleans, playing his final pro game, opened the scoring with a 73-yard bomb to Frank Lockett off a flea flicker in the first quarter. But the Federals showed some fight and opened a 20-10 lead by third quarter courtesy of a Curtis Bledsoe run and a pair of TD passes from Mike Hohensee. (In typical Federals fashion, kicker Jeff Brockhaus blew an extra point. The Feds used six kickers in just two seasons). Despite a late touchdown run by the Breakers’ Mark Schellen, the Federals hung on to win their final game 21-17, raising their miserable two-year tally to 7-29.
The Federals sale to Woody Weiser fell through in August when USFL owners voted to move to a fall season in 1986. Weiser didn’t want to compete with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in the fall and backed out of the deal. The Federals went to Orlando instead, becoming the Orlando Renegades for the USFL’s final season in 1985. The New Orleans Breakers were goners too. Although quite popular in New Orleans, the planned move to the fall ruined their viability in the Big Easy, no matter how terrible the Saints were at the time. The Breakers would move to Portland, Oregon for the 1985 season.
The Washington Federals were the snakebit franchise of the springtime United States Football League (1983-1985). The Federals had the misfortune to debut in the nation’s capital just several weeks after the Washington Redskins won Super Bowl XVII, solidifying their grip on the region’s pro football passions.
Federals owner Berl Bernhard followed the league’s original slow growth business plan and opened his checkbook to sign one marquee player away from the NFL – rookie running back Craig James out of Southern Methodist University. But James was repeatedly injured and managed to play in just 10 games with minimal effectiveness over two seasons. The rest of the roster was relatively anonymous, with former NFL All-Pro defensive end Coy Bacon, by now far past his prime at age 40, the most familiar name.
The Federals debuted at RFK Stadium on March 6th, 1983 against the Chicago Blitz, who were coached by former Washington Redskins head man George Allen. The game was selected as the league’s first nationwide broadcast in its ABC television deal. More than 38,000 fans showed up in the rain, but the Federals were overmatched and lost 28-7. The team would never again draw more than 15,000 fans in its two seasons of existence.
The Federals finished the 1983 season with the worst record in the 12-team USFL at 4-14. But they did win their final two games, including a surprise upset of the league’s best team, the 15-3 Philadelphia Stars. The last couple of weeks showed enough promise that Berl Bernhard brought back Head Coach Ray Jauch for a second season in 1984.
The nature of the league changed during the 1983-84 offseason. New owners like Donald Trump (New Jersey) and William Oldenburg (Los Angeles) bought into the league and launched a salary war with the NFL over free agents and, especially, the 1984 college draft class. Bernhard refused to be sucked into the spending spree and made no significant additions to the team during the winter of 1983-84. The Federals’ biggest move was to acquire Reggie Collier from the Birmingham Stallions to try and settle the team’s chaotic quarterback situation. Collier was Birmingham’s 1st round draft pick in 1983 but failed to hold down the starting job for the Stallions. The same story would play out in Washington D.C., where Collier couldn’t unseat Mike Hohensee, a second-year quarterback from the University of Minnesota.
Bernhard learned just how far behind the curve his team had fallen on opening night of the 1984 season. The Federals opened on the road against a lightly regarded expansion team, the Jacksonville Bulls (who would finish 6-12) and were blown out 53-14. Bernhard famously complained that the team played “like a group of untrained gerbils” – a great line which got more national press attention that Bernhard probably wanted. Head gerbil trainer Ray Jauch was fired three days later and replaced by assistant Dick Bielski, who couldn’t fare any better. The Federals were even worse than the year before, finishing with the worst record in the league again at 3-15.
Off the field things were even worse. Craig James was hurt again and the Federals let him bolt town midway through the lost season to sign with the NFL’s New England Patriots. The Feds were just relieved to be out from under the fragile running back’s contract. Attendance plummeted more than 50% from 1983’s already week numbers. On May 6, 1984 the Federals drew the smallest crowd in the history of the USFL when only 4,432 fans showed up at RFK Stadium to watch an overtime loss to the Memphis Showboats.
In May 1984, Bernhard found an escape route. He lined up a sale of the franchise to Sherwood “Woody” Weiser, a Miami-based hotelier who intended to move the team to South Florida for the 1985 season. Weiser persuaded University of Miami Head Coach Howard Schnellenberger to quit his job (he’d led U of M to the national title just a year earlier) in return for part ownership of the USFL franchise and a guaranteed $100,000 salary for life. It turned out to be a horrible decision for Schnellenberger. At league meetings in August 1984, a cabal of new USFL investors led by Trump pushed through a plan to switch to a fall schedule in 1986 and take on the NFL head-to-head. Weiser had zero desire to challenge the Miami Dolphins or U. of M. for attention and play dates at the Orange Bowl during the fall and pulled out of the deal.
After the Miami deal fell apart, Bernhard needed to find a new buyer. He got one in Donald Dizney, a minority partner in the USFL’s popular Tampa Bay Bandits club. Dizney bought out Bernhard and moved the team to Orlando, Florida in October of 1984. Renamed the Orlando Renegades, the team played one final (losing) season in the spring of 1985 before the USFL went out of business in August 1986 on the eve of what was supposed to be its first fall season.
==Washington Federals Game on Fun While It Lasted==
The USFL’s debut weekend and the league’s first broadcast on ABC Sports. The Federals host the Chicago Blitz on March 6, 1983. Lee Corso, ABC’s color commentator for the broadcast, would become the franchise’s head coach in 1985 after the team moved to Orlando.
Back-up quarterback Joe Gilliam (1983) died of a heart attack on Christmas Day, 2000 at age 49.
Federals linebacker Mike Corvino(1983-1984) died in a car accident at age 46 on July 14, 2007.
Former Washington Redskins and Federals (1983) defensive end Coy Bacon died on December 22, 2008 at age 66.
Starting quarterback Johnnie Walton was 35 years old and hadn’t worn a football uniform since 1979, but he flourished in Coury’s pass-happy offense, finishing second in the USFL with 3,772 passing yards. Former CFL All-Pro tailback Richard Crump rushed for nearly a 1,000 yards to supplement the passing game. Although the college draft was a near washout for the Breakers, the team hit big with 9th round draft choice Marcus Marek, the all-time tackling leader out of Ohio State University. Marek racked up 240 tackles and assisted tackles at inside linebacker and earned 1st Team All-USFL honors.
To nearly everyone’s surprise, the Breakers finished 11- 7 and narrowly missed the final playoff spot. Coury was named the USFL’s Coach of the Year.
The Breakers were saddled with an unfortunate stadium situation in Boston, playing in tiny Nickerson Field, which all lacked modern amenities such as luxury suites or convenient parking. With no suitable alternatives in the region, owners George Matthews and Randy Vataha sold the club for a reported $8.0 million to New Orleans developer Joseph Canizaro.
Canizaro moved the Boston Breakers USFL franchise to New Orleans for the spring of 1984. After a season in New Orleans, Canizaro moved the club again, this time to Portland, Oregon. Each version of the Breakers – Boston, New Orleans and Portland – lasted just one season in their respective city. The USFL folded after the 1985 season.
Philadelphia Stars at Boston Breakers at Nickerson Field, May 29, 1983.
Offensive tackle Louis Bullard, who played for the Breakers in Boston, New Orleans and Portland, passed away from cancer on April 18, 2010 at age 53. Bullard was one of the Breakers’ player representatives and the spokesperson for dozens of Portland Breakers in their long fight to collect unpaid wages from team owner Joe Canizaro.