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 lowliest 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. Beyond mere bad luck, the team was simply awful. It seems so appropriate that the Feds’ 1984 promotional pocket schedule depicts the team punting.
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 largely 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 than Bernhard likely 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 Programs 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.