Editor’s Note: In this excerpt from Jeff Pearlman’s upcoming release, Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL, we find ourselves in the waning days of 1983, when two bombastic multi-millionaires with large wallets and larger egos take control of two of the league’s marquee franchises. One, J. William Oldenburg, is the new owner of the Los Angeles Express. The other, a New York City real estate developer, is now the head of the New Jersey Generals. His name: Donald J. Trump . . .
The press conferences were held exactly three months and 2,805 miles apart, and both were dizzying, luxurious, and, for the USFL, potentially life-saving. On the afternoon of September 22, 1983, inside the atrium of the 58-story Midtown Manhattan skyscraper he humbly named Trump Tower, Donald J. Trump, a relatively obscure New York real estate developer, introduced himself as the new owner of the New Jersey Generals.
On the afternoon of December 22, 1983, inside a ballroom at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, J. William Oldenburg, a relatively obscure chairman of the board of a billion-dollar mortgage banking company, introduced himself as the new owner of the Los Angeles Express. Happy days were here again.
Chet Simmons, the USFL’s second-year commissioner, couldn’t believe his good fortune. While the league’s first season featured many successes, the New Jersey and Los Angeles franchises—cornerstones that needed to soar — largely flopped. At the Meadowlands, the Generals drew pretty well on the strength of Herschel Walker’s presence, but went a forgettable 6-12. And at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Express finished 8-10 before a proud crowd of invisibles. Neither team’s ownership was particularly enamored by the idea of continuing with the grand USFL experiment, especially considering the two franchises lost a combined $6 million.
That’s why, when Trump offered J. Walter Duncan nearly $10 million to purchase the Generals, the 67-year-old Oklahoma oilman (who would have gladly taken $8.5 million) didn’t have to think twice. “I found that, for me, owning a professional business in the New York–New Jersey area was just too much to handle personally,” Duncan said. “I live in Oklahoma City, and I had to attend 18 games about 1,500 miles from home. It was very difficult for me to be at the games, attend league meetings, and look after the organization the way I felt it should have been looked after. The Generals are too important a franchise to the league to have absentee ownership.” Translation: Yip! Yip! Yippee! That’s why, when Oldenburg offered Bill Daniels and Alan Harmon $7.5 million to purchase the Express, the two cable TV executives didn’t have to think twice. They took their $2 million profit and bolted. “It is not practical to be an absentee owner in this day,” Daniels said from his Denver home. “This was something we needed to do.” Translation: Yip! Yip! Yippee! Though Trump and Oldenburg had never met, commonalities existed. At 37 (Trump) and 45 (Oldenburg), they were two of the USFL’s younger owners, as well as the most bombastic and narcissistic. They both fancied blonde, large-breasted women, automobiles that cost more than most houses, and anyone (and everyone) to quiver in their presences. They reveled in being referred to as “Mister,” and would happily tell you how much they spent on this, how much they spent on that. Trump’s family crest was stitched onto every piece of clothing he wore. Oldenburg’s initials were stitched onto the sleeve of every shirt he wore. For Trump and Oldenburg, linen was never merely linen. It was imported 1,600-count Greek Utopian.
“The first time I met Donald Trump was on a flight to a league meeting,” said Vince Lombardi Jr., son of the legendary Packers coach and president/ general manager of the Michigan Panthers. “I didn’t know who he was, just that he was a busy young guy. He started asking me all these football questions, and then he told me I had no idea what I was talking about. I thought, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ Later on, I noticed one very unique thing about the people who worked for him. They only knew two words — ‘Yes, Donald.’”
People paying a visit to Trump’s office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower didn’t merely sit in a bland reception area, waiting to meet the big man. No, they first had to endure an eight-minute film that chronicled the greatness of Donald J. Trump, New York icon and all-around amazing guy at absolutely everything. The video lavished plaudits upon “this visionary builder.” Read a deep-voiced narrator over shots of Trump Tower: This is Manhattan through a golden eye, and only for the select few . . . Any wish, no matter how opulent or unusual, may come true . . .
“It was ridiculous,” said Barry Stanton, who covered the Generals for the Journal News, a Westchester, New York–based paper. “Part of the film was actually a sales pitch for condos at Trump Tower. And it wasn’t optional. If you wanted to speak with the Donald, you had to hear how amazing he was.” It wasn’t lost upon the attention-obsessed Trump that while his real estate deals might (on occasion) land his name on some inside page of the Post and Daily News, the Generals announcement placed him on the front and back. “He loved being talked about,” said Jerry Argovitz. “It was his fuel.”
Oldenburg was no different. His firm, Investment Mortgage International, was based on the top floors of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid building, and the chairman had his own penthouse suite. When the office first opened in November 1983, Oldenburg gave a welcoming speech as, behind him, mist rose from blocks of dry ice. The walls were painted in gold, a gong sounded with every $1 million transaction, the doors and windows were voice-operated. “You would say, ‘Wall, open,’ and the damn wall would open,” said Steve Ehrhart. “It was awfully impressive. You’d be staring at a wall, something would rotate and it’d suddenly become a full bar.”
A scrolling digital ticker tape, à la New York City’s Times Square, greeted visitors in the lobby. There was a wall of clocks that doubled as a crystal sculpture, as well as a large Jacuzzi. A press release described the facility as “the most spectacular office space ever seen in San Francisco (or perhaps anywhere in the world).”
“It was so opulent,” said Leigh Steinberg, the agent. “Glitter everywhere, trying to show his importance.”
Though Simmons wasn’t one for eccentric millionaires and their annoying excesses, the USFL needed stable ownership. So he could overlook the warning signs, like the NFL having ignored Trump in approximately 2.7 seconds when he made overtures to buy the Baltimore Colts in 1981. Or when Trump boasted — without a sliver of truthfulness — that “I was offered NFL teams. I could have bought NFL teams in the course of the last three or four years.” Or when, in the lead-up to the purchase of the Express, Simmons and Steve Ehrhart invited Oldenburg to New York for a sit-down—only to be confronted with a stiff rebuke of “Why? So a bunch of guys can investigate my cock?” Or when, upon officially taking the reins of their franchises, Trump and Oldenburg promised to spend money. Lots and lots and lots and lots of money.
For a commissioner who aspired to keep the USFL on a steady uptick, this is what most terrified him. In Chicago and Washington, for example, the league had organizations that struggled to pay bills. The Federals made, literally, no noteworthy signings between the first and second seasons, while the Blitz (né Wranglers) tried to fool people into thinking that the addition of a lousy ex-Bears quarterback named Vince Evans was somehow a transcendent move.
Meanwhile, the Generals and Express wasted little time. Within the blink of an eye, Trump—who wrongly boasted that “top NFL players are willing to sign with us for less than they’re getting in the NFL!” — added quarterback Brian Sipe, the 1980 NFL MVP with Cleveland, with a $1.9 million contract, as well as ex–Kansas City Chiefs safety Gary Barbaro (three years, $825,000) and ex–Seattle Seahawks defensive back Kerry Justin (four years, $800,000). A slew of additional NFL refugees joined the Generals, and the collective salaries reached well into the millions. Mark Gastineau, the New York Jets’ ferocious and flamboyant defensive end, was summoned for a meeting (said Leigh Steinberg, his agent: “The first thing we had to do was sit through that stupid promotional video about all his achievements”), as was Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Randy White, who was offered a $400,000 signing bonus and $700,000 annual contract. Neither man switched leagues. Warren Moon, the Canadian Football League megastar quarterback, also met with the Generals, but ultimately signed with the NFL’s Houston Oilers.
Trump fired Chuck Fairbanks and planned on replacing him as head coach with Don Shula, the immortal Miami Dolphin who won 226 games over 21 seasons. Shula had a hostile relationship with Joe Robbie, Miami’s penny-pinching owner, and his NFL salary was a little more than $400,000. Trump stalked Shula, calling him every Monday night between tapings of the coach’s TV highlights show and the start of Monday Night Football. “Trump was sell, sell, sell,” Shula said. He offered a five-year, $5 million contract — a staggering figure for any coach in any league. Shula said he would only take the job were Trump to throw in a rent-free Trump Tower apartment (value: $1 million). Because he both loved attention and lacked a filter, on October 23 Trump went on the CBS program NFL Today to crow that Shula was basically locked in to run the Generals, but that the coach’s apartment demand was a bit of a hang-up. The Dolphins beat the Colts that afternoon, and in the postgame press conference the third question to Shula concerned whether he was, indeed, headed to New Jersey. The prideful Dolphin was livid, and announced the next day he was staying in Miami. The Generals released a statement that said, in part, “Trump felt the arrangements to attain a coach like Don Shula were just too complex and time-consuming at this point. A prime example of this was the possibility of an apartment at Trump Tower as part of a contractual agreement.”
It was merely one of endless lies stated by Trump in his USFL run.
“Knowing Don as I do, I’m pretty sure he would have taken the job,” said Larry Csonka, the Jacksonville Bulls senior vice president and a former Dolphins running back. “But he’s a man of principle, and he did not appreciate being thrown out there to the press the way he was.”
The Generals briefly pursued Penn State’s Joe Paterno, and when he declined the team hired Walt Michaels, who coached the New York Jets to a 1982 AFC championship game loss to Shula’s Dolphins. Michaels received neither $5 million nor a Trump Tower pad, but his three-year, $500,000 salary made him among the league’s highest-paid coaches.
“Look, Donald Trump was a marketer first and foremost, way before he knew anything about football,” said Dave Lapham, a New Jersey offensive lineman who was signed away from the Cincinnati Bengals. “He was trying to collect NFL players to show the country something about his status. That’s my guess, and I can’t complain. It made me and the other guys a lot of money.”
Oldenburg wasn’t keen to being outdone, and he would not be here. Of the Generals’ owner, he told Sports Illustrated: “I’m used to winning, to nothing less than becoming the best. Donald Trump can get all the press he wants, but when it comes to business, he can’t carry my socks.” After buying the Express, Oldenburg’s first order of business was naming Don Klosterman, the former Los Angeles Rams executive and one of the sport’s legendary figures, as his new general manager. It took two words — Open. Checkbook. — to sway Klosterman into joining the young league. Nicknamed “the Duke of Dining Out,” Klosterman built the 1979 Rams into a Super Bowl qualifier, and his reputation in the field was gold. “When the Rams hired him [in 1982], he was not happy,” said Ehrhart. “He really wanted to stick it up their asses, and running the Express—in the same city—was a pretty great way to do it.” Oldenburg’s second order of business was to have Klosterman acquire superstars. He saw what Trump was up to on the East Coast, and aspired to destroy him. As Matthew Barr wrote in Los Angeles Magazine, “Klosterman’s directive from Oldenburg was simple. Get the best, regardless of cost.”
“That’s exactly what he did,” said Tom Ramsey, Los Angeles’s quarterback. “No doubt about it.”
Much like the Michigan Panthers a season earlier, the Express devoted ludicrous money toward its offensive line, spending $8 million to rope in four of college football’s top blockers (Mike Ruether of Texas, Gary Zimmerman of Oregon, Mark Adickes of Baylor, and Derek Kennard of Nevada), then adding Jeff Hart, the Baltimore Colts’ veteran tackle, for $500,000. “[Oldenburg] wanted me to design a car to go 180 miles per hour,” Klosterman once told Sport magazine. “I told him what it would cost. He never backed off.” The negotiations with Adickes were particularly telling. During a dinner-table conversation with the All-American tackle and his agent, Perry Deering, Oldenburg turned to Klosterman and said, “I like this kid — give him anything he wants.”
“Well,” Klosterman asked Adickes, “what do you want?”
Deering removed a pen from his pocket and wrote a figure on a napkin: $700,000.
“My nickname was ‘Limo,’” Adickes said years later. “Because they drove me right out on the practice field in one.”
Before long, the Express didn’t merely have the USFL’s most expensive offensive line—it had professional football’s most expensive offensive line.
“Money seemed to be no issue,” said Hart. “Oldenburg wanted to win, and he would sign whoever they needed to in order to be great. It was encouraging.”
When it became clear the Express needed a strong special team, Klosterman, with the owner’s blessing, doled out $100,000 for Tony Zendejas, the record-setting kicker out of the University of Nevada. Kevin Nelson, the former UCLA halfback, was presented with a $1.150 million signing bonus — nearly $630,000 more than his older brother, Darrin Nelson, was making annually to play the same position for the Minnesota Vikings. “I’ve never been in a parking lot that had so many brand-new Mercedes, BMWs, and Porsches [as the Express players’ lot],” said Zendejas. “Never.”
Oldenburg didn’t spend much time at team headquarters, but those who met him recalled a volatile, erratic, simple, and clinically insane man. He was a tiny figure to behold, five foot six in shoes, with thick brown eyebrows and a disconcerting, almost sinister smile. He referred to himself as Mr. Dynamite, and spoke in a booming voice that filled 100 auditoriums. To know Bill Oldenburg was to dislike Bill Oldenburg. “He was an absolute idiot,” said Jerry Sklar, general manager of the Birmingham Stallions. “He didn’t have the slightest idea what he was doing.”
“He came off as a hustler,” said Paul Sandrock, the Express’s treasurer. “He tried to play with the big boys, but he wasn’t one of them.”
To the other owners, Oldenburg remained a mystery until, on the night of January 17, 1984, he arrived in New Orleans for a USFL meeting. It was the first time many came face-to-face with Mr. Dynamite, and if there were expectations of a carnival, no one was disappointed. Joe Canizaro, owner of the New Orleans Breakers, hosted a dinner for his peers, and Oldenburg was the only one to enter with an entourage (which included Wayne Newton, the famous Las Vegas performer). As the entrées arrived and the alcohol flowed, Oldenburg went from agreeable to obnoxious to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest psychotic. At one point he stood up, ripped open his silk button-down dress shirt, pulled down his pants, and, pointing to Newton, promised his team would open to a pregame concert, a win, and a sellout crowd. He then bellowed, Bobcat Goldthwait–like, that the Express would “beat the shit” out of everyone in the USFL. “I believe that you do not save souls in an empty church!” he screamed. “If you want to boogie-woogie with the king of rock and roll, you better get some dancers!”
Oldenburg bragged that, thanks to his power and influence, the USFL had just been given a betting line in Las Vegas. No one in the room had the heart to inform their new colleague that the betting line already existed.
“What can I say?” said Fred Bullard, the Jacksonville Bulls’ owner. “He was unstable.”
Trump and Oldenburg were big-game hunters surrounded by many peers armed with peashooters. As the Chicago Blitz were signing Evans, and as the San Antonio Gunslingers were adding Rick Neuheisel, UCLA’s good-not-great former quarterback, the Generals and Express sought grizzly bears and lions. It rubbed many of the other owners the wrong way. In Philadelphia, Myles Tanenbaum watched Trump — who challenged the New York Giants to an exhibition game with the $1 million grand prize going to charity— from afar with bitter indignation. The Stars had been the class of the East in 1983, and now some New York blowhard was stealing the thunder. He confronted New Jersey’s owner in a face-to-face encounter that ended with Trump saying, “I’m in the media capital of the country. When you’re in New York, you have to win.”
“Donald,” Tanenbaum replied, “in Philadelphia you have to win, too.”
“Oh,” Trump said, “I have to win more.”
Tanenbaum, a decent and agreeable man, wanted to punch Donald Trump in the teeth. The anger hardly subsided when the Generals announced they had signed Lawrence Taylor, the New York Giants’ all-everything linebacker, to a four-year, $3.25 million contract that would begin in 1988, after his NFL deal expired. The day before the transaction Jimmy Gould, New Jersey’s president, invited Stanton, the Journal News beat writer, to Trump Tower for a chat about the team’s direction. “I get there, and Jimmy brought me a box of truffles, and we’re sitting in the atrium,” Stanton said. “Gould’s telling me this and that, and as we’re heading out we see Lawrence Taylor walking into Trump Tower. It was all this big pathetic setup, so I could witness the great Donald Trump bringing in L.T. It was all about ego.”
Trump offered Taylor a $1 million signing bonus, and promised to wire the money immediately should he agree to terms. Just 24 and raised by a lower-middle-class family in Williamsburg, Virginia, Taylor didn’t have to be asked twice.
“He had me call my bank, and sure as shit, 30 minutes later he wired a million dollars into my account,” Taylor said. “I was like, ‘Thanks, Don.’ I respected that he put his money where his mouth was.”
It was typical Donald Trump, who assured Taylor word of the contract would not get out until he was ready — then immediately had his publicist, “John Barron,” call the various New York newspapers to supply them with the “alleged” news. Although it went unsaid, many of the reporters receiving the information knew damn well “John Barron” was actually Donald Trump, futilely attempting to disguise his voice and score tabloid headlines. “He created a publicist,” said Stanton. “What the hell?”
News of the Taylor signing filled America’s sports pages. In Philadelphia it evoked pure outrage. Though he had been a Giant for three years, Taylor played his college ball at the University of North Carolina, which was a Stars’ territorial school. Tanenbaum cried foul to Simmons, who shrugged and nodded and said little. It all ultimately mattered not—Trump knew Taylor would likely never be a General. The whole affair was pure PR bluff. Why, two weeks later Taylor—who received a new six-year, $6.55 million offer from the Giants — exercised an out clause in his USFL contract. He returned the $1 million loan to Trump, along with $10,000 interest and an agreement to make a $750,000 settlement over several years. “We got on the phone with [Giants GM] George Young . . . and we sold him back the contract,” recalled Gould. “Trump and I effectively took a two-week option and made a $750,000 profit. And it had never been done before. Taylor was happy because he got a new contract from the Giants for an enormous amount of money, and Trump’s attitude was, ‘Look, I never wanted Lawrence Taylor to not play for the Giants. I never wanted him to be unhappy. I’m Mr. New York.’ So he really was shrewd beyond what I had ever seen before. In his mind he was actually keeping the best player in the league in New York and happy.”
That happiness wasn’t universal.
“You saw that, and on the outside it must have looked like, ‘Man, the USFL is kicking some serious ass,’” said Ehrhart. “But the spending was so destructive.”
In California, Oldenburg watched the Trump-a-Thon with corresponding feelings of hatred and envy. This was supposed to be his show and his league. Not only were the Generals building a hell of a team, they were gobbling bold headlines. “There was a lot of resentment to what Trump was trying to do,” said Argovitz, the Gamblers’ owner. “It seemed like he was trying to steamroll the rest of us.”
Excerpted from FOOTBALL FOR A BUCK: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL. Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Pearlman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.