The League of Magical Thinking

The UFL may or may not be dead. But, even during its three years of existence, it was always half-fantasy anyway.
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Still kind of amazing this didn't all work out better. I mean, Daunte Culpepper.

Image via Sportsgrindent.com

Six months ago, the United Football League cut to the chase. A money-losing season was cut short, Coach Marty Schottenheimer’s Virginia Destroyers won an impromptu Championship Game, and the UFL entered—somewhat ahead of schedule and even more swamped with uncertainty than usual—another uneasy offseason. After that there was little news from or about the league. My Google News alert for the UFL delivered periodic vague rumors about the two-time champion Las Vegas Locos moving to Utah, and a report of a new franchise maybe (or maybe not) being located in Jackson, Mississippi; mostly, it just brought news about either the University of Florida or Filipino professional soccer.

In late March, Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald wrote an alternately scathing and sad article about the comatose state of the United Football League's Omaha Nighthawks. It wasn't so much that the Nighthawks were failing as a business or an organization—or as a football team, although that part seemed especially abstract—so much as they seemed to have been abandoned altogether. Head coach Joe Moglia, the Chairman and former CEO of TD Ameritrade, now holds that job at Coastal Carolina University; GM Rick Mueller is with the Philadelphia Eagles. The team was, to all appearances, a ghost ship, and the UFL itself seemed to be in an equally bleak state. This sort of article had been written before—most notably, when the UFL took a month-long hiatus during the summer of 2011—but this time, surely, it was the end for the newest and most ambitious start-up football league in a generation.

But this time, just as it had before, the UFL appeared to rouse itself. Las Vegas Locos owner and league founder Bill Hambrecht announced that the league was not only not going anywhere, but exploring adding a fifth franchise, probably in San Antonio. Embattled former Commissioner Michael Huyghue left the league, and Locos coach Jim Fassel and Virginia Destroyers owner Bill Mayer are set to split the league’s management. For the first time since the UFL stopped paying Versus and HDNet to air their games, a national television contract is on the horizon, likely with the CBS Sports Network.

And yet the UFL's official website has been offline for weeks, even as the Las Vegas Review-Journal set May 1 as a ballpark date for the official announcement for the 2012 UFL season. That date has come and gone without an official announcement. Mike Tanier, who covers the NFL for the New York Times, spotted some UFL officials at the NFL Scouting Combine during the winter. “They were still talking the 'let's get 8 teams and roll' talk," Tanier says. "The fact that they are making no news whatsoever is a bad sign.” Welcome to Schrodinger’s League, where prospects can be bleak and bright at the same time.

***

A certain sense of doom accompanies the launch of new sports leagues, but there was some legitimate reason for hope when the United Football League started in 2009. For one, it was neither affiliated with nor competing against the NFL, and the scale made sense: a "soft launch" of four teams that would expand, if everything went according to plan, to eight franchises. While the UFL's rosters drew from the same shallow player pool as the failed XFL, there were still recognizable names on the sidelines. Former New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel and his Las Vegas Locos won the first two championship games, and when the UFL snagged Jerry Glanville and Marty Schottenheimer to coach the Hartford Colonials and Virginia Destroyers, respectively, the league’s credibility was briefly boosted. Briefly, that is, because the planned Glanville/Schottenheimer season opener was derailed by the suspension of Hartford’s operations shortly before the 2011 UFL season started.

It looked bad, and seemed to confirm the more pessimistic forecasts about the league. Paul Reeths of OurSportsCentral, a clearinghouse of pro sports news from outside the world of the Big Four, believed the United Football League was doomed to begin with. "I think a lot of people had a lot of grave doubts about the UFL’s plan from day one," Reeths says. "Clearly the league had great financial backing, but most observers simply didn’t feel that there was any room for another league in the fall." Jim Asmus, who was a placekicker for a pair of USFL teams, had a similar assessment of the start-up league. "The marketing people from the USFL had it right. I’m sure the players are good. Maybe I’m biased as a player who felt like it was a home for those who had a dream of playing professional football and had the talent but got lost in the numbers," Asmus says. "But what I saw wasn’t very exciting. The league had no personality."

But while losing a team slated to play on opening day isn't good, it is the sort of thing that happens in and to minor leagues; it might have been easier to take had the UFL succeeded in an area in which it repeatedly failed during Huyghue's tenure: managing expectations. "An early mistake was that they were big-timing people early a bit, and they weren’t being diligent about updating rosters, news," Tanier says. "They didn’t make it clear who they were. They made it look like they were challenging the NFL, and putting a team in New York [the Sentinels, who later became the Colonials] was one of those things. The AAA concept was all ready for them. It is similar to AAA baseball in the sense that the players are AAA players, the field and the atmosphere are AAA, but the UFL is not a laughingstock."

Beyond that misapprehension of its own stature and high-handed lack of openness, which enabled more traditional media to dismiss the UFL entirely—Tanier, who was at the last UFL Championship Game, is an exception to this rule—the league didn’t know how to promote its biggest star. Dominic Rhodes, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts, was suspended for the 2011 NFL season for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy; he found a home with the Virginia Destroyers. The reason he was in the UFL was hardly a secret, but it was not something a viewer would have learned by listening to Rhodes' debut with the Destroyers, during which the announcers repeatedly wondered at the fact that Rhodes was not in the NFL. Those even looking for the title game, in which Rhodes rushed for a touchdown, had to watch it online. With less than two minutes to go and a Destroyers title all but wrapped up, the stream was cut off. For all its shortcomings, the UFL has always been able to deliver when it comes to symbolism.

***

In a league that has only a few years worth of history, Matt Overton experienced just about as much as any player could. A long snapper for the Florida Tuskers and Omaha Nighthawks, Overton was hired as an employee and community liaison for the Nighthawks when they cut him at the start of the 2011 season. Now with the Indianapolis Colts as a player, Overton is pleased with how the UFL helped his career, but under no illusions about the present state of the league.

"2010 was a good year," Overton says. "Some players were making a lot of money and it looked as though it was going it the right direction. Bad publicity and bad rumors and 2011 turned into a nightmare. At the time we were just focused on finishing the season, pleasing the Omaha crowd, refunding tickets, retaining fan support. We were trying not to allow people to be distracted by the rumors and focus on the fans and players."

If the UFL is to return, that sort of focus—as opposed to the grandiosity of the league's early days—may mark the path to success. The talent pool won't expand significantly, and may shrink further in 2013 with the launch of a revived USFL that will compete for the same AAA players. As the new USFL gains steam, however, the spring revival of UFL news now seems to be little more than defensive posturing. The departure of Huyghue, a charismatic but divisive figure whose alleged involvement in the Nevin Shapiro scandal at the University of Miami did little to help the league’s credibility, is a mostly welcome development. But the UFL will need to catch some breaks in order to survive, let alone become the mini-major league its founders envisioned and, improbably, still envision.

"I looked the money people in the eye, and they said they were willing to lose five or six million dollars a year for a year or two to work towards profitability," Tanier says. "It was mind-boggling listening to these guys. When you’re talking to the owner of a team who was canceling their last two games, they were losing one million dollars a game, and he was talking about expanding the stadium, that is mind-boggling."

Deluded as that might seem, though, it’s not out of character. The United Football League is something like half-fantasy as I write this. The league originally insisted that six teams (up from four in 2011) would have to play in order to make 2012 viable. But even if the three remaining head coaches—Fassel, Schottenheimer and Sacramento Mountain Lions coach Dennis Green—stay, that leaves one or two major positions to be filled, assuming no further attrition of management and players. Schottenheimer could probably get another NFL job, but may be enjoying himself too much to pursue one. "[Schottenheimer’s] like a pig in slop," Tanier says of Schottenheimer in Virginia. "He’s a rock star, a 67-year old rock star." Tanier believes Fassel or Green could get coordinator jobs in the NFL, but they haven't; Jerry Glanville, who is Jerry Glanville, probably won't work in the NFL again, but even if he were to accept a job in Omaha or with Jackson/San Antonio UFL Expansion Team TBD that would still leave some important jobs unfilled.

Including mine, as it turns out. I wrote for the UFL during the summer of 2011, interviewing Fassel (who would neither confirm nor deny his status as the last quarterback to throw a pass in the World Football League) and some Virginia Destroyers players. I no longer carry any affiliations with the league, even to the extent that its limbo-bound players and coaches do, and was never paid for the writing I did for the UFL's website—the league, which has had a tough time paying those they did promise to pay, from staff photographers to stadium managers to players, never promised me anything in terms of money.

Still, I will forever be grateful to them for the opportunity. Like Matt Overton, I found my gateway to the UFL through Facebook, although unlike Overton I was not Facebook friends with three-time Pro Bowl punter and 2009 Florida Tusker Todd Sauerbrun. I didn't ask for, and didn't expect, anything from the UFL besides an opportunity—to write and maybe to get noticed, to be around a sport I love, to get some reps and maybe get better. In that, I had something in common with the players who played in the UFL, and who may yet play in it again. The UFL may not ever be the league its money-men imagine in their most grandiose moments, but if it goes back to being what it was—its own odd, minor league thing—it will be worth celebrating. And if it doesn't come back at all… well, it might not be that surprising. But it would be a shame.


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