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How the Saints Won the Pro Football “Battle of New Orleans” Without Lifting a Single Finger

If you are a fan of the New Orleans Saints but under the age of 40, then there's a pretty good chance that you've only heard about the old USFL (the United States Football League, which existed between 1982 to 1986) in stories; and aren't old enough to have attended any of the games that were played by the former League that ran its weekly schedule during the Spring months (March through June).

The United States Football League was the original "brainchild" of the late, great New Orleans businessman Dave Dixon (who died in 2010 at the age of 87), who saw a market for a professional football league that would play during the Spring and early Summer time, when the National Football League and college football were in their off-season.

Prior to founding the USFL, Dixon had been a key player in the construction of the Louisiana Superdome (since re-named the Mercedes-Benz Superdome) and the expansion of the NFL into New Orleans in 1967. He developed "The Dixon Plan"— a blueprint for the USFL based upon securing NFL-caliber stadiums in top TV markets, securing a national TV broadcast contract, and controlling spending — and found investors who had the money and were willing to buy in.

Though the original franchise owners and founders of the USFL had promised to abide by the general guidelines set out by Dixon's plan, problems arose before the teams took the field, with some franchises facing financial problems and instability from the beginning.

Due to pressure from the NFL, some franchises had difficulty securing leases in stadiums that were also used by NFL teams (which New Orleans would eventually become one), forcing them to either scramble to find alternate venues in their chosen city, or hurriedly move to a new city (which is where New Orleans and eventually the Saints themselves ironically, come into this story).

The USFL in 1984 (Photo credit: The Associated Press archives)

The USFL never had a real "honest-to-goodness" salary cap; and some teams quickly began throwing HUGE offers of money to some of the bigger names in the sport of Pro and college football. As a result, this escalated USFL player payrolls to unsustainable levels, despite pledges from various owners to keep costs under control.

While a handful of USFL franchises abided by the Dixon Plan and were relatively stable, others suffered repeated financial crisis, and there were many franchise re-locations, mergers, and ownership changes during the league's short existence.

These problems were worsened as some owners began engaging in bidding wars for star players against NFL teams and each other, forcing other owners to do the same or face a competitive disadvantage.

On the field however, the USFL was still regarded as a relatively good product; in part because many of the players and coaches were former NFL players and / or coaching assistants. Many coaches and team executives had NFL experience, and many future top NFL players and coaches got their start in the new league, including several who were later inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame or the College Football Hall of Fame. 

Photo courtesy of US PRESSWIRE

Rosters were packed with stars whose names you may have heard of, no matter how old or what age you are. Among the famous alumni of the USFL were Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Reggie White, and Doug Flutie.

Coaches included George Allen, Marv Levy, Steve Spurrier, Lee Corso, and of course: Jim Mora, who famously went on to coach the Saints to their first-ever Playoff berth in 1987.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated writer Greg Bishop (and the basis for this morning's article on the Pro Football "Battle of New Orleans"), the former legendary Saints head coach says that the USFL at the beginning actually was a credible pro sports league.

"Sports fans forget about the quality of play in the USFL", Mora says. “When I say I coached in that league, a lot of people will look at me like, USFL, what is that?” 

Paul Spinelli / Associated Press

“I always thought we never got credit for what it was — a pretty darn good league", Mora said.

Good enough that eventually, New Orleans became a city that would be targeted for USFL ownership, mainly because of its well-known passion for the sport of Pro Football and their notable loyalty to the New Orleans Saints NFL franchise. And as a result: what people at that time saw as a looming Pro Football "Battle of New Orleans" between the Saints and the brand new team on the scene: the New Orleans Breakers.

Originally, the Breakers of the United States Football League started out at Boston University’s Nickerson Field in the spring of 1983 as the Boston Breakers.  Nickerson seated only 20,000 fans and was a destination of last resort after the Breakers’ first choice  Harvard Stadium  didn’t pan out. 

Given the stadium situation in Boston, the franchise had no hope of surviving there and original Breakers owner George Matthews decided to sell.

New Orleans real estate mogul Joseph Canizaro purchased the Boston Breakers in October 1983 for a reported $8 million, and then decided he wanted to move the team to the NOLA area, and play its games at the Louisiana Superdome in time for the 1984 USFL season

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press archives

The man best known for bringing high-rise buildings and "skyscrapers" to the New Orleans skyline, Canizaro (now age 81 ) has emerged throughout the years as perhaps the single most influential business executive from New Orleans. One fellow business leader even calls him "the local Donald Trump" (more on how our nation's current 45th President of the United States factors into this story, coming up). 

The Breakers move from Boston to NOLA was Canizaro’s second attempt at that time, to bring a pro franchise to the Superdome.  In 1975, he led an unsuccessful effort to acquire and relocate Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles to the building.

And now he was willing to take a chance that the fans in South Louisiana who had been so loyal to the Saints over the years, would be willing to accept this brand new team that played its games during the baseball season.

Photo courtesy of

With the deal that he made Matthews, Canizaro inherited the roster and coaching staff of the 1983 Boston Breakers, who had been the surprise of the USFL, going (11-7) and just missing the playoffs with an anonymous roster led by a 35-year old quarterback named Johnnie Walton a player who hadn’t played in four years and was a "journeyman" from a small school named Elizabeth City State University; and whose claim to fame was being the #3 back-up QB for the Philadelphia Eagles (from 1976 to 1979).

To this team roster, the 1984 New Orleans Breakers added three talented skill position players.  Former NFL star Dan Ross joined at tight end from the Cincinnati Bengals.  Ross, a Massachusetts native, had originally planned to come home and play in Boston, but quickly found himself in the Big Easy instead. 

The Breakers also added two big and talented rookie running backs in Buford Jordan out of nearby-university McNeese State (who would later play for Mora and the Saints) and the spectacularly talented 19-year old college dropout, a young man by the name of Marcus Dupree

Barely age 19, Dupree had been a consensus All-American RB at the University of Oklahoma but was a Mississippi native, and was exactly the "big name" that the team hoped would bring the fans flocking from across the Gulf Coast, to the Superdome to watch him play.

The Breakers gave Dupree a five-year $6 million contract, but it was Jordan who turned out to be the actual "star" rushing for 1,276 yards and 8 touchdowns.

Excitement surrounded the New Orleans version of the Breakers at first; when the team started the 1984 season at (5-0), and were (6-1) and led their Division (the USFL Southern Division) through seven weeks. 

But the team had a complete "melt down" in the 2nd half of their 18-game schedule (the USFL played 18 games per year, the NFL played 16), as the Breakers lost 9 of its final 11 games to finish with an (8-10) record and out of the playoffs.

Nevertheless, Canizaro was pleased with the effort, and was looking forward to future seasons where if nothing else, the Breakers and the Saints could share the local New Orleans market as equal partners.

But when it came to the USFL, Canizaro’s luck and timing were uncharacteristically lousy. 

Essentially whether he realized it at the time or not, the anticipated Pro Football "Battle of New Orleans" between the Breakers and the Saints for the proverbial "hand" of New Orleans sports fans, never really even got to take place.

The New Orleans Saints and the NFL won what many thought would be a looming Pro Football battle in the city of NOLA between the USFL and the NFL ,without having to lift a single finger.

And the man to blame most wasn't Canizaro or the late, great Saints owner Tom Benson (who was actually a good friend of Canizaro), but then-New York City real estate-developer (and now 30 years later the current 45th  President of the United States): Donald J. Trump.

Photo courtesy of David Pickoff, The Associated Press

How so?

While the Breakers drew reasonably well in their one season in New Orleans (30,556 per game in 1984), Canizaro lost a reported $5 million on the team during the 1984 USFL season. 

Worse yet, in August 1984, less than a year after Canizaro bought the Breakers, a renegade faction of USFL owners led by Trump, pushed through a plan to move the USFL to a fall season in 1986, so that they could directly compete "head-to-head" against the NFL.

Essentially, Trump's "bright idea" to commit self-induced USFL "suicide" by trying to compete directly with the NFL instead of staying with the originally-planned Spring time schedule, KILLED the League.

An eager Trump — who had bought the New Jersey Generals and shared the New York market with the Jets and the Giants  started bashing it for being a springtime event and tried to move it to the Fall. He provided quotes like “If God had wanted football in the Spring, he wouldn’t have created baseball,” and saying that spring football was for "losers" (sound familiar?).

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

However, John Bassett, owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits; warned Trump that an attempt to move the games to the fall would have grave repercussions. But Trump had enough USFL owners "in his pocket" that he was able to swing a 12 to 2 vote to move the games to a fall schedule.

Very predictably, Trump’s next move would completely seal the fate of the USFL forever.

With his personal lawyer Roy Cohn by his side, the future U.S. President announced a $1.7 billion dollar antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, claiming they held a "choke-hold" on national TV rights.

The trial lasted 42 days and ended with a jury ruling in favor of the USFL, declaring the NFL a monopoly.

But yet instead of celebrating a monumental decision, the realization quickly came that the League was in deep, deep trouble.

Originally as noted by Huffington Post contributing writer Jonathan Goodman a few years ago, the very first season of the USFL saw a $20 Million contract with ABC Sports and another lucrative deal with then startup cable channel ESPN.

The ratings were decent and attendance was fair. The 12 teams averaged just over 25,000 people per game and the league was marketed as the "fun league", unlike the NFL, because players at the USFL were encouraged to celebrate touchdowns.

But as soon as Trump bought the New Jersey Generals franchise and began signing players like QB Doug Flutie, the $$$$$$$$$ signs were the only "green" that he saw, and not the green associated with playing on a grass football field.

Goodman says that Trump's REAL plan was to force a merger, get even richer, and acquire an NFL franchise for virtually nothing. It was eventually exposed by members of the sports media that the USFL was a league controlled and dominated solely by one man — Donald J. Trump — and that he alone orchestrated the trial to make a financial killing.

(Photo credit: The Associated Press archives)

Trump and the USFL then appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which took four more years and resulted in the higher court allowing the award to stand, plus interest, requiring the NFL write a check to the USFL for $3.76.

That's right: an entire 3 dollars and 76 cents.

The USFL never played a single game, ever again.

The decision by Trump and his cronies within USFL circles to move the League schedule to the Fall, immediately imperiled the ten USFL franchises that shared markets and stadiums with NFL teams. This put teams like New Orleans, Michigan, and Philadelphia in an awkward situation.

Canizaro knew that the Breakers could not hope to compete with the Saints, and opted to move before the 1985 season rather than play a lame duck season in New Orleans.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

The Pro Football "Battle of New Orleans" between the USFL and the NFL and between the Breakers and the Saints for control of the New Orleans market and the loyalty of sports fans in NOLA, never really got to take place.

A wave of mergers, shutdowns and relocations followed as the USFL prepared for its final spring season in 1985.  Canizaro knew he had ZERO CHANCE to go head-to-head against the Saints and the NFL in the Fall, so he packed up the Breakers team and moved it to Portland, Oregon.

Some good things did come out of the USFL experience in New Orleans, however.

The NFL later adopted some USFL practices, such as the two-point conversion and the coaches’ challenge flag. It welcomed all the USFL’s stars, including several players and coaches and executives which of course included then-soon-to-be Saints head coach Jim Mora.

After being hired by the Saints prior to the 1986 NFL season, Mora subsequently brought in two former USFL stars at inside linebacker:  Sam Mills, who had played for Mora and won back-to-back USFL titles with the Philadelphia / Baltimore Stars, and hard-hitting inside linebacker Vaughan Johnson of the Jacksonville Bulls, whom the Saints got in the USFL allocation draft.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

The “Dome Patrol” linebacking corps was then completed in the 1986 Draft, when Mora was stunned to see Georgia Tech and All-American defensive end Pat Swilling still on the board in the 3rd Round; who he quickly snapped up and put at the other outside linebacker spot in the Saints 3-4 defensive scheme, on the opposite side of then-Saints-future-Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson.

For the better part of nearly a decade,"The Dome Patrol" defense terrorized opposing NFL offenses — and it was thanks to the heavy influence of the USFL — that paved the way for the Saints success of the late 1980's and early 1990's.

Additionally, the Saints already had former USFL star / Michigan Panthers / Oakland Invaders QB Bobby Hebert (a.k.a. "The Cajun Cannon") as their starting QB, so it's fair to say that the influence of the USFL even though it didn't last very long, had a profound impact on the New Orleans Saints franchise.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

But for most Saints fans who are old enough to remember:

The Pro Football "Battle of New Orleans" that everyone thought would take place between the USFL and the NFL, was fought and won by the New Orleans Saints NFL franchise without having to lift a single finger.....



Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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