Lessons from Donald Trump's time as owner of USFL's Generals

Charlie Theokas was fired by Donald Trump before it became a reality television show.

Theokas was one of the most affable executives ever in New York sports, but went from running the dysfunctional New Jersey Nets in their Piscataway days to being in charge of the dysfunctional New Jersey Generals of the brand-new USFL.

Trump bought the Generals for $5 million after the first season in 1983 and proceeded to drive the USFL right into a ditch.

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The only key executive Trump retained after purchasing the Generals from Walter Duncan was Theokas.

“I knew about Donald, but didn’t know Donald,” Theokas said. “He kept me because I knew more than anybody else in those days.”

How was Trump as commander in chief of the Generals?

“He’s probably the least coachable person I ever met,” Theokas said. “Donald Trump doesn’t listen to anybody. It concerns me now. He’s doing the same thing today he was doing in the old days. He was very difficult. I’ve worked with difficult people. He scares me.”

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Trump was a 37-year old tycoon when he became a football owner. He loved the cameras, he loved the spotlight and he loved him some Herschel Walker. He also loved Howard Cosell, who turned down Trump’s offer to join him in the Generals deal as part-owner. His game plan from the beginning after buying into the spring league was to bring the NFL to its knees in court. He convinced owners to move the USFL to the fall in 1986. That was step one.

Step two: The USFL sued the NFL for antitrust violations for $1.69 billion. Trump hoped a victory would force a merger and bring about step three: He would build a stadium in Manhattan for the Generals.

That didn’t work out so well when the five women and one man on the jury, after four days of deliberations, found the NFL guilty on July 29, 1986, of one of nine counts and awarded the USFL a measly $1.

Donald Trump hangs out with New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean during 1985 USFL playoff game.

Donald Trump hangs out with New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean during 1985 USFL playoff game.

(Paul Spinelli/AP)

In antitrust law, it was trebled to $3. The NFL freely admitted it was a monopoly, but the jury decided the USFL’s wounds were self-inflicted.

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“Do you want me to pay now?” NFL attorney Frank Rothman said to USFL attorney Harvey Myerson as he pulled out his wallet on the way out of Room 318 in U.S. District Court in lower Manhattan.

The jury decided that NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who was named as a defendant in the case, was not liable for damages. Rozelle was understandably relieved. “That saved me almost four cents,” he said.

Trump was the only owner from either league in the courtroom for the verdict. When the first count against the NFL read by the jury foreman was guilty on the most serious charge, that the NFL was indeed a monopoly, Trump’s eyes lit up, a smile creased his face and he started counting his money and his allotment of Super Bowl tickets.

When the $1 award was then announced by the foreman, Trump stood up, walked to the back of the courtroom and departed before hearing the NFL was not guilty on the other eight counts. Trump killed the USFL. The league folded and put a lot of people out of work.

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Theokas was responsible for the deal allowing the Generals to play in Giants Stadium. They played there even before the Jets. He hired ex-Jets coach Walt Michaels to coach the team after Chuck Fairbanks had the job the first year.

But the biggest change was in ownership. Trump had no experience in football but considered himself an expert. Sound familiar?

He wanted Brian Sipe, the broken down former Cleveland Brown, as his quarterback.

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“Go get Brian Sipe,” Trump demanded.

“He can’t throw a football,” Theokas said.

The Generals’ quarterback in 1984?

Brian Sipe.

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“He wanted something, he got it,” Theokas said. “He wanted to be president. He became president.”

Theokas did not vote for Trump. He knew too much.

The Generals went from 6-12 in the first year of the USFL before Trump to 14-4 in his first season as owner and 11-7 in the third and final season.

Why did Trump fire Theokas? He liked him enough to invite him to the grand opening of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in 1983. But two years later, a television commercial aired promoting the game that had been played one day earlier rather than the upcoming game. Theokas took the fall. “I’m not pissed off,” he said last week. “Got fired by better men than him.”

Five times, Theokas went back to talking about Trump being president-elect and each time he said, “It’s unbelievable.”

Lisa Edelstein, a former Generals cheerleader, said in an interview with HuffPost Live last year, that Trump treated the squad “like hookers.” Edelstein, who was just 16 at the time, said she didn’t accompany the cheerleaders when they were sent to make appearances by the team. The cheerleaders eventually staged a walkout.

“They were being asked to do these signings in their little uniforms in these sleazy bars all over the place, and they weren’t protected and they were feeling really unsafe and uncared for and just sort of thrown into these environments,” she said.

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Donald Trump shakes hands with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in 1983 as Mets owner Fred Wilpon and Madison Square Garden exec Sonny Werblin look on.

(David Pickoff/AP)

Trump was available to the media back then on a regular basis, but used his alter ego, John Barron, who presented himself on the phone as the team spokesman but sounded exactly like Trump. Why? It was Trump.

When Trump wanted to say something controversial, such as when he asked USFL owners to help pitch in to pay Doug Flutie, who signed a six-year $8.3 million deal, but was underperforming, he had Barron answer the phone. Trump now has a 10-year old son. His name? Barron.

Shortly after Trump purchased the Generals, he tried to hire Dolphins coach Don Shula for $1 million per year. The negotiations broke down when Shula insisted that an apartment in Trump Tower be included in the deal. “I could not have given him an apartment in Trump Tower,” Trump said. “Money is one thing. Gold is another.”

One day before a Generals game in Jacksonville against the Bulls, Trump was in a panic. He was being hosted at a reception at the Gator Bowl by Florida Gov. Bob Graham and had just received a tip from an unlikely source. He raced over to one of his front office executives.

“We got a problem!” Trump said breathlessly.

“What’s wrong?” the executive said.

“They got No. 22. He’s a great running back. Tell Walt about him. I just got information on No. 22. We got to stop him,” Trump said.

“Donald, the coaches study tape. I’m sure they know about No. 22,” the executive said.

Trump wasn’t satisfied.

“Where did you hear this?” the executive asked.

“The guy over there, in the big hat, cutting the roast beef,” Trump said.

Presumably, he will have better sources and intelligence about ISIS.

* * *

Trump tried to buy the Baltimore Colts in 1982 but said the price was too high. He was interested in buying the New England Patriots in 1988 but passed with the team $104 million in debt. In 2014, he made a run at buying the Buffalo Bills but lost out to Terry and Kim Pegula. There is every reason to believe Trump would have been rejected by NFL owners even if he had the winning bid to buy the Pats or Bills because they had not forgotten he was the reason the USFL dragged the NFL through court.

The Pegulas, by the way, hired Trump supporter Rex Ryan as their head coach. If Trump was successful in his bid and also hired Ryan, there would be so much hot air coming out of Western New York it would have cut down on utility bills in the winter time.

Trump thought playing in the spring was bush league and meant for baseball. The USFL had a lot of talent including future Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Reggie White. They also had Walker, one of the biggest names in the game, and Flutie, Gary Zimmerman, Bobby Hebert, Sam Mills and Maurice Carthon.

Trump met with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle on May 12, 1984 at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan. Rozelle testified that Trump initiated the meeting. Trump said Rozelle invited him. Trump said Rozelle offered him an NFL franchise if he would drop the lawsuit and keep the USFL in the spring. Rozelle testified that Trump offered to drop the suit and sell the Generals to “some stiff” if Rozelle would give him an expansion team.

Here’s what Trump said on the witness stand:

“(Rozelle) stated the NFL was going to be around for a long time. He said, “You will have a very good chance for an NFL franchise, and in fact you will have an NFL franchise, which could be the Generals or some other NFL team.”

Rozelle denied Trump’s account. Trump said he told Rozelle his No. 1 priority was to get a television contract for the USFL in the fall. “There was no way I would sell out my friends and stay in the spring,” Trump testified. “He said there was no way the NFL would take five or six teams in because it would dilute the television money.”

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As Generals owner, Donald Trump convinces USFL to move to a fall schedule.

(Marty Lederhandler/AP)

He also testified that he had been friends with Rozelle until he bought the Generals, then Rozelle treated him “like I had the plague.”

Sounds about right.

Former player agent Jerry Argovitz was part-owner of the Houston Gamblers, who then merged with Trump’s Generals for the 1986 fall season that never happened. Argovitz got a 10% piece of the Generals and was in charge of running the day-to-day operation. They would have had a high-powered offense with Kelly joining Walker.

Argovitz’s opinion on Trump’s version of his meeting with Rozelle?

“That’s ridiculous,” he said.

Argovitz voted for Trump, but puts the blame for the demise of the USFL on Trump not listening to him to file the antitrust lawsuit in Houston and to use an attorney he recommended. Argovitz felt filing the lawsuit in the NFL’s backyard was a bad idea.

Trump’s plan to make the USFL great? “It was a disaster,” Argovitz said.

Once the jury awarded the USFL chump change, Trump delivered the concession speech he never had to make last week. He called the result a “moral victory,” which is the same as saying if he won only Alaska but lost the 49 other states, it would have been okay. He ultimately decided he did not kill the USFL but rather without him it would have died earlier.

He thought his football experience was worth it. “I was well known, but not really well known,” he said. “After taxes, I would say I lost $3 million. And I got a billion dollars in free publicity.”

Argovitz enjoyed his time with Trump and admired his work ethic.

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Donald Trump shows off one of his biggest signings as Boston College star Doug Flutie inks with USFL instead of the NFL in 1985.

(Marty Lederhandler/AP)

“Donald could be like a hurricane, a tornado, a tsunami and a rainbow, all within a matter of a few minutes,” Argovitz said. “He could charm you, he could be tough and he had a quick mind. Donald could have a 28-second attention span. If you can’t make your point quick, like Baskin Robbins says, “Next.”

* * *

Two years before the USFL folded, Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett wrote Trump a scathing letter, dated Aug. 16, 1984.

Some of the highlights:

– “On a number of occasions over the past meetings, I have listened with astonishment at your personal abuse of the commissioner and various of your partners if they did not happen to espouse one of your causes or agree with one of your arguments.”

– “While others may be able to let your insensitive and denigrating comments pass, I no longer will.”

– “You are bigger, young and stronger than I am, which means I’ll have no regrets whatsoever punching you right in the mouth the next time an instance occurs where you personally scorn me, or anyone else, who does not happen to salute and dance to your tune.”

Conclusion: Trump’s cabinet meetings will be interesting.

* * *

Lawrence Taylor plays golf with Trump regularly and has nothing but nice things to say about him, although he didn’t bother voting last week. Why wouldn’t LT like him? In 1984, with negotiations on a new contract with the Giants stalled, Trump signed Taylor to a future deal, beginning in 1988, which included a $1 million no-interest 25-year loan.

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Donald Trump (l.) and Stephen Ross announce they have reached agreement to merge the Houston Gamblers and New Jersey Generals.

(Daily News)

LT still had to play four years with the Giants with no guarantee the USFL would even still be in business. Soon, LT and the Giants were talking again and agreeing on a six-year deal that included a $1 million loan, which he used to repay Trump. The Giants also paid Trump $750,000 over a five-year period to buy LT out of the contract. Trump made what amounted to a $750,000 commission on the Giants’ deal in the three weeks between LT signing with the Generals and then with the Giants.

“There is no way I could ever be mad at Donald Trump,” Taylor said over the phone. “He put me in position to make more money than I ever would have made. He made money out of it, too. The Giants never would have done what I was able to get through Donald Trump. So, hey, regardless if he’s president or whatever he has done, he’s alright with me.”

* * *

Tom Brady has been the golden child in the six New England states for the last 16 years.

His association with Trump, however, may have done irreparable harm to his image for some of the constituents of Brady Nation. It started with the “Make America Great Again,” hat in his locker last season and culminated with Trump announcing in New Hampshire the night before the election that Brady had called to say he voted for him.

Brady says he will reveal his vote Monday on his radio show in Boston. When he was asked why he gave Trump permission to reveal his vote, he said, “Why did I give him permission? So you’re assuming I gave people permission?”

Asked to confirm he voted for Trump, he said, “I talked to my wife; she said I can’t talk about politics anymore, so I think that’s a good decision made for our family.”

Brady’s Facebook page has been red-hot with outraged fans.

“You broke my heart voting for Trump,” one person wrote. “Yes, you are still a great quarterback that does not change but I also thought you were a thoughtful, kind man. Reality, it’s just football after all.”

Brady found out Trump is more polarizing than even Bill Belichick.

Tags:
donald trump
nfl
new england patriots
tom brady
lawrence taylor
new york giants

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