The first two weeks of 30 For 30 offered well-known fiction filmmakers trying their hand at documentaries, but tonight’s installment comes to us from an honest-to-goodness sports-doc veteran, Mike Tollin, whose directorial credits include the fine film Hank Aaron: Chasing The Dream and the once-popular weekly series This Is The USFL. (Oh, and the fiction features Summer Catch and Radio. So it ain’t all gold for Tollin.)
It’s Tollin’s association with the USFL—and the miles and miles of footage he has in his archives—that gives his “Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL?” more of an insider-y feel than the first two 30 For 30s. Both “Kings Ransom” and “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” were about how the success of a single player or a single sports franchise can help define the identity of a community, and make the members of that community feel like they have access to the same kind of prosperity that people in major metropolises share. “Small Potatoes” is about a different kind of access. It’s about rich folks who couldn’t buy their way in to the NFL—one of the most exclusive clubs in the world—and so started their own league, piggybacking on football’s seemingly inextinguishable popularity.
Tollin was one of those guys, in a way. He wasn’t rich, but he was a guy who loved football, and saw a chance to be the Ed Sabol of a new league. Tollin introduces himself to us at the start of “Small Potatoes,” and he introduces us to his biggest foil—both in the ‘80s and in the making of this film—in the person of Donald Trump, who bought the league’s New Jersey Generals and immediately began making noise that the USFL needed to stop thinking small-time and start facing the NFL head-on, by moving from spring to fall. The Trump footage from the ‘80s shows a young, shrewd billionaire trying to impose his vision on a league that was only moderately successful (but charming!) before he swept in. When Tollin attempts to interview Trump for “Small Potatoes,” Trump looks older, shaggier, less confident… and decidedly impatient with Tollin’s questions about whether his haste to pump up the USFL caused the league to explode. To Trump, the matter is still cut-and-dried: Go big or go home. When the USFL couldn’t do the former, it had to do the latter.
Trump makes for a great villain, and Tollin obviously had to at least try to answer the question in the title of his film, but given the enormity of the potential topics associated with the USFL, “Small Potatoes” comes off as, well… small potatoes. The larger question the movie asks—and then just barely tries to answer—is whether there ever was or ever will be a place for a spring professional football league of a near-NFL caliber. The USFL had franchises in major cities, had name coaches and players—including three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners—and had a television package that included games on ABC and the fledgling cable channel ESPN. But the attendance and ratings declined for every year of its three-year existence, and though the league kept adding franchises, the original owners were in a rush to ditch their teams as soon as people like Trump came along.
Even if Trump hadn’t made the push to move the league to the fall—accompanied by a pricy lawsuit against the NFL for monopolizing the stadiums and the networks—the odds are the USFL would’ve had difficulty remaining viable. Its greatest achievement was the pressure it put on the NFL: to introduce instant replay and the 2-point conversion, to offer more competitive salaries for star players, and to recognize the potential of cable to deliver an audience of impassioned football fans. “Small Potatoes” touches on all these things, but just in passing.
And yet, for all my complaints about what “Small Potatoes” couldv’e been, I can’t deny that I enjoyed it for what it was. As I noted up top, Tollin has tons of good footage, including game film of the likes of Herschel Walker, Bobby Hebert, Reggie White, Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Doug Flutie in the early stages of their careers. He also has interviews with a colorful and distinguished group of owners, announcers, players and coaches, including Burt Reynolds, Charley Steiner, Jim Mora, Lee Corso, Rick Neuheisel and Keith Jackson (who assesses Trump’s approach to the USFL by saying, “Greed and patience don’t go together.”). He even has a vintage “state of the USFL” report from Howard Cosell, and the reminiscences of 30 For 30 executive producer and former Boston Breakers fan Bill Simmons.
Mainly he has some great anecdotes, such as:
-How the USFL’s suit against the NFL ended with the former winning the case and being awarded $1 in damages (though those damages were trebled, such that with interest the amount of the payout was $3.76).
-A million-dollar giveaway promotion that gifted one man with $50,000 a year, spread over 20 years… and starting in 20 years. (No word on whether the winner ever saw any of that money.)
-Neuheisel recalling how the San Antonio Gunslingers’ owner once distributed paychecks from a small town Texas bank, which meant the players had to race each other across the state, since they knew only the first couple of checks would clear.
-Young describing how the LA Express fans started taunting him for his failure to live up to his big contract, chanting “40 million down the drain!” And how his mother stood up and yelled, “It’s an annuity!”
By the time Tollin gets to “the greatest game no one saw”—a 20-point fourth-quarter comeback that Kelly led against Young’s Express—it’s enough to make football fans wish the whole documentary had been about recalling the USFL’s greatest hits, not just hunting for its biggest losers.
-Neuheisel remembers the San Antonio Gunslingers team song. That’s so cute!
-I found it interesting that ABC sports honcho Roone Arledge claimed back in 1985 that the networks were having a hard enough time selling their NFL packages to advertisers and audiences, let alone selling the USFL. A bargaining ploy, or a measure of a different era?
-And that little boy who nobody liked grew up to be… Roy Cohn.
-So how well did y’all remember the USFL? I confess that I couldn’t remember ever watching a game, even though I was a pretty big football fan (and a very big Herschel Walker fan) in the mid-‘80s. (I’m a pretty big football fan now, too; but I took a few years off from sports at the end of the ‘80s when I was refashioning myself as a punker dude.) Anyone out there a fan of, say, the Memphis Showboats? The Orlando Renegades? The Houston Gamblers?