The United States Football League (USFL) was an expansion league that began play in the spring/summer of 1983. The fledgling league was entertaining in it's short three year duration, and even provided a bit of competition for the NFL in regards to obtaining players. The USFL managed to lure some players like future Hall of Fame end Fred Dean, future Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams, star running back Joe Cribbs, and a number of other NFL veterans to better their product on the field. The new league also was able to grab some stars right out of college with big contract offers. Heisman Trophy winners like Herschel Walker, Mike Rozier, and Doug Flutie, along with numerous other college stars spurned the NFL for the riches of the USFL. Some even believed that the new league could eventually force a merger, similar to what occurred with the AFL nearly two decades earlier. Unfortunately, the league quickly ran into financial difficulties. Reduction of the number of teams, franchise mergers, and talented individual players could not stave off approaching disaster. Finally, a fateful decision by the league's owners --led by New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump --to move their games to the fall in direct competition with the NFL doomed them, and the USFL would cease operations in 1986. The dissolving of the expansion league led to a flock of talented players and coaches who would now enter the NFL. The infusion of talent would be led by future Hall of Fame players such as Reggie White, Jim Kelly, Steve Young, and Gary Zimmerman, but many NFL franchises would immediately benefit. The New Orleans Saints were one of the teams that would reap the rewards from the financial blundering of the USFL. Today we revisit our series of Triumphs and Tragedies throughout the history of the Saints franchise with a triumph due to a tragic moment for an entire football league.
The Saints entered the 1985 season under new ownership. Millionaire businessman Tom Benson had purchased the struggling franchise that had often been a laughingstock since it's inception in 1967. Benson began to make sweeping changes throughout the organization almost immediately after the '85 season. He first hired Jim Finks, who was instrumental in setting the foundation for powerful teams in Minnesota and Chicago, to be the general manager. Finks' first act would be to hire a new head coach, following the resignation of Bum Phillips. The future Hall of Famer Finks would turn to the now-defunct USFL for the man to bring a new culture and mentality to the Saints.
Jim Mora Sr. would receive his first professional head coaching job with the USFL's Philadelphia Stars in 1983 after stints with the Seahawks and Patriots as a defensive assistant, previously serving in the same roles in college with Washington, U.C.L.A., Colorado, and Stanford prior to that. Mora would be by far the winningest coach in the three year history of the USFL, winning 78% of his games with a 48-13-1 record. Mora's Stars teams would reach the league championship game in all three seasons of the USFL's existence, winning the title in 1984 and 1985. He brought his hard-nosed, disciplined style to New Orleans in 1986, and it would pay immediate dividends. Mora would lead the Saints to the first winning season and playoff berth in franchise history in 1987, and would build the team into a perennial playoff contender. New Orleans would go seven consecutive seasons without a losing record between 1987-93, finishing with a winning record or qualifying for the playoffs five times and winning the franchise's first division title in 1991. Mora won nearly 56% of his regular season games as Saints coach. His 93-74 record was far and away the best all-time mark among New Orleans coaches until surpassed by Sean Payton in 2017. Mora would resign his position midway through the 1996 season after consecutive 7-9 finishes the previous two years. He would eventually be inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame, but Mora's 0-5 record in the postseason would for some taint his legacy. The reality is that Jim Mora's New Orleans Saints had one of the league's stronger teams through the late 1980's and early 1999's, and among the most feared defenses in NFL history. Those defenses were paced by a dominating linebacking corps known as "The Dome Patrol". Finks and Mora already had some solid defensive pieces in place when they came to New Orleans, a unit built around the talents of future Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson. They added a bookend to Jackson in the 3rd round of the '86 draft with the selection of Pat Swilling, a draft that also netted the team offensive lineman Jim Dombrowski along with running backs Reuben Mayes and Dalton Hilliard. The rounding out of an NFC contender was completed by a handful of players who followed Mora from the USFL to New Orleans, including a player who Mora has stated was "the best football player he'd ever coached".
Sam Mills entered the NFL in 1981, undrafted as an undersized and little regarded player from Montclair State. After failed tryouts with the Cleveland Browns and Toronto Argonauts of the C.F.L., Mills was a school teacher in New Jersey when a new opportunity would present itself with the USFL. The linebacker who would earn the nickname "Field Mouse" would become one of the biggest stars of the expansion league, and is widely regarded as the USFL's best defensive player other than perhaps Reggie White. Mills would earn All-USFL honors in all three years of the league's existence, and was the key piece on Mora's Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars title teams. He would follow his coach to the Saints, and would proceed to make every other team regret overlooking him due to his 5'9 stature for the next decade. Mills would spend the next nine seasons anchoring the outstanding New Orleans defense, going to four Pro Bowls and earning a spot on the NFL's 1990's All-Decade team. He proved to be a sideline to sideline playmaker that would have five seasons of over 100 tackles in his career with the Saints, finishing with a franchise record 1,265 tackles. Mills would also add 4 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles, 17 fumble recoveries (scoring 2 touchdowns), and 10.5 sacks from '87-94 with New Orleans, eventually earning his place in the team's Hall of Fame. He would depart the Saints after 1994, playing three more standout seasons with the Carolina Panthers, but Mills is considered one of the all-time greats in Saints history. He would team with Jackson and Swilling to make up 3/4 of the vaunted Dome Patrol, with the fourth also a USFL refugee who followed Mills into the NFL.
Vaughan Johnson bypassed the NFL coming out of college at N.C. State to join the Jacksonville Bulls of the USFL in 1984. Johnson was a key member of the Bulls defense, and had 4 sacks and 3 interceptions in two seasons. Upon the folding of his league, Johnson would join the Saints, who selected him in the 1st round of a special supplemental draft in 1984 for USFL and Canadian football league players. He would make an immediate impact for his new team with his underrated versatility and bone jarring hits. Johnson was perhaps the most underappreciated member of this fearsome unit throughout national media circles, but most definitely respected among coaches and fellow players. He would earn 4 Pro Bowl trips in his eight years with the Saints, during which time he had 669 tackles, 4 interceptions, 5 fumble recoveries, 11 fumbles forced, and 12 sacks. Johnson and Mills completed the most feared linebacking crew in NFL history, but Finks and Mora would also take advantage of the rival league to grab a key piece to their offense.
Bobby Hebert, a Louisiana native, would also go directly to the USFL after college at Northwestern (La.) State. Hebert would become starting quarterback of the Michigan Panthers and have instant success, leading his team to a championship over Mora's Philadelphia Stars in it's inaugural season and winning league M.V.P. Hebert would again face down his future coach in a title game in 1985. This time as a member of the Oakland Invaders after a merger of the two franchises, but he fell short to Mora and the Baltimore Stars. He would be 37-19-1 as starting quarterback in the USFL, throwing for 11,137 yards and 81 touchdowns. Hebert would join his hometown Saints and his former nemesis Mora in 1985. By 1987, he had won the starting job, leading New Orleans to it's first ever winning record and postseason berth. He helped pace a Saints offense that would finish top five in scoring over two of the next three seasons.
Hebert would sit out the 1990 season due to a contract dispute. In his absence, New Orleans would use another former USFL player and Louisiana native at quarterback to fuel their push to the playoffs. John Fourcade, a backup with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL, would go 7-4 as a spot starter for the Saints between 1987-90. Hebert returned to the New Orleans lineup in 1991, and would go 20-5 as a starter while leading the Saints back to the playoffs in '91 and '92. Hebert would depart New Orleans after the '92 season, finishing his final three years with the hated Atlanta Falcons. His legacy, much like Mora's, is somewhat tainted in the eyes of some due to his postseason struggles. He would win almost 59% of his games with the Saints though (49-26), and still sits near the top of the franchise's all-time passing lists with 14,630 yards and 75 touchdowns.
Both Fourcade and Hebert were aided offensively by a number of dynamic stars. The team had one of the better offensive lines, one that at one point included another USFL star, former L.A. Express lineman Derek Kennard, who would help power the Dallas Cowboys to a title in Super Bowl XXX, but also started 32 consecutive games for New Orleans from 1992-93. Hilliard and Mayes were a terrific running back duo added early in the '86 draft also, but additional depth was added at that spot by yet another Louisiana star
Buford Jordan took advantage of an opportunity in the USFL when coming out of McNeese State college in 1984, joining the New Orleans Breakers. Although overshadowed by a much more ballyhooed college player in Marcus Dupree from Oklahoma initially, Jordan would turn the tables quickly. He was one of the USFL's leading rushers in 1984, finishing with 1,276 yards while averaging six yards per carry, scoring eight touchdowns, and adding 4 more scores on 45 receptions for 427 yards. The Breakers franchise would relocate to Portland in 1985, but Jordan remained one of their offensive stars, scoring 6 touchdowns on 1,009 yards from scrimmage. Despite being a first round pick by the Packers in the 1984 supplemental draft for USFL/CFL players, Jordan's rights were acquired by the Saints upon the league's demise in 1986. Jordan would be a valuable special teams contributor for New Orleans from 1986-92, while also providing key depth to the offensive backfield. He would rush for 687 yards and eight scores for the Saints, adding 37 catches for 355 yards and a touchdown. Jordan is also a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
The crumbling of the United States Football League brought a wave of talent into the NFL both on the field and within the coaching ranks. Most every franchise would benefit, but perhaps no team moreso than the New Orleans Saints. Mora, Mills, Johnson, and Hebert are all in the team's Hall of Fame, and each left undeniable footprints on the franchise's history. They combined with a terrific 1986 draft, along with some pieces that were already in place, to usher in the first truly notable era in New Orleans Saints football.
Who was the Saints most important acquisition from the demise of the USFL?
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Jim Mora Sr