Twenty-five years ago today, I wasn’t even sure where Pierce College was. Woodland Hills? OK.
I knew the San Fernando Valley was somewhere north of Westwood. I saw signs pointing toward the place when I’d head up the 101 toward the central coast.
Steve Young, on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, made his one and only stop at Pierce on this day when he was about half his current age.
As the quarterback in his second year with the United States Football League’s Los Angeles Express, Young had already resigned himself to the fact he’d be heading to the NFL the next season — the Tampa Bay Bucs drafted him out of BYU, but he and agent Leigh Steinberg decided to take a $40 million deal from the spring pro league offered by Express owner Bill Oldenberg.
They’d progressed to the playoffs the year before. Then Oldenberg’s financial world crumbled, the league offices took over the Express, and by the time they’d played out their 1985 schedule, they’d drawn less than 10,000 a game at the Coliseum. They decided, for their final home contest, they’d move it to Pierce College to see if they could drum up a new ownership group who might want to keep the team afloat, as the rest of the league was about to challenge the NFL in the fall of 1986 and eventually take them to court — only to lose by embarassing measures.
Before that, this was the league’s most embarassing moment.
One way or another, this was the last time the Express would be in L.A. And Pierce College did the best it could to accomodate on short notice. The 90,000-seat Coliseum had filled to just about 12,000 for the last three Express games. This couldn’t have been worse.
Because covering the Express at that time was more about what was happening off the field rather than on it — who’d bought their way out of a contract, what coaches disappeared, what part of Poliwog Park in Manhattan Beach was off limits as the Express headquarters, what gate was locked and how would Young fare scaling the chain-linked fence to get his paycheck without ripping his jeans — this game against the Arizona Outlaws and quarterback Doug Williams wasn’t much on the radar until it actually happened.
I carpooled with Express communications chief Herb Vincent from his Redondo Beach apartment, because I feared I’d get lost. We were told the college was by this new place called The Warner Center, but that meant nothing.
Piece’s athletic director at the time, Bob O’Connor, saw this as a way to get his school some attention, and possible revenue for the future. If the league could rent Pierce’s football field, it could boost Valley business as well. Pierce football coach Jim Fenwick was in charge of arranging for locker rooms and operating the stadium that day.
Don Klosterman, the Express general manager who’d built this team, and acting USFL Commissioner Harry Usher, who was Peter Ueberroth’s right-hand man during operation of the Los Angeles 1984 Summer Olympics, had convinced Valley businessmen to take a look at this opportunity.
The Express did their homework — it cited a UCLA study that showed 1.5 million lived within a 20-mile radius of Pierce, and nearly 2.1 million lived in the San Fernando Valley.
Pierce found a way with temporary seating to expand from 5,500 to 15,000 seats, but as many of us noticed when we walked it, it seemed as if it was a stadium under construction for a movie shoot. The fact they said that it could expand to 35,000 if the Express were to move there seemed nearly impossible to imagine.
Sportswriters covering this were asked to “compete” in a pre-game field-goal kicking contest. I was there representing the Daily Breeze, with Chris Dufresne of the L.A. Times, Dave Shelburne of the Daily News, Steven Herbert (now with City News Service), Gene Zaleski of the Santa Monica Outlook, plus a couple others whose name (probably better for them) escape me now. Who won? Does it matter? The winner was probably offered a one-game contract with the Express. Who wanted that?
In the press box, space was tight, and I was seated in the front row next to this very nice, recognizable gentleman who told me he was an NFL scout. I had no idea, until someone else filled me in: That was Marv Levy, who’d become the head coach that fall of the Buffalo Bills and go on to make four trips to the Super Bowl.
The game — can’t remember much, except a lot of dust was kicked up at Shepard Stadium. There were pot holes, some filled with sand, and spots painted green on a field that wasn’t really up to speed for a June football game. They’d probably had a rodeo at the place more recently than any kind of athletic event.
The official attendance was listed as 8,200, but there were no turnstyles to make that accurate. There was no TV coverage. Randy Rosenbloom and Ron Glazer did the play-by-play and color for the broadcast on KWNK-AM. Raiders owner Al Davis was also lurking around.
The Express players — 37 strong, due to many injuries at this point and no money to find replacements — showed up on a bus, but we didn’t know until later how that almost didn’t happen. The bus driver taking them from Manhattan Beach had been stiffed by the team in the past, so he wasn’t leaving until he was paid. Head coach John Hadl wrote him a check. The driver turned it down. Young started rallying everyone to cough up some cash, but most of the players were wallet-challenged. The trainer, who had just been paid, ran down to the bank, cashed his check, and got the several hundred dollars necessary.
After the Outlaws, a team called the Wranglers for their first two seasons under coach George Allen, rustled up a 21-10 victory for coach Frank Kush. Express running back Tony Boddie scored a touchdown, and Tony Zendjas kicked a field goal. It sent the Express one loss shy from their final 3-15 record (they’d lose their final game in Orlando, televised on ESPN, with Young filling in at fullback on a few series).
We chased players down in the parking lot for some quotes. Most of the team had gathered to change in some shed nearby. Someone put a sign above it that read “The Hilton.”
Williams, who’d been in the NFL with Tampa Bay and played in an NFC title game against the Rams, and would some day guide the Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl, said afterward: “I thought I left all this when I left high school.”
He added: “To tell you the truth, this was a letdown. But you have to play where they play.”
Young met with some reporters on a hill of dirt somewhere north of the end zone, while the fumes of the bus a few feet away made everyone a little light headed.
“I thought maybe the cheerleaders would decorate the team bus,” he said. “I feel like I’ve come full circle.”
Young was sacked twice and staggered off the field in the final minute of the game, leaving just 13 healthy players on offense by game’s end. Young had completed 233 of 441 passes for 3,076 yards and 17 touchdowns to that point in the season.
“Whose mom has the carpool next week?” Young, who, like Williams, would be a future Super Bowl MVP, yelled out later.
“I’d say this was a successful experiment,” said Klosterman, the former American Football League exec with the Los Angeles Chargers who tried this kind of thing before. He’d die 15 years later, in 2000. “You have to have vision to see downstream. If they can work it out in the Valley, I think it could be the salvation of the league.”
Tell that to Cal State Northridge, as it tried for years to get a new football stadium and had to fold its program.
Vincent was disappointed on the drive home, realizing the team didn’t have enough ticket-takers or ticket sellers to help with those who wanted to come and see this — turns out, the only time a pro football team played in the Valley.
Fenwick would say later that they netted about $5,000 in concession sales.
Afterward, Usher was asked what he thought of how the experiment worked.
“I wasn’t there,” he said. “But quoting an authority no less than my wife, who was there with my son, I heard it was a lively crowed that was enjoying itself,” he said. “We had a crowd of 8,200 and I’m told there may have been more. We collected real dollars. That’s refreshing.”
That was a nice way of putting it. Would have made a nice tombstone. For the team, and the league.