USFL’s inaugural season was a triumph, and it returns in 2023

By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer

CANTON, Ohio — As the Birmingham Stallions walked onto a stage erected with professional haste and precision at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, fireworks were launched into the night sky to celebrate their championship win over the Philadelphia Stars.

It was just hours before the United States celebrated its birthday on the Fourth of July. But I couldn’t help but think that the Stallions, their fans and the United States Football League deserved to clap for themselves, too.

Birmingham Stallions lift the trophy

The Birmingham Stallions celebrated after defeating the Philadelphia Stars to win the inaugural USFL title.

In seeing the Stallions crowned as the league’s inaugural champion, the USFL became the first professional spring football league in three years to not only finish its first season but to promise to return for a second. 

That’s right. The USFL will return in 2023, bringing its eight teams at a minimum and likely coming with an increase in scope, too.

The concept, the financial discipline and the product on the field all worked. That wasn’t the best part, though.

For me, the chance to tell stories about the players and coaches who personified the USFL was a privilege. I’ve known about or covered some of these players for nearly a decade.

I was a beat writer covering Oklahoma football when Stallions linebacker Scooby Wright produced one of the greatest seasons by a linebacker in college football history while at Arizona.

Top five moments of the USFL season

RJ Young reveals his top five moments from the USFL’s inaugural season. The Birmingham Stallions’ Scooby Wright and J’Mar Smith made the cut. See who else made the list!

I was talking about college football on YouTube when New Jersey Generals wide receiver KaVontae Turpin — the USFL’s Most Valuable Player — first displayed the kind of explosive player he could be at Texas Christian.

I remember how Michigan Panthers quarterback and former five-star recruit Shea Patterson once shook college football to its core when he announced he was leaving Ole Miss to play for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan

And then there are the players I didn’t know and the stories I drew such joy from getting the opportunity to tell. 

Stars quarterback Case Cookus thought he’d played his last football game when he threw for more than 400 yards for Northern Arizona in a loss to Idaho. Instead, he found himself starting in the USFL title game. 

Stars wide receiver Maurice Alexander almost did not get chosen in the inaugural USFL Draft because he was a late entry. Stars coach Bart Andrus told me he dragged his feet while on the clock for that pick, giving his receivers coach a chance to watch a handful of plays before giving Andrus the go-ahead. 

Maurice Alexander, Victor Bolden Jr. shine in semifinals

Marcellus Wiley and Emmanuel Acho share their top USFL plays from the semifinals.

That decision led to Alexander thrusting the Stars into the USFL title game with an 87-yard punt return in the North Division final against the Generals, a team that had beaten the Stars twice during the regular season. The man nicknamed “Hard Time” had come through in “Winning Time.” 

Wright, Turpin, Patterson, Cookus and Alexander are but five examples of great talent among the more than 400 players who played in the USFL this season. And they are the rule — not the exception. Every player in the USFL can ball.

I was flabbergasted at how many USFL players have been inside NFL buildings and were accomplished college football players. 

One of them is Stallions tailback Bo Scarbrough, who won two national titles at Alabama before winning a USFL title.

Others include Stars wide receiver Diondre Overton, who won a national title at Clemson, New Orleans Breakers wide receiver Johnnie Dixon, who won one at Ohio State, and Generals wide receiver Darrius Shepherd, who won three at North Dakota State.

And those are just the players.

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Michigan Panthers coach Jeff Fisher and Philadelphia Stars coach Bart Andrus discuss their long-time relationship, from childhood teammates to coaching colleagues in the NFL, and their path to the USFL together.

Among USFL head coaches, four of them — Jeff Fisher, Todd Haley, Bart Andrus and Kirby Wilson — have coached in the Super Bowl. Wilson owns two Super Bowl rings as an assistant.

Among the three former college football coaches, one won a national title as an assistant (Skip Holtz), another as a player (Larry Fedora) and one more coached a Heisman winner (Kevin Sumlin).

And Generals coach Mike Riley, the USFL’s Coach of the Year? He’s one of the great QB coaches of the past 50 years, a man who watched and recruited Tom Brady out of high school.

Beyond the talent of its players and coaches, the USFL also succeeded because of its host city, Birmingham, Alabama. In hosting 40 games across 10 weeks, the Magic City housed and fed the USFL’s players, coaches and operations personnel.

It was fitting that Holtz’s Stallions won the championship — and he was the first person to say so — as that was his expressed goal from the beginning, especially considering that games featuring his hometown team were routinely the best attended.

Skip Holtz breaks down USFL Championship win

Stallions coach Skip Holtz tells RJ Young what he said to QB Alex McGough before the go-ahead TD, how he got WR Victor Bolden Jr. more involved in the offense and how important Scooby Wright was throughout the USFL’s inaugural season.

“You know what?” Holtz told me. “The trophy’s going back to Birmingham. I know that much right now.” 

All of these men have helped create the foundation for a spring league launch well worth the fireworks.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s in store for 2023.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.

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