I know that the USFL has bigger fish to fry right now than worrying about the prospect of expansion in the future but I think there is one city that needs to be considered when the time comes. The Mile High City that is. Back in the original iteration of the USFL, we had the Denver Gold.
For those that don’t know Denver was a market that the original USFL, the group now known as “The Real USFL” had targeted Denver as a critical market to tap. They had a stadium that was perfect for the product on the field in Mile High Stadium, and they had a city of rabid football fans waiting for another team to cheer for.
Despite knowing they wanted a franchise in Denver, the league struggled to find an owner in the city. That was when John Ralston the first Chief of Operations for the USFL got in touch with Ron Blanding. The Denver Gold arrived to much fanfare at the time, instantly becoming a roaring success for the USFL in terms of attendance.
Building a Foundation
The Gold started on a good foot able to bring in Head Coach Red Miller. Miller was best known for his ties to the Denver Broncos of the NFL. He had served as the offensive line coach for 3 seasons returning in 1977 to be the head coach. He was let go in 1980 after a 40-22 record and just 1 season with less than 10 wins. He was out of football until Blanding hired him to run the Gold in their inaugural season.
Miller was able to tap his Broncos ties to bring in his former QB as his offensive coordinator. That man is none other than Craig Morton. Morton had been the starting QB for the Broncos. He retired in 1982, immediately stepping into his Offensive Coordinator role. These hires were despite the way their original owner Ron Blanding ran the organization.
Ron Blanding Financial Woes
The Gold run by Blanding were nothing short of a laughing stock when compared to other professional football teams. Blanding was by far the least wealthy owner in the league and held the original core values of the USFL tight to his chest. Those core values were, lots of promotion, tight control on expenses, and most of all instituting a self-imposed salary cap for his team. Things got so bad at times the Gold were the laughing stock of the league in terms of professionalism.
Despite all this, the fans continued to support their new franchise. To illustrate just how bad it got for the Denver team under Blanding here are a few instances that the financial situation came to the forefront of his ownership of the Gold:
Public Signs of Things to Come
The Gold offered vehicles for their players to drive while on the roster. These vehicles were offered by Rent-A-Wreck. This company uses vehicles other rental companies no longer want, and tailor their programs to younger people, or those with poor credit. Some of these vehicles were said to be in very poor condition to top it off.
The meal plan for the players was nothing short of a joke as well, often leaving many players hungry after their team supplied meals due to the lack of proper nutrition from the team, and a lack of proper funding for a true meal program. Honestly, to the extent that this was an issue, Blanding should have simply made it the player’s responsibility to feed themselves to receive less backlash than the half-hearted attempt to provide for his team he put forth.
Fabled 1983 Draft
The last and most prominent example of his shrewd approach to running the team came in the Fabled 1983 draft. The same draft that netted the Broncos John Elway, and the USFL Jim Kelly. Blanding refused to sign ANY of the team’s first seven draft picks that year.
These players were:
9th overall pick Safety Demetrious Johnson from Missouri
16th overall pick RB Michael Haddix from Mississippi State
33rd overall pick LB John Harper from Southern Illinois
40th overall pick Guard Mark Kirchner from Baylor
64th overall pick WR Scott Collie from Brigham Young
81st overall pick TE Mark Witte from North Texas
88th overall pick DB Kevin Potter from Missouri
Relationship With Red Miller
This enraged his coach famed NFL Head Coach Red Miller known for his time with the other Denver franchise the Broncos of the NFL. He was once quoted as saying “Act like a f***ing owner of a professional team”
It doesn’t take a genius to see that this relationship was going to be short-lived. Miller was fired mid-season and the reigns were handed to Craig Morton the man who had only come to the USFL because of Miller coaxing him to run his offense, and offense that helped lead to Miller’s ouster.
Attendance in Year 1
During that 1983 season, Denver proved they deserved the franchise leading the league in average attendance with 42,000 fans packing into Mile High Stadium each week for their first-ever season. The defense was stout, but their offense under Morton left something to be desired.
The Gold were able to close out the 1983 season having dipped below 37,000 fans just once all season long at home. With a full stadium capacity of 74,000 drawing over half the stadium is nothing to sneeze at for a USFL team playing in an NFL stadium. The gold produced a record of 7-11 in year one. Join me for episode 2 tomorrow when we discuss year two with the franchise which marked a lot of change to the franchise as fans knew it.
This was part 1 of 3. In part 2 we will discuss the second season of the Gold. Including things like an ownership change, who would lead the team in 1984 as their head coach, and of course we will discuss the attendance numbers in year 2. You can tune in here to follow along: