Jacksonville Sports Day

Before The Jaguars, There Were The Bulls

When the NFL was looking at cities for potential expansion in the late 1980s, Touchdown Jacksonville! was the group that the North Florida coastal city put together, was ultimately successful in establishing the new franchise, which began play in 1995. But the group didn’t have to look far into its past to find its pro football history, as just a few years earlier, the Jacksonville Bulls, themselves an expansion team in the fledgling United States Football League (USFL), provided something of a blueprint.

That it all didn’t go so well is, with hindsight, clear. But, as former Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman chronicles in his new book Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pps., $28), the Bulls were part of a too-fast, get-the-money-now expansion plan that was one of a gaggle of reasons that the league, which played 18-game spring schedules from 1983-1985, ultimately failed.

But from failure come stories… many stories. Pearlman pulls the best of them, from across the league, and while the Bulls were neither one of the league’s shining franchises, the fans were on board, attracting a league-high of more than 46,000 fans per game to the Gator Bowl in their inaugural 1984 season, even with a 6-12 record and lacking true stars. Needing a quarterback who wasn’t the injured Brian Sipe or the out-of-his-league Robbie Mahfouz, the Bulls signed Dan Fouts‘ perennial San Diego Chargers backup Ed Luther, who arrived to a hero’s welcome and with a $2.6 million contract in hand but disappointed with 15 TDs against 21 interceptions.

Before Sipe or Luther, as the ’84 squad played less than inspired ball, Mother Nature contributed her part to the misery. With Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier and the Pittsburgh Maulers in town, monsoon-like conditions forced both teams to one sideline in the mud-splashed contest.

But the team and city would not be deterred. As Pearlman notes, “Were there one USFL city showing itself to be of true football character, it was Jacksonville.” And though the league didn’t survive past the franchise’s second year, there’s little doubt that the NFL took the huge support the region showed its USFL team into account when awarding its expansion franchise a decade later.

These stories and dozens more make Football for a Buck a must-read for area football fans who want a taste of what pro football was like here before the Jags.

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