Small Potatoes: My Take on Mike Tollin’s USFL Documentary

Tuesday, 10/20/09, ESPN presented another of it’s “30 for 30” documentaries. Mike Tollin directed a fantastic piece on the birth and death of a league that I liked to watch. Just seeing the enthusiasm of players, coaches and fans through the vast library of footage Tollin had at his disposal was jarring to see, considering how stodgy today’s game is in the pros AND college. (Really? A 15 yard ‘Excessive Celebration’ penalty because a player got excited to score 75 yard TD after weaving through 4 players and breaking 3 tackles? REALLY?) We SHOULD be encouraging enthusiasm, joy, and creativity on the field, not suppressing it. This is one of the reasons we love to watch sports in the first place… because it’s fun! But I’m getting off topic.

The main point that Tollin made was that there was a huge power struggle between John Bassett (owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits) and Donald Trump (who bought the NJ Generals before year 2 of the league started). The original vision of the league was to keep it in the spring, gather as much talent as possible and grow their brand to a loyal fanbase. Trump’s business model was in direct conflict with the USFL’s original model. Thus the struggle ensued.

The ideas that I took away from the film (other than Trump seems to be unbelievably dismissive towards anyone with a viewpoint that is not speaking in glowing terms about him) are these:

A) Know what it is you are getting yourself into.

This applies for both sides in the matter. Trump was buying into a league that’s mission was to play spring ball. Period. The owners of the USFL were getting someone who was opposed to their business plan AND would do anything to get his way. Why approve that?

B) Understand what your business associates’ idea of success is and respect that.

Trump in this documentary says:

I never liked the idea of spring football. Everything I do is, sort of, at the highest level.

Well, if that is the case, why would you ever purchase something that is not ALREADY at the highest level? If the owners of these properties are satisfied with a level of success that does not match your own, why buy a property in the first place? Trump also said:

His (Bassett) Tampa team, while GOOD, it was peanuts. It was never going to crack the big league.

Well, maybe if ‘The Donald’ had paid any attention to his business partners’ vision of what THEIR idea of success was, he would have understood that they never WANTED to challenge “The Big League” until they had a stable and sustainable brand. Sports leagues are NOT like hotels or resorts where you can just file for bankruptcy, re-organize, do some fancy, behind the scenes money shifting and voila! Everything is hunky-dory. No, once you are not making money in a sports league, that league goes away, period. While Donald’s idea of success did not match those of his colleagues, if patience was shown, the brand was built, and a strong financial foundation was set, THEN the league could have used Donald’s force of personality to push it toward the next level.

C) Burt Reynolds could, once again, be a HUGE star if he wishes. He came across in this film as a Johnny Cash/Guru-like figure. Still ultra-cool, Southern-sheik, a man who has grown wise and a bit sad through experience. After watching it, tell me you couldn’t see him in a Quentin Tarantino movie as a man with all the answers. It seems to me he could fill the bill as an Esteban Vihaio (See: Kill Bill Vol. 2) type of character quite easily in a future project.


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