Heavenly Stars remembered fondly

Posted: July 17, 2014

JIM MORA sat in the den of his Palm Springs home, tan and fit and still so damn young-looking even at the age of 79.

Behind him, the walls were filled with dozens of pictorial memories of a successful coaching career that saw his teams win 125 NFL regular-season games. Only 24 other coaches in history have more victories.

But the photograph Mora was focused on at the moment had nothing to do with any of those 125 wins.

The picture shows him standing on a platform in JFK Plaza holding up a trophy with two other men.

It was taken 30 years ago today, at the end of the victory parade the city threw for Mora and his Philadelphia Stars after they won the United States Football League championship with a 23-3 win over George Allen's Arizona Wranglers.

The other two men in the photo with Mora are the Stars' late owner, Myles Tanenbaum, and team president Carl Peterson.

The USFL probably doesn't ring a bell to most people under 40. The league, which played in the spring, wasn't around very long. It lasted only three seasons before being killed by Donald Trump's greed.

But the Stars were head and shoulders the best team in that league during its all-too-brief existence. They won two of the league's three championships (1984-85) and lost in the title game in the other (1983). They won 41 of 54 regular-season games and seven of eight in the postseason.

And the city loved them. They had a 25,000 season-ticket base in only their second season of existence. More than 50,000 people lined the eight-block parade route after the '84 championship game, and another 30,000 jammed JFK Plaza for the post-parade celebration.

It wasn't the magnitude of the Phillies' victory parade in '08, but it was pretty impressive for a 2-year-old football team that played in the spring.

"I hear a lot of talk about how bad the Philly sports fans are," said David "Duck" Riley, a fullback for the Stars. "You gotta win. We had great support, because we won. When you win, you don't hear about all that other stuff."

"Everything just fell right," Mora said. "The reason we won was because we had the best players in the league. There's no doubt about it. We had the best talent in the USFL for 3 years, and that's why we were as successful as we were. We had some really good players.

"But the other thing was, those players, they would have run through a wall for you to be successful. A lot of them were new to professional football. Some had been cut by NFL teams. This [league] was a second chance for them."

Said Chuck Commiskey, a starting guard on the Stars who would later play for Mora with the New Orleans Saints: "There was kind of a magic to the way it all kind of evolved. There wasn't anybody that had a big ego. The older guys that came into that league were just trying to eke out 2 or 3 more years. You had other guys like me, who had been cut by NFL teams who were hungry for a second chance. And the USFL gave us that opportunity."

The architect of the Stars' success was Peterson. He came to the team from the Eagles, where he had been Dick Vermeil's player personnel chief and helped put together the Birds' 1980 Super Bowl team.

He quickly built the Stars into a top-flight organization that would produce four NFL general managers, three NFL head coaches, five NFL coordinators, five players who would make a total of 18 Pro Bowl appearances and 18 players who would play 30 or more games or make 15 or more starts in the NFL.

He brought in NFL castoffs such as Riley and Commiskey, linebackers Sam Mills and Glenn Howard, quarterback Chuck Fusina, safety Mike Lush, tight end Steve Folsom and wide receiver Tom Donovan. His good friend, Lynn Stiles, who replaced him as the Eagles' player personnel director, would give him a sneak peak at the NFL waiver wire so that he could sign players before they were claimed by other NFL teams.

"I think the statute of limitations is up on that," Peterson said jokingly.

He drafted and signed top young college players such as offensive linemen Irv Eatman and Bart Oates, running back Kelvin Bryant, defensive end William Fuller, linebackers Mike Johnson and George Jamison, cornerback/safety Antonio Gibson and punter Sean Landeta. Lured NFL players such as veteran Eagles linebacker John Bunting and 49ers nose tackle Pete Kugler and Chargers wide receiver Scott Fitzkee to the new league.

"Carl was coming out of the NFL," said Bill Kuharich, who was the Stars' assistant GM and has spent more than a quarter century as an NFL personnel executive. "He knew where all of the bodies were buried. And he had a good eye for talent."

The Stars also had the benefit of having Penn State as one of their "territorial" schools. In addition to a draft, each USFL team had the rights to players - past and present - from a handful of schools in their region.

At the time, the Nittany Lions had one of the top college programs in the country. Between 1978 and 1982, they lost a total of 11 games and won the '82 national championship.

Fusina, Donovan, Fitzkee, Kugler, defensive linemen Frank Case and Dave Opfar and guard Ron Coder all were Penn State products who played key roles in the Stars' success.

Peterson lured Oates, who later would be a five-time Pro Bowler with the Giants and help them win two Super Bowls, by first signing his older brother Brad, a 6-year NFL veteran.

"If we hadn't signed Brad first, we probably wouldn't have gotten Bart to play for us," Peterson acknowledged. "He always wanted to play with his brother."

Eatman, a UCLA product who would play 11 seasons in the NFL after the USFL folded and spent another decade as an NFL assistant coach, never regretted his decision to sign with the Stars and play an integral role in two championship teams.

"I wouldn't trade those 3 years for the world," he said. "To this day, it was the most fun I had since I've been involved in football.

"Everything just clicked. We hit a rough patch in that third season when we had to play in Baltimore. But even then, we overcame all of that and still won another championship. It speaks to the character of the people involved."

Mora wasn't the Stars' first head-coaching choice. Peterson hired Steelers assistant George Perles in July 1982 shortly after the USFL was formed. But less than 5 months later, before ever coaching a game, Perles quit to become the head coach at his alma mater, Michigan State.

Tanenbaum made an unsuccessful run at Joe Paterno before Peterson hired Mora, then the New England Patriots' defensive coordinator.

"Jim was the guy I wanted," Peterson said. "I had worked with him, coached with him at UCLA on Dick's staff. Having observed him, I knew he really related well with his players. They all respected him. Given that we were going to be starting off with a lot of young players, I thought he'd be a perfect fit."

He was. Even though Mora was hired only 3 weeks before the start of the Stars' first training camp, the team went 15-3 in '83 and advanced to the first USFL title game, thanks in large part to one of the most remarkable comebacks in pro football history.

Trailing the Chicago Blitz in their first playoff game by 21 points with 11 1/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Stars scored 28 unanswered points and won in overtime, 44-38, with Bryant, who rushed for more than 4,000 yards and scored 47 touchdowns in three seasons with the Stars, scoring from a yard out.

"I don't know why, but in the last month or so, people have been sending me the video of that game," said Donovan, who caught the game-tying touchdown from Fusina. "When we started coming back, it was one of those deals where we weren't going to get beat. Chuck just took control and guided the team the way he did countless times. The overtime period was just an afterthought. We knew we were going to win."

They lost to the Michigan Panthers in the championship game, 24-22. But it would turn out to be their last playoff loss.

The next year, after adding Johnson, Jamison and Fuller to an already-potent defense, they went 16-2 in the regular season, holding 11 of their 18 opponents to 14 points or fewer. Then they stormed through the playoffs, outscoring their three playoff opponents, 71-20, and beating Arizona with ease in the championship game in Tampa.

"We were a little disappointed losing in the championship game the year before," said Fusina, who was the USFL's Player of the Year in '84. "We came back that next year with the attitude that nothing would be good enough except winning it all. That was our feeling from the beginning."

The Stars' defense, led by Mills, a future five-time Pro Bowler who was cut by both the NFL and CFL before joining the Stars, was the best unit in the league. It included 11 players who had started or would start a total of 771 games in the NFL. Mills, Fuller and Johnson all would go to multiple Pro Bowls. Fuller played 13 seasons in the NFL and had 100 1/2 sacks, including 35 1/2 during a 3-year stint with the Eagles.

"We had a good mix of some really good players and some who were just lunch-pail types of players who got everything out of their ability," said Vince Tobin, who was the Stars' defensive coordinator and later, an NFL head coach with the Arizona Cardinals for five seasons. "And it worked. It blended together very well."

"We had some great players," said Lush, a ball-hawking safety who had 23 interceptions in three seasons with the Stars. "You look at guys like Mike Johnson and George Jamison. George played something like 13 years in the NFL and Mike played something like 9 or 10. And they didn't even start for us the majority of the '84 season.

"It just goes to show we not only had good frontline guys, but we also had good depth. Long term, that's really what helped us succeed and be so successful."

The Stars managed to win a second league title in '85 despite some very challenging circumstances. Less than a month after the Stars' win over Arizona, the league's owners, led by Trump, voted to move the league to the fall beginning in 1986. Tanenbaum voted against the move, but was in the minority.

Trump painted two possible scenerios for his fellow owners, both of which revolved around an antitrust suit that the USFL eventually filed against the NFL: 1) the USFL would win the suit and be awarded lots and lots of money; or 2) the NFL, fearful of losing lots and lots of money, would offer a compromise and agree to absorb four to six of the USFL's franchises.

Neither happened. The NFL never was interested in a merger. And while the USFL actually did win the lawsuit, the jury found Trump and his allies so offensive that it awarded the league only $1 in damages.

When the USFL owners voted to move to the fall, Tanenbaum felt he had no recourse but to move to a city without an NFL team. So, the Stars relocated to Baltimore for the '85 season. Sort of.

They had hoped to play at Memorial Stadium, but the Orioles vetoed it. The Stars spent the final season of their existence training, practicing and living in Philly, then driving to College Park, Md., to play their "home" games at the University of Maryland.

The Stars lost six of their first 12 games that year, but then found their stride, winning eight of their next nine, including a victory over the Oakland Invaders in the final USFL title game at Giants Stadium.

"We essentially played 18 road games that last year," Peterson said. "After we lost six of our first 12, Jim blew up on the practice field. He said, 'I'm sick of listening to you bellyaching about our situation. We've had enough time to feel sorry for ourselves. Let's go out and start playing some football and go and win a championship.' And that's when we took off."

How good were the Stars? Clearly, they were the best team in the USFL. The fact that so many of their players went on to successful careers in the NFL would indicate that they could have been competitive with many NFL teams, particularly the Eagles, who had three straight losing seasons in 1983-85.

Tanenbaum certainly thought so. In January 1984, after the Stars had made it to the USFL title game and the Eagles had finished 5-11, he bumped into Eagles owner Leonard Tose at Bookbinder's restaurant.

Tose didn't like Tanenbaum and didn't like his team and had tried mightily - and unsuccessfully - to prevent the Stars from using Veterans Stadium.

"Leonard and Myles became bitter enemies," Peterson said. "When they ran into each other that night, they started jawing at each other. Myles finally said, 'I bet my Stars could beat your Eagles.'

"Leonard, of course, started laughing. He said, 'How much do you want to bet on it?' Myles said, 'How about a million?' Leonard said fine. Then Myles tweaked him and said, 'Leonard, are you sure you're good for a million?'

"Frankly, having watched the Eagles then, I think we would have beaten them."

Kuharich said the Stars' frontline talent was as good or better than at least half of the NFL's teams. Where it might have had problems during the course of a 16-game season was depth.

"We would've gone in and been competitive, I have no doubt about that," said Kuharich, who served as president and general manager of the Saints and vice president of player personnel for the Chiefs and currently is executive chief of staff for the Browns.

"But through a 16-game season, where [the lack of depth] would have shown up would be [if we lost] a starter for 2, 3, 4 weeks. In the NFL, the dropoff in depth generally isn't huge. It would've been for us."

Said Landeta, who spent 21 seasons in the NFL and was selected as the first-team punter on the NFL's All-Decade team of the '80s and second-team in the '90s. "When you think of the front-office executives and coaches and players from the Stars who went on to successful careers in the NFL, it's unbelievable. That team was such a tremendous team. It was an experience I'll never forget."

Star-gazing

An update on many of the Stars’ executives, coaches and players:

FRONT OFFICE

Carl Peterson (president and general manager): Spent 20 years as the president and GM of the Kansas City Chiefs. Has been the chairman of USA Football, the NFL’s youth football arm, since 2009.

* Bill Kuharich (assistant GM): Has been an NFL executive for nearly 25 years. Was president and GM of the Saints and vice president of player personnel for the Chiefs. Currently is executive chief of staff for the Browns.

* Terry Bradway (player personnel assistant): Was the Jets’ general manager for 6 years and currently is the team’s senior director of college scouting. He also was a scout with the Giants and vice president of player personnel for the Chiefs. His son, Michael, 28, is the Eagles’ assistant director of college scouting.

* Rod Graves (assistant director of player personnel): Was the vice president of football operations and general manager of the Arizona Cardinals. Currently is Jets’ senior director of football administration.

* Leo Carlin (business manager): Has spent more than 50 years with the Eagles, both before and after his 3-year stint as the Stars’ business manager. He has been a Pro Football Hall of Fame nominee for the last 10 years and currently serves as the Eagles’ director of ticket client services.

* Bob Moore (director of media relations): One of the Stars’ first hires, he has been with the Chiefs organization for 26 years, 21 as the team’s vice president of communications and the last five as the team’s historian. He designed the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame.

COACHING STAFF

* Jim Mora (head coach): Was an NFL head coach for 15 years with the Saints and Colts. He’s one of only 24 coaches in NFL history to win 125 or more regular-season games. Retired and living with his wife Connie in Palm Springs, Calif.

* Vince Tobin (defensive coordinator): Was a defensive coordinator with the Bears, Colts and Lions. Head coach of the Cardinals for five seasons. Retired and living in Phoenix.

* Dom Capers (defensive backs): Has been an NFL head coach with the Panthers and Texans and a defensive coordinator with four teams. Entering his sixth season as the Packers’ defensive coordinator.

* Vic Fangio (defensive assistant): Has been a defensive coordinator with four NFL teams, including the last three with the 49ers.

* Carl Smith (receivers): Smith was an offensive coordinator with the Saints and Jaguars. He has been the Seahawks’ quarterbacks coach since 2011, winning a Super Bowl ring last year.

* Jim Skipper (running backs): He has been an NFL assistant for the last 28 years with six teams. This will be his second season as the Carolina Panthers’ running backs coach.

* Joe Marciano (special teams): Marciano, a former quarterback at Temple, was a special teams coach for 28 years with the Saints, Bucs and Texans.

* Joe Pendry (offensive coordinator): Served as an offensive coordinator with the Chiefs, Panthers and Bills. Currently is semiretired and living in Alabama and serves as a special projects assistant for Alabama coach Nick Saban.

* David Price (trainer): >Was the head trainer of the Jets and Chiefs for 28 years.

PLAYERS

* QB Chuck Fusina: Played in seven games as a backup with the Packers in 1986. Is a partner in A.D. Starr, a Pittsburgh-based company that manufactures and distributes baseball and softball equipment.

* RB Kelvin Bryant: Played in 46 games over five seasons for the Redskins from 1986-90. Lives in his hometown of Tarboro, N.C., with his wife and children.

* RB Allen Harvin: A valuable backup to Bryant who rushed for more than 1,700 yards in three seasons with the Stars, Harvin played in one game with the Redskins in ’87. He is a personal/specific sports trainer at the Cherry Hill Health and Racquet Club.

* FB David Riley: Had 31 receptions and averaged 16.2 yards per catch for the Stars’ 1984 title team. Retired in February after 16 years as athletic director at Willingboro (N.J.) High. Also coached at Rancocas Valley and Cinnaminson high schools. Was inducted into the South Jersey Sports Hall of Fame this spring. Is East Coast director of the Frank Glazier football clinics.

* FB Jeff Rodenberger: Started three games for the Saints in ’87.

* RB Booker Russell: Played in 59 games with the Raiders, Chargers and Eagles before signing with the Stars.

* WR Scott Fitzkee: Played in 36 games with the Eagles and Chargers before going to the USFL. Did not return to the NFL after the league folded. Owns a commercial industrial roofing business and lives in suburban Baltimore.

* WR Tom Donovan: Retired after the USFL folded. Is a building inspector/plans examiner for the city of Boca Raton, Fla.

* WR Herbert Harris: Played in nine games and made one start for the Saints in 1986-87.

* OT Irv Eatman: Played 11 seasons in the NFL, making 118 starts. Was an NFL assistant coach for 10 years with the Chiefs, Packers, Steelers and Raiders before retiring in ’08. Lives in San Antonio with his family.

* OT Brad Oates: Started 23 games for the Lions and Cardinals before joining the USFL at age 30. Chairman and managing partner of Dallas-based Stone Advisors, a strategic advisory firm specializing in distressed asset situations.

* C Bart Oates: Played 11 seasons with the Giants and 49ers after the USFL folded. Was a five-time Pro Bowler and won two Super Bowl titles with the Giants. He is an executive vice president of a commercial real estate company in North Jersey, where he lives.

* G Chuck Commiskey: Played three seasons with the Saints (1986-88). Lives in New Orleans, where he is the territory manager for FMT Aggregate.

* G Ron Coder: Spent four pre-USFL seasons in the NFL, starting 21 games with the Seahawks and Cardinals. Is the head football coach at Canon-McMillan High in Canonsburg, Pa.

* OT Joe Conwell: Started 21 games for the Eagles in 1986-87. Is a senior VP with CBRE, a commercial real estate company, in Wayne.

* TE Steve Folsom: Played four seasons with the Cowboys after the USFL folded, starting 20 games for them. He is living in Austin, Texas.

* TE Ken Dunek: Was on the Eagles’ 1980 Super Bowl team. Owns a South Jersey marketing company and is publisher of JerseyMan and PhillyMan magazines. Lives in Mount Laurel, N.J.

* P Sean Landeta: Played 21 NFL seasons with the Giants, Rams, Packers and Eagles. Was a six-time All-Pro and the punter on the NFL’s All-Decade team of the ’80s and second-team selection on the ’90s All-Decade team. Lives in Bucks County and does event and appearance work in the area.

* DE William Fuller: Played 13 seasons in the NFL and finished with 100.5 career sacks. Had 35.5 sacks in three seasons with the Eagles (1994-96). Currently is a coach/trainer for Football University, which runs development camps for youth and high school players. Lives in Chesapeake, Va.

* NT Dave Opfar: Played three games for the Steelers after the USFL folded. Is the defensive coordinator at Duquesne University.

* DE Frank Case: The CB West High grad was drafted by the Chiefs in ’81 and played in seven games with them.

* NT Pete Kugler: Started 36 games for the 49ers before and after the USFL. Lives in Colorado.

* DE Don Fielder: Was one of the Stars’ top pass-rushers, registering 23.5 sacks in three seasons. Signed with the Bucs after the Stars’ second title and played in 11 games for them in ’85.

* NT Buddy Moor: Signed with the Falcons in ’87. Had four sacks in only three games.

* LB John Bunting: Signed with the Stars after playing 11 seasons with the Eagles. Spent 8 years as an NFL assistant coach and 6 more as the head coach at his alma mater, North Carolina. Has been a college football game analyst for ESPN for the last several years.

* LB Sam Mills: Spent 12 NFL seasons with the Saints and Panthers. Earned five Pro Bowl nods. Was the Panthers’ linebackers coach after he retired. Succumbed to cancer in 2005 at age 45. A bronze statue of Mills sits in front of the entrance to the Panthers’ stadium.

* LB George Jamison: The Bridgeton (N.J.) High product played 12 seasons with the Lions and Chiefs after the USFL folded, starting 107 games. Lives in Pontiac, Mich.

* LB Glenn Howard: Has been the head football coach at his alma mater, Paulsboro (N.J.) High, since 1987. With nearly 250 wins and 11 sectional titles, he is one of the most successful high school coaches in the state.

* LB Mike Johnson: Started 125 games for the Browns and Lions after the USFL folded and earned two Pro Bowl invitations. Lives in Forestville, Md.

* LB George Cooper: Signed with the 49ers after the USFL folded and played in 10 games and started two in ’87. He has served as a chaplain at his alma mater, Michigan State, and lives in Lansing, Mich.

* LB Jon Brooks: Played for the Lions, Falcons and Cardinals before joining the Stars in ’83.

* S Mike Lush: A two-time all-USFL player who had 23 interceptions in three seasons, he spent two seasons with the Vikings, Colts and Falcons after the USFL folded, playing in 13 games. He lives in Allentown.

* S Antonio Gibson: Signed with the Saints after the USFL foled and started 36 games for them. Is CEO/head trainer of All-Star Performance Training in College Station, Texas.

* CB Jonathan Sutton: Came to the Stars from the CFL. Spent part of the’87 season with the Saints.

* CB Garcia Lane: Spent two seasons with the Chiefs after the USFL folded, playing in 13 games.

* CB/S Scott Woerner: Played in 17 games with the Falcons and Saints. Lives in Georgia.

* WR Willie Collier: Collier, who had a team-high 56 receptions for the ’84 title team, was one of the few Stars starters who didn’t get an opportunity to play in the NFL.

* PK David Trout: Played in 19 games for the Steelers before and after his three seasons with the Stars.


Email: pdomo@aol.com

On Twitter: @Pdomo

Blog: eagletarian.com

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