In a lot of ways, the big takeaway from Mike Tollin’s Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? is that Donald Trump has been a giant douchebag for a really really long time. Also, his hair has largely been the same for 30 years – which is remarkable in its own right – I mean, even Jon Bon Jovi changed his look. He may or may not have singularly responsible for the downfall of the USFL – Tollin does not exactly offer an impartial take – but he is such a juicy villain that I’m willing to go with it.
With a jerk like Trump bringing down the league, Tollin could have made a bitter screed about the death of an interesting concept. Fortunately though, Small Potatoes is a loving look back at the three plus year history of the United States Football League and an excuse for Tollin to show all this footage he, as sort of the league’s Ed Sabol, had been sitting on for eons. Really with the ubiquitous nature of the NFL, the idea that a semi-comparable football league could exist in the 1980s is almost inconceivable. However there it was, a goofy league that had weird promotions, brought in a couple of innovations and brought us some really really talented dudes.
The USFL started as a 12 team league running in the springtime. The markets had varying attitudes towards player acquisition. New Jersey signed a Heisman winner in Herschel Walker taking advantage of his leaving after his junior year, while the Tampa Bay Bandits (introducing Steve Spurrier to the world) ran as much more of a “small market” outfit. The league tried to fill a perceived market gap for football in the spring (considering how ESPN shows spring practices for college teams, this is not the leap one might think) while being more “fun” by allowing coordinated celebrations and serving as a laboratory for new concepts (indeed, the Houston Gamblers brought the run and shoot into the football vernacular). The ratings with ABC and ESPN in the spring were shockingly good. Granted, not all 12 markets were doing well at the same time, but that describes any sports league – but clearly it seemed like there was some substance there.
Tollin’s film luxuriates in the substance. As viewers we are surprised at just how many guys we know were in the USFL. Whether it be Charley Steiner on the radio, Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Reggie White, Anthony Carter – all sorts of people fans have heard of, Burt Reynolds in the owner’s box, the innovation of instant replay – the USFL was clearly some sort of factor in the football landscape. It looked like it was actually decent football.
Tollin also luxuriates in Trump’s acquisiton of the New Jersey Generals, and his entry into the league. He started throwing more money at the team – getting people to cross over from the NFL. He wanted to be THE face of the league – and his signing of NFL guys helped accelerate an arms race that precipitated a spectacularly fast expansion to 22 teams. The sheer number of teams started to create a lot of rinky dink outfits – the story Rick Neuheisel tells of the San Antonio team’s ability to make payroll was right out of the worst stories of the American Basketball Association. Trump, in an interview with Tollin, seems to have put this in a box the way neocons now might have put their incorrect opinions about war in some dark recess. His Donaldness in stark contrast with the other owners makes for clear protagonists and villains.
The main protagonist becomes John Bassett, the principal partner of the Tampa Bay team, who has run the team in a smaller manner – who resists the Trumpification of the league. He is trying to do things organically and wants the league to stay a spring option and grow. The tug of war between Bassett and Trump, especially as the league wants to try to compete directly with the NFL, becomes where Tollin’s film is its angriest. When Trump swoops in and gains stature in the league, it is as Bassett starts to succumb to a brain tumor. Tollin lays it on a bit thick here – but the Donald is such an asshole!
Ultimately, Tollin tells the story of the USFL with a light touch. He still holds Trump responsible, but the film seems over the whole thing. The movie is more of a comedy than a parable or a morality tale. A fun league with a fun history – and yeah, it might have been fun to still have it around.