Donald Trump was known in New York by 1984 as a flashy newcomer to Manhattan real estate. But football, not business, was what drew 60 young women to the Trump Tower in January of that year.
The women had come to audition for the Brig-A-Dears, the cheerleading squad of the New Jersey Generals, part of the upstart United States Football League. Trump had recently bought the team.
Judged by a panel that included Andy Warhol, the event was a splashy media affair. But organizer Emily Magrish grew worried when some women who had been cut in earlier rounds showed up to picket outside.
"I was convinced Trump was going to fire me on the spot," Magrish said of the protest. "Instead, I got a bonus. He thought I'd done it on purpose."
The Generals have been largely forgotten, but Trump's ownership of the USFL team was formative in his evolution as a public figure and peerless self-publicist. With money and swagger, he led a shaky spring football league into an all-or-nothing showdown with the NFL, building an outsized reputation in the process.
Now a leading Republican presidential candidate, Trump has proved yet again that he will not hesitate to confront an established order. But 30 years after the USFL's demise, whether Trump killed the league or nearly saved it remains up for debate.
One point of agreement: "He wasn't the half-cocked guy his enemies try to portray him as," said Bill Tatham Jr., who owned the Arizona Outlaws along with his father and came to admire Trump's tactics. Another similarity that USFL observers see to today: Trump set himself up to come out on top regardless of whether his presidential campaign succeeds.
Before the USFL, "I was well known, but not really well known," Trump said. "After taxes, I would say I lost $3 million. And I got a billion dollars of free publicity."
The USFL was founded in 1982 with an explicit goal: avoid fights with the NFL. Games would be played in the spring. Each team could pick up a few stars. Rigorous salary caps would rule out an inter-league bidding war.
Thanks to novelty and a few marquee players — most notably the Generals' Hershel Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner — the league got off to a promising start. But by the end of the inaugural season, some cornerstone franchises were struggling. The original owner of the Generals had enough of the league after just one year and sold the team to Trump.
To people who cared about sports, Trump's name wasn't widely known. But the team proved to be a perfect vehicle to carry him and his then-wife Ivanka Trump into the public eye.
The tryouts for the Brig-A-Dears earned coverage in the New York Times, New York Daily News and New York Post.
That was just the beginning. During the first six months of his ownership, Trump's name appeared 161 times in newspapers tracked by the Factiva research service — more than it had appeared in the prior four years.
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"He didn't want to be in the Daily News' real-estate section," said Kevin MacConnell, the Generals' former director of public relations. Thanks to the Generals, he said, "he was on the front page of the New York Times and the Post."
The team provided Trump with a calling card of sorts for his other endeavors. When Trump's ambitions to build a casino empire in Atlantic City necessitated friends in New Jersey politics, the state's governor, Thomas Kean, declared a "New Jersey Generals Day" in 1985, appearing on field with Trump to give him an award.
"I think the Generals were very helpful in getting approvals I never would have gotten without them," Trump said. "Atlantic City sort of fueled my empire."
The USFL bled money during its first two years. An eventual study by a consulting firm and a poll of fans both suggested the USFL should stay in the spring. Former owners such as Steve Ehrhart disagreed, citing the collapse of teams in major markets such as Los Angeles and Chicago.
"We couldn't make it work financially or break through the power of the NFL and baseball," Ehrhart said.
Trump came to the league already convinced of that conclusion. At one away game, Trump says, he had to pay $25,000 to cover his rival owner's unpaid stadium rental fees before the Generals could play.
But even if spring football were viable, Trump didn't have much interest in a league that was going to be "all third-rate players" anyway. Just days after buying the Generals, Trump suggested the new league could start playing in the fall within a few years.
Generals staff and fellow owners say Trump's strategy was geared toward eventually forcing the NFL into a merger, or at least into picking up a few of the USFL's successful franchises. Trump started lobbying other owners to switch to the fall, cajoling and bludgeoning as needed, Tatham said.
"It was no different than the debate stage now," Tatham said. "You're not going to embarrass him."
Trump, by his own admission, embarked on a campaign of humiliating the NFL. He signed a player from the Seahawks during the team's 1983 playoffs, guaranteeing the raid would be the talk of NFL pregame shows.
When the New York Giants got into a contract dispute with Lawrence Taylor, Trump wired $1 million into the linebacker's bank account and signed Taylor to play with the Generals in 1988 — five years off. The Giants had to pay Trump to nullify that contract.
"They gave me a million dollars and hated me ever after," Trump recalls gleefully. "The Giants went nuts when I signed him — it was huge publicity."
With much of the league exhausted and in debt, Trump's advocacy for a frontal assault on the NFL paid off. Following the 1984 season, the owners voted to move the USFL to the fall in 1986, filing a federal antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. The lawyer handling the case for the USFL, the combative Harvey Myerson, was Trump's pick.
Moving to the fall cost the USFL its spring TV contract, leaving it without vital support. After a lame-duck spring season in 1985, the USFL pinned its future on its case against the NFL.
One welcome outcome for the USFL would have been a legal settlement that brought a handful of new teams into the NFL. If any team were to make that cut, it was likely to be Trump's Generals.
"He had New York, he had the leverage," Tatham said.
But Trump himself — and his delight at getting under the NFL's skin — may have foiled prospects for a deal. Years after the USFL's failure, Gary Croke, the Generals' assistant head of public relations, said he asked Ralph Wilson, then owner of the Buffalo Bills, whether the NFL had considered a merger.
"He said, 'We actually thought about that, and your team was one that interested us. But Trump pissed us off so much that we didn't want him in the league,' " Croke recalled.
Trump says he's convinced that a merger would have happened if the USFL owners had enough money to bargain from a position of power. But with some USFL owners nearly broke, the NFL saw no need to bargain. The case went to a jury — where the NFL painted Trump as the villain.
Jurors unanimously upheld the USFL's contention that the NFL was a monopoly. But with the USFL asking for $1.3 billion in damages, the jurors split. They awarded the USFL $1.
"What the NFL did was smart," Trump says now. "They purely said this is a Donald Trump thing, and he doesn't need the money."
While the USFL appealed the judgment, Tatham worked to put together a coalition of owners willing to keep playing, but Trump wouldn't bite.
"It was a very calm discussion, he was a very calm thinker," Tatham said. "If Donald was this emotional, crazy guy, we'd have played. But he really isn't."
In 1988, the appellate court refused to alter the jury's original $1 verdict. The league voted to disband.
Trump says he has no regrets.
"I'm not a minor-league kind of person," Trump said. "I came in on the basis that I wanted to challenge the NFL, and maybe there'd be a merger, maybe there wouldn't be."
Thirty years after the USFL's collapse, many who participated in the league see Trump's presidential campaign as a replay of his football days. Tatham and Ehrhart — who supported the USFL's move to the fall — saw Trump's effort as a savvy gamble that brought the USFL within a hair's breadth of busting into the country's biggest sporting monopoly. They see a parallel in Trump's campaign, with his unconventional strategy and ability to run circles around rival candidates.
"I said before the first debate that it was going to be Trump and the seven dwarfs," said Ehrhart.
Said Tatham: "I think Donald Trump looks at the United States like his franchise in the USFL." He added, "Don't ever think he doesn't know what he's doing."