To celebrate its 30th anniversary, ESPN is in the midst of airing what it calls 30 on 30, which is a series of 30 one-hour documentaries on sports-related matters that have occurred within the network's 30 years on the air. And one of the documentaries, one that aired on Tuesday is on a subject near-and-dear to Texans. Football. And not just any football, but pro football. More specifically, the short, twisted life of the USFL.
The primary focus of the documentary was Donald Trump and how he destroyed the league by forcing a doomed move of games from the spring to fall. But best of all, what it did was to remind me of when professional football in Houston was really fun. And that time just happened to be the two short years of the Houston Gamblers.
It's more than 25 years since the Gamblers last played a football game -- losing in the first round of the playoffs like so many Houston sports seem to do. And while I have memories of the Gamblers, it seems like the Gamblers are one of those teams that the city has tried to erase from the storage banks.
The Gamblers came into being for the second season of the league. The primary owner of the Gamblers was Dr. Jerry Argovitz, a dentist turned sports agent who decided to buy a sports franchise. Being an agent led to a lot of conflicts as it was kind of hard to properly advise athletes over offers which could affect his own franchise, as Billy Sims will testify, and he ultimately closed his agency because of these conflicts.
One of Argovitz's big moves was to convince Jim Kelly to forgo the NFL and the Buffalo Bills and sign with the Gamblers. Argovitz also hired Jack Pardee to be the team's coach. And Pardee brought in man named Mouse Davis to be his offensive coordinator. Davis was one of the primary proponents of an offense known as the Run-and-Shoot, and he brought it with him to the Gamblers, thus making them the first pro football team to run the offense. Also on that first coaching staff was June Jones, who would help Jerry Glanville implement a similar type of offense in the NFL.
The Gamblers weren't much of a ball-control, run-out-the-clock team, which was part of the fun. In the team's first year, Jim Kelly threw 5,219 yards while the team scored 618 points -- this was also a good thing in that the defense allowed over 400 points that season. The Gamblers won their division with a 13-5 record, then -- as would become familiar to fans of the Houston Oilers over the next decade -- the team choked away a 13-point lead with seven minutes remaining in the first-round playoff game to lose 17-16.
The next (and final) season saw the Gamblers get slowed down a bit as they scored only 544 points while dropping to a 10-8 record and losing, again, in the first round of the playoffs. But that season included one of the great games in pro football history as the Gamblers and Kelly took on the Los Angeles Express and Steve Young in a passing display that saw Kelly throw for over 500 yards and lead the team to a huge fourth-quarter comeback and victory.
The Gamblers, alas, were a doomed franchise in that, under the lead of Donald Trump, the USFL decided to move from the spring to a fall schedule in 1986. A move which left the Gamblers without a place to play. Argovitz also had financial problems, and during the 1985 playoffs, the league loaned the team money to keep it going. Trump then purchased the club and merged it with his New Jersey Generals, a team which would have featured Kelly, Herschel Walker, and Doug Flutie, but a team which never played because of the league's demise.
While the Gamblers lasted, they were a blast to watch. Lots of points. One of the game's all-time great quarterbacks. A revolutionary offense. Sure, they couldn't win in the playoffs, but neither could the Oilers. But seeing the ball fly all over the field and watching the old Astrodome scoreboard light up constantly was just something to be experienced.
So while the Tennessee Titans are reminding us all of the Oilers this season -- thanks to their awful play and their wearing of Oiler uniforms -- there's really nobody talking about the Gamblers. And if there's a team worth remembering, and remembering fondly, it's the Houston Gamblers.
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