Home now only to pee-wee gridiron squads teams with names like Southwest Bills, Alief Titans and North Houston Oilers, it’s hard to believe now what in retrospect now seems true: innovations that were to inarguably change football forever at the highest level of the game were implemented and refined at Bayland Park’s Fun Stadium, the official practice home of the USFL’s Houston Gamblers for the entire two years of their existence. Today, it should be regarded as hallowed ground by football historians the world over.
Though the Gamblers never quite claimed a title, they were indisputably the league’s most exciting team in 1984 and ‘85. Up to that point, pro football was still almost universally a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust league, save for a few teams such as the Air Coryell San Diego Chargers and young Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins. Since neither of those teams had won a Super Bowl (Marino’s Dolphins were crushed by the 49ers in 1985), it was still almost universally believed that only run-first teams with elite defense could win it all.
And here were the Gamblers, proposing to pass more than the Dolphins and Chargers and daring to toy with the idea of abolishing the tight end, second only to the fullback among skill position players in the affections of lovers of smashmouth football.
At least Gamblers head coach Jack Pardee had impeccable street cred — a Fightin’ Texas Aggie who survived Bear Bryant’s notorious 1954 Junction Boys training camp, he’d also put in 15-plus seasons as a linebacker in the NFL and six more as head coach of the Bears and Redskins, neither of which were known for much in the way of offensive innovation in his tenure. But here he was in Houston, hiring as his right-hand man a football egghead with the decidedly un-macho name Mouse Davis. And Pardee went along with Mouse’s blueprint for what came to be known as the Run & Shoot offense: a strong-armed QB whipping passes to a swarm of blisteringly quick mighty mite receivers who ran a bewildering array of routes that were responsive to the defenses they faced.
Davis had great success with this model at little Portland State University, whose quarterback Neil Lomax set 90 NCAA records and had proven a solid starter for the St. Louis Cardinals. Davis next took his basketball on grass to the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL and met with similar success.
But that was in hippy-dippy places like Oregon and Canada. How would Davis’s scheme fare in the American pros?
The nation would find out when the Gamblers temporarily enticed future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly away from the Buffalo Bills, and the Gamblers loaded Kelly up with a quintet of mosquito-like receivers who came to be known as the Mouseketeers: Ricky Sanders, Richard Johnson, Clarence Verdin, Gerald McNeil, and Scott McGhee. Pardee and Davis honed their timing with Kelly at training camp in Huntsville and at Fun Stadium, and the Gamblers proceeded to light up the USFL’s defenses in both the Astrodome and on the road for the entirety of their two-year run in the league, though sadly they never quite got over the hump, losing in the playoffs in each of their two seasons.
Following the 1984 season, league owners voted to move the USFL’s schedule to the fall, thereby competing directly against the NFL. The vast majority of players believed this move to be foolish, as did Gamblers owner Dr. Jerry Argovitz, whose nay vote was rendered moot by a larger group of owners led by none other than New York / New Jersey Generals owner Donald J. Trump, who has long been regarded as the league’s blundering agent of destruction. As Argovitz and the players predicted, there was no appetite for two pro football leagues playing in the fall.
In 2010, long before Trump jumped into national politics, the Chronicle’s David Barron interviewed a wide array of Gambler players and coaches and to a man they unequivocally fingered Trump as the cause of the USFL’s downfall. (Through a series of mergers and acquisitions as the league circled the drain, Trump wound up as the Gamblers final owner, though they never played a game under his tenure. Unlike the Houston-born-and-bred singer of the team’s namesake song, Trump decidedly did not know when to hold ‘em, and so he was forced to fold ‘em.)
Though the team was defunct, the Gamblers’ legacy lived on through the 1980s in pure form and right down to the present day in modified form. By 1995, the Oilers (under both Jack Pardee and then Mouse Davis protege Jerry Glanville), Falcons (under June Jones, another Davis acolyte), Lions, and Jim Kelly’s Bills had used the Run & Shoot as their base offense with varying degrees of success. Foremost of those were the Bills and their four AFC titles, who famously lost all of their Super Bowls and infamously eliminated the Oilers from the playoffs in a game I refuse to write about for one second more. (Except to say that the Bills won that game minus the services of the injured Kelly. I mean how in tarnation did the Oilers blow that 32-point lead to Frank freakin’ Reich. Frank Reich, dangit.)
Anyway, as we were saying…Run & Shoot principles, if not the offense in its purest form, run rampant all over football today. Four- and five-receiver sets are commonplace, as is the non-two-minute-drill no-huddle offense, another of the Gamblers’ innovations. The spread offense — used extensively in college football and run recently to such great NFL success by Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens — is chock full of Run & Shoot ideas as well.
Now that the Astros World Series title is regarded as tainted, Houston has once more reclaimed its title as the most cursed sports city in America. The Gamblers fit in that category, and also in another subcategory: elite second-tier pro football teams, where they slot in along with the AFL champion Oilers and the recently departed XFL Roughnecks, who seem now to be destined to enter the history books with an eternally undefeated record.
Which brings us full circle, as the Roughnecks were an elite Run & Shoot team in a second-tier pro football league coached by June Jones, perhaps the most prominent acolyte of Mouse Davis, the man who started it all at Fun Stadium all those years ago.
Fun Stadium’s history doesn’t begin and end with the Gamblers, either. The field there is named after O.J. Brigance, the former Willowridge and Rice star linebacker and a Super Bowl champ with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, an organization he remains with today in a front-office capacity. Brigance is one of 19 NFL players who saw some of their first action at Fun Stadium, a list that also includes Jim Kelly’s fellow Hall of Fame Bills teammate Thurman Thomas. (Who was sidelined along with Kelly for much of that awful terrible no-good game in Buffalo we can’t stop writing about even though we said we would stop. I mean, the Oilers managed to cough up a 32-point lead to Frank Reich and Kenneth Davis.)
Given all that history – as both a breeding ground for elite talent and a laboratory for football innovation — perhaps a state historical marker is in order.