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Berl Bernhard’s done most things very well in his life. Owning a football team isn’t one of them.
“I think of it as one of the more sporting events of my life,” says Bernhard of his two years as owner of the Washington Federals. “Would I do it again? No!”
This spring marks 25 years since the founding of the Federals, which quickly became a punchline in the running gag that was the USFL. Bernhard gets a chuckle out of the memories.
“The scars have all healed, and I’ve moved on,” he says.
He admits it wasn’t always funny. Shortly after he was named the team’s owner, Bernhard was described in a long Washington Post profile as a man without enemies. But Bernhard’s two-year run with the Federals was lowlighted by feuds with Marion Barry, the Redskins, fellow USFL owners (namely Donald Trump), and his own team’s management, coaches, players, and even fans. Early in the second and last season, Bernhard said of his fan base, “If you don’t win, they drop you, just like they drop politicians who don’t win.”
Well, the Federals held up their end of that pact, going 7-29 in their two seasons and posting losing streaks of 10 and eight games. And the fans did indeed drop ’em: half the season ticket holders in the first season didn’t return for the second, and by the end RFK Stadium had more no-shows than shows on game days.
It wasn’t just the losing that kept fans away: According to one Federals biographer, it rained for 15 of the 18 home games.
“That team was cursed, a total abortion,” says Dick Bielski, the second and last head coach the Federals ever had. “I don’t even like thinking about it.”
Bernhard won’t quibble with Bielski’s assessment. He says he never really wanted to be a football owner. But USFL organizers felt that they needed to have a D.C. franchise if they were ever going to achieve a NFL level of prestige.
Bernhard was a powerful figure around here. He’d done big things. A Post editorial in 1963 hailed the “exceptional drive and devotion” that Bernhard was then showing as executive director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He’d managed Edmund Muskie’s campaign for president in 1972 and was a founding partner in a law firm that would eventually have Sens. Lloyd Bentsen, George Mitchell, Bob Dole, and Ann Richards in its stable.
He’d been counseling USFL owners and officials on legal matters during the setup of the spring league, and he was lobbied to take over the D.C. franchise. To get in on the ground floor, all Bernhard would have to do is come up with $6 million. With the league’s salary restrictions—$2 million per year per team—and TV revenues, Bernhard was told, he’d be breaking even or better by the third year of operation.
“Like a dope, I said, ‘Fine’,” he says.
The Federals were the last team organized by the USFL, and while the rest of the league was getting attention for signing sure-things like Herschel Walker and Steve Young, the Federals’ roster was filled with one young big name, fragile running back Craig James, surrounded by a few geezer NFL castoffs and a lot of anonymites. (The team’s first cut, as reported in February 1983 by Post beat reporter David Remnick, was a lineman named Les Boring.)
Ray Jauch, who had been a professional head coach only in the Canadian Football League, was named coach of the Federals and charged with getting the nontalent up to speed. Bernhard now counts Jauch’s hiring among his mistakes.
“He’d been able to win in Canada,” says Bernhard.
Bernhard says the biggest surprise was how ruthless the Redskins and those beholden to the NFL franchise were. The Redskins, he says, made sure that the city did everything possible to thwart his efforts to build a team. Bernhard thought the lease that he signed to use RFK gave him access to the entire facility, including luxury boxes and practice fields adjacent to the stadium. He was wrong: The Federals had to practice in a small patch of grass on the stadium grounds that wasn’t even the size of a football field.
“I remember we came there for practice, the team had been assembled, we were not even allowed in the practice field. They locked the gates, for God sakes!” Bernhard says. “Then they wouldn’t let us use the Redskins locker room, and they didn’t give us access to any of the boxes the Redskins use. They locked them!”
Skins owner Jack Kent Cooke even started a public tiff with Mel Krupin, then owner of the power-broker eatery Krupin’s, after Krupin hung a Federals pennant there at Bernhard’s request. Cooke then loaned the Redskins’ new Super Bowl trophy for a display at rival restaurant Duke Ziebert’s.
The talent shortage and football inexperience showed during the Federals’ debut, in which the home team was crushed 38-10 by George Allen’s visiting Chicago Blitz. Most of the 38,010 fans—the biggest crowd the Federals would ever get—never came back. The Federals gave them little reason to return, losing 13 of their first 14 games.
Things continued going downhill for the Federals after the 1983 season, as other USFL owners started spending money that Bernhard didn’t have. Donald Trump bought the New Jersey Generals and quickly began pushing for the USFL to go head-to-head against the NFL with a fall schedule.
Bernhard said he had no interest in such a seasonal shift, so Trump began telling anybody who’d listen that the league would be better off without Bernhard’s team. In March 1984, the New York Times called the Federals “by any measurement the least successful of the U.S.F.L.’s 12 charter franchises.”
After a 53-14 loss to the Jacksonville Bulls in the first game of the 1984 season, Bernhard slammed his team to the media. “A group of untrained gerbils can play as well as our team,” he said.
Bernhard fired Jauch after the Jacksonville game and hired Bielski, who had played with the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Colts and had coached with the Colts and the Redskins (under George Allen). He had never seen anything like the Federals.
“The first guy—what was his name? Jauch?—he came by to tell me that he was fired and I’d be taking his place,” Bielski, now 75, recalls. “I remember he had this smirk when he was telling me this, like, ‘Good luck, pal! Better you than me!’”
“And I know what he meant. It was strictly bush league. it was a bad experience. I used to cry at night thinking of things that happened. It seemed like it rained every game. It was a snakebit journey. I used to pray on my…knees that the plane wouldn’t crash on the way home after games.”
Even trying to get out of the USFL proved disastrous for Bernhard. At least two deals collapsed after being reported as finalized. One had the University of Miami’s Howard Schnellenberger signing on as head coach, but that deal fell through when Schnellenberger backed out, saying, “I have concluded my coaching future is not in the USFL. My future is in football.”
Bernhard eventually sold the Federals in the fall to a Florida businessman for a reported $5 million and the promise of a bigger payday if the league started making money. The USFL folded in 1986.
A final indignity came when the District sued Bernhard and the Federals for $2.5 million for breaking the lease for RFK Stadium. The case was settled with a reported payment of $205,000 from Bernhard.
“That was the ultimate ultimate, when Marion Barry sued, when they had done nothing to help us,” says Bernhard. “That was life in the big city. In the end, it was a good try, it was fun, and it was a pain.”