This is a piece that I originally wrote in 2003 as part of a package remembering the birth of the USFL in the 1980s. This is one of the most rewarding projects I ever worked on, as I visited with former Saints legends like the late Sam Mills, Bobby Hebert and Jim Mora and gathered their memories about the defunct football league.
BACK IN THE USFL: No Mora excuses for Saints
USFL alumni like Coach Jim Mora, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Bobby Hebert led the Saints to their first playoffs in 1987.The death of the United States Football League in the mid-1980s breathed new life into the New Orleans Saints.
When the spring football league went belly up after the 1985 season, an unprecedented wave of players and coaches flooded the market. By plucking the right free agents from the pool and hiring the USFL's most successful coach in Jim Mora, the NFL's Saints in 1987 were able to reach the playoffs for the first time in their woeful history.
"We did great," Mora gushed 18 years later, as he remembered his early years in New Orleans. "Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson, Chuck Commiskey, Antonio Gibson, Mel Gray, Bobby Hebert - my coaching staff who came with me from the Stars. We did good."In addition to players, Mora stocked his first Saints staff with former Stars coaches, such as Dom Capers, Jim Skipper, Carl Smith, Steve Sidwell, Vic Fangio, Joe Marciano and John Pease."We got a lot of coaches and players," Mills said. "There were a host of guys who were able to come over and contribute right away. It was a lot of fun."
MORA THE MINER
Sure, the NFL had deeper rosters than the USFL. But Mora knew that some of the star players he'd seen in the upstart league could compete with anyone.
"The USFL was better than people gave it credit for," Mora said. "There were a lot of terrific players in that league that went on and became really good players in the NFL."
The USFL was filled with golden nuggets of talent, and Mora proved to be an able prospector.
"They boosted the Saints. They propelled the Saints," said former USFL wide receiver Charles Smith, now head football coach at Wossman. "
All of a sudden, you get Jim Mora from the USFL and he comes in and brings success. He learned how to build a team from Carl Peterson. Jim Mora saw how you can develop a team. He saw these guys he coached against and knew they could play."As he built the Saints, Mora's wish list, for the most part, was fulfilled.
"We did pretty good from the USFL," Mora said. "I didn't want to bring in a bunch of USFL players because the current players would say, `Oh man, here's the USFL coach bringing in all these guys.'"I wanted to be sure we brought in good players who would fit in and the current players would respect."
Three years in USFL from 1983-85 helped Mora devise his blueprint for success while compiling a 41-12-1 overall record and a 7-1 postseason mark. A battle plan featuring rugged defense and ball control on offense helped his Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars win two of the USFL's three championships. When the league folded, the Saints hired Mora to change their fortunes.
"I knew that he would have success," said Mills, who played linebacker for Mora's Stars. "I saw him build a team in the USFL, and we had a darn good football team there."Mora said the Saints were on the verge of something when he arrived."When I went in there (New Orleans) in 1986, there was a really good nucleus of players there that Bum Phillips had acquired," Mora said. "Then we had a good draft with Dalton Hilliard, Rueben Mayes, Pat Swilling, all in the same draft. It would have been hard to screw that up."
SPRINGING INTO ACTION
Mora had one player that he had to bring with him from the USFL. But late Saints general manager and president Jim Finks needed convincing when Mora started talking up Mills.
"When I started talking about Sam, I'm talking about a 5-9 and a quarter linebacker, and Jim Finks wasn't real fired up about it," Mora said. "I had to convince him that Sam could play."
Slammin' Sam was accustomed to proving himself. The Toronto Argonauts and the Cleveland Browns cut him before he crashed pro ball with three years as an All-USFL star. He rewarded Mora's loyalty by earning five NFL Pro Bowl berths, including his first in 1987.
"I believed that he would get it done," Mills said. "I was just glad to be a part of it."
A chief USFL foil was already dressed in black and gold when Mora took the helm. Quarterback Bobby Hebert threw for 3,568 yards and 27 touchdowns while leading the Michigan Panthers to the first USFL championship in 1983, a 24-22 win over Mora's Stars. Hebert passed for 314 yards and three scores while earning MVP of that first title game.
"The fans (in Detroit) supported us more than the Lions because we brought them their first championship since 1958," Hebert said "Out of 28 NFL teams, we would have been 10 to 14. We definitely would have been in the top 14."
Mora's Baltimore Stars returned the favor in 1985 by topping Hebert's Oakland Invaders 28-24, in what was the USFL's final contest. Hebert threw for 3,811 yards and 30 touchdowns in his last USFL season before signing with the Saints.A Louisiana native who played college football at Northwestern State, Hebert proved himself worthy for the NFL with his USFL apprenticeship.
After playing sparingly under Bum Phillips in 1986 with New Orleans, he completed 164-of-294 attempts for 2,119 yards and 15 touchdowns in 1987 to lead the Saints to their first postseason.
"The Superdome was rocking from 1987 to 1992," Hebert said. "There wasn't a better place to play. It's a shame we couldn't finish the deal. There couldn't be a better city to win the Super Bowl in. it would be like Mardi Gras the whole offseason."
Mills and Vaughan Johnson formed half of the heralded linebacker unit known as the "Dome Patrol." Johnson was a USFL terror with the Jacksonville Bulls before his NFL reincarnation.
"I knew of Vaughan," Mills said, "but I didn't know that he was such a good athlete and such a good football player. I learned a lot of things from watching Vaughan. I learned a lot in man coverage watching Vaughan. I figured if a guy 250-something pounds could cover that good, there must be something I can learn."
Mills wasn't the only former Stars player to follow Mora. Commiskey started at offensive guard, and Gibson played safety for Mora in both leagues.
"They were both on our team in Philadelphia," Mora said. "They weren't great players, but they were good enough to come in and make us better with the Saints."
Running back Buford Jordan introduced himself to New Orleans football fans in 1984, when he ran for 1,276 yards with the USFL's Breakers. Jordan made the jump to the NFL, where he was a backup with the Saints. Gray was a splendid return man in New Orleans who ranked sixth in kickoff returns and seventh in punt return yardage in 1987. He went on to play in three Pro Bowls with the Detroit Lions.
FINALLY - A WINNER
Mora's melding of the two leagues proved fruitful in his second season. The Saints finished 12-3 in 1987, earning their first playoff berth in team history.New Orleans split its first two games before a players strike forced NFL teams to use replacement players. The Saints went 2-1 in replacement games, then suffered a 24-22 loss to the 49ers in the first game after the strike.
Mora erupted afterward with his famous "Could've, would've, should've" speech that challenged his Saints to rise up against the top teams.
"Could've, would've, should've is the difference in what I'm talking about," Mora said that day. "The good teams don't say could've. They get it done."
After losing to the 49ers, the Saints peeled off nine straight wins. After 20 years of futility, they clinched their first playoff berth with a 44-34 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Overall, the Saints ranked third in rushing and fourth in total defense while posting their first winning season.
"It was huge," Mill said. "When we first stepped in the city, we heard `Aints' and we heard about the paper bags. I remember my first game against Atlanta, we got blown out."But we knew we could be successful. When it happened, it happened in a big way. The whole state of Louisiana was so excited about their football team and a team they could be proud of. It was a team they could chant good things about."
Though the Minnesota Vikings thrashed the Saints 44-10 in the 1987 wild-card game, things had changed. New Orleans enjoyed seven straight non-losing seasons under Mora and went to the playoffs four times in his 10® years. Mora's 93-74 record in New Orleans established him as the franchise's winningest coach.
"Coach Mora came in and made the New Orleans Saints a legitimate team," said Louisiana native Gary Barbaro, a star safety with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs and the USFL's New Jersey Generals. "He made them someone to contend with."