Western Illinois alumni and fans will discover a book within a book when reading Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL, author Jeff Pearlman's latest work.
The book extensively chronicles the wild and wacky days of the United States Football League (USFL), which played its games from 1983 through '85 before closing its operations.
Pearlman, a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and author of several best-selling sports books, is a former University of Delaware cross country runner. Coming from a smaller school, Pearlman recognizes that the USFL was perfect for the likes of Western Illinois.
"It was the players' salvation. It was a gift," Pearlman told Prairie State Pigskin. "People always talk about the Steve Youngs and the Jim Kellys, but really it was a godsend for guys out of Delaware, Delaware State, Bucknell, UT-Chattanooga and so forth.
"It was a great place for the guy who ran the 4.7 40 (-yard dash) rather than the 4.4 40 or the offensive lineman who weighed 280 rather than 300."
When Denver real estate mogul Ron Blanding became the city's debut USFL franchise owner in 1983, he hired Macomb native and Western Illinois alum Red Miller as his first head coach.
"He was the first big hire of the Denver Gold. Before they got any players, they hired a coach. They intentionally hired a big name, and Red Miller was a big name ever since he took the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl," Pearlman explained.
The partnership, however, didn't last long.
"Miller was a bad mix with Ron Blanding because the owner was super, super cheap," Pearlman said. "Red Miller got fired after basically pinning Ron Blanding against the wall because Blanding wanted to send all of the players home on buses. Red Miller said, ‘You can’t do that.’ Miller was used to the NFL and the (Gold) owner was the exact opposite. So, he got fired for going off on the owner of the team. That was it for Red Miller."
Miller passed away in 2017 at 89.
'insanely honest, kind of vile'
Pearlman interviewed over 400 people in a year's time for the publication of his "labor of love", including former WIU Leathernecks who either coached or played in the league. The author, in fact, noted that former WIU Hall of Fame defensive lineman John Teerlinck "might have ultimately been the best interview for this book."
"I went to see him in person at his home (near Indianapolis)," the 46-year-old Pearlman said. "He was insanely honest, kind of vile, but vile in a way that I liked."
Teerlinck was an All-American, team co-captain and defensive MVP as a senior in 1973. A fifth-round draft pick by the San Diego Chargers, Teerlinck had an injury-shortened NFL career. Though he later established himself as one of the finer defensive line coaches in the NFL, Teerlinck got his professional start as an assistant on George Allen's Chicago Blitz staff in 1983.
"He could coach," Pearlman said. "He couldn’t get out of his way sometimes. He wasn’t political at all, but he was a great coach."
When the Blitz franchise was traded for the Arizona Wranglers franchise (get Pearlman's book for the sordid details), Teerlinck went west. The former Blitz-turned '84 Wranglers made it all the way to the USFL Championship Game.
The following year, with the USFL gasping for fumes, the Wranglers merged with another team to become the Arizona Outlaws (again, read the book for details). Teerlinck landed on former Arizona State head coach Frank Kush's coaching staff.
"Teerlinck hated Frank Kush," Pearlman said."He thought Frank Kush was going to be a good guy to work for because Kush had this reputation of being a hardass. He turned out to be just the opposite."
Like the USFL itself, Teerlinck encountered his downfall in the 1985 season.
"Teerlinck drank a lot. He got into fights," the author said. "He got into a fight with Donnie Hickman, one of the players on the team, (on a commercial flight) and got fired."
Pearlman's time interviewing Teerlinck proves that opposites can attract.
"There’s probably no human on the planet more opposite than me than John Teerlinck. I never drink. I’m a diehard liberal. Teerlinck is hard-drinking. He’s arch-arch conservative, hates Obama, blah, blah, blah--but I really love the guy. He’s very honest and sincere," Pearlman said.
Dave & Deek
Defensive lineman Dave Tipton, one of Teerlinck's former WIU teammates, was also mentioned in the book. Tipton won a USFL championship ring with the Michigan Panthers in 1983 (where Pete Rodriquez, WIU head coach 1979-82, was the special teams coach). He later played for the Arizona Wranglers, where Teerlinck was his position coach.
"Teerlinck loved him," Pearlman said. "When Tipton reported to camp, Teerlinck said to him, ‘I don’t care if you play a down in camp. I don’t care if you practice. If you tell me you’re going to be ready (for games), then I know you’ll be ready.’ That was it. He did that with no other player except Tipton. Teerlinck said, ‘I trust you so much that you can sit back and drink lemonade. I don’t care.’"
Ironically, while Teerlinck often burned the candle at both ends, Tipton became a pastor.
"Tipton is very loyal to Teerlinck even while knowing his flaws," Pearlman said.
Don "Deek" Pollard was another former Leatherneck who was faithful to Teerlinck (and vice versa). Though the duo wound up coaching together in Arizona, Pollard started his USFL career on Miller's Denver Gold staff.
"The Chicago Blitz were using combines to scout all these guys before anyone else even thought to. The Denver Gold had Pollard sneak into the Chicago Blitz workouts to sign guys who slipped through the cracks. He was the first USFL spy in a way. He was a great interview for the book," Pearlman said.
When the USFL established its original ground rules, the league set up territorial schools from which the franchises could sign players. Western Illinois was a territorial program for the Chicago Blitz--joining Notre Dame, Illinois, Northwestern and Northern Illinois.
"They had to be fair. I think Delaware was actually a Philadelphia Stars school," Pearlman related. "It would have been unfair regionally if you let the Chicago Blitz have Notre Dame, Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, for example. Meanwhile, the New York team had to live in that Syracuse, Boston College, whatever and whatever world. So they tried to be fair about it. Tampa Bay had Florida, Florida State and maybe Bethune-Cookman (along with Florida A&M and Albany (Ga.) State)."