Michigan Panthers part of rebooted USFL; they won't play here until 2023

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Well, well, look who's back.

The Michigan Panthers, a Detroit-area football team that actually has won a championship in the last 40 years, have been revived as part of the United States Football League reboot, it was announced Monday.

The USFL revealed its eight teams in a Twitter post, but few others details have been revealed, including where the teams will play, and who owns them. The inaugural season is starting in April, and games will be played in one, as-of-yet-undisclosed location — with future years' games played in member cities. The league will play under mostly NFL rules, and focuses on young talent.

Quarterback Bobby Hebert led the Michigan Panthers to the USFL championship in 1983.

The other seven teams in the USFL reboot will be the Birmingham Stallions, New Jersey Generals, Houston Gamblers, Philadelphia Stars, New Orleans Breakers, Pittsburgh Maulers and Tampa Bay Bandits.

Michigan is in the Northern Division, with New Jersey, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

"We're excited to take this next major step in the development of a new USFL," Brian Woods, USFL president of football operations, said in a statement. "These eight teams form the core of our initial league membership and will represent an exciting brand of professional football coming this spring.

"We look forward to the start of our inaugural season."

The regular season is scheduled for 10 games, with semifinals between the top two teams in each division, and a championship game. Games will be played mostly on Saturday and Sunday, with occasional Friday and Monday broadcasts. The season is from April through June.

The Michigan Panthers were part of the original USFL, and won the inaugural championship, in 1983, finishing the season 12-6 and beating Philadelphia in the title game. They went 10-8 the following season, losing in triple-overtime in the playoffs to the Los Angeles Express at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, but then merged with the Oakland (California) Invaders for 1985, once the USFL shifted to a fall season. That decision to switch from the spring was made at the urging of future President and then-New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, who believed the head-to-head competition with the much-mightier NFL would force the NFL to strike a merger deal with the USFL. That didn't happen, obviously.

At Trump's urging, the USFL eventually sued the NFL, citing antitrust laws, but that didn't fly, either. The league folded before the 1986 season was played, and eventually was awarded $3.76 in damages — a check that has never been cashed.

The league was said to have lost more than $100 million. By switching to fall, it declined a huge TV contract offer from ABC that could've made the league not only financially solvent, but potentially profitable.

Still, the USFL was considered quality football. In fact, several USFL stars went on to great NFL careers, including eventual Pro Football Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Reggie White and Gary Zimmerman. The USFL did have other impacts on the NFL, including with rules. The USFL, for instance, was the first to use instant replay, and the NFL eventually adopted its protocols.

The Michigan Panthers, who were owned in the 1980s by Metro Detroit philanthropist A. Alfred Taubman, played at the Pontiac Silverdome, also home of the Detroit Lions, though the building was owned by a municipality and thus a share made sense. It's unclear who owns the rebooted Panthers, and if they would be able to play in 2023 and beyond at Detroit/Wayne County Stadium Authority-owned Ford Field.

The Detroit Sports Commission, reached Monday, said it knows nothing about the Panthers' plans, with a spokesman adding that it's "not in our wheelhouse." A Panthers Twitter account, created Monday, had a single post: "We are the Michigan Panthers." They will play under their old colors: Royal Plum and Champagne Silver.

The USFL, which counts Fox Sports as a minority owner with a $150 million commitment over three years, is the latest startup football league — as sports fans and deep-pocketed business folks have long argued there's a place for spring football, during a lull in the sports calendar, and with legalized sports gambling across much of the United States. Still, in recent years, the AAF has come and gone, and the XFL has come and gone, twice. The USFL, building its own credibility, has hired Mike Pereira as head of officiating and Daryl "Moose" Johnston, a three-time Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys, as director of football operations. Popular sports broadcaster Colin Cowherd unveiled the eight teams on his show Monday.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984