Heavenly Stars remembered fondly

Kelvin Bryant, owner Myles Tanenbaum and coach Jim Mora celebrate the Stars’ championship during a celebration on July 16, 1984. (Michael Mercanti/Staff file photo)

JIM MORA sat in the den of his Palm Springs home, tan and fit and still so damn young-looking even at the age of 79.

Behind him, the walls were filled with dozens of pictorial memories of a successful coaching career that saw his teams win 125 NFL regular-season games. Only 24 other coaches in history have more victories.

But the photograph Mora was focused on at the moment had nothing to do with any of those 125 wins.

The picture shows him standing on a platform in JFK Plaza holding up a trophy with two other men.

It was taken 30 years ago today, at the end of the victory parade the city threw for Mora and his Philadelphia Stars after they won the United States Football League championship with a 23-3 win over George Allen’s Arizona Wranglers.

The other two men in the photo with Mora are the Stars’ late owner, Myles Tanenbaum, and team president Carl Peterson.

The USFL probably doesn’t ring a bell to most people under 40. The league, which played in the spring, wasn’t around very long. It lasted only three seasons before being killed by Donald Trump’s greed.

But the Stars were head and shoulders the best team in that league during its all-too-brief existence. They won two of the league’s three championships (1984-85) and lost in the title game in the other (1983). They won 41 of 54 regular-season games and seven of eight in the postseason.

And the city loved them. They had a 25,000 season-ticket base in only their second season of existence. More than 50,000 people lined the eight-block parade route after the ’84 championship game, and another 30,000 jammed JFK Plaza for the post-parade celebration.

It wasn’t the magnitude of the Phillies’ victory parade in ’08, but it was pretty impressive for a 2-year-old football team that played in the spring.

"I hear a lot of talk about how bad the Philly sports fans are," said David "Duck" Riley, a fullback for the Stars. "You gotta win. We had great support, because we won. When you win, you don’t hear about all that other stuff."

"But the other thing was, those players, they would have run through a wall for you to be successful. A lot of them were new to professional football. Some had been cut by NFL teams. This [league] was a second chance for them."

Said Chuck Commiskey, a starting guard on the Stars who would later play for Mora with the New Orleans Saints: "There was kind of a magic to the way it all kind of evolved. There wasn’t anybody that had a big ego. The older guys that came into that league were just trying to eke out 2 or 3 more years. You had other guys like me, who had been cut by NFL teams who were hungry for a second chance. And the USFL gave us that opportunity."

The architect of the Stars’ success was Peterson. He came to the team from the Eagles, where he had been Dick Vermeil’s player personnel chief and helped put together the Birds’ 1980 Super Bowl team.

He quickly built the Stars into a top-flight organization that would produce four NFL general managers, three NFL head coaches, five NFL coordinators, five players who would make a total of 18 Pro Bowl appearances and 18 players who would play 30 or more games or make 15 or more starts in the NFL.

He brought in NFL castoffs such as Riley and Commiskey, linebackers Sam Mills and Glenn Howard, quarterback Chuck Fusina, safety Mike Lush, tight end Steve Folsom and wide receiver Tom Donovan. His good friend, Lynn Stiles, who replaced him as the Eagles’ player personnel director, would give him a sneak peak at the NFL waiver wire so that he could sign players before they were claimed by other NFL teams.

He drafted and signed top young college players such as offensive linemen Irv Eatman and Bart Oates, running back Kelvin Bryant, defensive end William Fuller, linebackers Mike Johnson and George Jamison, cornerback/safety Antonio Gibson and punter Sean Landeta. Lured NFL players such as veteran Eagles linebacker John Bunting and 49ers nose tackle Pete Kugler and Chargers wide receiver Scott Fitzkee to the new league.

"Carl was coming out of the NFL," said Bill Kuharich, who was the Stars’ assistant GM and has spent more than a quarter century as an NFL personnel executive. "He knew where all of the bodies were buried. And he had a good eye for talent."

The Stars also had the benefit of having Penn State as one of their "territorial" schools. In addition to a draft, each USFL team had the rights to players – past and present – from a handful of schools in their region.

At the time, the Nittany Lions had one of the top college programs in the country. Between 1978 and 1982, they lost a total of 11 games and won the ’82 national championship.

"If we hadn’t signed Brad first, we probably wouldn’t have gotten Bart to play for us," Peterson acknowledged. "He always wanted to play with his brother."

"Everything just clicked. We hit a rough patch in that third season when we had to play in Baltimore. But even then, we overcame all of that and still won another championship. It speaks to the character of the people involved."

Mora wasn’t the Stars’ first head-coaching choice. Peterson hired Steelers assistant George Perles in July 1982 shortly after the USFL was formed. But less than 5 months later, before ever coaching a game, Perles quit to become the head coach at his alma mater, Michigan State.

He was. Even though Mora was hired only 3 weeks before the start of the Stars’ first training camp, the team went 15-3 in ’83 and advanced to the first USFL title game, thanks in large part to one of the most remarkable comebacks in pro football history.

Trailing the Chicago Blitz in their first playoff game by 21 points with 11 1/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Stars scored 28 unanswered points and won in overtime, 44-38, with Bryant, who rushed for more than 4,000 yards and scored 47 touchdowns in three seasons with the Stars, scoring from a yard out.

The next year, after adding Johnson, Jamison and Fuller to an already-potent defense, they went 16-2 in the regular season, holding 11 of their 18 opponents to 14 points or fewer. Then they stormed through the playoffs, outscoring their three playoff opponents, 71-20, and beating Arizona with ease in the championship game in Tampa.

The Stars’ defense, led by Mills, a future five-time Pro Bowler who was cut by both the NFL and CFL before joining the Stars, was the best unit in the league. It included 11 players who had started or would start a total of 771 games in the NFL. Mills, Fuller and Johnson all would go to multiple Pro Bowls. Fuller played 13 seasons in the NFL and had 100 1/2 sacks, including 35 1/2 during a 3-year stint with the Eagles.

"We had a good mix of some really good players and some who were just lunch-pail types of players who got everything out of their ability," said Vince Tobin, who was the Stars’ defensive coordinator and later, an NFL head coach with the Arizona Cardinals for five seasons. "And it worked. It blended together very well."

"It just goes to show we not only had good frontline guys, but we also had good depth. Long term, that’s really what helped us succeed and be so successful."

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