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USFL: Remembering the Denver Gold

The Denver Gold are not back, but they’re not forgotten.

Syndication: Observer and?Eccentric John Heider/hometownlife.com / USA TODAY NETWORK

For pretty much all of the 1960’s and most of the 1970’s, the Denver Broncos were largely regarded as a laughing-stock of professional football.

That all changed in 1977 when the Orange Crush defense and an offense marshalled by quarterback Craig Morton took the Mile High City to Super Bowl XII in New Orleans. While they were overlooked and disregarded by just about everyone an any time zone not called Mountain, there was no denying the rocky mountain region was crazy for football. The consecutive stadium sellout streak the Broncos enjoy today was just seven years-old then, beginning in week 1 of the 1970 season.

Prior to the start of the league’s inaugural 1983 season, Denver had been identified as a key market for the USFL in no small part due to the Broncos ravenous fanbase.

It started with former Broncos coach John Ralston (1972-1976), whom Wikipedia credits as the league’s first administrator, when he found the Gold an owner in real estate developer Ron Blanding. Once Blanding was on board, the Gold went to the Broncos well and hired former Denver coach Red Miller as the team’s first coach. Having taken the Broncos to that Super Bowl in 1977, Miller was a favorite. He had only recently become available after Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser ousted him in favor of coach Dan Reeves to start the 1981 season.

With Red Miller again at the helm of a Denver sports franchise that called old Mile High Stadium ‘home,’ he set out to field a team. Again, the Gold went to the Broncos well, signing backups and castoffs, most notably quarterback Craig Penrose who appeared in 8 games during that 1977 Super Bowl season. However, friction quickly developed between Miller and Blanding before the team even took the field. As Wikipedia says:

Miller bristled at Blanding’s bargain-basement approach to running the team. The players used rented cars from Rent-a-Wreck, some of which were in rather poor condition. They had to rely on bare-bones meals, traveled to training camp in old school buses, and only had 100 uniforms for the 120 men they invited to camp. Blanding also balked at signing any of the Gold’s first seven picks in the 1983 draft. It got to the point that an irate Miller once threatened to quit unless Blanding decided to “act like a fucking owner of a professional football team.”

After turning in a 4-7 record through the first 11-games, Miller had enough of Blanding’s penny pinching and his Denver Gold coaching experience came to an end. After a brief interim period of one game coached by defensive line coach Charley Armey, coaching duties were turned over to yet another former-Bronco, Craig Morton. Under Morton, the Gold went 3-3 to finish the season. Denver had a stout defense, but offensively they were lacking. They finished 7-11 and third place in the Pacific division behind the Los Angeles Express and the Oakland Invaders (coach by... John Ralston).

Craig Morton’s 1984 Denver Gold got off to a terrific start, going 7-1 to start the season. Under starter Craig Penrose, they were unstoppable... Until the lost 8 of their next 10 to close out the season. Ron Blanding sold the team mid-season to Denver auto dealer Doug Spedding. Again the Gold finished in 3rd place of the Pacific Division.

In 1985, Coach Craig Morton was replaced by Houston Gamblers OC Mouse Davis, the man behind HOF Jim Kelly’s early USFL success. It was in this season that the USFL decided that it wanted to compete head-on with the NFL by instituting a fall schedule in favor over the spring schedule that had filled Mile High Stadium in Denver. Unable to compete with new quarterback John Elway and the Denver Broncos, attendance plummeted, despite an 11-7 playoff clinching record. In what should have been a home game, the Gold went on the road for their first and only playoff appearance. They were annihilated by the Memphis Showboats, 48-7. This was their final game.

Before the 1986 season could get started, the USFL was unraveling. As Wikipedia says:

In hopes of finding a way out of a bad situation, Spedding announced in November that he planned to move the Gold to Portland, Oregon to take the place of the departed Portland Breakers. However, just three months later, Spedding sold the Gold’s player contracts to the Jacksonville Bulls.[2] Although the move was billed as a merger, Spedding retained the Gold’s intellectual properties. He seriously considered joining Bassett’s proposed spring football league before Bassett’s failing health prevented that league from launching.[14] Instead Spedding, Bassett, and the USFL as a whole were doomed by the ill-advised attempt to move the playing season to the fall in 1986 in direct competition with the more-established NFL.

Although the Denver Gold didn’t persist beyond the league that featured them, they gave it a damn good try. Under Blanding, it was supposed that the Gold were the only USFL team to turn a profit. It was a team that enjoyed the greatest attendance in the USFL, right up until they moved the season into conflict with the Denver Broncos. For a state that loves it’s own, it featured a who’s who of Denver Broncos coaches and quarterbacks.

If the USFL is able to buck the recent trend of failed developmental leagues, expansion is absolutely on the table. Could the Gold come back? Fingers crossed.

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