United States Football League officials Wednesday said lack of funds was the reason they fired Los Angeles Express Coach John Hadl and his staff, effective at season's end.
The league, which has owned the team since Jan. 31, said it does not have the money to honor the coaches' contracts. In fact, most of the front office staff also will be released next month, and even Don Klosterman, the team's president, is uncertain about his future.
However, Express assistant coaches interviewed Wednesday said they are not sure they believe the league's explanation.
"There can be no other reason (for being fired) than us being 3-11," said Keith Gilbertson, defensive coordinator. "If we were 11-3, I'd wonder if they'd do the same thing."
The Express staff feels that USFL Commissioner Harry Usher, who told Klosterman three weeks ago that the moves would be made, expected more from the defending Pacific Division champions.
The staff believes that Usher's action is a result of his disappointment in the team's lack of success on the field. The coaches also are frustrated because they do not think they are responsible for the team's dismal record.
"They're cutting expenses at our expense," said Don McLeary, receivers and special teams coach. "It's like they're using us to get by this hard time. They're treating us like we're second-class citizens."
Which is what many believe the Express has been all season.
--It has played the entire season without an owner and amid constant rumors that it was folding. Players were always wondering whether their next game would be their last.
--It played its last two home games in front of less than 5,000 fans at the Coliseum, causing it to move its final home game on June 15 to 5,000-seat Pierce College at Woodland Hills.
--It could not purchase free agents to replace injured players because the league, which controls the financial operations of the team, would not allow it.
"I don't really understand why we're being fired," said Ed Lambert, who coaches the running backs. "We haven't performed to our capabilities, but that's because of our injury situation.
"It's kind of inconsiderate to put us at a disadvantage and then release us when things don't turn out the way you expected them to. I thought we'd have more cooperation from the administrative people in the league and that they wouldn't hold us responsible for having fewer players because of injuries."
However, Bill McSherry, Executive Director of the USFL, insists that there was no correlation between the Express' record and the league's unwillingness to fund the team after this season.
"While some people think that if the team was 11-3 the situation would be different, I don't think that would be the case," McSherry said by telephone from New York. "We have great regard for their staff. It's just a matter of how far we can function under the circumstances."
The league has kept the Express financially afloat with an emergency fund, to which each USFL owner will have contributed more than $500,000 by season's end. McSherry said that the league will not be able to pay the Express staff after the season ends June 21.
Usher has spent the past week searching for prospective Express owners, but it's doubtful one will be found until the summer. The Express is hardly a marketable team at the moment.
Injuries have taken their toll.
The coaches computed that the equivalent of 130 games have been missed by players due to injuries this year, including five by quarterback Steve Young.
There have been 16 different combinations of starters on the offensive line. Only 37 players will be in uniform for tonight's Coliseum finale against the Denver Gold--six short of the normal 43.
"Not having an owner just strapped us down," said offensive coordinator Sam Gruneisen.
Gruneisen and several assistants already have begun looking for work, but without much success. Because most NFL teams have finalized their staffs, there are few immediate openings.
"From a football point of view, there are no jobs," Gruneisen said. "Plus, the pro teams are cutting back their scouting departments, so there are no possibilities there."
Hadl, meanwhile, is in no hurry to do anything.
"I'm just gonna lay back for a few months and see what transpires, and then I'll make some decisions," he said. "This is sort of the final blow this season. Everything that could have gone bad from January on has happened.
"First there was no owner, and then one negative thing led to another. We've been fighting all year long. But it's been a tremendous learning experience for me as far as going through the good times and bad. It has strengthened me as a coach and a person. We had a big year last year, but everything turned bad this year for a lot of reasons."