USFL’s Gunslingers Reeling in a Shootout
If Clinton Manges were superstitious, he might have had a sense of doom the night of March 5, 1984, the night the lights went out while his San Antonio Gunslingers were playing a nationally televised game.
The newly organized USFL team had to wait in the dark for about 20 minutes before the lights were restored at Alamo Stadium. They wound up losing, 35-7, to the Houston Gamblers.
For the Gunslingers, there have been few bright moments since.
San Antonio last year was 7-11 and this year has struggled to a 4-12 record. But ineptness on the gridiron has almost been the least of the team’s worries.
Team members have been battling the front office for their paychecks since this season began.
Paychecks have bounced and have been as late as five weeks. Last month, May, the USFL Players Assn. filed grievances forcing payment on two past-due paychecks.
The franchise has been the target of countless lawsuits--most of them seeking collection on bad debts.
Fan support has steadily diminished from a season-high 21,800 in the March 10 game against Tampa Bay to 4,900 last Sunday against Los Angeles. The team sold only 9,700 season tickets.
A south Texas oilman and rancher, Manges stirred up intense opposition when he convinced the San Antonio school board, in a hastily called meeting, to grant him a 30-year lease on Alamo Stadium, an facility used for high school athletic events.
The district still is able to use the stadium, to which Manges claims to have added millions of dollars worth of improvements. He has, in fact, added artificial turf and a new track.
Manges’ lease on the stadium so angered residents living near the facility that they filed suit seeking to have the lease nullified. A district judge upheld the lease, but the case is under appeal.
The school board since has had a change of heart (and of membership) and now argues in court that the lease should be torn up because it was granted during an illegal meeting.
The controversy, payroll problems and confusion surrounding the Gunslingers have taken their toll on the team members, coaches and the news media.
Head Coach Jim Bates resigned May 18, hours before the team was to play Oakland.
Players, who San Antonio sports columnist Kevin O’Keeffe says “lead the league in patience,” have held stormy meetings and discussed walkouts.
Last weekend, the team came within hours of disbanding before Manges came up with two overdue paychecks and preserved his players’ contracts. The players association had filed a grievance and an arbitrator had ruled if they were not paid by June 8, all 50 players would become free agents.
Manges has taken many of his troubles out on the media, banning certain reporters from the press box for what he terms “negative” reporting.
He has blamed San Antonio’s “establishment” for many of his woes, refusing to get more specific than saying he is referring to “Republicans.”
And he has vowed that the team will survive.
“It’ll be here when all the rest are gone,” he once said.
Some team members still express faith in Manges.
“I know him a little better than the other players,” linebacker Putt Choate said. “This football team is his baby. He really loves it.”
Even though management has not always run the team in a conventional manner, Choate said he “always felt like they were doing the best they could.”
Fans are not so charitable in their assessment of the team.
Fred Shussler, an advertising account executive and Gunslinger supporter, said the team has “played with a lot of heart” but have been “surrounded by negatives.”
“It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by a bunch of turkeys,” he said.
Several attempts were made to contact team General Manager Roger Gill and Manges, but calls were not returned.
Choate said he could not predict what lies ahead for the Gunslingers.
“Mr. Manges has said he’s going to have a team next year and it’s going to be here,” Choate said. “I don’t think it would do the league any good for this team to fold. It could be the first domino.”