A11 Football League President/Chief Operating Officer Michael Keller has extensive history with the outdoor alternative professional football genre.
Keller worked in the United States Football League in the 1980s, the World League of American Football in the 1990s and the XFL in the 2000s. It is his time as Director of Football Operations with the USFL’s Michigan Panthers, in his home state, however, that he remembers with passion.
A football player at the University of Michigan, Keller helped bring another professional football team to the Pontiac Silverdome – the spring’s counterpart to the National Football League’s Detroit Lions.
Professional football in the spring? One might think it would have been a tough sell – until one considers the Lions had just one winning season in the previous 10 prior to the Panthers’ arrival in the spring of 1983.
"I don’t think it was that difficult, to tell you the truth,” Keller said. “The Detroit Lions hadn’t been busting the door down in the National Football League, and it’s a great football state. The state had a great following for the sport, and with the status of the Lions, I think there was a segment of the population that was excited for us coming in and receptive to what we were telling them.”
After five weeks of the initial USFL season, Michigan was 1-4 and in last place in the Central Division. Some personnel changes, and the maturation of prized rookies such as quarterback Bobby Hebert and wide receiver Anthony Carter, turned the Panthers’ fortunes around to the point where the regular season ended with Michigan qualifying for the playoffs with a 12-6 mark.
"We did start slow, which was not in our best interest,” said Keller. “We had a bunch of top-notch young guys, but the one area we needed to bolster was to get quality offensive linemen. Suddenly, Bobby Hebert was protected…the offense really started gelling. There were leadership qualities that came in. It kind of supplemented the guys we already had.”
The Panthers drew decent crowds in that first season, but nothing like the 60,237 fans who saw Michigan’s 37-21 playoff win over the Oakland Invaders at the Silverdome. Some of the crowd even rushed the field and tore down the goalposts.
"It was a culmination of the season, and it was a football championship-starved community that loved the sport,” Keller said. “And as the season went on…we started winning. We broke even, and then we started beating everybody. We not only were winning, but we were winning with style, and we were fun to watch. It all started coming together in the second half of the season. And we won in convincing fashion. It was the celebration to beat all celebrations.”
The Panthers played the Philadelphia Stars in Denver, Colorado, in the first USFL Championship Game in front of 50,906 fans at Mile High Stadium. The icing on the cake came early in the fourth quarter, when Hebert and Carter hooked up for a 48-yard touchdown pass en route to a 24-22 victory.
"It was a crescendo. The noise and the excitement kept rising and rising,” said Keller. “Coach (Jim) Stanley and his staff and all the work we put in…those rookies no longer were rookies. They had that gleam in their eye. A lot of people thought we were the best team in the league at that point. And we had a good crowd out in Denver, and 20,000 Michigan fans came.”
In 1984, Michigan started out 6-0, but lost Carter for the remainder of the season with a broken arm in the sixth game. Carter’s injury, and those to other players, resulted in the Panthers finishing the regular season at 10-8, but still in the playoffs. In the first round, however, Michigan lost in the longest game in professional football history, 27-21 in three overtimes, to the Los Angeles Express on the road.
"It was an interesting year,” Keller said. “We came out and we started the season and won the first six games. We were just dominating everybody. We lost Anthony Carter and a couple other players to injuries, and no team in the USFL at that time was deep enough to replace the players we lost. Getting into the playoffs was a great accomplishment. We weren’t the same team, but, again, we were pretty darn good.”
The Panthers never had another chance to try to get back to the USFL Championship Game. Due to the league’s decision to move to a fall schedule beginning in 1986, the Panthers had no choice but to merge with the Invaders for the 1985 season.
And Keller’s home-state team no longer existed.
"It was one of our biggest disappointments,” said Keller. “When the decision was made to move to the fall, there was no place to play. We tried to convince the Tigers to allow us to play at the Tiger Stadium, and they wouldn’t, and I don’t blame them. The Pistons at the time were playing in the Silverdome. We looked at being a lame-duck, and that wasn’t in our best interest.”
As for the lessons Keller takes from his USFL experiences into the new A11FL, they are many.
"We’re forming a league that, we feel, is going to prevent some of the problems that the USFL had,” he said. “Every team was owned by different groups. A single-entity formation allows us to prevent some of the bad ownership decisions in the USFL. Everyone wants to talk about Donald Trump, but there were owners who probably didn’t have enough money, so they went cheap.
“The best way for a league to be successful is to have great competitions between teams. The A11FL is not going to have one team that can pay more. It’s going to be a level playing field.”