Jacksonville’s sports scene changed forever in 1993 when the NFL announced that the city would be awarded an expansion franchise, the Jaguars.
But many say that Jax wouldn’t have ever been considered for NFL expansion if not for the city’s brief stint hosting another professional football team: the Jacksonville Bulls of the USFL.
In 1984, Jacksonville was one of six cities to be awarded an expansion franchise for the USFL, a pro football startup entering its second season that aimed to compete with the NFL. Jax’s lack of an existing pro team made it particularly appealing to the league as it attempted to carve out a niche audience.
The team was dubbed the Jacksonville Bulls, supposedly a play on the name of owner Fred Bullard. Its primary colors were garnet, orange, and gray, a nod to local UF and FSU football fans and a nice compromise between the two. It would play its games at Gator Bowl Stadium, the precursor to TIAA Bank Field.
Bullard brought in former Miami Dolphins stars Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick as part of a large marketing campaign to get the city excited for the Bulls. Georgia Bulldogs radio announcer Larry Munson was hired as the team’s play-by-play man.
The excitement for the Bulls was so strong that the city even painted the Mathews Bridge in the team’s garnet/maroon red in anticipation for its first season.
The Bulls, coached by Lindy Infante, struggled in their first season of play. They finished 6-12, including a six-game losing streak to close out the year.
But despite the weak on-field product, Jaxsons came out in droves to support the team. The Bulls led the USFL in attendance during their inaugural season, topping 70,000 fans on two different occasions.
In the offseason, the team picked up QB Brian Sipe, a one-time NFL MVP with the Cleveland Browns. They also added two former Heisman Trophy-winning running backs, Mike Rozier and Archie Griffin.
The Bulls fared a little better during the 1985 season. Despite losing Sipe to injury early in the year, the team missed the playoffs by just one game at 9-9. It again sat at the top of the league’s attendance rankings.
Things were looking good for the Bulls. Unfortunately, the USFL was in freefall, losing millions of dollars each year and entangled in an antitrust suit against the NFL.
The league looked to restructure following the ’85 season, eliminating several western conference teams. The Denver Gold’s assets, including much of its staff, were to be absorbed by the Bulls. Gold head coach Mouse Davis was set to replace the departing Infante as the Bulls’ head coach for the 1986 season.
Jacksonville was also named the host of the 1986 league championship game.
The 1986 season would never take place, though. The league’s antitrust suit, hoped by league officials to provide enough money to replace its losses, resulted in just a $3 settlement. The league suspended operations, and just like that, the Bulls were gone.
Jacksonville lost its football team, but it gained the attention of NFL owners who took notice of the warm reception given to the Bulls. In 1987, just one year after the Bulls shut down, the Houston Oilers briefly flirted with the idea of relocating to Jax before agreeing on a new lease in Houston. (The Oilers would later become the Tennessee Titans.)
And just six years later, the city landed the Jaguars, something that might not have happened without the example the city set when hosting the Bulls.
So while the Bulls only lasted for two seasons within a league that only lasted three seasons itself, the team deserves to be remembered for its long-term impact on the city.