When the Raiders left Oakland in 1982, the city was left bereft of a professional football team to call its own. However, their loss was short-lived as the USFL soon formed. From 1983 to 1985, the Oakland Invaders did their part to fill the void left by the Raiders departure. This is their story.
The United States Football League was formed to provide football fans entertainment during the spring while combating the NFL for players and attention. Initially, when the USFL formed, Bay Area real estate magnates Jim Joseph and Tad Taube were supposed to be the owners of the Oakland Invaders. However, when the owner of the Los Angeles franchise, Alex Spanos, elected to purchase the San Diego Chargers instead, Joseph and Taube flipped a coin to determine who would take over the Los Angeles Express now without an owner. Joseph won the toss and sold his stake in the Invaders to Taube.
The Invaders first signing was Cedric Hardman, a defensive lineman for both the San Francisco 49ers and the Raiders. After Hardman, the team signed quarterback Fred Besana, wide receiver Gordon Banks, and ex-Raiders running back Arthur Whittington and tight end Raymond Chester.
The Invaders began their inaugural season in the spring of 1983 with a 24-0 win against the Arizona Wranglers on March 6, 1983. They opened their home schedule the following week against the Birmingham Stallions with a 20-14 loss in overtime at the Oakland Coliseum. After defeating the Michigan Panthers 33-27 the following week, the Invaders dropped their next two games to the Denver Gold and the Los Angeles Express.
The team never had a winning streak until late in the season, beginning with a 20-10 victory over the Express in Oakland. The next week, they defeated the New Jersey Generals 34-21 and the following week they kept up their momentum with a 16-10 win over the Denver Gold. All three victories were in Oakland. They finished the regular season with a 9-9 record (the best in their division) and headed to the playoffs.
In nine home games, the Invaders averaged more than 30,000 per game. Fred Besena ended the regular season having thrown 21 touchdowns to 16 interceptions for 3,980 yards. Arthur Whittington led the team with 1,043 yards rushing and six touchdowns. Raymond Chester, Gordon Banks and Wyatt Henderson each recorded more than 800 yards receiving and combined to receive 16 touchdowns in the Invader’s inaugural season. Their season ended in front of a crowd of more than 60,000 at the Pontiac Silverdome, as the Invaders lost to the Panthers 37-21 in the first round of the playoffs.
The Invaders had a 1-3 preseason, a sign of things to come. Their second season was not as good as their first as they began the year 0-9. The team woke up for the tenth game of the season against the Chicago Blitz, winning 17-13 and beginning a seven game winning streak. It was all for naught as Oakland dropped the final two games of the season to finish the year 7-11 and out of the playoffs.
Fred Besena struggled through out the whole year, only throwing for 2792 yards and 14 touchdowns. No one eclipsed 1,000 yards and only one receiver truly had a good year, Gordon Banks who gained 937 yards receiving and scored five touchdowns. Further hurting the franchise, attendance was down by 8,000 from the year before. Fatefully, the USFL voted to play in the fall of 1986, thereby challenging their NFL counterpart.
The Final Season
Before the next season began, the Invaders merged with the Michigan Panthers when it became clear that Michigan’s owner, A. Alfred Taubman, had no desire to compete with the Detroit Lions for the fall season. Taubman stayed on as a partner with the fiscal means that the team needed to survive while Taube stayed on as the managing general partner. With the Invaders as the surviving team, they entered the 1985 season determined to do redeem themselves from the previous year. After going undefeated in the preseason, the Invaders began the regular season 4-1-1 and never looked back.
They finished the season 13-4-1 and a division title but despite their improved record, the Invaders still only attracted 17,509 fans per game, a barely sustainable number. In their last game in the Oakland Coliseum, the Invaders defeated the Tampa Bay Bandits 30-27. The following week in Memphis, they defeated the Showboats 28-19 to reach the league championship at Giants Stadium in New York. After they lost to the Baltimore Stars 28-24, Taubman left the team and took his money with him, dooming the Invaders. Soon, the rest of the USFL would follow.
Since their second season, the USFL had been over aggressive in their efforts to be on the same fiscal field as the NFL. In their second season they expanded from 12 to 18 teams and by their third year there was widespread debate about playing in the fall rather than the spring. Around that time, the USFL decided to take the NFL to court, charging them with operating a monopoly.
While the USFL ultimately won, they only won $3.76, not nearly enough to help their struggling franchises. Though they were free to play in the fall, the USFL did not have the financial standing to compete with the NFL at that time and folded before they played a down in the fall. The 1985 USFL championship game between the Baltimore Stars and the Oakland Invaders was the final game played in the USFL.