IN THE EARLY 1980s, a New Orleans antiques dealer by the name of David Dixon came up with a terrific idea.

Pro football in the spring.

The NFL's popularity was soaring, but it wasn't the 365-day-a-year phenomena it is now.

Fans didn't lie awake at night fretting over players skipping OTAs because, well - brace yourself - there were no OTAs back then. The scouting combine was in its infancy. And the draft wasn't anywhere close to the national holiday it is today.

Dixon, who was instrumental in helping New Orleans get an NFL expansion team in the mid-60s, felt there was a market for a budget-conscious spring league that squeezed its season between the Super Bowl and the start of NFL training camps.

And he was right. His creation, the United States Football League, debuted in 1983 and was an immediate ratings success on ABC and ESPN. Many teams, including the league's Philadelphia franchise, the Stars, became extremely popular in their markets.

Then, along came a New York real estate developer named Donald Trump, who convinced the rest of the league's owners that the spring was for small-time thinkers and that the really big money was in the fall.

Two years later, the USFL went out of business.

Trump's level of culpability in the demise of the spring league depends on whom you talk to.

If you talk to Trump, well, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee will tell you he not only didn't kill the USFL, he almost single-handedly kept it afloat during the final two years of its short existence.

Others believe the USFL might have lived a long and healthy life if Trump hadn't convinced the other owners to move to the fall.

The truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere in between.

"I actually think I got the league to go as far as it went,'' Trump said seven years ago in Mike Tollin's excellent 30 for 30 ESPN documentary, "Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL?'' "I think without me, the league would have folded a lot sooner.''

To be sure, the USFL was having problems even before Trump came aboard after the first season. In their haste to be competitive and taken seriously, many of the 12 original owners ignored the league's initial five-year plan, which called for judicious spending on players early on.

"The idea was let's crawl before we walk and walk before we run,'' said former Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars president Carl Peterson, whose team appeared in all three of the league's championship games and won two of them. "The first year you'd have one large signing guy. The second year, two. The third, three. You'd pay those guys whatever you thought you could afford. But teams immediately violated that.''

"We had an outline of restrained spending and build the product,'' said Steve Ehrhart, who served as the league's first executive director and later was the president of the league's Memphis Showboats, whose players included future Eagle and Hall of Famer Reggie White.

"The idea, the platform, was keep our salaries down. But that's easy to say, harder to do. I remember the Michigan Panthers (who defeated the Stars in the league's first championship game). They started 1-2 that first season. Their owner, Alfred Taubman, immediately told his people they needed to get better players. Next thing you know, they're signing three guys off the Steelers' offensive line.''

The USFL's willingness to spend money resulted in the spring league signing many of the top college players, as well as dozens of NFL veterans. But while it was having remarkable success acquiring talent, it wasn't generating nearly enough revenue from television and ticket sales to cover the cost of paying them. Even with TV deals with ABC and ESPN, the league lost more than $30 million in its first year. Some of the league's owners were equipped to deal with those kinds of financial losses. Most weren't.

"You had payrolls in the league that had quickly reached the level of the smaller payrolls in the NFL,'' said former USFL executive Bob Rose. "At the time, NFL teams were making $14 million a year in TV revenue. USFL teams were making $1 million a year (from their contracts with ABC and ESPN). So you had a 14-to-1 disparity in TV revenue. That's where the predicament lied.''

Trump came aboard after the first season, buying the New Jersey Generals from Oklahoma oilman J. Walter Duncan for $8.5 million.

His presence immediately raised the league's profile in the country's largest media market. He put the Generals on the back page of the city's tabloids. When he spoke, the media listened. And wrote about it.

"In some ways, Trump was very good for the league because he was absolutely the greatest circus barker that's ever been,'' Rose said. "And he had credibility with the New York media. I would sit in meetings and would think, 'The media isn't going to buy that.' But then he would go out and talk to them and the media did buy it. Donald and the media had a very symbiotic relationship at the time.''

"When Donald came in with his pizzazz and bravado or whatever you want to call it, he was able to kind of stabilize (the league), at least for that second year with his ability to get attention,'' said Ehrhart, who has been the executive director of the Liberty Bowl for the last 23 years.

"He was constantly poking the NFL bear by making an offer to Lawrence Taylor and signing Brian Sipe and going after Don Shula. Frankly, if Donald hadn't come into the league in the second year, I'm not sure we would have even made it to the third year.''

Just a few months after he bought the Generals, Trump's pursuit of Shula earned him an invitation on CBS's NFL Today. Imagine the NFL's unhappiness over a USFL owner appearing on the No. 1-rated NFL pregame show to talk about hiring away one of its top coaches.

Now, Shula never had any intention of leaving the Miami Dolphins. But Trump had managed to convince the New York papers that he was close to signing him.

"You talk about the ultimate salesman,'' Rose said. "About halfway through the CBS interview with (Brent) Musburger, Donald says, 'Yeah, the negotiations went well. Don knows the league is growing by leaps and bounds and is directly competing with the NFL. We've had great negotiations and we've agreed on almost all of the business points of the contract.'

"Then he pauses and says, 'But there is one sticking point. And quite honestly, I just can't comply with the request. Don also wants a unit in Trump Tower.' Then he goes on and on talking about Trump Tower, which had just been built. He says, 'It's a fabulous facility and it's got a great view.' It turned into a television commercial for Trump Tower.' ''

From the outset, Trump made it clear that he had absolutely no interest in the concept of spring football. He called the spring a "wasteland'' for football. "If God had wanted football in the spring, he wouldn't have invented baseball,'' he said. He called for a vote on a move to the fall at the very first league meeting he attended after buying the Generals.

Trump felt there was no future for the league in the spring. "Even if we cut our losses in the spring, there was no foreseeable chance of making a profit,'' Trump said in his 1987 book, Trump: The Art of the Deal.

"And a lot of our weaker owners couldn't afford to lose another dime. We needed to take radical action. And that's what I stood up and said.''

"Even before Donald ever got into the league, we were already in a very difficult place,'' acknowledged Ehrhart.

"We needed the big cities based on our contract with ABC. But many of them were struggling. I remember having to take $30,000 in cash myself to Chicago for their opening game in the second season just to pay for their uniforms.

"We had to sell expansion franchises to keep the money coming in.''

The USFL expanded from 12 teams in its inaugural year to 18 in its second year, which ended up being a major mistake, since most of those expansion teams failed. The league ended up cutting back to 14 teams for its third and final season in '85.

"People started drinking the Kool-Aid and pretty soon we're up to 18 teams,'' Peterson said. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, what happened to crawl before we walk, and walk before we run?' "

Trump saw the USFL as a way of getting what he really wanted, which was an NFL team. He felt that if the league moved to the fall, it could force a merger with the NFL, either by getting a fall TV contract, or, more likely, filing an antitrust suit against the NFL.

"Donald clearly came in with an agenda after being foiled (in ownership attempts) by both the NFL and Major League Baseball,'' Rose said. "The USFL was his attempt to get into a club - the NFL - that wasn't offering him admittance.

"He never has been a team player. Like everything else he's been involved in, Donald was in it for Donald. He clearly didn't give a (bleep) what the other owners thought.''

Three months after he bought the Generals, one of Trump's assistants, Jay Seltzer, sent a memo to Stars owner Myles Tanenbaum, a staunch spring advocate, about the potential outcome of a merger with the NFL if the USFL moved to the fall.

He said some teams almost certainly would be left out, but "presumably they would be 'paid off' by reimbursement plus a profit of some proportions.''

Tanenbaum wrote back to Seltzer that Trump's merger strategy "troubles me greatly.''

Tanenbaum, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 82, strongly believed in the concept of pro football in the spring. The Stars became the USFL's showcase team by spending judiciously on a few star players, drafting smartly and signing NFL castoffs who made the most of a second chance.

But many of the league's other owners panicked as their financial losses mounted in the spring. The more Trump talked about big money in the fall, the better it sounded.

A month after the USFL's second season, the owners voted 12-2 to move to the fall beginning in 1986. Tanenbaum was one of the two dissenting votes.

But after the league suspended operations in the late summer of '86, even Tanenbaum reluctantly admitted that Trump's move-to-the-fall strategy probably had been the USFL's only survival option.

"I will defend Donald in this regard,'' he told the Inquirer's Chuck Newman in August of '86. "We could not generate enough revenue to continue to operate (in the spring) because people don't watch football on TV in the spring.''

Trump ultimately found an important ally in his move-to-the-fall campaign in Chicago White Sox minority owner Eddie Einhorn. He was almost as influential as Trump in convincing the other owners to move to the fall.

Einhorn, a former TV executive who had helped negotiate many of Major League Baseball's TV deals, was supposed to take over the league's financially troubled Chicago franchise and spearhead the USFL's negotiations for a new TV deal if it moved to the fall.

"Einhorn was a big force in the decision to move to the fall,'' Peterson said. "He carried a lot of weight because of his affiliation with the White Sox and his experience on baseball's broadcast committee.

"He told us one of two things would happen if we moved to the fall. Either a number of teams would be absorbed into the NFL as expansion teams. Or we were going to win the lawsuit. Because there was no doubt in his mind that, even back then, the NFL monopolized programming for pro football in the fall.

"He was right on the second part of it. Trouble is, everybody that voted for (moving to the fall) thought there would be a big revenue windfall, either from a TV deal in the fall or damages from our lawsuit. It didn't happen.''

No, it didn't. Einhorn never tried very hard to negotiate a fall TV deal with any of the major networks. Fox wasn't a sports broadcasting player yet, and ABC, NBC and CBS all were televising NFL games in the fall, which clearly supported the USFL's claim that the NFL was a monopoly.

Less than two months after the USFL voted to move to the fall, it dropped the other shoe, filing a $1.32 billion suit against the NFL, accusing the league of antitrust violations with respect to television, stadium availability, player contracts, scheduling and media relations.

The good news for the USFL was it won the lawsuit, convincing a six-person New York jury that the NFL indeed was a monopoly and had committed a slew of antitrust violations.

The bad news was the jurors had so little sympathy for Trump and his fellow owners that they awarded the league just $1 in damages.

Less than a week after the July 1986 verdict, the USFL's owners voted to suspend the '86 season and never played another game.

Trump readily has admitted that he was the main reason for the chump-change damage award. In one of the most curious decisions of the 42-day trial, he was the only USFL owner that the league's attorney, Harvey Myerson, put on the stand. Let's just say he did not come off as sympathetic.

"I was part of the problem,'' Trump admitted in his book. "As a witness, I was well-spoken and professional, I think. But that probably played into the NFL's hands. From day one, the NFL painted me as a vicious, greedy, Machiavellian billionaire, intent only on serving my selfish ends at everyone's expense.''

It didn't take a lot of paint.

Trump might be the only guy in the world who could make the NFL's profiteering, silver-spoon owners look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

"We were told later that the NFL conducted a mock trial before the actual trial,'' Ehrhart said. "In the mock, the USFL won a huge verdict. So they changed their whole strategy.

"Instead of trying to defend their individual predatory actions, such as that infamous Harvard Business School study about how to kill the USFL, they went after Donald Trump. They made Donald the face of the league. It was a smart move.

"Portrayed him as the rich, brash guy trying to kill the poor, little NFL. And our lawyer played right into that by putting Donald on the stand. He was the only owner who testified for us.

"We asked Myerson why he didn't put other owners on the stand, like the guy in Birmingham (Marvin Warner), who was trying to do some good things for his community. But Myerson was playing to Trump. He was a New York-suspenders kind of guy.

"The NFL's attorneys were able to portray their owners as the good ol' guys, pure as the driven snow. Just trying to get along. And then these bad guys (from the USFL) show up in town and try to rob them.''

Before the verdict, the NFL was concerned enough about a possible negative verdict to discuss a possible merger with the USFL.

"My understanding is that the NFL did talk to us about taking in a couple of teams,'' said Peterson, who later would spend two decades as the president of the Kansas City Chiefs. "But the (USFL) negotiators wanted at least four (teams), or even six. Two wasn't going to get it done.''

Ehrhart thinks the USFL still might have had a chance to survive if it had gone ahead and played in the fall of '86. The league was down to eight teams. Just two, Trump's Generals and the Tampa Bay Bandits, were in NFL markets. They still had a TV deal with ESPN.

But the embarrassing $1 verdict had broken most of the owners' will to go on. Plus, Myerson had advised them that not playing in '86 was a wiser legal strategy.

"After the trial, we were trivialized by the NFL and others as the $1 league,'' Ehrhart said. "That kind of disheartened everybody, whether it was owners or sponsors or whomever.

"Then, when we met after the verdict, Myerson stood up and gave us this speech about how this was the most unique and unusual verdict in history and they violated the law. He said if we just hold off playing, we'll win on appeal and get an injunction against them preventing them from being on all three television networks.''

In March of 1988, a federal appeals court upheld the '86 verdict and damage award. The USFL never got an injunction against the NFL. Myerson, whose nickname was "Heavy Hitter Harvey,'' was sentenced to 70 months in prison in the '90s for tax fraud and overbilling clients. He died in 2012.

A football league that started with such promise and hope survived just three seasons. Did Donald Trump kill it? That depends largely on whether you believe it could have survived in the spring.

"Thirty years later, people say, 'Well, Trump pushed us to move to the fall,' '' Ehrhart said. "But it was the facts that pushed us to the fall. Trump didn't kill the league. There were a lot of reasons the league didn't make it, and they all can't be laid at the foot of Trump.

"There just wasn't any way we could have stayed in the spring. We didn't have enough owners who would've been able and willing to spend the millions that it would have taken to fight that fight in the springtime.''

Trump always has savored his victories and dismissed his failures as insignificant events.

"It's kind of funny because when he's asked about it now, it's almost like he wasn't even in the league,'' Rose said.

"But at the time, it was the biggest thing going on in his life. He may have had other business deals involving a lot more money. But he wasn't getting the kind of publicity from those that he got from owning a football team in the New York market.''

@Pdomo Blog: philly.com/Eaglesblog