USFL Championship will also be a celebration of longevity: 'We're just getting going'

It is hard to be a back-to-back champion in pro football, which places the Birmingham Stallions on the cusp of a neat little bit of history this weekend.

There are reasons for that; football is a copycat industry and everyone tries to usurp the champ, the sport by its nature is unpredictable, and you're often at the mercy of the gridiron gods.

And then there is the blatantly obvious explanation: It is hard to go back-to-back if your league doesn’t last for two seasons.

Such is the reality of football entities that have sprung up over the years to either compete with or supplement the NFL. That the Stallions, behind QB Alex McGough and head coach Skip Holtz, have a shot at a second ring when taking on the Pittsburgh Maulers in the championship game on Saturday (8 p.m. ET on NBC) is first and foremost because the USFL has achieved a rare feat.

"We’re here," USFL president Daryl Johnston told me this week. "From the beginning, we were built to last, and we had the framework in place to make that happen. We’re just getting going."

Football history is littered with fresh leagues that got going but got no further. Attempts to give football supporters some real live action to occupy their time and remote controls during the interminable pause between NFL seasons have been mostly fruitless.

From the original XFL, to the Alliance of American Football, to a bunch more long-forgotten acronyms, the repeating story was usually one of initial optimism, followed by fiscal fact, followed by a sad slide into disappearance. Some didn’t get through the first year. Not many reached the end of the second.

The USFL feels different because it essentially is different. The stability provided by a multi-year television contract with FOX Sports and NBC means Johnston is optimistically looking ahead, rather than peering over his shoulder and nervously scrutinizing the financials.

"We are still fighting that battle though," Johnston added. "Birmingham is a great example — we are still getting people saying to us ‘are you coming back for Year 3?’ The hesitancy is still there. We just have to keep doing what we are doing and people will realize we are not going anywhere."

New leagues need victories both small and significant to keep up the momentum, and there have been some.

The use of a sky judge (FOX Sports analyst Mike Pereira, former Vice President of NFL Officiating) who can review anything assists in keeping human error out of the equation — especially on key plays that can decide games — has been widely lauded as an efficient and worthy triumph.

Overtime rules keep the action spritely, and the product is intended to be fun and fast-moving while refusing to compromise on the raw integrity of being a football product.

Johnston is proud of technical things, like keeping kickoff returns a crucial part of the game by moving the kickoff back, and prescient ones — the USFL had an emergency quarterback provision before the NFL discovered it needed one, prompted by Brock Purdy’s injury in the NFC Championship.

However, the heartbeat of what is best about the USFL is arguably in the opportunity that it provides for its cast of players. Call it what you want — a second chance, an opening of the door, a shot at redemption — but it is something real and tangible.

According to Johnston, last year USFL players attended 188 NFL workouts and were present at 60 NFL camps. Among those, 19 were still on NFL 53-man rosters at the end of the season.

Last year’s USFL MVP, New Jersey Generals wideout KaVontae Turpin, signed with the Dallas Cowboys and became a Pro Bowl kick returner.

This season’s Offensive Player of the Year, Houston Gamblers running back Mark Thompson, has spoken openly about his pursuit of the NFL, as has his defensive counterpart, Michigan Panthers linebacker Frank Ginda.

"I love seeing these guys chase the dream," Johnston said. "We are an unbelievable fit for guys who don’t necessarily fit the obvious NFL size metrics, but are just straight-up football players who understand the game and give it everything."

Two seasons in, the most important thing for the USFL has been to become part of the landscape. The specifics of its identity aren’t particularly important. There’s no requirement to be designated as a feeder league or a summer league or a competitor to the NFL, which was never the point to begin with.

It is competitive football for football fans at a time when there is no pro football, which is a good enough hook in itself, without all the paraphernalia.

Truth be told, it never hurts to have a team that has its stuff together, and the Stallions go into the clash at Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton as a big favorite after a 8-2 regular season and a South Division Championship thumping of the New Orleans Breakers.

Back-to-back is a worthy achievement for a team in any sport. Back-to-back for a startup football league is also rare and notable. And the USFL is sticking around for more.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.