USFL’s Daryl Johnston on finding the right coaches, players

USFL’s Daryl Johnston on finding the right coaches, players

Mar 29

By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Daryl "Moose" Johnston leaned over his table, pen and Excel spreadsheet in hand, as league president Brian Woods read another name aloud on Day 1 of the United States Football League Draft last week.

Johnston was taking meticulous notes, analyzing roster construction in real time, not because he was putting together one of the eight teams but to see what the competitive balance of the league will look like.

After all, that’s his job as the USFL's Executive Vice President of Football Operations. 

Thirty-two years after he was drafted 39th overall in the 1989 NFL Draft by Pro Football Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson and the Dallas Cowboys, there’s no place Johnston would rather be than overseeing USFL teams as they select names from a draft pool of nearly 500 players for the chance to play professional football this spring.

Johnston has immersed himself in making sure the product on the field is one fans will enjoy when the regular season kicks off in Birmingham on April 16. In many cases, he was directly involved in the recruitment and signing of the league’s head coaches — from NFL vets Jeff Fisher (Michigan Panthers), Todd Haley (Tampa Bay Bandits) and Mike Riley (New Jersey Generals) to first-time head coach Kirby Wilson (Pittsburgh Maulers) — and the players the USFL hopes will become its stars.

Johnston isn't shy talking about how important it was for him to not just lure respected NFL and collegiate coaches to the USFL but also to recruit the best talent available to play in the league. The USFL was competing with the Canadian Football League for talent and selling itself as a league that does not want to impede a player’s desire to land in the NFL. 

"If we were a little bit slow in making decisions or getting people to buy in to what our vision was, there was a chance that they could leave for the CFL," Johnston told FOX Sports. "And that was something that was going back and forth a little bit through that whole process. We lost some players to the CFL; the CFL lost some players to the USFL."

But the back-and-forth battle made the wins for Johnston that much sweeter. As an example, he points to the bookend selections of former Michigan Wolverines quarterback Shea Patterson and former NFL first-round draft pick Paxton Lynch, who were the first and final USFL players drafted on Day 1. Patterson and Lynch will battle for the Michigan Panthers' starting QB job.  

"To have Michigan bookend the draft with Shea Patterson starting the night and Paxton Lynch ending the night, I mean, can you script that any better?" Johnston said.

Having won three Super Bowl rings, blocked for NFL all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith, pass-blocked for one of the game’s great quarterbacks in Troy Aikman and watched wide receiver Michael Irvin earn his nickname "The Playmaker," Johnston knows the value of roster construction. 

So, when he says that Wilson might have put together one of the best teams in the league with the Maulers, that assessment carries some weight.

"I think he had a heck of a night," Johnston said of Wilson’s draft on Day 1. "He was one of those guys that I think a lot of people were looking at. Skip Holtz, Larry Fedora, Kirby Wilson — how are they going to do compared to Jeff Fisher or Todd Haley and Mike Riley, guys that have been there and done that? 

"I thought Kirby Wilson and [Maulers general manager] Chris Watts, the combo there in Pittsburgh, had a heck of a night at the draft, and I'm really excited to see what they do."

The quarterbacks, particularly those drafted in the first round, will draw the most attention. But Johnston is particularly enthusiastic about the quality of play he expects to see on the offensive line — a point of emphasis when creating the pool that would become the 280-member inaugural draft class.

"For me," Johnston said, "it's always the offensive line. The one thing that I was really impressed with was the skill level of the offensive line. You can have great skill players, but if you don't have an offensive line that can open running lanes or pass-protect, it doesn't matter how good everybody else is."

After the two days of drafting, Johnston felt good about the players, coaches and executives who make up the USFL. In his third stint as an executive with a spring league, he’s right where he wants to be. 

"For me," he said, "it was, if I got a front-office opportunity, would all those things that I've learned and experienced through the years help me assemble a championship roster? I've been blessed to have been on a championship team at the high school level, an undefeated team at the college level and three Super Bowl championship teams in the NFL. 

"I know what it looks like as a group. I know how to get to that point. But can I find the individual elements to bring together as a team? And how do I balance the talent and the culture that I want to provide and create in that setting?"

With the USFL, Johnston has that chance, as well as the ability to create a lasting legacy — not just for one team but for an entire league.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.