UFL? You bet, Fassel says

Long before Las Vegas became his home, Jim Fassel always had an eye on what was happening here. He coached the New York Giants for seven years, and before each game he checked to see what oddsmakers thought of his team.

NFL coaches do read the newspaper columnists, he said, and some of them even study the betting lines.

“I’ve never bet on a game and never will bet on a game,” Fassel said. “But I have always looked at the spread.”

If the Dallas Cowboys were coming to the Meadowlands, and the Cowboys were favored, Fassel might drop in a reference to the line to inspire the Giants players.

“I would use it for motivation if we were the ‘dog,” he said. “A lot of times you use it as motivation. Of course, you can’t use that every week, but hopefully you’re not the underdog every week, either.”

What happens in Las Vegas is important to the NFL, even if the league’s big shots refuse to publicly admit it. The biggest names in the United Football League get it, and they admit it.

Fassel, the coach and general manager of the Las Vegas Locos, and UFL commissioner Michael Huyghue talk openly about embracing the sports books, and there’s a good reason for it. The UFL is an underdog league that needs every boost it can get.

The NFL’s monstrous popularity is due in part to its mass wagering appeal. The UFL, entering its second season, is encouraging you to wager on its games.

“It’s going to help grow the popularity. The reality is it exists,” Huyghue said. “We’ll promote some of the lines on the games. In a careful way, we’re going to embrace it, and still protect the integrity of the players and games.

“I think there was a view that because of the gaming industry here, that you really never could have professional sports of any sustainability. Most of the major leagues were hesitant to ever talk about Vegas as a viable city. I think with this team being very successful here, it will change that mindset.”

Last year, when the UFL launched with four teams, oddsmakers scouted rosters and took shots in the dark. Las Vegas opened as the 3-2 favorite to win the title, and the Locos eventually upset the Florida Tuskers in the championship game at Sam Boyd Stadium.

“I was just amazed how they came up with the lines,” Huyghue said. “I always wanted to know, how would they derive a spread in such a short time without much knowledge of the personnel?”

Fassel was just as amazed, saying, “I don’t know how they figured the point spreads last year at all.”

He also was surprised to hear about his involvement in an odd decision on an NFL total. In the NFC Championship game in 2001, Fassel coached the Giants to a 41-0 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. The closing total in Las Vegas was 41½, and the halftime score was 34-0. I recall that because a co-worker, Mal Van Valkenburg, bet it over the total and to this day still talks about the bad beat. Fassel said he knew the Vikings had “no chance” in that game.

For a guy who has been to the Super Bowl, coaching in the UFL title game was a minor achievement. The Super Bowl is a Led Zeppelin concert and the UFL is a Lionel Richie show.

The Locos open training camp this week, and Fassel is raising the stakes right now and shoving his chips in the middle of the table. Somewhat unsure a year ago, he said he’s “more convinced” the league can thrive. Improve marketing, keep costs down, attract more high-profile players and it’s not such a long shot.

The UFL is up to five teams, and Huyghue plans to expand to eight in the near future with 12 to 14 teams being the long-range goal. Los Angeles is a “very strong possibility,” and Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City and San Antonio are also in the discussion.

Former NFL quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper (Sacramento), Jeff Garcia (Omaha) and Tim Rattay (Las Vegas) will add some credibility to the UFL. The quality of the quarterback position is crucial in many ways.

Fassel is a sharp scout of the position. With an eye on the NFL, he expects the Washington Redskins to surprise,

“If a team gets down on a quarterback, you’ve got trouble,” he said. “The Redskins will come back, in my opinion, because of Donovan McNabb. I think they will be vastly improved.

“I like Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. I think both of those guys are outstanding.”

Fassel, 60, was fired by the Giants after the 2003 season. But he might not be far from another NFL opportunity.

There are five coaches — Tom Cable (Oakland), Chan Gailey (Buffalo), Eric Mangini (Cleveland), Raheem Morris (Tampa Bay) and Norv Turner (San Diego) — walking on wobbly legs. But there’s also a chance the NFL will suffer from a work stoppage next season.

“If that were to happen, obviously that would be a home run (for the UFL),” Huyghue said.

“There’s no better exposure than being the only professional league playing in the fall, or playing on Sundays.”

Fassel said the UFL is a good bet to stay in business either way. In fact, the league is begging you to start betting on it.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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