“A mess,” Dick Ebersol said.
“A [expletive] disaster,” Jeff Zucker said.
“A failure,” Charlie Ebersol said.
“I loved playing that season,” Rod Smart said.
The XFL was all of the above and more, a one-season experiment in a more macho brand of pro football that most certainly did not work but left a trove of memories and technical and marketing innovations.
It was more than enough to fill an entertaining documentary, “This Was the XFL,” a “30 for 30” entry that premieres on ESPN at 9 p.m. Thursday — the night before the 15th anniversary of the XFL’s first game.
And it was more than enough to keep the stories coming after a screening in Manhattan. In keeping with the league’s quirky sense of humor, that event also included a pop-up “XFL Hall of Fame” exhibit of memorabilia.
It was there that Smart found himself posing with his old Las Vegas Outlaws jersey, the one featuring the nickname that made him the league’s most well-known player: “He Hate Me.”
Smart is 40 now, and even after a career that later took him to the CFL and NFL, including the Super Bowl in 2004 as a Carolina Panther, he is best remembered as a running back for the Outlaws.
Does that annoy him? In a word: nope.
“It doesn’t bother me, because it’s still a part of my life,” said Smart, who ran for 555 yards in 2001. “It was something I was a part of and I helped it become as big as it was. It is being a part of history. Everyone wants to be a part of history. So I’m very thankful for it, and I love it.”
For most involved in running (and paying for) the league, though, it is easier to look back fondly than it was to live it.
To shorten a long story documented in the film, the XFL was a partnership of Vince McMahon’s WWE and NBC Sports’ Dick Ebersol, old friends who needed each other to make a go of a new football league.
The gimmick was to promote an allegedly less sissified version of the NFL by, for example, banning fair catches on punts. To drive home the point, ads featured a returner being taken out by a wrecking ball. Also, there was an emphasis on scantily clad cheerleaders.
Ebersol is biased in judging the documentary, which was directed by his son Charlie. But he said when he and McMahon first saw it, they were “blown away, mostly at the humor out of what had truly been a mess. That’s how we’ve all looked back at this over the years. We still marvel.
“I hadn’t seen the promos in years, and in that rough cut when that wrecking ball went through the guy, I went, ‘Oh, my God, did we really do this?’ . . . A lot of people say, ‘Why would you and Vince have said yes to this?’ Because, I mean, everything deserves a good autopsy, and this is as good as it gets.”
The XFL’s promotional push was so effective that it drew a massive TV audience for that first game between the Outlaws and New York/New Jersey Hitmen.
But Ebersol knew the league was doomed that first night, mostly because, as he said, “the football” stunk.
“I got the rating the next day and I was so depressed,” he said, “because I knew the fall was going to be enormous [in percentage terms].”
So it was. It did not help that in Week 2, the power for the telecast went out under mysterious circumstances in Los Angeles, causing a delay in a game that eventually went to double overtime.
That left host Jennifer Lopez waiting for a delayed start to “Saturday Night Live” and executives in New York furious.
What followed was a phone call they still talk about at NBC involving Ebersol, “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels and Zuck er, who then was head of NBC Entertainment and vacationing on Nevis in the Caribbean.
Hence the “disaster” Zucker referenced above. “Two of the biggest legends in television just yelling at each other back and forth, and there’s nothing I can do,” he said.
After Week 2, Ebersol concluded the XFL was not salvageable, even though he had a two-year deal with McMahon.
“I didn’t see any way to save it, and my main job would be to try to prevail through friendship over Vince,” he said. Eventually he did, but McMahon was reluctant to let go, and seems wistful even today about what might have been.
Some XFL innovations have persisted, notably the Skycam, which soon became a staple of NFL coverage. But mostly the league failed to deliver on its promise of quality football along with old-school mayhem.
Charlie Ebersol recalled a line from announcer Matt Vasgersian in the film in which he says, “I think people were expecting death in the games and were sort of disappointed when they didn’t deliver on, like, murder.”
League executives also had to fight traditionalists in the coaching ranks, notably Hitmen coach Rusty Tillman, who resisted XFL wrinkles with an eye on future employment in the NFL.
“He was part of a small group of people involved with the league who were absolutely hell-bent on making sure none of the innovations that were promised would ever happen,” Dick Ebersol said.
Ebersol still believes that with another $20 million from each partner, they might have been able to make it work.
“We could have had at least 20 decent offensive players in the league,” he said. “The football was terrible, and the toughest thing in the world for me was walking out of that stadium that first night in Las Vegas, because in my gut I knew there was no way to save it.”
Basil DeVito, then and now one of McMahon’s WWE executives, got the thankless job of league president. He said he still appreciates the passion of the players. The rest was . . . complicated.
“It was like one, long alcoholic blackout during that year,” he said. “I mean, I wrote memos that were clearly written by me that I read later that read like fiction . . . It was like a Mickey Rooney film: Hey, let’s get a barn and put on a play! But it was great. It was really great.”