Charles Woodson also offered a controversial take on athletes in the era of legal sports betting.
Southfield — Charles Woodson has been a whole lot of places over the years, since he won the Heisman Trophy and a shared national championship at Michigan.
A Coney Island, however, isn’t one of those places.
“I don’t even remember,” Woodson said, laughing, when asked the last time he had stepped into one of the Metro Detroit dining staples. “It’s been a long time, I know that.”
Yet, that’s where we decided to meet — Providence Coney Island in Southfield — out of convenience, on a recent April morning, to discuss a wide range of topics while Woodson, 46, was making a pitstop back in Michigan to promote the second-year United States Football League, and one of their teams, the Michigan Panthers.
While I tossed back a couple Diet Cokes, Woodson tossed around several opinions, including some hot takes, backed up by a long career in football — he’s in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame — that really took off at Michigan. It included 18 years in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers, and landed him as analyst on television, first on ESPN, and now on Fox, which happens to be the majority owner of the USFL.
Here are the highlights of our all-over-the-field conversation, his answers edited slightly for clarity and brevity. The questions have been edited for clarity.
Question: You’re in town to promote the USFL, as part of your role with Fox Sports, the league’s majority owner. What are your early impressions of the spring league?
Woodson: I think, to me, it’s all about the opportunity for young players who have their aspirations, of course, to make it to the NFL. Sometimes, the NFL doesn’t work out. There’s an alternative, you know, for the guys to play in the USFL, to either continue playing in the USFL or get another opportunity at the NFL, so I think it’s great that this league is here. I think there’s room and a need for it.
Q: Have you watched any of the games? What do you make of the USFL talent?
A: I usually catch the highlights and that sort of thing. From what I’ve seen and from what I’m hearing, it’s doing well.
Q: What does it mean for the USFL to be in Detroit, which is one of the league’s four hubs?
A: I think the best part about it is Detroit has history, you know with the Michigan Panthers (in the 1980s) being that started this thing years ago, the first (USFL) champion. So (the fans) know this team and they know the USFL, so I think that resonates with people here and they want to see them be successful.
Q: How about Ford Field, an NFL facility, being home to the Panthers? (The first game there was last Sunday.)
A: I think that’s huge. I think it’s huge. Not only for the league itself, but for the guys, especially for the guys who actually made it to the next level to play in an NFL stadium, but to have an opportunity to play in the USFL and then be playing at Ford Field, an NFL stadium. There’s a little bit of validation that comes with that, that, ‘Hey, this is the USFL, it may not be the NFL, but we’re still putting out a quality product, an NFL product, and we’re playing in an NFL stadium.’ I think that says a lot.
Q: This USFL is the first major professional spring football league to make it to a second season since the original USFL in the 1980s, despite several attempts by several outfits. (The XFL appears headed to a second season in 2024.) Why has the USFL made it work?
A: I think you learn from the past mistakes. When you look at the first time around, it lasted a couple of seasons, I think there was a plan in place to make it a viable and sustainable league. But there’s always more than once voice and sometimes people who are involved are like, ‘Hey, I think we should do it this way instead of sticking to the plan.’ I think now with Fox being a part of this and kind of understanding what needs to be done, I think they understand they’re not going to get out over their skis. They need to start a certain way and maintain that way until it can continue to grow. So I think that’s why it’s gotten to a second season. I think that’s why there’s a little buzz around it. I think that’s why you have teams playing at Ford Field (the Panthers and the Philadelphia Stars) and, who knows, maybe there’ll be another NFL stadium that will come around and allow teams to play as well in the spring. Learning from those mistakes is the reason why it’s gonna succeed.
Q: A unique aspect of the USFL is the different rules than the NFL (three-point conversions, onside kick alternatives, kickoffs from the 20 to encourage more returns, etc.). Could the NFL adopt some of this someday?
A: I think if you’re not too stubborn (laugh), you know what I mean? There’s always better ways to do things or creative ways to do things. I think in the NFL, there’s different changes that come up, some get shot down, some get adopted. If the USFL’s going to do something that makes sense, then why not? When you’re the big man on campus, sometimes you don’t want to change and you don’t want to take what somebody else is doing. So we’ll see. But there’s definitely room for that.
Q: What about the USFL having the option to pick up bad pass-interference penalties?
A: I wouldn’t mind in my career refs picking up a few of those flags (laugh). When you think the NFL, a couple years ago they adopted pass-interference being replayed and then they never overturned anything. They just upheld whatever call is made, so it didn’t work. All of those decisions (on the field) are kind of knee-jerk and if you have the time to think about it for a minute, ‘You know what, that wasn’t really what I thought it was,’ pick it up, absolutely.
Q: Can’t sit down with ya and not ask ya about the Lions.
A: I love the team, man. They’re making great strides. I think they’ve gotten a lot out of Jared Goff. I know on our show, we talked about Jared Goff and we didn’t think it was going to work, so I’m probably in that camp, as well. But Jared Goff’s played very well for them, so having some stability at the quarterback position is important. Just offensively, you know, having Amon-Ra St. Brown, an unbelievable player, you guys got some young, athletic guys out there that can make some plays. And defensively, you guys played well, bringing in guys like Aidan Hutchinson, whose motor never stops. I just think the team takes some of the identity of the coach (Dan Campbell), and I think that’s important, because they play a tough brand of football, but they can also put up points on you offensively. C.J. Gardner-Johnson is one of the best, young defensive backfield players out there. Having him, he brings a lot of attitude, the same thing the coaches do. I love those type of moves. I’m excited to see what the Lions do.
Q: (Editor’s note: We sat down hours before the NFL Draft.) What was NFL Draft night like for you in 1998? (He was the fourth overall pick, by the Oakland Raiders.)
A: It was kind of nerve-wracking, actually. There’s speculation that you’re gonna go high, but anything can happen. Until you get that call, you’re just sitting there. During my time before I got drafted, there was some talk that some teams were gonna move and maybe somebody else got that fourth spot and who knows what happens after that. If somebody moves up, you might not get taken for a while after that. But I got the call, man, and once I got that call, it’s like, let’s go, I’m here, I made it.
Q: Did your life change in an instant on draft night?
A: You go from being a prospect to, now you’re an NFL player. Everybody always talks about the (NFL) shield. Well, now you’re a part of the shield. Your life, automatically, you’re always an NFL player or a former NFL player (and, in his case, a Pro Football Hall of Famer). That never leaves you. (Life) changes pretty quickly.
Q: Back to the Lions. Big news recently that four players, including receiver Jameson Williams, were suspended because of their sports-gambling activities. What’s your take on that, given that these days, legalized sports gambling is so prevalent throughout society?
A: Yeah, I get everybody’s conundrum about it, because I come from a time when we never thought there would’ve been a sports franchise in Vegas and now there’s gonna be a third (NFL’s Raiders, NHL’s Knights, and possibly MLB’s A’s), and possibly the NBA will come at some point and there’ll be four. So gambling is a huge part of what the big sports leagues are now. Now, do I think that players should be able to get on the sports-betting app and bet? I certainly do. But, like you said, right now you can’t do it. You can be a martyr, you know what I’m saying, and you can go on the site and bet and do whatever you want to do and run the risk of being suspended. My stance is, I think guys should be able to bet on games. I don’t think you should ever be able to bet on your team or the team that you’re playing, but I do think you should be able to partake in whatever app you have, to be on Alabama vs. Auburn, if you want to. … Hey man, I should be allowed to have my fun, and put my $20 or $30 in and bet whatever, as long as I’m not betting on my team or the team I’m playing.
Q: Betting has always been around sports.
A: No doubt.
Q: Williams was suspended for betting on team premises but not on NFL games, while others have been suspended for betting on their own league. You shouldn’t be able to bet on your own league, right?
A: I’m not even against (NFL players) betting on NFL games. I don’t think you should be able to bet on your team or the team you’re playing. If I want to bet on the Dolphins playing the Raiders and I’m in the NFC, I don’t care about what they do over there, you know what I’m saying?
Q: Some people would argue you still have access to inside information.
A: Look, I get all that. They’re raking in so much money with the gambling. Look, I get it. I’m not here to say what should happen or what shouldn’t happen, but if you want to gamble on a few games, I really don’t have a big issue.
Q: Now, onto Michigan. Once upon a time, early in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure, you said Michigan wasn’t putting enough emphasis on the Ohio State. Now, Michigan has won two straight in the series. Thoughts?
A: Well, they’re putting a lot of emphasis on it (laugh). The players have, as well. I mean, I think you’ve seen over the last couple years, there’s been more talk out of Michigan about the game, where in years past, it was, ‘Oh, we want to win every game.’ That’s not the way we always talked about it. We always put a big emphasis on that game. I think that has changed the last couple years.
Q: To be clear, Ohio State is Michigan’s biggest rival?
A: Ohio State’s always the biggest.
Q: And Michigan State?
A: It’s No. 2, for sure.
Q: A lot has changed since you were in college, namely NIL. How much would you have made off NIL?
A: Man, I’d be rolling in the dough. (Laugh)
Q: In all seriousness, how was life before NIL? You hear all these horror stories about college athletes being broke.
A: They provided us with these, we called them ‘chips,’ there was so much money on there. We had maybe four, five places we could go, like Cottage Inn and a couple other places. In terms of during season, you had training tables (with food) after practice. Yeah, I get it that you don’t have like a lot of cash in your pocket, but I was all right. I’m not going to speak for anybody else, but I would say I was all right in those terms.
Q: So, you weren’t starving?
Q: Last fall marked 25 years since your national championship at Michigan, and 15 years since your coach, Lloyd Carr, decided to call it a career. What are your memories of Lloyd?
A: Tough love. Tough love, man. Tough love. He was hard on the team, you know, and his focus was to get the best out of you, so he was hard on you. He was an old-school coach, coming up under (former Michigan coach) Bo Schembechler, Bo Schembechler coming up with (former Ohio State coach) Woody Hayes, all those guys they all kind of coached a certain way, very tough. For us coming in, I came in in ’95, that was his first year as the head coach, and the way he coached us led to a national championship (in ’97). I’m always appreciative of my time playing under Coach Carr. We became very, very close as coach and player go.
Q: Can you recall a favorite memory or interaction?
A: There was a lot of them. He had a great delivery, you know, in terms of talking to the team and his tone. The one thing that I always got a kick out of, you never liked it when the focus was on you, but when he would get in front of the team and we were playing an opponent and he would say, ‘Hey, I called the coach from Miami of Ohio and I told him that if we can trade our No. 36 for their No. 36, we do it in a heartbeat.’ (Laugh)
Q: I can hear him saying that.
A: It was so funny because he’d come in there with this serious look (and say), ‘Hey, I got off the phone with Coach Such and Such and he made me an offer … he said if I gave him Charles Woodson for their third-string kicker, I’d do it in a heartbeat.’ I always got a kick out of that. In a way, it motivated you because you didn’t want to be the guy being traded, you know, the day before the game.