Peter King is on vacation until July 20, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Joe Browne, the all-time longest-serving employee in the NFL office who was honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the Ralph Hay Pioneer Award for his significant and innovative contributions to pro football.
The NFL celebrates (if that word still exists in anyone’s pandemic vocabulary) its 100th anniversary this September. The 100th season was last year. Now it’s time for the 100th anniversary! I am old enough—I prefer “mature enough”—to remember when the league celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1970. Ironically, the Chiefs and their great fans were coming off Super Bowl victories on both occasions.
The 1970 season was such an historic start to the next half-century of football that this year’s 100th anniversary may struggle to match it. This would have been true even without the uncertainty that COVID-19 brings to the game schedule and in-stadium attendance. This summer’s Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend already has been postponed due to health concerns and is now planned for next August.
Fifty years ago, the National Football League and American Football League completed their merger to form one professional league. I was there for it, as a young NFL public relations employee. As a league intern in 1966, I saw the stop-and-start and stop-and-start-again merger talks in their infancy.
Would you believe the momentum for this historic merger began in a parked car at Love Field, an airport in Dallas? Sit back, and I’ll tell you that tale, plus the one about how exactly it was that Dallas, with only a 20 percent chance of being slotted into the NFC Eastern Division, became rivals with teams more than 1,000 miles away.
The Dallas narrative involves a flower vase and a woman named Thelma. Here’s how it all began . . .
In 1966, the enormous economic costs to both AFL and NFL owners in their battle for fans, rookie players, and franchise cities continued to escalate. It had been going on several years. After consulting with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and the lawyers, Cowboys president Tex Schramm invited his Dallas neighbor—but not close friend—Lamar Hunt, the co-founder of the rival AFL, to meet him on April 4 at Love Field. The session wasn’t held in an exclusive members-only airline lounge but rather in Tex’s Oldsmobile, parked near a 12-foot statue of now-infamous Texas Ranger captain Jay Banks. Yes, it does read like a Netflix script. Tex chose Lamar to talk merger because Hunt was respected by his fellow AFL owners; rumors were that Lamar wanted to end the excessive player spending, and he was known as a quiet person who could keep matters confidential. After the two men had a cordial talk, Lamar left for Houston and an AFL meeting. Ironically, it was the meeting in which Al Davis, then-Raiders head coach and GM, was named the new AFL commissioner.
Schramm and Hunt did not meet again for a month. During the interim, the only related news was bad. The club spending on rookies continued and there were rumors that the AFL Jets and Chargers were up for sale. Meanwhile, 49ers president Lou Spadia, who had been brought into the merger loop because his team would have to share the Bay Area with the Raiders, was having second thoughts about that idea. Hunt and Schramm met again in early May; fortunately, both sides agreed that whatever obstacles were on the table could be overcome. That was the good news. However, at an NFL league meeting in Washington D.C. only days later, an impediment arose that neither league had foreseen.
Giants owner Wellington Mara told his peers that he had just signed standout Buffalo Bills kicker Pete Gogolak, who had played out his AFL option with that team. It was the first time an AFL player was jumping to the NFL. I wasn’t in attendance but later was told it was one of the more emotional league meetings ever held. How could the Giants, who knew about the Schramm-Hunt talks, have thrown gasoline on a burning fire? What were the usually-NFL loyal Giants thinking? Mara defended the move by replying that Rozelle earlier had told him there was no legal reason Gogolak could not sign.
When the league meeting ended, several of the most influential NFL owners met privately in the hotel. They agreed that the financial madness in player signings had to end. The group instructed Schramm to convince his close friend Rozelle, who leaned more to fighting than merging, to get onboard and bring these merger talks to a conclusion. Pete, who believed the AFL was spending itself out of business, finally agreed.
Things moved rapidly after that Gogolak uproar. Hunt and Schramm met in Tex’s home on May 31 and again June 5 to iron out details. One of the last hurdles was removed when Hunt agreed his league would (reluctantly) pay the NFL a total of $18 million over 10 years. The two peacemakers then met on June 7 with Rozelle and the lawyers in Washington D.C. where Pete had gone to give a heads-up to key Congressional leaders. He knew the leagues eventually would need a Congressional anti-trust exemption to merge. The Washington meeting with Hunt went into the early hours of June 8 until, perhaps out of exhaustion, all sides agreed to the final terms.
There was no time for a long legal document to be drafted and signed. A press release spelling out the terms would have to suffice. They flew to New York later that morning where a press conference was held on June 8, 1966 to formally announce the deal. I normally am a modest person but my role in that merger announcement cannot be overstated. I was the messenger who delivered a copy of the press release to the United Press International sports desk on 42nd Street, a few blocks from Times Square. Rozelle later told me he was thankful I didn’t get sidetracked on my way there.
Many individuals in the sport were shocked, surprised or disappointed when the merger news broke. Al Davis was all three. He had been AFL commissioner for just a matter of weeks and he was a hawk when it came to battling the NFL. The AFL owners purposely kept him in the dark regarding the Hunt-Schramm talks for fear he would work to sidetrack them. The news that Rozelle would be the commissioner of the merged league had to hurt. I’ve always believed that was the root of Al’s decades-long battles with the NFL establishment. I spent many months during my career in courtrooms from Los Angeles to New York watching Al testify against his fellow owners in matters ranging from franchise relocation to him supporting Donald Trump’s failed USFL lawsuit against the NFL in 1986.
THE DAWN OF THE 70s
Fast forward to 1970. It had been agreed that the AFL would operate under its original name through the end of the ‘60s. Joint committees that included owners from both sides worked during those years on issues ranging from future scheduling to roster size to player medical benefits. However, a divisional alignment of the National Football Conference had to be decided only by the 13 NFC owners. It would be one of the final steps to the completion of the merger. On Jan. 11 that year, in the last game before the 26 teams would play as one league, Lamar Hunt’s Chiefs beat Minnesota in Super Bowl IV. Rozelle and the NFC clubs were on the clock to determine how those teams would be divided into three divisions.
The traditional Colts, Steelers and Browns the previous year had surprised their fans and local media by agreeing (for a cash reward) to move over to the AFC. So AFC alignment into three divisions was set. However, the remaining NFC owners still were bickering about the best alignment for their conference, and themselves. Longtime traditional division rivalries were at risk. Some of the in-fighting concerned stadium capacities. Clubs much preferred road games in front of 75,000 fans who were paying high ticket prices rather than in smaller parks. In those days before billion-dollar TV contracts and expanded league-wide gate-sharing, the visiting team took home 40 percent of the game receipts and it was significant to its bottom line. A few owners did not want to play in a division where their rivals shared multi-sport stadiums in which dirt baseball infields might cause injuries. Also, other teams did not want to travel 3,000 miles to play division rivals. Progress on the issue was being made by inches, not yards.
The commissioner was getting frustrated. Rozelle told us at a late December lunch, paraphrasing—it feels like each team wants the same three things:
1. To be in a division where their opponents have large stadiums and larger gate receipts;
2. At least one division rival in a warm weather city so not all away games happened in the brutal cold during the last quarter of the season;
3. To be in a division of pigeons.
As a native New Yorker, I certainly knew what a pigeon was. However, why would Pete use that word when it came to football alignment?
I, of course, nodded in agreement when Pete said pigeons, but I had no real idea. Over future decades, I perfected the art of “nodding in agreement” whenever the commissioner or an NFL owner spoke. It was one of the keys to my job survival.
I later asked Jim Kensil, Pete’s right-hand man and the person who hired me in ’65. Jim said a pigeon in Pete’s vocabulary was a team that would be a perennial pushover and an easy win—or better, two wins—each year.
In early January, the 13 clubs needed to get the new NFC divisions decided before a Feb. 1 deadline, which was spelled out in the 1966 merger agreement.
Pete called an alignment meeting of the 13 NFC clubs on the day before Super Bowl IV in New Orleans. It was not a good idea. Several of the club executives appeared more interested in reservations for breakfast at Brennan’s or dinner at Galatoire’s than working out the thorny football details. The original AFL owners, who earlier had dubbed themselves “The Foolish Club” for daring to take on the NFL, were snickering: Who looks foolish now? The old-line NFL owners couldn’t even decide which divisions they would be in.
Pete was embarrassed. He told the NFC owners that afternoon before they left for Bourbon Street that they were going to meet again in New York the following week after the Super Bowl. He was not going to let them home until we had the new alignment.
Representatives from all 13 NFC teams flew to New York and started meeting on Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 14. While there was more discussion, there still was no agreement. Pete recessed the meeting at 6:30 p.m. Several of the owners had dinner that night at the 21 Club or Toots Shor’s, the local sports hangout.
On Thursday, the meeting started early and lasted until late evening with no resolution. Rozelle told the owners to get some sleep because on Friday he was going to have them meet all day and night in The Fish Room until a decision was reached. The largest conference room in our NFL offices was commonly known as “The Fish Room” because a large marlin had been mounted there a year earlier courtesy of one of Pete’s deep-sea fishing expeditions. It must have been a unique setting among corporate offices on Park Avenue because I could not picture IBM or Xerox having a marlin hanging in its wood-paneled conference room during annual board meetings.
Rozelle decided to take a different approach on Friday, Jan. 16. He believed some owners had talked so much that even they didn’t know what division they wanted. He had received enough feedback during this entire process that he knew the rivalries that were critical to each owner and those which were secondary. That morning, Pete told the clubs that the 49ers, who via the merger agreement had a veto right to any alignment plan they did not like, had agreed to respect Pete’s authority to force an alignment. Pete then recessed the meeting for 20 minutes. He had a chalkboard that contained five different alignment scenarios labeled 1 through 5 wheeled into The Fish Room. Pete gave it one last shot. If there were no consensus on any one plan, he would draw the number of the winning alignment out of a hat and they all could go to the airport. Fifty years ago, hardly any owner had a private plane, or a yacht for that matter. They flew on commercial jets and ate peanuts just like the rest of us.
The owners accepted this game-plan because they had become as tired of the arguments as Pete. In addition, it was Friday and they wanted to get out of town. Several had been on the road since the pre-Super Bowl activities in New Orleans the previous week.
When the recess was over, Pete unveiled the board and the owners viewed the possibilities. Some got up and moved to the front of the room to see the board close-up. Others sat back in their chairs and looked at the combinations. Most were resigned to the fact that regardless of which plan was selected they would only get a slice of what they had been fighting for all these months.
THELMA ENTERS STAGE LEFT
Quietly, as was his style, Pete was ending the months-long drama. After I rolled the chalk board into the room—who did you think did it? George Halas?—I lingered in the back for this historic moment. The commissioner told me to ask Thelma Elkjer, his secretary, to enter the room. She was known to many of the owners since she had worked with Rozelle when both were employed by the Rams in the ‘50s. She moved East when Pete was named commissioner in 1960. She would be the one to break the deadlock by blindly picking one of the slips of paper. The owners trusted her.
Finally, the big moment arrived. Thelma entered the room, but quickly left to get an empty flower vase to hold the five pieces of paper. Pete had shown the numbered slips to a couple of the owners to confirm that there were five different numbers which corresponded to those on the board. He didn’t want an upset owner to subsequently accuse him of having the five slips all contain the identical number which would reflect Pete’s own preferred alignment of teams. (That’s a trick they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School!) At this juncture, the only two Americans the owners trusted were President Richard Nixon (pre-Watergate) and Thelma.
Without even a drumroll, Thelma reached in, pulled out a slip and announced that the winning plan was number 3. Owners squinted at the chalkboard to see where their teams were in Plan 3.
Tex Schramm let out a little cheer and smiled at Cowboys owner Clint Murchison who was beside him. Plan 3 was the ONLY combination that had the Cowboys in the same division as the Giants, Redskins and Eagles. Schramm, the former public relations and television executive, knew the added exposure his team received by playing teams in those three large markets twice a year. The Cowboys since their inception had played most seasons (but not all) with those three teams in their division. They made it clear they did not want to lose those rivalries. Despite the odds stacked against them, they got their way at the end. (Did I mention that Thelma worked alongside Tex when both were with the Rams in the 50s? Strictly coincidental, Cowboys Haters.)
A couple of the NFC Central teams mumbled their discontent because the combination of Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota meant they would not get that much-desired, warm weather break toward the season’s end. Little did they know that half of those teams would be playing in cozy domes just a few years down the road and that expansion Tampa Bay would join their division later that decade. However, everyone in the room was relieved that pro football’s long nightmare was over! They adopted the plan and rushed to the exits.
Ms. Thelma, who died in 2000 after moving back to California to work in Pete Rozelle’s retirement office in Rancho Santa Fe, did such a good job by selecting number 3 that the basic alignment lasted more than three decades. Even when the NFL split into eight divisions in 2002, many of those traditional rivalries were maintained.
TV INCLUDING MNF AND COSELL
The planning for the 1970 new-look league continued after those realignment meetings. Everyone was looking forward to having all our regular season games televised for the first time on the only three major networks (CBS, NBC and ABC) that existed in 1970. Of perhaps equal importance, Rozelle insisted there would be language in the TV contracts that the games would be promoted often during the week on morning shows, afternoon soap operas and evening programming. The addition of ABC’s Monday Night Football that year would be precedent-setting. One of the major selling points was that those prime-time games would be televised in full color. That was a major breakthrough 50 years ago.
As it turned out, another major breakthrough of sorts occurred once those MNF games began. It was the first time most viewers were exposed to lawyer-turned-broadcaster Howard Cosell, who was an acquired taste to those outside his native New York. Some viewers enjoyed listening to him but many did not. In either case, both groups watched. During each Monday night contest, ABC carried a very popular 5-7 minute package of highlights from the previous day’s games. Cosell, in his distinct nasally voice and with a multi-syllabic vocabulary, delivered the commentary. For most fans, it was the first time they had seen those exciting plays.
Rozelle, better than any exec in or outside sports back then, understood the promotional power and impact of network television. He had been working to get NFL games in front of more diversified prime-time viewers in a weekly series. However, most network honchos still thought prime-time football would attract only a niche sports audience. They much preferred movies and comedy series such as NBC’s “Laugh- In” and CBS’ “The Doris Day Show” as programming that would attract all demographics, especially females.
Fortunately, young Roone Arledge, the president of ABC Sports at the time, shared Pete’s vision of prime-time football. The two men agreed to a multi-year deal and the ABC series became an instant TV ratings bonanza. Movie theaters suddenly closed on Monday nights in the fall and bowling leagues, which were very popular back then, shifted to a different night. Millions of fans, including women, wanted to stay home and watch the NFL.
MORE INNOVATIONS IN THE 70s
By 1970, pro football had overtaken Major League Baseball and college football as America’s favorite sport. While baseball was “America’s Pastime,” football was on its way to becoming “America’s Passion.” The NFL was ready to compete successfully with not only other sports but also all forms of entertainment.
The combined total revenue for the 26 teams in 1970 was $130 million, astounding for the time. A typical team payroll was between $2 million and $2.5 million. Fifty years later, total league revenue for the upcoming 100th anniversary was projected (pre-pandemic) to be $16.5 billion (with a ’b’). Overall player costs this year will surpass $240 million per club.
The 1970 season also featured for the first time a postseason wild-card team in each conference. The 2020 season will have three wild-card entrants in both the AFC and NFC playoffs. A four-year collective bargaining agreement was reached in 1970 between the clubs and the expanded NFL Players Association led by Hall of Fame legend John Mackey. Likewise, a 10-year agreement was approved this past March by the owners and union. Labor peace is something no one really appreciates until it’s not there.
New policy changes in 1970 included player names on the back of all jerseys. The AFL had this policy in the ‘60s to help promote its players. However, the NFL owners over the years had assumed their fans would know Johnny Unitas from Gale Sayers so this was a change for them. Heck, the league now has come so far players are allowed suffixes next to names on their jerseys.
The 1970 season also was special for me (all politics being local) because it was my first complete year as a full-time employee in the commissioner’s office. The well-tanned Rozelle was starting his second decade on the job and I was the pale-faced PR assistant at the opposite end of the organizational chart.
Pete never had the patience for office staff meetings so he would have occasional staff lunches for his senior execs on Fridays at a Mexican restaurant. As accomplished as he was, Pete still had at least three vices: he smoked too much, drank glasses of Coke for breakfast, and enjoyed Mexican food.
Although a new full-time worker, I was invited to many of the staff meals because I had been an office intern and had traveled to postseason games while in college. Rozelle and the small group of execs knew me—and trusted me to keep private business confidential. What was said over margaritas and guacamole stayed in el restaurante. Lo entiendes?
The first topic for discussion at lunch often was the quality of our officiating. You can see some things have not changed. We usually had the same waiter whom I later learned always asked to serve us. Inevitably, he would ask Rozelle before we finished our meal whether Pete “liked” the Packers or Dolphins that Sunday. Pete would give some non-answer and smile. Imagine. A sports fan who bet games.
THE YEARS FLY BY
Pete Rozelle and the club owners in the 1970 season believed in the strength and future of their sport. Many of them had devoted their adult lives to football. They were above all, football men. The owner of any business wants to make money but these individuals were as passionate about their teams as the coaches and players they were paying.
The years turned into decades and Rozelle shocked the sports world in 1989 by announcing his retirement. His wife Carrie wanted badly to return to southern California and so they built a beautiful home north of San Diego where Pete spent his final years. I always wished he had stayed in the New York area where most of his longtime friends were.
I stayed in touch with him after he retired. My family and I owed him so much. Life isn’t always fair and neither he nor Carrie had a healthy last decade of their lives. I recall stopping at his home in early 1996 when I was on my way to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. He would die of brain cancer later that year. He wasn’t 100 percent healthy, so I did most of the talking. We laughed at all the fun times Pete had both with the Rams and during his 30 years as commissioner. We joked about the expensive thoroughbred that his friend and former Chargers owner Gene Klein had named after him. The colt was called “Commissioner Pete.” Whenever I asked him years earlier how the horse was doing, Pete would say with a straight face, “He’s resting in his stall.” “Commissioner Pete” never made it to the races.
I asked Pete in a serious moment during my house visit if he could ever have anticipated the league’s spectacular growth 25 years earlier when the post-AFL era made him the commissioner of a 26-team NFL. After all, when he was named NFL commissioner in 1960 at age 33, there only were 12 teams. Dallas and Minnesota were added two days after he took the job.
Did he ever foresee in 1970 the manner in which his creation of a neutral-site Super Bowl would capture the country and become a cultural phenomenon?
Pete took a drag out of a Marlboro (or Vantage) cigarette like I had seen him do hundreds of times over the years. He smiled, shook his head and quietly weighed his words in the same manner he had since I had known him.
The then-69 year old Rozelle emotionally replied that it was impossible to imagine back in 1970 all the growth, excitement, and interest the league would enjoy, and the entertainment and competition it would provide its fans.
I retired from the NFL in 2016. I had attended 50 straight Super Bowls. The only one I missed was the first one. I used to kid Pete that it may have been just coincidence but the only Super Bowl that did not sell out was the one he did not invite me to work.
I had a helluva 50-year ride (I called it an “internship”) in communications, public relations, government affairs, community endeavors and alumni coordination. I worked with dozens of NFL owners and their staffs. Pete Rozelle; the new Pro Football Hall of Famer Paul Tagliabue; and Roger Goodell all understood the broader significance of the sport and brought together the club owners and players at key times to make the NFL more popular and appealing than ever.
Whenever folks ask how I survived at the NFL all those years, I first point out that having only three commissioner-CEOs over 50 years didn’t hurt. There’s something to be said about continuity.
Perhaps another young employee in the league office right now will chronicle the future innovations and advancements that lie ahead for pro football in the next 50 years. I hope he or she enjoys their experience as much as I did.
How a 38-0 loss led to five Super Bowl appearances
One last note about the historic 1970 NFL season:
My friend Greg Aiello is the former longtime league office spokesman. For more than two decades, he was quoted more often than even the White House Press Secretary. Greg started his NFL career working with the late legendary coach Tom Landry in the Cowboys front office. Greg recently wrote me:
On the night of Nov. 16, 1970, the St. Louis Cardinals crushed the Cowboys 38-0 at the Cotton Bowl on Monday Night Football. Hardly a memorable game at the time. At one point, Cowboys fans chanted for their retired QB Don Meredith who was in the ABC booth helping to call the game. The party was over early that night.
Coach Landry and the team were embarrassed. Landry reportedly told the players he was disappointed in them and himself and it looked like they wouldn’t make the playoffs for the first time in five years. Then he showed one of the qualities that made him a Hall of Fame coach. He did something completely unexpected and out of character in the days following that loss. Landry eased up on the team to take the pressure off the players. He let them have fun playing touch football in practice. He simplified the game plan.
The players responded to the challenge that Landry put to them. They reeled off seven straight victories to reach their first Super Bowl against the Baltimore Colts. Unfortunately, the Cowboys blew that game when the Colts kicked a game-winning 32-yard field goal with five seconds left.
However, the next season Roger Staubach took over as starting quarterback and the Cowboys went back to win their first Super Bowl. They were in the big game again in 1975, again in 1977 and again in 1978. Who knew that a drab 38-0 loss would turn around a team and ignite a spark that drove the Cowboys under Coach Landry to FIVE Super Bowl appearances in one decade?
I know you probably heard this same thing from at least 500 of your closest friends but I REALLY was at the original Ice Bowl in Green Bay in late December 1967.
I was between semesters my senior year in college and traveled as an NFL intern to the Cowboys-Packers thriller at Lambeau Field.
A couple of NFL office execs and I were there for the week. The winner of this NFL Championship Game would advance to Super Bowl II.
I was sent on Thursday to Austin Straubel Airport outside town to pick up a carton of promotional materials sent on a commercial flight from LaGuardia. We didn’t trust the U.S. Post Office to deliver the books on time and FedEx wasn’t founded until four years later by Fred Smith, one of the Washington Redskins current minority owners.
While I was waiting for the box at the baggage carousel, I recognized famed Newark Star Ledger columnist Jerry Izenberg, who had arrived on the same flight. I meekly introduced myself and asked if I could give him a ride to the Hotel Northland where the media was being housed.
On the way back into town, Jerry sat in the passenger seat as we talked and traveled the icy roads.
“Son, how long have you been driving,” Jerry asked after the car skidded (just a little) to a stop at a red light.
“Oh, I got my license earlier this month on Dec. 7,” I proudly said.
“Dec. 7. That makes sense,” Jerry replied. “That was the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. If you don’t drive more slowly, we too are going to die. Please be more careful.”
I am pleased to say both of us survived. Jerry, who now lives outside Las Vegas, turns 90 this September and still writes occasional columns for the Star Ledger. After 15 non-fiction books, he currently is writing his first novel.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's reaction after he saw a bear 😅
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) June 23, 2020
Saquon's workouts are on another level 😱
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) June 28, 2020
Congrats to @Colts communications staff – the 2020 Rozelle Award winners … (top row L-R): Steve Campbell, Matt Conti, Christian Edwards (bottom row L-R): Pamela Humphrey, Hayden Clark, Kaila Lewis. pic.twitter.com/xmONPraZn0
— Pro Football Writers (@PFWAwriters) June 26, 2020
To each and every news outlet, your job is not to modify, alter, or slant the news to try and influence me to think one way or another. Your job is to provide me the truth so that I can make up my own mind. Not "your truth" but THE truth. Thank you.
— Peter Kostis (@peterjkostis) June 28, 2020
We’re sad to announce the passing of legendary Redskins coach, and leader of “The Hogs,” Joe Bugel. Our love and thoughts go out to Brenda and the rest of the Bugel family.
— Washington Redskins (@Redskins) June 28, 2020
1. I think I was a little surprised by the timing of the news that quarterback Cam Newton signed with the Patriots. Having the story break on an offseason Sunday evening is not the smartest way to generate favorable publicity. However, it all quickly made sense when I heard later Sunday night that the Pats again were being fined and disciplined by the league office for filming an opponent’s sideline during a game. You learn in Public Relations 101 that you always try to overshadow really negative news by putting out a positive item at the same time.
In this case, I think the chatter in league and team offices this week will deal less with the signing of the injury-plagued Newton and more with the Patriots once again breaking NFL rules.
2. I think Major League Baseball has a great opportunity to try something different during this abbreviated COVID-19 season. MLB could maximize national interest and use a once-a-week formula—similar to Monday Night Football. For example, the Cubs could play the Cards early on Monday night on ESPN followed by the Rockies at Dodgers on TBS or Fox in the late game. The Phillies could face the Mets in the early Tuesday game followed by the White Sox vs. the Angels. You could play two nationally televised games on six nights and a triple-header the seventh night so all 30 teams would be featured in a nationally-televised game each week. It would give even small market teams much needed national exposure.
Baseball purists such as Peter King might think it’s a crazy idea but this is a new abnormal. What does MLB have to lose?
3. I think Burgess Owens, who started at free safety for the Raiders in their Super Bowl XV win, has a good shot at also winning Tuesday’s Republican primary in Utah’s 4th Congressional District this week. Owens played for the Jets and Raiders from 1973-82 and was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1981. If he is successful in making it to Washington D.C., Owens will join two other NFL alumni—Colin Allred (D-Texas) and Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio)—who are freshmen Congressmen running this November for re-election. Allred was a Titans linebacker from 2006-10 while Gonzalez played five seasons as a Colts receiver from 2007-11.
4. I think golf may be the next betting craze.
I was with my friend Hank (The Hammer) Goldberg at Joe’s Stone Crabs in Miami Beach 10 years ago. As you TV sports fans know, Hank is not reluctant to place a wager on a horse race or football game. Well, Hank was in a particularly bad slump at that time and was crying in his key lime pie.
“Hank, why don’t you change your luck and switch sports,” I said trying to console him. “Why don’t you bet on hockey or golf?”
“Golf? Golf? I know there’s Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and a bunch of other guys. How could I possibly bet on golf,” he exclaimed.
Fast forward to 10 days ago. Hank, who turns 80 on July 4, moved from Miami to Las Vegas in 2017. Where did you think he was going to relocate? Idaho?
I called him to see which horse he liked in the Belmont Stakes. “The favorite (Tiz The Law) can’t lose,” he replied.
However, before he hung up, Hank volunteered that he also had placed a substantial bet on golfer Webb Simpson to win the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head. “I got 26-1 odds, too,” he added.
Now it was my turn. “Golf?” I asked. “What do YOU know about golf?” Hank said that Simpson had played well in his last round the previous week but missed the cut.
I watched the tournament out of curiosity. Simpson (and Hank) won the tourney by one stroke.
By the way, golf without fans is a plus for TV viewers. You get to listen to the golfer-caddy pre-shot conversations. Viewers also get a real sense of how beautiful the course is without thousands trampling on the grass and you have unobstructed views of the surrounding scenery. Most importantly, you don’t have idiot fans shouting after almost every shot “Baba Booey” or “You da man” or “In da hole.”
5. I think Philadelphia Eagles super fan, season-ticket holder and TV business personality Jim Cramer of CNBC’s popular ”Mad Money” would be a great addition to ESPN’s Monday Night Football halftime.
ESPN reportedly has been rejected in its search for a new MNF analyst by big-name personalities such as Peyton Manning and Tony Romo. Cramer, who never has thrown a TD pass, would be a welcome addition to handle a 3-5 minute halftime segment giving stock tips, talking NFL and discussing related business. If fans lost money on Sunday’s games, they could make up for it Tuesday by listening to someone who (usually) knows what’s going on in the market.
Cramer is an often-times controversial, unorthodox, entertaining, big-name TV personality in the world of stock trading, media and business. His irascibility plays well on TV since half his audience enjoys him and the other half glares at him. In television, the networks usually don’t care whether or not you like the on-air talent so long as you watch.
6. I think Paul Tagliabue’s (now delayed until 2021) enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is deserved and overdue. I first heard his name 50 years ago. He had accompanied then-Commissioner Rozelle in May 1970 when Pete testified in federal court in Curt Flood’s lawsuit challenging baseball’s reserve clause. Tagliabue was a young outside attorney for the NFL back then.
I have been thinking of Tagliabue because the well-publicized campaign this month to make Juneteenth a paid holiday reminds me of the brave step Tagliabue and the owners took back in March 1991 involving the MLK holiday in Arizona. A Super Bowl had been awarded with assurances by local political leaders that Arizona voters would approve a paid MLK holiday for state employees later that year. Arizona and New Hampshire were the only states at the time that did not observe the day as a paid holiday. Despite those assurances, the vote failed in November.
Tagliabue told the NFL owners that the league should get that Super Bowl out of Arizona. The decision to move the game to Los Angeles was a controversial one. Paul took a great deal of heat from many Arizona residents and others around the country. He was accused of pandering to MLK supporters and playing racial politics. The truth was the exact opposite. Paul shifted the game to get away from the hotly contested political debate that had been swirling around the issue in Arizona for several years. After the league’s unprecedented move, the MLK issue again was placed on the ballot in 1992 and passed with 62 percent of the vote. Thanks in large part to Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill, the league has enjoyed playing three Super Bowls in Arizona since that time.
7. I think the latest moves by Commish Goodell to hire former Super Bowl referee Walt Anderson and longtime coach Perry Fewell to improve on-field officiating make sense.
When I worked in the league office, I often (but not always) publicly defended our referees whom I believe are the best in any sport. However, in 1991, there was one Sunday in November when it seemed like half the games had blown officiating calls in key spots. When a national reporter called me the following day to see if our office had any comment, I responded in part: “There were several highlights during the 12th weekend but, unfortunately, the officiating was not one of them.”
My quote was carried in media around the country. The head of the referees association wrote Commish Tagliabue wanting my head. After he received the written complaint, Paul walked down to my office and politely placed the letter on my desk. He quietly said: “Read this. You said it; you handle it.” It was his way of telling me, “Don’t be such a smart ass next time.” I responded in writing to the association, and the matter fortunately blew over.
8. I think there’s a misperception that most retired NFL players are unemployed or unemployable. The opposite is true in my experience. I admit not every player is as successful a businessman as Roger Staubach or John Stallworth but thousands of NFL alumni work in occupations ranging from lawyers to coaches to CEOs to civil servants.
For example, four former players currently are members of the Phoenix Fire Department and have been busy on the front lines fighting the COVID-19 health crisis. The four alumni are Chaz Schilens and Matt Shaughnessy, who played three years together on the Raiders in 2009-11; Roy Lewis, who earned a Super Bowl XLIII ring as a cornerback for the Steelers; and former backup offensive lineman Mark Tucker, a Falcons 1991 draft choice who also spent time with Cardinals.
No, not all former players are wildly successful after their playing days and not all appear in commercials or on network pregame shows on Sunday. However, the vast majority are community-minded guys who have full-time jobs to support their families and, in cases such as the Phoenix FD crew, to protect your family as well.
9. I think I am very proud of the leadership and decision-making several former NFL colleagues have shown as chief execs guiding other leagues through difficult times these past few months. If Miami University (Ohio) is the Cradle of Football Coaches, then the NFL office is the cradle of pro sports leaders.
• Roger Goodell started his career with us in the NFL public relations department back in the early ‘80s and rose up the ranks through hard work to become commissioner in 2006. He is tough, talented and driven to keep the NFL as America’s favorite sport.
• Don Garber was with the NFL for 16 years before being named MLS commissioner in 1999. Like Roger, Garber has spent his entire business career in professional sports and been extremely successful.
• Steve Phelps was named NASCAR’s president in 2018 after being in charge of that sport’s marketing-sales for a dozen years. He has faced several highly publicized challenges as president, including a changing fan base and the latest incident in Bubba Wallace’s garage. Phelps worked with the NFL under Paul Tagliabue before he left to join NASCAR.
• Lisa Baird is the rookie of the group. She left our office to take over marketing at the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee and was named commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League last February. Her honeymoon on the job ended 10 days ago when COVID-19 forced one of her teams to withdraw from the league’s opening tourney.
If you young readers want to run a sports league down the road, working in the NFL office as a first step should be your initial goal.
10. I think if I were to get into a different occupation, I would buy into the public self-storage business. Okay, sure, it might not sound as inviting as the football career I had meeting VIPs including the late President Ronald Reagan, Walter Payton and Wellington Mara, but I know there’s money to be made.
When I left the NFL, I brought 110 cartons of files with me. I put 100 boxes into a self-storage unit near my home and took 10 cartons with me into my new agency office. I didn’t look at the 100 cartons for the first year of NFL retirement. The only time I even thought of them was when $270 was deducted each month by the storage facility. When I began going to the unit to remove boxes, I noticed the facility owner sitting in his office watching the Fox Business Channel. He was not exactly killing himself. To paraphrase the late, great Robin Williams: “Maintaining a storage unit often is God’s way of saying you have too much money.”
I finally wised up, started going through the boxes and quickly cleared out of the facility. I tossed a good deal of what at one time seemed like crucial material. I saved only what I thought would be helpful for special occasions like, say, Peter King asking if I would sub for him and write about 50-year old NFL history.
I very much appreciate the invite and, more than ever, appreciate what Peter puts himself through each week to produce the most entertaining, informative and updated weekly column in sports media.
The Seventies rocked.
Then things got even better.
Best is yet to come.