The Curse

Here's why the Cardinals have sucked forever, and why they might never suck again

Valley business mogul Karl Eller was well aware that Bill Bidwill was a chronic loser when he began courting him in 1987 to bring his football team to Arizona.

"Who didn't know?" Eller asks. "In pro football, your record is there for everyone to see. And the Cardinals have had the worst record out there since the very beginning of the game."

To date, with the recent season-ending loss, that record stands at 455 wins and 668 losses since the team became a charter member of the American Professional Football Association in 1920.

Fred Harper
Pottsville, Pennsylvania, population 16,000, home of the 1925 team that inspired talk of the curse.
Pottsville, Pennsylvania, population 16,000, home of the 1925 team that inspired talk of the curse.

But Eller, best known for his successes heading Columbia Pictures and building Circle K into the nation's second-largest convenience store chain, was tired of failing in attempts to bring pro football to Arizona. Since 1968, the same year his investment group started the Phoenix Suns and hired Jerry Colangelo as the team's general manager, Eller and a small group of Valley sports boosters had been begging the National Football League for an expansion team or, the less attractive option, hoping to lure one of the league's malcontents.

Eller got the idea that Phoenix would be a great place for pro football from snowbird George Halas, better known as the beloved Hall of Fame owner of the Chicago Bears, a team whose early greatness was contrasted with the train-wreck of its crosstown rival, the Chicago Cardinals, purchased in 1932 by Charles Bidwill. In 1960, the Cardinals bailed to St. Louis to run from the shadow of Halas' Bears.

At some point in conversations at the Arizona Biltmore hotel, where Halas holed up every winter, it was mentioned that the Cardinals might well be willing to bail again.

But, in the late 1960s, Eller and his pals were still young, brash and hopeful. They went to the NFL and made what Eller calls "an amateurish" push for an expansion team, promised to build "some cheap hole-in-the-ground stadium" and were promptly sent back to the desert without a team.

The 1970s passed. Seattle and Tampa Bay got expansion teams. The Baltimore Colts passed on Phoenix in 1984, sneaking off to Indianapolis instead. And it didn't seem like the NFL was in expansion mode.

In 1987, Eller, sports attorney/agent Mike Gallagher and Pinnacle West chief Keith Turley got word that Bill Bidwill was interested in moving out of St. Louis, possibly to the Valley.

The troika began organizing a massive, coordinated push of civic leaders to lure the team here.

And all through the crescendo of negotiations and promises, the same questions kept haunting Eller.

Are the Bidwills hopelessly incompetent, greedy, unlucky? Or cursed?

In the 20 years since helping bring the team here, Eller has come to the conclusion that the Cardinals are indeed cursed.

By the Bidwills.

But others aren't so sure. And even if there is a curse, or if the Bidwills themselves are the curse, the people of Maricopa County may be the curse busters with sheer optimism and an outrageous charity regarding the Bidwills.

As lame as it sounds, even with this year's 5-11 blunder-bust and another head coach gone, the $455 million mother ship known as the University of Phoenix Stadium is a large part of the answer.

This, simply, because the Bidwills have been obsessed with stadiums since buying the team, and obsessed with not paying their share of stadium costs. So — thanks to bad luck, their own greed, petty anger and a bad reputation — they spent two decades in one of the worst stadium situations in pro football history.

To come to this simple conclusion, it takes a complicated deconstruction of nearly a century of incompetence.

But in the end, it appears that public money and some amount of private shame are about to overcome a litany of ignorance, intransigence, greed, skinflint-ness, silver-spoon arrogance, crippling stadium envy and a very un-football-like wimpiness.

What we're saying is, the Cardinals can be winners next year and for many years after.

But first they need to appease the football gods and give the 1925 NFL Championship back to Pottsville.

In 1998, Vince Tobin coached the Cardinals to their first playoff win in 51 years.

The year after that win, Bill Bidwill and son Michael were unwilling to sign three veteran players critical to the previous year's success.

Tobin knew he was in trouble when he lost Lomas Brown, Larry Centers and Jamir Miller from the 1998 Cardiac Kids.

"The hardest thing in pro football is to build a playoff team from a losing past," Tobin tells New Times. "Once you're there, you can build on the momentum. But once we got there, it felt like it was just thrown away. It was very frustrating."

But the real reason behind the Bidwills' passing on those three players goes beyond simple cheapness. As the 20th century rolled to a close, contract negotiations in the NFL were changing dramatically. Across the league, agents were not only pushing for more money (arguably in line with the NFL's bigger profits), but more complex contracts with signing bonuses and all sorts of incentive clauses.

Bill Bidwill, entrenched in the old NFL world of simple contracts (X years, X dollars), simply refused to play the new contract game.

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William Cress
William Cress

I am the great-nephew of Charles Francis Berry, the Pottstown Maroon's kicker who kicked the winning field goal.He taught me how to throw a baseball and foot ball. I played a little high school football in Latrobe my senior year, though the other quarterback in town wearing number 12, Terry Bradshaw is somewhat better known...

I still greatly enjoy the Pottstown curse on Phoenix, especially as I live in Pittsburgh and my brother in law lives in Phoenix. Also, my boss went to Notre Dame.

And I'm sure the black cat we saw sitting on great-grandmother Berry's grave when we visited is purely cooincidence.

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