The Curse

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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.


Arizona Cardinals

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.

"The league was going in a different direction than the Old Man," Tobin says. "And if 10 other teams are playing the new game, you're going to get left out. We just had a terrible time signing players, and even if we did, we had a terrible time getting them signed on time."

(Neither Bill nor Michael Bidwill returned calls to be interviewed for this article.)

This was especially true of draft picks, Tobin says. Years of bad records makes for years of high draft picks, and most every year, several young stud players would miss training camp because of prolonged contract negotiations. (This is assuming they actually were studs; the Cardinals are league leaders in high-draft-pick busts.)

Seasons would unravel before they began.

That is, the Cardinals would head up the mountain to prepare for the season without key players in place and without time to evaluate and prepare new talent. And this meant they came back down the mountain unprepared for the beginning of the season.

And the season always began on the road because Sun Devil Stadium was deemed too hot for football in the first week of September.

Many years, it was too hot for football the first week of November.

So when the Cardinals came home from that demoralizing thumping on the road, they walked into a boiling stadium in which everything — from the name of the edifice on down — was geared toward firing up fans of the Arizona State University Sun Devils.

"You always felt like a visitor in the thing," Tobin says. "ASU ran everything around you. And trust me, the players felt that."

Between games, the players met and worked out in a training environment that suggested they were playing for a cost-crazed losing franchise with a dearth of winning tradition.

Around the league, the great franchises have facilities that celebrate their history. Staff, from top to bottom, is focused on winning first, cost second. Tobin coached in Chicago and Green Bay, where "it's awe-inspiring to realize what you're a part of." In Green Bay, for example, the team meeting rooms are plastered with images of the franchise's procession of great players. There, he says, "everyone on the staff is about winning. And that's something you can't help but feel."

"In a lot of places, a player comes in and he's hit with the idea that he's part of something great and has to live up to something great," Tobin says. "That's a powerful motivator. And you just never felt that with the Cardinals."

After a few weeks of losses, sports fans all around town would be mumbling the old mantra: "same old Cardinals." And everyone involved with the organization, players included, heard that.

But back to Sun Devil Stadium. Except for a few bigwigs in luxury sky boxes, fans were walking into what looked more like an L.A. drainage canal than a pro football stadium. The typical early-to-mid-season experience was: The skin would begin to bake, the Cardinals would get down by a touchdown or two, seats would empty to the point that you could see heat rising off the exposed bleachers, heat would transmit across the makeshift solar panels to your butt cheeks. Swamp-ass wasn't out of the question.

College kids and zealous ASU alums can take it, but this was supposed to be high-dollar NFL football.

You needed a drink. But by this point, you'd rather crawl all the way home for a beverage than put one more penny into Bill Bidwill's pocket.

So, fans left. And Tobin and every player on the sideline saw them leave. With heads full of abandonment issues, the players would put on a helmet that was 130 degrees inside and return to the field to mount (ahem) a rally.

"The fans have a huge impact on the players," Tobin says. "To look up and see a half-empty stadium just takes the gas out of a guy that's working that hard. It wore guys down. Simple as that."

But, somehow, that 1998 team did rally. After two losses on the road to begin the season, then a slow climb to 6-7, the Cardinals rattled off a series of last-minute victories to make the playoffs for the first time in 16 years.

More than 71,000 people turned out for that regular-season final home game against the San Diego Chargers.

"The fans helped us win that game," Tobin says. "At the same time, it proved that the fans were there very quickly if we could give them something to cheer about."

Then the Cardinals beat the heavily favored Dallas Cowboys for their first playoff win since the 1947 NFL Championship Game.

And that was the team's only championship, other than the 1925 travesty that gave the Cardinals the title over the team that crushed them in the league final — the amazing upstart sensation from the tiny and perhaps magical town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

After the Dallas game, the Cardinals lost. Just like they had lost 73 years before against Pottsville.

Then the 1998 team's leaders were traded away.

Then players missed camp.

Then they lost their first games the next season.

Then key players went down with season-ending injuries.

Then they lost more games.

Then the fans returned to their air conditioners.

Then Tobin was canned.

After stops in Detroit and Green Bay, Tobin retired to the West Valley, where he watched the monstrous new stadium rise out of barren desert for a franchise he should have come to loathe.

This past year, he drove the short distance from his home to attend Cardinal games. And amid all the losses, he believes he saw something different. Something new.

"The old equation isn't there anymore," he says. "They are going to win. And I think they'll soon have it all in place so that they can keep winning."

When Phoenix boosters began courting the St. Louis Cardinals, many of them calmed their trepidation by attributing the team's past to bad luck.

The Curse of the Cardinals.

But like the prophetic quatrains of Nostradamus, most of the evil magic dissipates into simple sin and blunder under the light of close inspection.

If there is a true curse, it is most likely the one known as the "Pottsville Curse."

That's because it's a window into why the Cardinals have stunk for so long.

In 1925, the 9-1-1 Chicago Cardinals met the 9-2 Pottsville Maroons in what was billed around the country as the NFL Championship Game.

It was not an official NFL title game, which didn't start until 1932. But it was a meeting at the end of the season between the two teams with the best records in the league. And both squads announced it as the title game.

Pottsville smashed the Cardinals 21-7, the score not fully depicting the thrashing.

But after that game, Pottsville agreed to a barnstorming match-up in Philadelphia with the University of Notre Dame and its famed Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. League officials warned the Maroons not to play the game because it would be held within the territory of another pro team, in this case the Frankford Yellow Jackets (Frankford is a section of Philadelphia). But the Pottsville boys simply couldn't turn down the opportunity to prove themselves against the best.

Pottsville won against the powerful kings of college football, the pinnacle of any form of the game at the time. In doing so, the upstart NFL was given a much-needed boost of legitimacy.

The result of Pottsville's amazing win was that the NFL sanctioned Pottsville and presented the league title to the Cardinals.

For decades, the tiny town has asked the NFL to return the title, or at least to declare it shared.

The issue has dragged on to this day. In a 30-2 vote in 2003, NFL owners shot down the request once again.

According to press reports of the NFL meetings, the vote was described as "the old-boy network siding with one of its oldest boys, Bill Bidwill."

It is unclear when any curse was actually placed on the Cardinals, but it could have been when a man who inherited a mostly abysmal team began grasping tightly to a title that was not his and that was not even won on the field of play.

This would have to make the football gods angry.

More tangibly, that type of ownership angers coaches and civic leaders, demoralizes football players and drives football fans to baseball.

In Chicago, the Bidwills could never get a stadium. They were bounced from Comiskey Park to Normal Park to Soldier Field.

The Bidwills did finally win a real championship in Chicago in 1947. They did it with the so-called "Million Dollar Backfield." Charles Bidwill had finally built a champion, but he died before he could see the championship won.

Therefore, a point of trivia is that no Bidwill male has been owner at the end of a championship season.

Under Violet Bidwill, Charles' wife, the team was horrible in the 1950s, then comparatively competitive after its move to St. Louis.

What often gets forgotten is that in the mid-1970s, under Coach Don Coryell, the Cardinals were good. In 1974 and 1975, they won the powerful NFC East.

But then the curse talk returned when the Cardinals lost to the Dallas Cowboys on a blown call in 1976. Mel Gray was interfered with in the end zone. How did the ref miss it?!

That year the Cards became the first NFC team to post 10 wins and not make the playoffs. Cursed again.

The team reached the playoffs one more time while in St. Louis, in 1982.

During the 10-year span from 1972 to 1982, the Cardinals were, in fact, one of the stronger teams in the NFL.

With that relative success, Bill Bidwill figured he deserved a new stadium in St. Louis.

The people of St. Louis disagreed.

Boosters in Phoenix watched the fight with increasing interest.

And if they looked at only the previous decade, the Bidwills didn't seem like hopeless losers.

"You could look at them one way and say it really was a case of bad luck," Karl Eller says. "But the longer view still suggested otherwise."

And once they were in Phoenix, the owners proved themselves both unwilling and incapable of creating a winner.

They hung on to their old ways, and that ancient bogus NFL title.

Mumblings about the curse continued.

While the Bidwills have been obsessed with holding on to a freebie championship, they've been just as obsessed with getting a freebie stadium.

But while the Bidwills will not give the 1925 championship to the deserving people of Pottsville, the people of Arizona did give a stadium to the less-than-deserving Bidwills.

By doing so, it could be argued that the people of Arizona have circumvented the Bidwills and gone straight to the football gods with a temple so impressive that the gods have been appeased.

In other words, we paid off the Bidwills' debt.

Don't be fooled by Cardinal claims that they've paid one-third of the price of the new stadium. It's smoke and mirrors.

In November 2000, still glowing from the Cardinals' playoff run, Maricopa County voters passed Proposition 302, which created the Arizona Tourism and Sports Authority, which would be tasked with distributing public funds raised by a 3.25 percent increase in rental-car surcharges and a 1 percent hotel tax to be levied for the next 30 years.

Building a new football stadium was the main task. But what got voters most excited was the millions of dollars the Authority would spend improving and building Cactus League baseball facilities and improving youth and amateur sports facilities around the Valley.

From a booster's standpoint, the proposition was crafted brilliantly to give the most possible return to the most possible voters.

Still, the big winners were the Bidwills.

When final construction costs were in, the domed super-structure cost $455 million.

Boiled down over time: Taxes will pay for $298.5 million. Glendale, where the stadium is located, will put in $9.5 million. The Cardinals will put in $147 million.

The Bidwills paid $147 million?

Not really. Because they held the naming rights to the new stadium. And in late September, they sold those rights for $154.5 million over 20 years to the University of Phoenix. It was the third most lucrative naming deal in NFL history.

In effect, having a new stadium built with the words "University of Phoenix" on it actually earned the Cardinals $7.5 million.

The Bidwills got their freebie, with interest.

And the football gods may have been paid off.

That's if you can imagine the football gods as dollar signs, which isn't as goofy as it sounds.

When you look at the sordid history of the Cardinals since coming to Arizona, much of it can be traced back to the stadium issue.

When Eller, Gallagher and Turley were deep in negotiations with Bill Bidwill and his attorney in late 1987, the Phoenix boosters told Bidwill they would do everything they could to get a new stadium built in Phoenix.

The deal, in writing, boiled down to this:

The Phoenix business group, the Metropolitan Phoenix Sports Alliance, pledged to pay for 60 luxury skyboxes that would be completed in Sun Devil Stadium in 1989.

The skyboxes were critical to generating the millions the Bidwills believed they needed to make the deal more lucrative.

The Bidwills also then raised ticket prices to an average of $38, the highest in the league, assuming Arizonans would pay anything for pro football. Fans revolted. The rest is ugly history.

As part of the original deal, after three years, the Bidwills would have the option to move to another facility in the Valley if one was built. The timeline quickly shifted to a more realistic five years.

At the time, a domed stadium was in the planning stages in downtown Phoenix.

Here's the rub:

Bill Bidwill apparently got it in his head that he had been promised a new stadium by the Phoenix business community.

However, a New Times review of all the contracts relating to the Cardinals' move to Arizona and hundreds of pages of correspondence on the deal shows that Valley representatives never once promised a new stadium.

All the Phoenix boosters guaranteed was their "best efforts" to get a domed stadium built in downtown Phoenix.

And, in fact, they gave their best efforts and came up with viable stadium deals.

One problem, Eller says: "We needed a 40-year lease from the Cardinals to pay the thing off, and the Bidwills wouldn't go for it."

That's the same lease length the Phoenix Suns owners agreed to for America West Arena (now U.S. Airways Center).

The other problem, says Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who was mayor of Phoenix during stadium negotiations, was that Bill Bidwill would not commit to his fair share in the costs of a new stadium.

Soon after the Cardinals moved to the Valley, Phoenix leaders began putting together plans for a Cardinals move to a domed stadium. The city had $100 million earmarked for stadium construction. But at the time, Phoenix boosters and taxpayers were expecting that money would go for a home for both pro football and major league baseball.

The first plan, floated by Martin Stone, owner of the Triple A Phoenix Firebirds baseball team, was for a $160 million domed stadium that could house both a new major league team and the Cardinals.

The city promised about $82 million, as long as Stone could get a commitment from Bill Bidwill to move his team downtown.

Bidwill, however, balked at the lease agreement he would have to sign, basically committing to just stay in town for 40 years.

"He wanted the right to move," Eller says. "It was crazy for us to agree to that because it would leave us horribly exposed. The deal died right there."

The next plan that surfaced called for a $140 million football stadium. City planners, working off the model of the deal with the Phoenix Suns, offered to pay half — $70 million — if Bidwill would put up the other half.

City leaders believed they were offering the Bidwills "a great deal when we offered to go 50-50 on the thing with them," Goddard says. "And believe me, a lot of people believed we were giving them too much."

So Goddard was flabbergasted when he received the call from Bill Bidwill:

"I'll never forget it," Goddard says. "I got the call in the council chambers. It was Big Guy, and he says, '100 million or nothing.' It was crazy. The revenues they were looking at were going to be obscene anyway. And they wanted more.

"In the end, it went to baseball only," Goddard says.

And within a decade, there was Bank One Ballpark (now Chase Field), and in 2001 the Arizona Diamondbacks became the youngest expansion franchise ever to win a World Series.

Apparently, as Arizonans watched the rise of the Diamondbacks through the 1990s, Bill Bidwill spent the decade feeling he had been lied to by the leaders of Phoenix.

At the same time, the team kept ticket prices among the highest in the NFL.

During this time, the franchise earned an even uglier reputation around the NFL for under-spending and hoarding profits. (Only at the end of the 1998 season, during that magical streak under Tobin, did the Cardinals fill Sun Devil Stadium with engaged fans.)

There was other evidence of Bidwill cheapness: Rookies for a time had to pay for their own shoes. In 1999, tight end Chris Gedney was cut after the first of two major surgeries for ulcerative colitis. The team re-signed him, but only after he had recovered.

In 2001, Bill Bidwill insisted to the Arizona Republic that he had been promised a stadium by Eller and his group.

Seeing that comment in print in a sports story, after so many years of fighting for the project, made Eller furious.

"He had the nerve to say we were the ones who didn't deliver," Eller says. "Besides the fact that he was dead wrong, who is the real guy who hasn't delivered? We didn't talk for a few years after that."

But Eller has tempered his opinion of the elder Bidwill.

"You know, he can be a benevolent guy — he's proven that," Eller says. "And maybe he's just gotten into this idea that he's not appreciated or something. I don't dislike the guy. It's just that he's kind of a wet fish. And that doesn't work too well in the world of pro sports."

All that said, the Cardinals' world may be changing, he and others agree. Eller himself points to the maturation of Michael Bidwill, Bill's son, who now runs the organization.

Although the younger Bidwill has a notoriously rotten personality, Eller and others agree he may have the acumen and desire, now that the riches of the new stadium are guaranteed, to build a winner.

"He's a different animal than his father," Eller says. "And dang, they have the young talent on the field right now. It's all there. It will be very interesting to see if they can avoid screwing it up."

For decades, NFL players did not want to play for the Cardinals.

Even if the money was right, there was trepidation. The team has a history of busting the careers of running backs (especially in the past decade). As Tobin pointed out, word was that the Cardinals' environment could sap the life out of a player. Talent needs motivation to shine in the brutal NFL. Playing in intense heat in an empty stadium for the Bidwills was thought to dull the edge it takes to win.

"Players simply didn't want to come here," Tobin says. "Which was crazy, really, because so many players either wanted to or do live here."

Bill Bidwill long has been right about one thing: A domed stadium was a big part of the equation of building a winner here.

Especially in his case, since he and his boys essentially got paid to have it built for them.

The new stadium not only takes away the early-season disadvantages on the field, it keeps the fans comfortable. It's that home for players and fans that was missing at ASU.

And now, the Cardinals stand to keep generating obscene profits from luxury seating, parking, advertising, concessions and other myriad revenue generators.

For goodness' sake, the Cardinals only generated about $150 million last year, ranking at the bottom of the league with the Minnesota Vikings. The Washington Redskins made the most, $300 million.

With the revenue sharing of the NFL's national earnings, it was financially smart — albeit lame — for the Cardinals to keep being skinflints.

In the new financial equation at the new stadium, the Bidwills look to make perhaps $100 million more annually if they can keep a winner on the field, and thus fans in the seats, in the parking lots, in the concession stands, and watching and listening on television and radio.

To make this happen, it could be argued they only need to pay $20 million to $30 million more in players' salaries, coaches' salaries and other expenditures to elevate the team to a perennial contender.

The numbers are nebulous, of course, and always changing. The point: The Bidwills are now in the position of most of America's other 1 percenters — they must now spend big money to make outrageous money.

It appears they are already moving in the direction of big spending, and big-time players.

The offensive lineup of Edgerrin James, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Matt Leinart is arguably the most exciting and talented young group in the league, rivaled, in Cardinals history, only by the 1947 "Million Dollar Backfield."

Now, of course, they need a better offensive line to protect Leinart and block for James.

It would seem that under Michael Bidwill, the Cardinals are positioned to do a better job negotiating contracts to get players in front of their coaches for preseason camp.

Of course, they didn't get Matt Leinart into camp on time.

They got rid of Dennis Green, whose manage-from-on-high style was a bad fit for a young team.

Of course, now, in the early stages of looking, they seem unwilling to court the league's most proven winners.

They have plenty of salary cap room to shore up weaknesses.

Of course, that can be said of any team that is cheap.

"But just spending money isn't the issue," Tobin says. "It's picking the right players. And now they have some room to maneuver. I think they're in a great position to fill those obvious gaps for next year."

Tobin believes the Bidwills are now willing to do that.

"They have the money, they have the space, and Michael Bidwill [who runs day-to-day operations now] seems much more driven to win and work in the realities of the modern market."

Tobin does not believe there is a curse. He has seen the reality of the bad equation too closely to believe in ghosts. Change the equation, he says, and the winning will follow.

Goddard and others interviewed (who didn't want their names used) also scoff at the notion of a curse. They, too, point to human error as the main culprit. They, too, believe that Arizona's taxpayers may have created a new era simply with their generosity.

But this season's 5-11 record would suggest that something still is hanging over the team.

More compelling is that the season's nadir, one of the most agonizing and ridiculous losses in the history of the team, came on Monday Night Football to none other than the Chicago Bears.

After leading the Bears 20-0 at the half, the Cardinals collapsed amid several freak plays to lose 24-23. For the Bears, it was the first time in team history that they came back from a 20-point deficit.

"Sometimes, when you're a team of destiny, things like that happen," Chicago coach Lovie Smith said immediately after the game.

He was speaking of the Bears.

He could have been speaking of the Cardinals.

Because, after years of Cardinals owners blocking Pottsville's attempts to acquire at least a share of the 1925 championship, which NFL team do you think the people of Pottsville began cheering for?

Well, the Chicago Cardinals' longtime nemesis, Da Bears.

It would appear to many that the Pottsville Curse can pierce even the steel armor of the Valley's half-billion-dollar offering to the football gods.

There could be only one solution.

After hiring a winner of a coach, the Bidwills must give back that which was not won on the field.

They must let go of their ignominious past. They must, as every good coach says, make the first priority winning.

Not hold on to past wins that weren't wins.

They must hedge their bets and give the 1925 title back to Pottsville.

And then, it wouldn't hurt to hire a hell of a head coach. Somebody like, say, the University of Southern California's Pete Carroll, Matt Leinart's college coach. Ne'er-do-wells like ex-Packers coach Mike Sherman, touted as a possibility, could keep that curse alive.

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