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Odd owner finds way to the Big One

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

TAMPA, Fla. – He had a stain on his shirt, right there surrounding the buttons halfway down his chest. It looked like the remnants of breakfast. Maybe a bit of egg that escaped Bill Bidwill's fork and in an unfortunate, if telling, way reinforced the image of the Arizona Cardinals owner as a socially-challenged misfit.

He had shown up at Super Bowl media day in one of those hell-freezes-over moments – Dollar Bill Bidwill, considered by many the cheapest, most incompetent and non-competitive owner in the NFL, somehow making the big game.

He wore a sports coat and a Cardinals red bow tie for the occasion, despite the soaring temperatures. On top of his head was a NFC championship baseball cap, sort of a reminder to everyone that, yes, indeed, this had happened.

It was necessary, since under Bidwill's ownership, the Cardinals had managed just a single winning season in the previous 23 campaigns – 9-7 in 1998. In a league built for parity, the Cardinals are more than 100 games under .500 since 1972 – the year he gained control of the franchise.

Bidwill had inherited the team from his mom and dad and had no track record of prior business success. He was considered a strange, distant guy. He drove fans crazy.

Through the years he didn't just rack up losses and empty stadiums in St. Louis and Arizona, but also stories of frugality that are comical.

He supposedly docked players' salary for team meals, refused to buy extra socks and rationed Gatorade. He'd do anything to save a buck. In a league built on spending, he saved. He had a near religious opposition to paying market price to retain free agents.

He was great at raising ticket prices though.

Now here he was, 77 years old, and finally in the Super Bowl. The reason isn't Bill Bidwill but his son, Michael, who took over most day-to-day operations a few years ago and made the place operate like an actual NFL franchise for once.

Still, the stories of "The Redemption of Bill Bidwill" were all cued up. He was misunderstood. He was more competitive than you think. He really knew what he was doing all these years. All those fans who despised him, protested him, claimed he had defrauded them by fielding a loser had it all wrong.

None of it is probably true but we've seen crazier redemption stories during Super Bowl week. Besides, who doesn't love an odd ball old guy, even if he did bilk customers for years by non-apologetically fielding a minor league team?

Then along came the stain on his shirt. Of course there'd be a stain on Bidwill's big moment. This doesn't happen to Robert Kraft.

Then it became apparent that the Cardinals public relations staff wasn't going to let Bidwill do a lot of talking, defending or commenting. The employees were going to save the boss from himself.

Bidwill's hour session with the media lasted just eight minutes. Most of those were interrupted with cries of "one more question" and "we have to cut it off" before Bidwill was hustled off in mid-answer to the safety of silence.

We're not sure what could've gone wrong but the worry on everyone's face about Bidwill talking was obvious. They know him best and they apparently knew nothing good could come out of him speaking to reporters.

Strange? Yes, very strange. Bidwillian-strange.

He didn't make any unfortunate comments in the low-key affair. He was asked about people calling him the worst owner in the NFL.

"I just didn't consider some of those things seriously at all," he said softly. "You know, winning is the answer to the situation. We've been winning lately and we have a fan base in the building now every game and they're our fans."

Did all that failure make you ever consider selling the team?

"No, that never crossed my mind. I don't let it get to me if we have a bad game or a bad year. I just go back in and try to do better."

Bad year? This guy had bad decades and they never did better.

What did you do to celebrate the NFC championship?

"I went home, finished off the morning coffee in the microwave, went to bed and got a good night's sleep and woke up with a smile."

You wonder if a Super Bowl would merit a fresh pot of coffee? Who knows? That was about it for the Bill Bidwill media session.

A few feet away Michael Bidwill took to his father's defense. What do you want people to know about your dad? he was asked.

"That he's wanted to win all through those years and that he's a really great guy and he's been a terrific boss and father. I really admire him for the way he's faced the challenges the organization has had over the last several years."

He admitted it was "tough" to watch his dad get raked over the coals by fans and media.

"When you look at criticism that's part of this game," Michael said. "I can tell you I sat in games with him for pretty much my entire life and he wanted to win every one of those."

We have no doubt this is true. Bidwill wanted to win. He just didn't want to enough, didn't know how or wasn't capable of making it happen. He owned the Cardinals in St. Louis from 1972 until after the 1987 season and then moved the franchise to Arizona under a deluge of outraged fans.

In both locations he had lousy stadiums that didn't earn much money and served as Bidwill's forever crutch.

"Well, it was very difficult in St. Louis because we had a limited, small stadium according to the NFL standards, and we had no auxiliary income from it," Bill Bidwill said.

In Arizona it was no better. The team moved into Arizona State's Sun Devil Stadium and discovered (surprise, surprise) that fans didn't want to bake in the desert heat for a 1 p.m. kickoff to watch a horrible team. All for some of the highest ticket prices in the league.

"In the 18 years we were at Sun Devil Stadium, that stadium was largely half full and we only sold it out 12 times," Michael Bidwill said.

This despite Bill Bidwill's aggressive marketing plan to sell tickets to fans of opposing teams who might want to take a weekend trip to Phoenix. The Cowboys and Broncos scored them some quick money, but so much for fostering a home-field environment.

Michael says everything changed when they finally got local governments and a naming sponsorship deal to fund the state-of-the-art retractable dome University of Phoenix Stadium.

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Bidwill, right, hoists the George Halas Trophy alongside his son, Michael.
(Kirby Lee/US Presswire)

Now, he claims, the team had money to spend. Perhaps more importantly, the son was in charge and was going to spend it – on coaches, players, scouting and facilities. Suddenly the Cardinals, which always had potential since so many potential free agents would love to live in the area, put together just their third winning season since the second Reagan Administration.

Then they won three consecutive playoff games and Bill Bidwill was downing 18-hour-old coffee in celebration.

"I think it means a lot," Michael said of seeing his father finally win. "He couldn't be more excited. He's a pretty low-key guy to begin with. I'm so happy for him that we were able to watch him lift up the George Halas Trophy two Sundays ago. That's been a life-long dream for me to watch him hold up a trophy."

Michael went on to discuss the Cardinals cap philosophy, their push for revenue streams and the sound decision-making that went into securing a top-line coach. He kept mentioning the commitment to the future and "changing the perceptions about the organization that maybe had lingered for years."

He sounded like an actual NFL executive.

"I hope my dad's legacy is about this," he said, waving his hand around to media day. "It's about the Super Bowl and Super Bowls."

Bill Bidwill was long gone by then. Perhaps the most vilified owner in the NFL had been hustled away from the spotlight on a day no one thought was coming.

Who knows what he was doing? Who knows what Bill Bidwill has ever been doing? It's hard to say he deserves this success. It's hard to say he did anything to foster the change. It's hard to have much sympathy for someone who profited handsomely by putting such a sad, cheap product out for the team's fans.

He's seemed nice enough though. Just still the guy who shows up on his big day with a stain on his shirt and a nervous pack of handlers.