Fantasy Football

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: February 2015
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Phoenix barely missed landing an NFL expansion team in 1974, but the Valley’s pro pigskin aspirations later captured the Arizona Cardinals and the Super Bowl.

Clashes between the Arizona Cardinals and their division rival and defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks were hard-hitting, brutal affairs this season. But win or lose, each team had the comfort of knowing they’d be playing the next Sunday – or, at least, the next season.

That wasn’t the case when Phoenix and Seattle battled over pigskin privileges in 1974. In the heat of a National Football League expansion year, the two cities weren’t battling over first downs, but their very existence in the NFL universe. Though the cutthroat, winner-take-all competition unfolded in Seattle’s favor, Arizona ultimately persevered in obtaining its own NFL team, thanks largely to the promise of a state-of-the-art stadium – University of Phoenix Stadium, where this year’s NFL Pro Bowl and Super Bowl games will be played.   

1974 wasn't the first time Phoenix had sought an NFL franchise. The city also made a bid for a team in 1966, when communications executive and former University of Arizona football player Karl Eller formed Phoenix Professional Football Inc., intent on helping the city land a team when the NFL announced its intention to expand to 16 franchises. Along with Boston, Cincinnati, Houston, New Orleans, Portland and Seattle, Phoenix made the final cut, but few seemed to regard the city as the odds-on favorite. Arizona Republic Sports Editor Hugh Harelson lamented that Phoenix lacked “…a strong industrial base, the source of the blue collar workers so prominent in attendance at sports events in major cities.” At the time, the city had a population just over 500,000 and an economy fueled by high-tech firms and real estate development.

Undeterred, Eller forged ahead with plans for a new 55,000-seat stadium designed by architect Ed Varney on 160 acres along Bell Road near the Turf Paradise horse track. The estimated cost of the semi-excavated, lighted stadium was $3.5 million. “That doesn’t sound like a big figure when you hear the huge sums being spent for stadiums nowadays but we’re building a football stadium, not some sort of palace,” Eller said in a 1966 Phoenix Gazette article.

Each candidate city made a pitch at the NFL owners’ meeting in Washington, D.C. Eller gave a locker room pep talk, telling reporters beforehand, “We’re going to bring back that NFL franchise. Or we’re going to bust something trying.”

The subsequent city-by-city lobbying session was smashmouth-nasty. Portland, a long shot to get a franchise, used their allotted time to knock other cities. “Nobody in his right mind would go there,” their representative, John Lansing, said of Phoenix. “You get on the freeway and make the wrong turn at Tucson and you could end up in Mexico without seeing any people.” According to the Washington Post, Phoenix Mayor Milton Graham retorted: “He could find people in Nogales on his way to Mexico.”

The franchise was ultimately awarded to New Orleans, but Eller kept pressing for an NFL team, especially after seeing success in the ownership group that landed the Valley’s first major sports franchise, the Phoenix Suns, in 1968. Soon afterward, he hired Stewart Udall, former United States Secretary of the Interior, to promote Phoenix to the NFL. After two years of lobbying, Udall proposed building an NFL stadium on Gila River tribal lands south of Phoenix because Tucson, “being a red-hot football town, might want to share in rooting for an Arizona pro team,” according to a 1971 Arizona Republic article.

Photo courtesy Arizona State University; ASU’s Sun Devil Stadium in the 1970s; it was the Cardinals' home until 2006.

In the early 1970s, after merging with the American Football League, the NFL announced plans to grow from 26 to 28 franchises. Expansion was driven by the league’s desire to establish teams in major markets in advance of the newly-formed (and short-lived) World Football League. Selection criteria included stadiums, weather, sports interest and growth potential. By early 1974, the list of 24 contending cities was narrowed to five: Honolulu, Memphis, Phoenix, Seattle and Tampa Bay. If Phoenix received a franchise, the NFL would select from three prospective owners: Eller, former Air Force Academy athletic director and local sports promoter Robert Whitlow, and former Buffalo Bills executive Pat McGroder Jr.

Eller proposed construction of a $20 million, 75,000-seat stadium on a 160-acre site south of the Salt River between Seventh and 16th streets. He was “fairly optimistic” about Phoenix’s chances if the stadium deal was finished and called the competition for the franchise “a dogfight” in the Arizona Republic.

Valley leaders realized constructing a stadium was pivotal to landing an NFL team, since the other cities already had such facilities. ASU’s Sun Devil Stadium was considered a temporary option at best. Encouraged by late Phoenix Mayor John Driggs, the City Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting construction of a stadium at Eller’s proposed south Phoenix site, should the city be selected by the NFL. However, the decree failed to provide funding and specified no taxes were to be spent in the construction or debt retirement of the stadium. Financing construction with revenue bonds and using stadium revenues to repay the debt was considered. In an interview with PHOENIX magazine shortly before his death last December, the 87-year-old Driggs recalled, “The city went through the hoops to make an application to the NFL. The first issue was a stadium and we thought that a dug-out facility like the Foxboro Stadium in New England would be the most practical approach. We sent a team of city engineers to study it.”

Enthusiastic local football fans even formed a booster group called the “NFL in Phoenix,” headed by auto dealership owner Lou Grubb, that hosted a luncheon at Civic Plaza that drew 1,200 supporters in 1974. It was all for naught, though. Influenced by the unsettled stadium issue, once again Phoenix was shut out as the NFL selected Tampa Bay and later Seattle for expansion teams. Was the city devastated at being passed over for an NFL franchise? “Compared to today’s sports stories, it wasn’t a high-visibility community issue,” Driggs reflected. “The NFL wasn’t nearly as popular. We were just competing; there was no weeping or wailing. Phoenix was a smaller city, so it was an uphill battle to get a franchise.”

The league didn’t expand again until Carolina and Jacksonville were added in 1993, but by then, Arizona had its team. After flirting with the Baltimore Colts and Philadelphia Eagles in the early ‘80s to move one of those teams to the desert, the Valley lured the Cardinals from St. Louis in 1988. As pro football’s oldest continuously-operated franchise, the Cardinals had a proud history, but the franchise enjoyed scant success in St. Louis after relocating from Chicago in 1960, and had a largely apathetic fan base. Consequently, owner Bill Bidwell agreed to use ASU’s Sun Devil Stadium until a domed facility could be built in the Valley. After 18 seasons in Tempe, the Cardinals moved into the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale in 2006.

Thus, the Valley’s long wait for an NFL-worthy facility ended – with a jaw-dropping show piece venue that helped the Valley become a gridiron magnet and garnered myriad accolades, including a nod from Business Week as one of the top 10 sports facilities in the world. As Super Bowl XLIX blows the roof off the stadium this month, its lauded turf seems worlds away from 1966, when Phoenix was seen as too small to sustain pro ball.

False Start
For all the excitement the first NFL game in the Valley since 1934 generated, the matchup wasn’t quite what local fans had hoped for. The game featured the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings in a preseason contest on August 8, 1975, not the debut of Phoenix’s long-lobbied-for NFL expansion team. Despite the lack of a hometown team and triple-digit temperatures, the matchup almost set an attendance record, drawing 51,323 spectators to ASU’s Sun Devil Stadium.

Many came to see the Jets’ star quarterback, Joe Namath, who had just become the league’s highest-paid player after signing a $900,000 contract. “Broadway Joe” was also known for wearing Hanes Beautymist pantyhose in a gender-bending television commercial. Like the Jets, the Vikings also featured a future Hall of Fame quarterback, Fran Tarkenton. The Jets won 20-15, but the major story was the enthusiasm Valley fans showed for NFL football, a demonstration that couldn’t help but boost local chances of landing a team.

“Even with the stifling heat, the exhibition generated as much excitement as an ASU game under Frank Kush,” piccolo player Lona English Helmbrecht, who performed with the West Phoenix High School marching band, recalls. “I remember sweltering in my band uniform, standing next to Fran Tarkenton and his Vikings teammates on the sidelines. They looked enormous in their helmets and pads.”