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Long, rocky history marks Bidwills' ownership

By Bob Baum
AP Sports Writer / January 9, 2009
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TEMPE, Ariz.—The Arizona Cardinals have a history that dates to 1898, when a Chicago athletic club formed a neighborhood football team. They've been losing almost ever since.

For the past 75 years the Cardinals have been owned by the Bidwill family, a name that became synonymous with futility in professional sports.

That seems finally to be changing as owner Bill Bidwill cedes more responsibility of operating the family business to Michael, the second oldest of five children who forever gained his father's appreciation by heading the drive for a new stadium.

Michael Bidwill left his job as a federal prosecutor to lead the stadium effort and now, as Cardinals president, is in charge of the franchise's daily operations. His main motivation has been to erase the stigma that had accompanied the Bidwill name.

Michael calls his father the most misunderstood man in the Valley of the Sun.

"It's mainly because a lot of things that have been written and said about him just aren't true," the younger Bidwill said. "that he didn't care about winning, that he didn't put money back into the team. ... He cared deeply about winning."

Bill Bidwill shies away from the media, but the 77-year-old owner, in his Arizona-style bolo tie, is a familiar figure to sports writers at the team's headquarters and training facility. He usually walks past saying nothing, looking straight ahead, but will stop from time to time for small talk, usually sharing some story from the team's ancient history. He rarely talks about current issues facing the team and declined to be interviewed for this story.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt, hired by Bidwill two seasons ago, said he has regular, cordial conversations with the owner.

"He's very kind to me," Whisenhunt said. "He has a great knowledge of this game and the history of this league. I think he really wants to win. I mean, the excitement on his face after we won the division and then after we won the playoff game was really special."

Last Saturday's playoff victory was only the third in the history of the franchise. The others were an upset at Dallas in the first round of the 1998 postseason, and in the NFL championship game in 1947.

Bill Bidwill was a ball boy in that game, the teenage son of Charles Bidwill, a vice president of the crosstown rival Chicago Bears. Charles Bidwill purchased the Cardinals for $50,000 in 1933 and was one of the founders of the NFL; he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

From 1933 to 1945, the Cardinals had only one winning season.

The franchise gained a reputation of penny-pinching later, but not in those days. Charles Bidwill paid $100,000 -- a remarkable sum for the times -- to sign University of Georgia running back Charley Trippi, who led the team to a 28-21 victory over the Eagles at frigid Comiskey Park for the 1947 NFL title.

Charles Bidwill didn't live to see his team make it to the top. He died of pneumonia in April of that year. Bidwill's widow Violet took control of the team and moved the franchise in 1960 to St. Louis, the Cardinals' home for the next 28 years.

When Violet Bidwill died in 1967, sons Bill and Charles Jr. inherited the team. Bill Bidwill took over sole ownership in 1972.

The Cardinals had some high-scoring, entertaining seasons in St. Louis under Don Coryell, but never won a playoff game. Bidwill eventually looked to move the team, with Baltimore, Oakland and Arizona the leading candidates.

He chose Arizona with a handshake deal for a new stadium in 1988.

A savings and loan crisis wrecked any immediate chances for a stadium, Michael Bidwill said, and the franchise played for 18 years at Arizona State's Sun Devil Stadium, often in searing heat. The crowds dwindled and the visiting team, especially the Dallas Cowboys, often had more fans there than Arizona did.

Star quarterback Neil Lomax saw his career end prematurely with a hip injury, and the losses mounted. Coaches Gene Stallings, Joe Bugel, Buddy Ryan, Vince Tobin, Dave McGinnis and Dennis Green all got their chances. Only Tobin succeeded, guiding the Jake Plummer-led 1998 team to a 9-7 record and a wild-card victory at Dallas.

The Cardinals failed to re-sign several crucial members of that team, and 1998 was the franchise's' lone winning season from 1984 to 2008.

Then came the successful drive for a new stadium, a proposition cleverly tied to improvement of facilities for the highly popular baseball spring training venues, as well as creation of youth sports fields.

University of Phoenix Stadium, the state-of-the-art home of the Cardinals, stands like a silver spaceship in the western suburb of Glendale.

Meanwhile, Michael Bidwill guided the team out of some of its outdated business practices and oversaw the signing of big contracts to lure new players, such as Edgerrin James, and keeping existing ones (Larry Fitzgerald and Adrian Wilson).

"I saw things that I thought needed to be changed," he said.

Forbes Magazine says the franchise is worth $914 million.

This year's Cardinals won the franchise's first division title in 33 years. Last Saturday's 30-24 victory over Atlanta came in the Cardinals' first home playoff game since that cold day in Chicago 61 years before.

Bill Bidwill was a kid on the sidelines in the first one and watched from a suite in the second.

"I know it's been a tough road out here," Whisenhunt said, "and there's a number of factors as to why. Not having a stadium like we've had has been very difficult. I'm happy to see this team have some success for him."

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