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Part 2 of a series pitting 32 of sport's worst owners in all-out battle
By Scott Henry (@4QuartersRadio)
If your team has an owner or owners who treat the fans with respect, be grateful.
If your team has an owner who spends within his/her/their means, but can still improve the team, enjoy it.
If your team has an owner who is capable of dealing with the team’s home city in a respectful, civil, and productive manner, don’t take that for granted.
After all, you could have ended up with one of these schmucks.
Welcome to Day 2 of the WSOT. The Worst Sports Owners Tournament brings together 32 of the worst owners in the history of sport for a no-holds barred battle to the death, which you, the faithful reader, can decide. If you think a cheap owner is worse than one who picks up his team and hauls it off to some other city, here’s your chance to voice that opinion. If you’re reluctant to get behind your team on the field when the owner is a criminal off it, vote them up right here and remind everyone just how big a scumbag your team’s boss was/is.
The tournament will roll through three weeks, and the votes will be decided between Athlon’s editorial staff, the comments you post below each piece, and comments on the Facebook pages of Athlon Sports and 4 Quarters Radio. Remember, you’re voting for the owners whose crimes against sport, humanity, and/or nature were the most egregious. We’ll offer anecdotal evidence of each owner’s evil/incompetence, and if you’ve got more, feel free to throw it in.
Here’s the schedule:
Monday, Week 3: Quarterfinals
Wednesday, Week 3: Semifinals
Friday, Week 3: Final
All in all, our little tourney isn't too different from the World Series of Poker. There's stacks of cash, gaudy jewelry, and the occasional tantrum involved, but at least there are no epileptic seizures from staring at Greg Rayner's shades. Read on.
Worst Football Owners Bracket:
(1) Dan Snyder (Washington Redskins 1999-present)
(8) Ralph Wilson (Buffalo Bills 1959-present)
You know you’ve made an impression on your city when a local paper prints an illustration of you as the Devil, then stands by the writer when you sue. That’s Dan Snyder in a nutshell.
Snyder grubs money, changes coaches more often than he changes shoes, cuts every operational corner he can find, and generally seeks to strong-arm the media like some tinpot South American dictator. He’d probably repossess his mother’s car if he heard her listening to those mean sports talk radio guys.
We know this series is essentially laden with hatchet jobs, but let’s see if we can find something positive about Osama Dan Laden. Hmmm…
Okay, how about this? He’s big on family connections within the organization. His coaching staffs are poster cases for nepotism. Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs, Mike Shanahan, Al Saunders, and Gregg Williams all managed to get their sons jobs with the club during their tenures. Conversely, players who share DNA also share a total lack of job security. After long snapper Dan Turk botched a field goal snap in a 1999 playoff game, both he and his brother, punter Matt, were released. And you think your idiot brother used to get you into trouble.
Let’s see, another positive trait. Snyder’s a marketing innovator, putting himself at the vanguard of potentially lucrative marketing trends. In 2006, the Redskins became the lone NFL team to sell 9/11 commemorative gear, sewing flag-colored Pentagons on the side of regular black Redskin caps and asking $23.99 for them. He also slapped an extra $4 “security surcharge” onto ticket prices shortly after the aforementioned 9/11. Apparently, the club was taking up a collection to have fighter jets circle FedEx Field?
To further display his marketing acumen, Snyder gave an interview in 2000 to a PBS show called CEO Exchange and shared some of the tricks of his trade. “We saw that the aging baby boomer demographics were coming on strong. That meant there’s going to be a lot more diabetic patients, a lot more cancer patients, etc. How do we capture those market segments?” No truth to the rumor that he’s actively sought sponsorships from some of the illnesses in question. (“Diabetes: The Official Metabolic Disorder of the Washington Redskins.”)
For a time, it seemed Snyder was actively trying to expand the “chronically ill” market segments that he was prattling on about. In October 2009, a video surfaced on YouTube showing FedEx Field beer vendors peddling pilsners in the pisser. The notion of beer vendors in the bathroom drew a succinct reaction from Barbara Hyde, spokeswoman for the American Society for Microbiology: “Ewwwww!” That just might say it all.
All of this wackiness would be tolerable if the Redskins had been winning, but they’ve been to the playoffs twice since Snyder’s first season, and he had to go back and dig up Joe Gibbs to manage that. In comparison, Ralph Wilson’s Bills were one of the teams of the ‘90s, but they haven’t been to the playoffs since the ‘90s.
Wilson has little of Snyder’s marketing savvy, as any visitor to the Bills’ stadium can attest. Say what we like about selling out when a stadium owner peddles naming rights, but it is a financially lucrative maneuver. Wilson is said to be one of the louder players of those ol’ small-market blues, and yet his team still plays in Ralph Wilson Stadium as opposed to, say, Molson Field.
Molson would be a natural sponsor, since Wilson’s negotiated a deal to allow his team to play “home” games in Toronto since 2008, a deal set to end in 2012. Fans are concerned that the series foreshadows the franchise fully picking up stakes and moving to Toronto, while other owners simply rubber-stamped the idea hoping that it would stop Wilson’s grousing about small markets and revenue sharing.
Fans’ fears about relocation could be very valid, as the 92-year-old Wilson has made no plans for the club’s future when he passes away. Buffalo has had as bad a time in the economic downturn as any city in America, and the odds of finding a local buyer who can keep the team in town are slim. The team’s value suffers in the bargain, and the supporters are bracing themselves for the worst.
On the upside, if the team gets a new owner as weaselly as Snyder, he likely won’t want to stay around, and few would want to keep him anyway.
(4) Mike Brown (Cincinnati Bengals, 1991-present)
(5) Al Davis (Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, 1972-present)
Paul Brown performed tremendous service to football in the state of Ohio, founding both the Browns and Bengals. His son Mike is threatening to undo all the good will that his family has earned.
One thing for which Bengals fans and critics alike have to give Brown credit is that he’s not one to shirk blame for his team’s hideous play. Okay, maybe he is, but it rarely works, since there’s no one to shirk it onto because Brown refuses to hire a general manager. Any other team who had suffered through 204 losses in 20 years would have been through seven or eight GM’s by now. Okay, except the Detroit Lions, but they’re a whole other story.
Brown’s great for his coaches, as well, since they have tremendous job security. Mike would rather go 4-12 every year than pay contract buyouts, which is the only possible explanation for four-plus years and 53 losses’ worth of David Shula.
Players are slightly less thrilled about life in Cincinnati, but God help them if they speak on their anger. In 1998, punter Lee Johnson was cut after a reporter asked him if he would come to Bengals games as a fan. Johnson’s response was, “No, no way…why would you? […] I’d sell my tickets.” This assessment was a bit too honest for the boss’s tastes, so he cut Johnson for “conduct detrimental to the team.” The funnier aspect of Johnson’s case was that Brown attempted to fine Johnson for his comments after he released him.
That conversation had to sound like something out of Office Space. Picture your boss calling you on Tuesday, telling you you’ll be written up for not coming to work on Monday after he just fired you on Friday. Now, picture it in Bill Lumbergh’s voice.
It’s not too surprising that Brown’s fining and releasing people over the comments they make, because what else is there to worry about? Despite Cincinnati being one of the NFL’s smaller markets, Forbes pegged their 2010 profits at just short of $50 million. The team’s deal with Hamilton County entitles the Bengals to nearly all Paul Brown Stadium revenue for Bengals games. In addition, as of December 1, 2010, the team pockets all revenues in excess of $150,000 annually for non-Bengals events, since they manage the stadium. Oh, except for the fact that the county pays for all the maintenance and property taxes. The line about a sucker born every minute seems to apply here.
With all the cash pouring in, one would think the Bengals could afford more than one scout. But which is worse, being the only scout for the team or being a scout whose recommendations get ignored whenever some dude runs a 4.3 40-yard-dash at the NFL Draft Combine? Welcome to life under Al Davis.
In five of the last six years, at least one of the Combine's top five 40-yard dash times has been recorded by a player who went on to be drafted by the Raiders.
2006: Michael Huff, 4.34 (5th fastest)
2008: Tyvon Branch, 4.31 (2nd), Darren McFadden, 4.33 (5th)
2009: Darrius Heyward-Bey, 4.30 (fastest)
2010: Jacoby Ford, 4.28 (fastest)
2011: DeMarcus Van Dyke, 4.28 (fastest)
While Huff and Branch have become solid NFL safeties, McFadden has started to grow into the hype after early injuries, and Ford started off hot as a dangerous all-around weapon in his rookie year, picking Heyward-Bey seventh overall is still a choice about which many point and laugh at Al. If that was the most whacked-out of Davis’s idiosyncrasies, though, he’d be a cherished football treasure to people other than those who wear face paint and spiked shoulder pads.
After all, back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, the Raiders were one of the flagship franchises in football, whether Pete Rozelle liked it or not. Since winning Super Bowl XVIII, though, success has often been fleeting, just like Al’s coaches. Since 1988, Davis has channeled his inner George Steinbrenner, churning through ten coaches. And just like Steinbrenner, Al has his own personal Billy Martin, giving Raider Hall of Fame lineman Art Shell two tries as a coach.
His hopping between Oakland and LA has tried the patience of fan bases in both cities, not to mention that of the NFL itself. Even after moving back to Oakland, Davis tried to call dibs on Los Angeles, sort of reminiscent of a woman’s ex-husband trying to ensure she doesn’t meet any new boyfriends. The claim was part of a lawsuit against the NFL, claiming that the league interfered with plans to build a new stadium at Hollywood Park. The move back to Oakland took place in 1995, but it took until 2007 for the California Supreme Court to put the case to bed.
Davis has an odd sense of loyalty that seems inversely proportional to the success that one has brought his franchise. Marcus Allen was the MVP of Super Bowl XVIII, accounting for more than 200 total yards and two touchdowns. A decade later, Allen stomped off to Kansas City having been accused of faking injuries and labeled a cancer by the man who had drafted him. Fast forward to the 2009 preseason. New coach Tom Cable was accused of punching an assistant coach in the face and breaking his jaw, and charges later surfaced that Cable had physically abused two ex-wives and a girlfriend. Never one to concern himself with others’ definition of propriety, Davis allowed Cable to run the team for two years before the inner Steinbrenner took over again and fired him.
Actually, the line above about Cable, or any coach for that matter, “running” the team is used quite loosely. Like Mike Brown, Davis serves as his own de facto general manager, but even Brown hasn’t made a habit of meddling in the coach’s business. When Marcus Allen finally went public with his grievances to Al Michaels of Monday Night Football, they included Art Shell's claim that Allen’s playing time was “out of his hands” and in Davis’s alone.
WWE honcho Vince McMahon had a famous line: “Don’t cross the boss.” It applies well to Al Davis, too. ESPN’s Adam Schefter cited a source that said the NFL has had to get involved in disputes with four of Davis’s last five coaches over money. Davis sued Lane Kiffin, was sued by Tom Cable, and the Raiders were involved in multiple lawsuits revolving around Cable’s conduct. Apparently, the only people enjoying the current state of football in Oakland are connected with law firms.
(3) Bob Irsay (Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts, 1972-1997)
(6) Hugh Culverhouse (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1976-1993)
Two men who bought into the league in the 1970’s, Bob Irsay and Hugh Culverhouse have both faced accusations of unfair dealings with business associates. One was occasionally tight-fisted with players, and the other managed to completely alienate an entire city.
The video of the Mayflower moving trucks hauling the Baltimore Colts’ football operations to Indianapolis has become a part of NFL legend. Of course, if Bob Irsay had his way every time he wanted it, the Colts would have been hitting the road long before 1984.
As far back as 1976, Irsay had been irritating the Baltimore and Maryland governments alike by complaining that Memorial Stadium did not have the luxury boxes that were starting to come into vogue at the time. Phoenix, Los Angeles, Jacksonville, and Memphis were all reported as possible landing spots for the Colts. When the state finally agreed to work with him and issue a bond for stadium renovation, Irsay flatly refused because the deal was predicated on the Colts signing a new 15-year lease. Irsay was angry that Orioles owner/Memorial Stadium co-tenant Edward Bennett Williams was not being asked to sign a similar deal.
While he was shuffling all over the map to negotiate with various cities, Irsay seemed deeply concerned that the entire affair be kept on the hush. He repeatedly did his best to convince anyone who asked that the Colts weren’t going anywhere. A memorable impromptu press conference at the Baltimore airport, with mayor Donald Schaefer at his side, no less, featured the reportedly tipsy Irsay spouting calm, soothing reassurances like “I don't know what in the hell this is all about. I have no intention of moving the goddamn team.” Bob wasn’t about to confirm to anyone that he had come back to Baltimore after abruptly canceling a hush-hush meeting with Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt.
The state of Maryland wasn’t about to take any of this lying down, though. One chamber of the state legislature passed a resolution that would allow the city of Baltimore to seize the Colts under eminent domain. Within 48 hours, 15 trucks were on the road to Indy...and all were taking different routes, just in case the 5-0 wanted to set up roadblocks or call in the National Guard tank battalion or something. According to ex-coach Frank Kush, no one knew exactly where the team was going while the employees were packing up their offices, and it wasn’t until the trucks arrived that the secret was out.
When football came back to Baltimore in 1996, Browns/Ravens owner Art Modell (more on him in a bit) wanted to be able to call the new team the Colts, since he’d had to leave the Browns name in Cleveland. Bob Irsay had once indicated that he might relinquish the name if Baltimore got a new team, but by ’96, he and son Jim wanted $25-to-50 million to even consider the idea.
Now, let’s step back for a moment and examine exactly how Bob Irsay got into the league. Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom wanted to get out of Baltimore just like Irsay would later do, but was okay with leaving the team there. He wanted the Los Angeles Rams, but he needed someone who would be willing to trade teams straight up. Rosenbloom helped broker a deal for Rams owner Dan Reeves (not the future Broncos and Falcons coach, by the way) to spurn one offer for a higher bid from one Robert Irsay, then he and Irsay simply traded football teams like kids would trade football cards.
While it’s a noteworthy deal in its own right, it takes on a new context here because of that spurned bidder who was beaten out by Irsay: a successful tax attorney named Hugh Culverhouse.
Culverhouse sued, claiming a conspiracy, and the resulting settlement ensured that Rosenbloom would throw his influential support behind an expansion franchise for Culverhouse. Eventually, he was offered the new 1976 expansion team in Tampa. It wasn’t a great start for his Buccaneers, as they lost the first 26 games in franchise history, at one point leaving Culverhouse in his Mile High Stadium luxury box as the team bus steamed toward the airport.
Despite all the losing, Culverhouse was a popular boss in all quarters, admired by players, coaches, fans, and fellow owners. Then came the 1982 players’ strike. Culverhouse was an influential member of the league’s negotiating committee, and his work during the labor dispute cost not only him, but his coach and close friend John McKay.
Culverhouse was accused of lying to his players in telling them that they were on one of football’s three highest-paying teams. Reports distributed by the NFLPA indicated the exact opposite, placing the Bucs 21st in the league in payroll, while pocketing the fifth-highest gross income of any team in the NFL. Players were also incensed when the coaching staff violated National Labor Relations Board policy by calling them and asking if they would come back to team headquarters for informal workouts. Bucs player rep Dave Stalls called it “a blatant attempt to split the players.” Imagine the thunder that DeMaurice Smith would have called down if that had occurred this summer. McKay sided with the owner and could never repair his relationship with his team.
Culverhouse’s frugality manifested itself in ways both amusing (painting walls at team’s One Buc Place HQ white to avoid need for projector screens) and disheartening (highly conservative price range for player signings). That cheap nature on contracts started the snowball effect that sent the Bucs from a solid playoff team back to laughingstock status. The contract of one player in particular was the talisman: Doug Williams.
Williams had led the team to the 1979 NFC Championship Game and to a division title in 1981. By 1983, the Bucs were expected to contend for the Super Bowl again. Williams was making $120,000 per year, which wasn’t one of the premier quarterback salaries in the league, even then. It wasn’t even in the top 40. Williams wanted $600,000, but Culverhouse offered $400,000. When the owner wouldn’t budge, Williams bailed for the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaws. All of this came while Williams was struggling with the death of his wife and adapting to life as a single father.
To guard against the loss of Williams, the Bucs signed quarterback Jack Thompson from Cincinnati, but had to surrender their 1984 first-round pick as compensation. When Thompson flopped, they dealt a 1984 fourth-rounder and 1985 second-rounder for Steve DeBerg, who went 6-10 in 1984. In the 1984 supplemental draft for players coming over from the USFL, they selected Steve Young. Young would eventually become a Hall of Famer in San Francisco, but in Tampa, he was 3-16 with a TD/INT ratio of 11-21.
Now, what could have been:
--The 1984 first-rounder turned out to be No. 1, which became Irving Fryar. Players like Dean Steinkuhler and Carl Banks (an All-Pro in 1987) were also readily available. Even if the team had been a playoff contender as expected, players like WR Louis Lipps (2 Pro Bowls), RB Greg Bell (1), DB Scott Case (1), or OL Jim Sweeney (172 straight starts from 1985-95) would have been available late in the round.
--The traded fourth-rounder was used to select defensive back Randy Robbins, who went on to play eight solid years in Denver. Center Joel Hilgenberg (1 Pro Bowl) and DB Martin Bayless were also available later in that round.
--That supplemental pick used to select Steve Young could have become Reggie White, a logical successor to Lee Roy and Dewey Selmon as a terrorizing force on the Bucs’ defensive line.
--Finally, that 1985 second-rounder could have become Williams’ heir apparent at QB, a mad scrambler named Randall Cunningham, or linebacker Simon Fletcher, who recorded 97.5 sacks in 11 years as a Bronco.
If only Culverhouse had known that just a little more cash to Williams could have bought him a receiver (Lipps), a steady defensive back (Robbins), one of the game’s best-ever pass rushers (White), and either Cunningham’s electric athleticism or Fletcher’s ability as a blitzer, it would have gone down as some of the best money ever spent.
(2) Art Modell (Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens, 1961-2004)
(7) Norman Braman (Philadelphia Eagles, 1985-1994)
In many cases, owners’ reputations can rise and fall with the production of the players that they employ. These two bosses employed all-time legends, but unfortunately ended up running them off.
When Art Modell purchased the Cleveland Browns in 1961, two other famous Browns came under his employ: founding coach Paul and bruising runner Jim. Paul Brown was still very much in control of the team’s decisions and player moves, and a trade for 1961 Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis particularly rankled the new owner. Brown refused to play Davis following his diagnosis of leukemia in 1962. Doctors said that Davis’s body could handle the pounding of NFL action, and Modell wanted him on the field. Brown never did play Davis in a game, and the man they called “The Elmira Express” died in May of 1963.
By the time Davis died, Paul Brown had already been terminated. Modell fired him in January of 1963, and conspiracy theorists note that the uproar was muted by a local newspaper strike that was ongoing at the time. It seemed like a solid deal at the time, considering that players had chafed under Brown’s authoritative hand. Besides, the much looser Blanton Collier coached the club to the 1964 NFL Championship, so Paul Brown was barely missed at the time. Of course, the team never reached that level again.
Jim Brown, on the other hand, loved Modell early on. Modell encouraged Jim to have his own radio show, which served as a great platform for Jim to rail against Paul Brown’s now-predictable playcalling. Modell often placed Brown’s star power above the rest of the team and especially above the coach, which provoked Paul Brown to ponder trading Jim. Word got back to Jim Brown, and he immediately requested that Modell put a no-trade clause in his contract. All the latitude that Modell gave Brown came back to bite him in 1966, when Jim decided to retire and finish filming “The Dirty Dozen” rather than report to training camp.
Brown’s decision may have left Modell in a surly mood, as he attempted to play hardball with several of his players the following year. Five black players, including Jim Brown’s close friend, guard John Wooten, and Brown’s replacement Leroy Kelly, refused to come to camp. Modell responded by putting out a press release talking about how he and the Browns had “paved the way” for blacks in the NFL, never mind the fact that he was taking credit for Paul Brown’s decisions. Four of the five were gone within the next year.
Oh, yeah, and Modell yanked the Browns out of Cleveland altogether, giving us the Baltimore Ravens. But more on that in Round 2, if Modell makes it that far.
Just like Modell, ex-Eagles owner Norman Braman could be hard-nosed on a contract. Braman’s misfortune was to be the owner of a NFL franchise in 1993, the dawn of full-fledged football free agency. Like Modell, Braman employed one of the NFL’s all-time great players, defensive end Reggie White. The Eagles of the late 1980’s and early ‘90’s had solid offenses, but were defined by dominant defenses that were loaded with star-quality players. White, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, Eric Allen, Wes Hopkins, Jerome Brown, and Andre Waters led a defense that may have peaked in 1991, ranking first overall, against the pass, and against the run.
By then, however, White and Braman were already in a hostile relationship. White accused Braman of lowballing him on a prior contract and getting away with it by offering White’s agent, Patrick Forte, an Eagles front office job. Braman didn’t care for White constantly proclaiming his faith during interviews and personal appearances. By 1993, when White became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that led to NFL free agency, Braman had already made up his mind that he was letting Reggie go.
When White became a free agent, he said that he would be waiting for a sign from God to tell him where to go. Braman at first told White’s agent to test the market and get back to him with a request, then ignored the calls when they came. When White signed with the Green Bay Packers, Braman said, “He did what was in the best interests of his family, and he did a super job of marketing himself. I give him credit. But I was not going to become part of a circus. And the press fell for all that crap about God.” It went along with Braman’s comments after White objected to the firing of coach Buddy Ryan: “Reggie may be devout, but his first love is the almighty dollar.”
Braman certainly stuck to one principle: “You stay with veterans, and one day you wake up and they’ve all gotten old.” By 1995, all the players listed above were gone, and so was Braman.
Remember, it’s all about the votes in deciding which owners did more to screw over their fans and their leagues, so leave some comments and discussion below. You guys will decide who you'd like to read more eye-rolling tales about in Round 2. Happy voting.