The final ballots had been tallied, the Rams had been given the green light to return to Los Angeles by a 30-2 vote, and Stan Kroenke was in the process of thanking his fellow NFL owners in the cavernous meeting room of a Houston hotel.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the staunchest advocate of the Rams owner, leaned over to his son, Stephen, Cowboys vice president, and whispered, "There's a lesson here."
“I got it,” said Stephen, nodding. “If you’re going to stick your neck out, make sure you’re riding
In this case, Kroenke's $2.6-billion Inglewood project was the prized thoroughbred, and the Triple Crown meant topping the two other competitors in the race, the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders, who had teamed to propose a rival stadium concept in Carson. This was seven months ago, when the NFL was a very different place and no one had cracked the L.A. code for 21 years.
On Saturday night, the Rams will host the Cowboys in an exhibition opener at the Coliseum, marking the first NFL snap in the nation's second-largest market since the Raiders and Rams left after the 1994 season. The game is officially a sellout, and ticket demand is so great that the Rams have opened additional sections of the venue, bringing the expected attendance close to the capacity of 91,000.
Cowboys-Rams is symbolic, too, in that Jones was instrumental in convincing fellow owners to buy into Kroenke's vision. He praised the "immense qualifications and passion" of the Rams owner, and said Kroenke "gave [the NFL] a fantastic opportunity, and we don't get many of them, to really show what we could be."
In a lengthy interview with The Times from Cowboys camp in Oxnard, Jones — a former starting guard on the Arkansas football team — explained why he played lead blocker on the Rams leaving St. Louis and returning to Southern California, and where he sees the league going from here.
"The process was arduous," Jones said. "It unnecessarily pitted to some degree of ownership against each other. But if you waited … you'd miss the damn train. We had a time and place there with the Rams, with the ability to relocate to Los Angeles, the resources, the economic timing, to do it right. It was all right there."
The way he sees it, the Cowboys almost view playing in this historic game as a reward.
"This is a little bit of icing on the cake for all of our effort to have a team in Los Angeles," he said. "We look at it that way completely, as though we've been awarded a bowl game. That's the way we look at it, because of the effort that it took to get the Rams here."
Not surprisingly, many people in St. Louis see Jones as a villain and a central figure in the prying loose of a team that called that city home for the last two decades. Meanwhile, other NFL owners – chief among them Carolina's Jerry Richardson – pushed hard for the Carson project and for the Rams to stay put.
"I believed in [the Inglewood plan] for all the right reasons," Jones said. "It was lifting the Cowboys, as well as every other team in the league."
He noted he was the only NFL owner who attended the funeral of late Raiders owner Al Davis, and that "I think the world of" Chargers owner Dean Spanos.
"But what we did was in the best interest of both of those franchises," Jones said.
Neither the Raiders nor the Chargers have resolved their stadium situations in their home markets. The Chargers are lobbying for public support of their stadium plan in downtown San Diego, an uphill battle, while the Raiders have turned their attention to Las Vegas as an option.
Jones said the NFL's perception of Las Vegas has changed for the better, and called it "a fundamentally solid market." He predicted that if that process continued to move forward for the Raiders, there would not be the same type of battle among owners that happened with L.A.
"There won't be," he said. "You'll have certain individual owners with thoughts, but you won't see people clumping together to try to stop it – not with Las Vegas in the Raiders' case. You're not going to have factions and things like that. Not here."
However, he does not believe the Chargers should look at Las Vegas as an option.
"As far as I'm concerned, the Raiders are the one and only team to go," he said. "I wouldn't go over there if I were San Diego. If it's going to work, I think it's the Raiders. You've got to have that national cache."
That said, Jones lavished praised on the potential of both the San Diego and Oakland/East Bay markets (even though Oakland has done precious little to try to keep the Raiders.)
He said the East Bay "may be the best opportunity as far as a market is concerned, with what's happening in San Francisco, relative to growth, and what's happening in Sacramento. … And of course San Diego is a heck of a market."
He said he's "very" impressed with L.A.'s reaction so far to the Rams, who capped their season-ticket sales at 70,000, then had no problem selling 10,000 tickets more for each of the nine home games (two exhibitions, plus seven regular-season games). He said L.A. is capable of being home to two teams, let alone one, and is fertile ground for supporting a franchise.
"It does give you a great read for the enthusiasm," he said. "We have about 17,000 people who write checks to the Cowboys. Not 1.7 million, but 17,000. There's 20 million people in Southern California. You don't have to go out and have millions of people participate, other than becoming fans, living vicariously through the experience as [play-by-play man] Al Michaels tells it, and watching it."
L.A., Jones said, "has got it all."
"It's got the history, and the pizzazz to put the show on."
To use Cowboys logic, Secretariat has crossed the finish line. Now the real race begins.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesFarmer