Anybody Here Seen John L.? : Fighting Sullivans May Be on Last Patriot Victory Tour

Times Staff Writer

Right from the pages of "The Last Hurrah" come the Sullivans of Boston, who with their bedraggled little football team fight their way to the forefront of society, until the wolf gets inside the door, forcing them to put the family treasure up for sale . . .

And then, just as the curtain begins to fall forever, their Patriots, who hadn't won a playoff game in 22 years, win three on the road and gain their first Super Bowl.

If this is such a heart-warming story, why is everyone giggling?

In Miami, where the Patriots had just won the AFC championship, writers joked that the Super Bowl was in trouble, the Sullivans having already proven that they could lose money with an NFL franchise and Michael Jackson.

The Sullivan patriarch, Billy, received his trophy from Lamar Hunt, recalling the day he took his $8,300 life savings, borrowed another $16,700 and became the final charter member of the American Football League.

"Billy took $8,300 and parlayed it into $30 million in debt," said a writer, laughing.

What can't a Sullivan gum up?

Billy's oldest son, Patriot Vice President Chuck, Harvard educated, a partner in the prestigious law firm of O'Melveny and Meyers, tried to run the Jacksons' Victory Tour--and took a personal bath, estimated at $5 million to $20 million.

Billy's youngest son, Patrick, became general manager at 30 and ended years of player unrest by running their payroll into the top five. He put aside the family's long-standing feud with the Boston Globe and introduced an era of tranquility.

And then, with the Patriots about to record their greatest victory, against the Raiders, Patrick began needling Howie Long from the sideline. Afterward, he went up to Long, engaged him in an argument, got decked by Matt Millen and was ridiculed anew in the Boston press.

Said Eddie Andelman, the host of Sports Huddle, a radio call-in show in Boston: "As you saw in the sideline incident, no Sullivan can stay away from show business or the cameras."

Billy was born for the spotlight, even if he leaves something to be desired as a performer. The Irish are supposed to be grand story tellers. Billy's stories are best known for their length.

With interview requests mounting here, the AFC arranged a press conference for him.

Billy entered beaming, sat down, pronounced himself happier than everyone in the room put together and talked for nine minutes before anyone got a question in.

He was still talking away 81 minutes later. By then the room, which had been packed, was half empty.

Billy persists. It's what he does best.

He was a publicist under Frank Leahy at Boston College and Notre Dame, then for baseball's Boston Braves.

"That's where some of the resentment may have come from, among the older guys," a Boston writer said. "They remember when they'd say, 'Hey, Billy, get me a cup of coffee' "

By the late 1950s, Billy was in business. He was making a nice upper-middle class living, when Leahy, then with the Los Angeles Chargers of the new AFL, suggested him as the man to run a Boston franchise.

Billy had no money to speak of, and no place lined up to play, but then the AFL had no choice, either. It had seven franchises and wanted eight.

Billy jumped at the opportunity. He lined up nine partners--they also sold stock to the public--and looked for a stadium. They kept looking for it for the next decade, it turned out.

He dragged his team all over town. The Patriots played at Boston University, Fenway Park and Boston College, where a fire broke out in the stands during an exhibition game, forcing the little crowd onto the field, there to mill around with the players.

They played at Harvard, which had one dressing room, forcing them to dress at a nearby motel and to hold their halftime meetings under the stands.

They finally found their little piece of heaven, Foxboro, halfway down the road to Providence, and built a no-frills facility.

With a new stadium, they decided it was time for a new name, so they became the Bay State Patriots.

It stayed that way, for 24 hours.

Billy said: "A commentator said we were calling them the Bay State Patriots because Billy Sullivan's initials are BS and it wouldn't be too bad to have them known as the BS Patriots. I went to the board of directors the next day and forcefully suggested that we change the name."

In the mid-'70s, Billy was forced out as president by the other owners, who repossessed his company car, canceled his life insurance policies and moved him out of the front row of the owners' box.

But Billy wouldn't go away. He was 57 and he could have sold his stock for $3 million, but he regained his presidency after a long fight, with help from Pete Rozelle and several NFL owners.

Then he borrowed another $8 million and bought his partners out. He wasn't going away, so they had to.

Said a former employee: "There are about 100,000 people who are like me--exhausted. He wears you down. He has a tremendous constitution. He's the same today at 70 as he was at 55."

The operation became a family affair.

Billy was the president, Chuck the veep, Pat the GM. Billy III did some construction work on Schaefer Stadium, which now is known as--what else?--Sullivan Stadium. Daughter Nancy decorated the luxury boxes. The board of directors includes two daughters, Billy's wife and two cousins.

Missing only is daughter Kathleen, who is married to Joe Alioto, the lawyer representing Al Davis against the NFL.

An NFL loyalist to the core, Billy made known his intention to testify against Davis and his son-in-law.

Davis sent word back that if he did, Davis would testify against Sullivan in a suit brought by Patriot stockholders.

Undaunted, Billy flew to Los Angeles and testified. Davis won, anyway.

True to his word, Davis flew to Boston and testified. The stockholders won.

Billy insists that Chuck's Michael Jackson reverses aren't what is forcing the sale of the team, but he concedes that this suit might.

"I've had a love-hate affair with him over the years," said Eddie Andelman. "He puts himself right up there with the Kennedys, as far as the prominent Irish Catholic families of Massachusetts.

"Billy and I once spent a couple million dollars fighting each other. I owned the land underneath his stadium. When I discovered they'd encroached on my land, I sued. I was going to have the stadium pulled down.

"At that time, I was on the board of directors of the Patriot Bank Corp. Billy Sullivan was on the board of directors of the Patriot Bank Corp. We sat on the board as adversaries.

"Then one day the chairman of the board, Allan Levy, took us in a room and said, 'Look, I'm loaning you both money and it's all going to the (bleeping) lawyers.'

"It's hard for me to be objective about Billy, because I like him. You can't help but like Billy. He's a tough s.o.b. He's gone through all kinds of litigation, court fights. Billy is a rags-to-riches story. He's fought unbelievable odds. Anybody else would have cashed in his chips. That's one thing I do like about the guy.

"Billy has been through so many bizarre incidents, he wasn't looked up to with the reverence of a Tom Yawkey. I spent half my life on the air, attacking Yawkey and his policies (Yawkey's Red Sox were the last baseball team to integrate) but somehow he was thought of as a sportsman and a wonderful person.

"On the other hand, everybody has a Billy Sullivan joke.

"Billy never had any money. Billy was always telling stories about Barron Hilton, Lamar Hunt, all those guys he was running around with who were zillionaires.

"And now, if he gets the $110 million (the reported sale price for the Patriots, the stadium and an adjoining race track), he's going to be one of them."

OK, it's paradox time.

Billy has feuds, lots of them. He has a big one going now with Davis, which he aired out just before the Patriot-Raider playoff game. He told of Davis appearing "in his Darth Vader costume" and then "testifying like Little Lord Fauntleroy."

He drags Davis into most conversations, such as his press conference here.

"I blame myself for the whole (Patrick-Howie Long) episode," Billy said. "I had taken, I think, some very low blows from someone I don't care to talk about, except for one moment: Al Davis. Because he's not involved with the Super Bowl. He's been eliminated from the fight.

"But a lot of unkind things were said about our family. So I just let the people in Los Angeles know how I felt about what was being said. Pat let them know too."

Davis was unavailable for comment.

Al LoCasale, Raider executive assistant, noted that the side Davis had testified for in Boston won, and that the side Sullivan had testified for in Los Angeles lost. "So I think the legal system has made it clear where truth and integrity lie," he said.

Sullivan has had a long feud with the Boston Globe. When the subject of nepotism came up at his press conference, he almost jumped.

"Whose suggestion is that?" he asked. "I'm just asking--whose suggestion is that? It sounds like the suggestion of someone who's given me advice constantly in one of the Boston newspapers. Is that his suggestion?"

The man Billy was referring to is the Globe's Will McDonough, a respected reporter.

Andelman said: "Billy is very thin-skinned about the Boston Globe, which is funny from an old PR guy. His feud with the Globe is legendary. He goes at it with Will McDonough. But so many things have happened over the years and McDonough is a tough reporter."

And Billy fought his own players. The Patriots were famous as a talented, unhappy team, with the peace broken constantly by long holdouts, retirements and, usually, trades.

Once, Billy made a crack to an injured Mike Haynes that Howard Slusher clients, of which Haynes was one, wouldn't play hurt. Haynes was so angry that a postseason meeting was held. Haynes ultimately forced the Patriots to trade him.

At the same time, Billy is among the courtliest of men.

An NFL official calls him "nice, almost cloyingly so. . . . He'll write you a note, complimenting you on something you did or said, how profoundly moving it was.

"You send him a thank-you note. Then he sends a thank-you note for your thank-you note. He's got this script typewriter, that would be a little much for a ladies' gardening society."

Said the former Patriot employee: "I'd come in my office and there'd be a note on my desk, 'Enjoyed seeing you yesterday,' or 'Nice to have had a Coke with you.' He gets up at 5 in the morning and dictates 80-100 letters. I think he's the only man I know who answers his junk mail."

For the last two weeks, Billy has been showing a note he got from Bear Coach Mike Ditka, congratulating him on his playoff success.

Of course, Ditka was writing in reply to a note of congratulations Billy had sent him.

"It's getting a little worn out now," said Sullivan, producing it once more at his press conference here. "I've been showing it to a few people.

"At the end, he importunes me not to sell the club. He says, 'It's good to have guys like you around.'

"If that be an immodest statement, I'm sorry. But the letter's here to prove it."

Billy's sons don't have his flair for feuds, but they've managed to get in their own trouble.

Chuck is popular. Until the Victory Tour, he was widely respected.

He had financed the acquisition of the stadium and the buy-out of the stockholders. He had gotten financing for other owners, such as the Eagles' Leonard Tose and the Vikings' Max Winter. He served as head of the NFL's management council.

Even reporters covering him on the Victory Tour liked him. The tour, itself, was a state-of-the-art disaster with its huge stage transported by a 30-truck convoy, its lasers, and the contract that made it all impossible.

Veteran rock promoters took a look at the Jacksons' demands and fled. Chuck, who'd booked a few acts into Sullivan Stadium, thought he was ready to go nation-wide, even agreeing to pay the Jacksons their cut on a total-seat basis, regardless of how many were sold.

In essence, he was guaranteeing sellouts. They then set a high ticket price and demanded advance payment.

The result was chaotic, not to forget unprofitable.

Chuck now claims he broke even.

Andelman said: "They lost probably what everybody says, from $5 million to $20 million. I think it's probably $5 million. Some of that would be recapturable. Chuck has the merchandising rights. If Michael Jackson comes back, it would be worth something.

"But I don't think that's why they're selling. A $5-million loss is like one bonus baby that doesn't pan out."

Patrick then became the great Sullivan hope. The only bad thing anyone ever said about him was that he was overpaying some relatively unproven athletes, after having run off so many established stars.

Patrick, however, hadn't run anyone off. He was distressed about losing Haynes, who had finally forced the team to trade him.

Half a season later, Haynes was wearing a Raider Super Bowl ring. Patrick announced those days were over.

"It just seemed to me that we had gotten into a position that was almost untenable," Patrick said. "The short-term payoff was not very good for us. The long-term payoff might be pretty good--we got Irving Fryar and Jim Bowman out of the Haynes deal.

"It just became a situation where I got tired of providing other teams with players that helped them get into the playoffs. And in the case of the Raiders, the Super Bowl."

He gave generous raises. He sacked Coach Ron Meyer, whom many veterans disliked. The Patriots were 5-3 at the time, making Meyer the first NFL coach ever to be fired at mid-season with a winning record.

Patrick brought back Raymond Berry, who had been fired three years earlier with the rest of Ron Erhardt's staff. The Patriots went 4-4 under Berry and started 2-3 this season. NFL insiders whispered that Berry, as a coach, was a joke.

The Patriots then finished 9-2. They beat the Jets in the wild-card playoff in the Meadowlands, and then the Raiders in the Coliseum, which was when Patrick met Howie Long.

Patrick said later that he'd heard that Long was saying Patriot players wanted to be traded to the Raiders.

Long said he was just repeating some things he'd heard at the Pro Bowl. Long is friendly with Patriot guard John Hannah, once one of the most disgruntled Patriots. Hannah once tried to engineer his own trade to the Raiders, where his brother, Charley, was playing.

Anyway, they met.

"It was a dumb thing to do," Patrick says. "It was wrong for me to get involved. It just wasn't appropriate.

"I'm not trying to justify it but I was just so caught up in the scene out there. When Howie Long invited me to go into the tunnel, not only my ego ran away with me, my good sense ran away with me. I didn't want to be in a position of backing down to Howie Long.

"Our family's involvement in this thing, it's not some toy or a tax shelter. It's our lifeblood. When there's criticism about our operation, we take it personally. We shouldn't but we do. It's a different type organization from many teams in the league."

That it is. How many of those other teams could enjoy this week as much as this one?

Patrick is tearing around the hotel lobbies, dressed in a Windbreaker, carrying a portable telephone.

Billy is entertaining friends, such as Tom McGee, the former speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. McGee once helped push through the law, since struck down, that let Billy buy out his stockholders.

To say that Billy is a well-connected Boston Democrat would be a little light. Another of his friends is Tip O'Neill. Tip's son, Thomas, is a limited partner in the group considered the front-runner to buy the team. Billy said that if the Patriots win the Super Bowl and Ronald Reagan calls, he may not take it.

Billy has also said he might not sell the team, after all.

"One of my great thrills this year, in all three playoffs, I took my 12 grandchildren," he said. "And when kids, age 2, are saying, 'Poppa, you're not getting out of this, are you Poppa?'--it makes you think."

Could this be one last 11th-hour escape?

Is there some large bank out there that will be impressed by the new Patriot verve and will come up with another $50 million or so to tide Billy over again?

Or is this truly a last hurrah?

If it is, Billy, his wife, his three sons, his three daughters, his cousins, nieces, nephews and grandchildren will have to settle for $110 million and some memories.

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