SUPER BOWL SPECIAL : Many Still Talk About Klein's Efforts to Snare Bowl for S.D.

Times Staff Writer

'I lobbied as hard as I could for two or three days. I sold San Diego the way I used to sell used cars.'

--Eugene V. Klein in his autobiography

"First Down and a Billion: the Funny

Business of Pro Football"

It just may rank as the biggest come-from-behind, go-for-broke, trick-play victory in San Diego sports history.

The Chargers' 41-38 overtime victory over the Miami Dolphins at the Orange Bowl in 1981, with Kellen Winslow performing repeated death-defying acts?

The Padres' overtaking the Cubs in the 1984 playoffs, capped by Steve Garvey's home-run trot, fist thrust triumphantly in the air?

The Sockers' many championships?

These were all fine feats but, no, the biggest gut-buster of them all, bringing more money and more celebrity to our little patch of sunshine than all the rest combined, took place not on a playing field populated by strong and swift young men, but rather in a smoky hotel room in Washington, D.C., where the combatants were much older, richer, and, by many accounts, a good deal more cutthroat.

The Decision

The date was May 24, 1984, the day when the owners of National Football League franchises met to decide who would reap the 1987 and 1988 versions of the biggest bonanza in the world of professional sweat: the Super Bowl.

Pasadena's Rose Bowl won the 1987 nod, and what then transpired was the longest and most-heated deliberation in NFL history, nearly three hours and seven ballots, with Miami and San Diego knotted 14-14.

"I couldn't convince a single owner to change his mind," former Chargers' owner Klein wrote in his book. "I had about as much chance of getting seven owners to change their minds as I did having (arch-enemy) Al Davis drop by the house for a barbecue."

When you can't complete a pass, you try a quarterback sneak, right?

After a break, and a tete-a-tete with Philadelphia Eagles owner Leonard Tose, Klein suggested dropping the 21-vote rule in favor of majority rule.

The result: a San Diego victory on the next secret ballot, 16-12.

Three years later, NFL owners still talk about that night--and Klein's persistence.

"Without Gene, San Diego would never have made it," said Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns. "We've never seen anything like it before or after. He was twisting arms and sweet-talking people all night. San Diego had never had a Super Bowl, and NFL owners are reluctant to do anything new or different when money is involved."

Klein, who knew that night that he planned soon to sell the Chargers, is now a successful horse breeder and upscale home developer in the San Dieguito River Valley.

Did What Had to be Done

He's upbeat about Super Bowl XXII, to be played Sunday in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, but still a bit tight-lipped about what was said and done to get the game here. Secrets leak out of an NFL owners' meeting about as frequently as from the College of Cardinals.

"Let's just say that what had to be done, was done," Klein said with a smile during a recent interview.

Planning for San Diego's assault on the Super Bowl had begun months earlier in a meeting called by since-deposed Mayor Roger Hedgecock. In attendance were longtime San Diego sports booster Leon Parma and Herb Klein, editor-in-chief of Copley Newspapers, which publishes the San Diego Union and the Tribune.

From that meeting came the committees, the contacts and the brochures that were the San Diego pitch. (Parma was later to bribe a bellboy $100 to make sure each NFL owner had the San Diego brochure on his pillow the night before the vote.)

"Committees are nice, presentations are nice, but that's not really going to sway the votes," Klein recalled. "I hustled the owners that were my friends, and tried to neutralize those who weren't. Over the years, I had done some favors for some owners, and I let those owners know that."

Something to Sell

Salesmanship, of course, is not new to Klein.

This is the man who donned a cowboy suit in the early 1950s and hawked cars on Los Angeles television as Cowboy Gene. He turned four used car lots in the San Fernando Valley into a billion-dollar conglomerate called National General Corp.

"Putting on a cowboy suit wasn't hard," Klein said. "Selling isn't hard if you have something good to sell which, in this case, I did."

On the opposing side was Joe Robbie, owner of the Miami Dolphins, who wanted Super Bowl XXII for his planned new stadium.

Aiding Robbie was Raiders' owner Al Davis, whose feud with Klein is legend and later resulted in a damage suit won by Klein over the issue of whether Klein's heart attack was caused by Davis pursuing a spurious lawsuit against him.

"Robbie wanted it for Miami, and Davis just wanted to screw me, so he was doing all he could," Klein said. "He went so far as to offer several owners lucrative pre-season games with the Raiders to win their votes. The league controls the league schedule, but each team controls its own pre-season."

Davis, through a spokesman, denied that he campaigned to block San Diego from getting the Super Bowl. Al LoCasale, executive assistant to Davis, said the Raiders never offered pre-season games as an inducement to trump Klein.

"He's just mad because Al Davis ran him out of football," LoCasale said. "Unable to compete on the playing field, he's resorted to cheap shots like this."

LoCasale said official NFL minutes show that Davis was not at the May 24 meeting when the XXII decision was made, leaving LoCasale to do his voting. He declined to reveal his vote.

"The Raiders are more interested in playing and winning in the Super Bowl than just deciding where the game will be held," LoCasale. "We've won Super Bowls in Pasadena, New Orleans and Florida, but, of course, Klein doesn't know what it's like to really be in a Super Bowl."

On the Plus Side

On one point, even LoCasale and Klein agree: San Diego had several things in its favor for getting the big game--warm weather, lots of hotel rooms, comfy ambiance, a stadium undergoing expansion (still making it the smallest arena to be a Super Bowl host, however), and a history of being a loyal NFL city.

Some stocking stuffers were also included in the San Diego offer, like use of the inner-ring parking places and 40 luxury sky boxes, and exclusive privileges for NFL owners at Torrey Pines Golf Course.

"One of my pitches was that Miami had had it, what, three or four times?" Klein said. Actually, the number is five. "The league owed San Diego a shot. I just said it wasn't right. On the basis of equity, we should have it. I harped on loyalty."

Only upon repeated questioning will Klein, like a Pentagon general, remove the top-secret classification from the true tactics used to win the big one. He offers but one example of the markers he called in to put San Diego into the big time.

It involves Detroit Lions owner Russ Thomas coming to him to gain his vote to hold the 1982 Super Bowl in the new Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.

"I said, 'Russ, why would I want to vote to have the Super Bowl in Detroit during wintertime?' " Klein said. "He put on a convincing argument, and I said, 'OK, you have my vote, but you owe me one.' I never knew when that one was going to be.

"When it came time for our Super Bowl, I went to him and said, 'Russ,' and he said, 'I remember,' and I had a vote I might otherwise not have had. There were other things like that, not necessarily involving Super Bowl decisions."

'I'm History'

Hard to believe, but Klein says he has no tickets for Super Bowl XXII. Nor has he been kept advised of Super Bowl planning or had his opinion sought.

"I'm history," Klein said. "I'm the past. I haven't been to the stadium since I sold the team. I've never been contacted, never included in the plans, never been counseled with or had my opinion asked. I'm totally in the dark."

Still, he has few fears that San Diego will flub its Super Bowl.

"It's the game," Klein said. "If the game is good, San Diego will be seen as a success. Like Howard Cosell said, he is responsible for 'Monday Night Football.' That's hogwash. It's the game that made it successful.

"As long as there are 70,000 seats, unobstructed seats, as long as there are enough hotel rooms and enough transportation and eating places, it will be successful. But the main factor is still the game itself."

And what of the future? Will San Diego be able to grab another edition of the game so big it has to be identified by Roman numerals?

A Klein-less attempt to get the coveted XXV game in 1991 for San Diego failed.

"The Super Bowl will return here, no doubt about that, even without me," Klein said. "The ground has now been broken, that's the hard part. It'll be tough. Pasadena is very tough with 110,000 seats. Miami's new stadium is ready. The Kingdome (in Seattle) is inviting. Even Minnesota wants it.

"It's such a happening, such a mind-boggling event, that everybody wants it. But San Diego will already have had it, and that makes all the difference in getting it again."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°