I lobbied as hard as I could for two or three days. I sold San Diego the way I used to sell used cars.
--GENE KLEIN, in his autobiography, “First Down and a Billion: The Funny Business of Pro Football,” with David Fisher.
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 win 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?
They were all fine feats, but no, the biggest gut-buster of them all, bringing more money and more celebrity to this 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, where the combatants were much older, richer and, by many accounts, a good deal more cutthroat.
It was May 24, 1984, the day when the owners of National Football League franchises met to decide which cities would reap the 1987 and 1988 versions of the biggest bonanza in the world of professional sweat: the Super Bowl.
Pasadena’s Rose Bowl got the 1987 nod, and what then transpired was the longest, most heated deliberation in NFL history, nearly three hours and seven ballots, with Miami and San Diego knotted at 14-14. The rule was that a site needed the approval of three-fourths of the owners.
“I couldn’t convince a single owner to change his mind,” former Charger owner Gene 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.”
But sometimes when you can’t complete a pass, you try a quarterback draw, right?
After a break, and a tete-a-tete with then-owner Leonard Tose of the Philadelphia Eagles, Klein suggested dropping the 21-vote rule for simple 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 home developer in the San Dieguito River Valley.
He’s upbeat about Sunday’s Super Bowl XXII 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. Later, Parma even bribed 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.”
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 Raider owner Al Davis, whose feud with Klein is legendary 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 preseason games with the Raiders to win their votes. The league controls the league schedule, but each team controls its own preseason.”
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 preseason 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 one point, though, 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 (although it still is the smallest arena to have a Super Bowl), and a history of being a loyal NFL city.
Some stocking stuffers were also included in the San Diego offer, such as 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 would Klein remove the top-secret classification from the tactics used to win the big one. He offered but one example of the markers he called in to put San Diego into the big time.
It involved Russ Thomas, the Detroit Lions’ vice president and general manager, approaching Klein to gain his vote for the 1982 Super Bowl in the new Silverdome at 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.”
Hard to believe, but Klein said 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 identified by Roman numerals?
A Klein-less attempt to get No. XXV 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.”