Backstage juggling of NFL bids gives Baltimore the brawl New effort sacrifices stability for stature

November 21, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

For the past three years, Baltimore's NFL bid has been a veritable Walton family in the football-franchise hunt: dependable, honest, maybe even dull.

Not any longer.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's decision to back a new owner in the final weeks of the effort has not only brought new sizzle to the bid but transformed it into something that more closely resembles the dysfunctional Simpson family.

The abrupt change in strategy reflects conclusions, reached during a series of closed-door meetings and a secret pilgrimage to NFL headquarters in New York over the past month, that something urgently needed to be done to save the 10-year effort.

What one participant described as the most difficult few weeks in the city's NFL effort culminated Monday when Mr. Schaefer, swallowing his parochial bias, endorsed Cleveland-based businessman Alfred Lerner as the city's prospective team owner.

"It was very difficult," Mr. Schaefer said. "No one likes to be a bad guy."

It was a bold gamble for Baltimore: Mr. Lerner, a rich businessman and part-owner of the Cleveland Browns, is an NFL insider. But competitors are raising questions of instability in Baltimore, where ugly infighting has flared into the open just days before the Nov. 30 expansion decision.

And it has raised painful questions of loyalty and values in an expensive franchise chase that already was becoming unseemly.

Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, whose investment group was one of two prospective owners who have been part of the NFL process in Baltimore for more than two years, reacted with bitterness to the endorsement of Mr. Lerner.

"I grew up with more honesty in my rough neighborhoods than I've seen in these high circles," said Mr. Weinglass. "I don't know how some of the people go to sleep with their consciences."

The other prospective owner, Malcolm Glazer, was more reserved, hoping the league would favor the groups that had spent millions of dollars and more than two years supporting Baltimore's application.

Both men have vowed to stick it out, but it's unlikely the league would select someone passed over by the governor.

Signs of trouble

The beginning of the end for them began Sept. 21 in a windowless room in a hotel at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where NFL team owners had gathered to hear presentations from the five cities trying to join the league.

Baltimore won plaudits from league officials and owners. But a hoped-for show of public or private support for one or both of the prospective owners never materialized.

Word began to leak that neither man performed well in his presentation. Mr. Glazer, a Florida-based financier clearly uncomfortable in the public eye, was flatfooted and talked too much; Mr. Weinglass, an iconoclastic retail executive with a ponytail, amused some owners with his jocular style and turned off others.

Meanwhile, presentations made on behalf of Jacksonville, Fla., Memphis, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C., included businessmen of national stature and personal styles more familiar to NFL owners. Memphis' group, for example, included one of the world's largest cotton merchants and the founder of Federal Express Corp. Jacksonville's included a successful corporate chief and a son of former President George Bush.

League officials repeatedly assured Baltimore's organizers that there was nothing to worry about, but the unease steadily worsened over the next few weeks.

Prior to the Sept. 21 meetings, Mr. Glazer and Mr. Weinglass had found some support among team owners at league meetings and in social encounters. And they had passed the league's extensive background checks for character and financial capability.

But their appeal had never really been put to the test before the presentations to the 12-member joint finance/expansion committee, charged with recommending the future homes of the league's 29th and 30th teams.

"What we were hoping was that out of that meeting we would see a groundswell for one or both of our owners," said Herbert J. Belgrad, Maryland Stadium Authority chairman and chief coordinator of the city's bid.

The opposite happened. Questions about their compatibility with the NFL began as whispers, then surfaced in media accounts.

No one suggested they would be bad owners, or that they were unsuitable. But they were never mentioned in the same context as J. Wayne Weaver, the take-charge shoe retailer heading the bid in Jacksonville, or Jerry Richardson, the ex-player and food services executive who weeks later won a team for Charlotte, N.C.

Both of those men made strong impressions on the team owners; Mr. Weaver almost single-handedly seems to be keeping the small city's chances alive.

"No one ever told us that they were not acceptable. No owner would ever say that. What we got was that other cities had stronger ownership candidates," said Mathias J. DeVito, chairman of Columbia-based Rouse Co. and member of the city's expansion committee.

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