It took a team effort to bring pro football back to Baltimore

February 17, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

When the Canadian Football League looks back at the winding path that returned pro football to Baltimore, it will come across four critical ingredients.

Commissioner Larry Smith's patience.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's vision.

Owner Jim Speros' commitment.

Baltimore's passion.

It was that combination of role players that pushed Baltimore through the threshold, that allowed Speros to endure the delays, that finally supplied an answer to the NFL's latest snub.

Football, at last. Longer, wider, faster. The CFL's motto.

"I can't tell you how happy I am it's finished," Speros said once Baltimore had been awarded a CFL team for the 1994 season.

In one final twist, Speros and Baltimore actually crossed the finish line Tuesday night, hours after Schmoke signed a five-year lease to let Speros' team play in Memorial Stadium.

That is when the league's board of governors approved Speros' application, when Baltimore finally scratched its 10-year itch.

"The formal vote was [Tuesday]," Smith said yesterday. "Basically, the vote is totally affirmative, subject to my making sure [everything's in place]."

When Speros wired the remainder of his $3 million franchise fee to Canada, all that was left was the formality of a news conference. That comes today at a downtown hotel, where Smith and a congregation of CFL celebrities will help christen the franchise.

"I'm absolutely thrilled," Smith said, "because I was a kid watching the 1958 championship game in my house outside Montreal, when I was an 8-year-old child, watching Alan Ameche run around the side, and Unitas to Lenny Moore."

The Colts beat the New York Giants in sudden death in 1958 and forever changed the face of pro football. If the CFL is a new look for Baltimore, the city might carry a reminder of that 1958 championship across the border. The nickname.

Yes, Speros, a Virginia businessman, apparently has steeled himself for the legal fight with the NFL over use of the Colts name. Yesterday, he sounded like a man with new vigor for the battle.

"I've got the support of the fans, the support of the mayor, and right now I'm going to try to convince the CFL governors that I'm not getting them in trouble with the NFL," he said. "I've got to be respectful to those people. [But] I think I can convince them to move forward with the name. It's important to me, it's important to the fans of Baltimore."

Speros was perhaps buoyed by Schmoke's speech at Tuesday's lease signing, where the mayor offered free legal support and a bit of logic. Schmoke wondered aloud how the NFL could protest using the Colts name in the CFL, when it was prepared to use Bombers in Baltimore when there was a CFL team called the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

"I just don't think it's right, what the NFL is trying to do," Speros said. "I'm not going to be intimidated by some letter by John

Flood [president of NFL Properties, which owns trademark rights to Colts]."

Could Smith be persuaded to approve Colts?

"I love the name," he said. "It's disappointing if we're not going to be able to give the people of Baltimore the name they want. . . . I don't know. I want to talk to Jim and have a good look at the situation."

Speros won't have a decision today. He will unveil his investment team and his coaching staff, though.

The investors are former Colts running back Tom Matte and former NFL cornerback and CBS broadcaster Irv Cross, along with Marv Stursa, who runs Stursa Equipment Co. Ltd. in Baltimore, and Dr. Michael Gelfand of Bethesda. It's possible more local investors will be added later.

Assistant coaches under Don Matthews include offensive coordinator Steve Buratto, defensive coordinator Bob Price and linebackers coach Daryl Edralin off Matthews' Saskatchewan Roughriders staff, and former CFL quarterback Joe Barnes, who will coach the QBs.

Jim Popp, chief scout in Saskatchewan, also arrives today as director of pro personnel.

On the eve of his 35th birthday, Speros had a heartfelt word of thanks for the efforts of Schmoke, Smith and the Baltimore fans.

"If we didn't have a mayor who understands the sport, I don't think we'd have this team," Speros said. "For seven months, he made me gothrough hoops.

"Market studies, economic studies, community groups. He set out all these obstacles, and if I didn't get over one, I wouldn't get to the next one. If I got through them, he'd live up to his word. He didn't back down from anybody."

Speros appreciated Smith's patience while he went through the ordeal of gaining acceptance in Baltimore. "He had a lot of faith in me when a number of people doubted what I could do," Speros said. "He put his reputation on the line for Jim Speros."

The fans? They rang up some 25,000 season-ticket reservations in the past month.

"The reason I got through all of this is because the fans in Baltimore supported what I was doing," Speros said. "I was the vehicle, but the fans got the team back in Baltimore.

"I used them to convince the mayor and the commissioner that Baltimore was the right choice for this league."

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