Indy mayor who got Colts savors irony

November 10, 1995|By John Eisenberg

If Robert Irsay was Public Enemy No. 1 in this town 11 years ago for moving the Colts, William Hudnut was Public Enemy No. 2.

The mayor of Indianapolis in those days, Hudnut was reviled and ridiculed here for helping build the bridge that delivered the Colts to his city.

He had to laugh when he opened his newspaper the other day and saw that Baltimore had done unto Cleveland exactly what Indianapolis did unto Baltimore 11 years ago.

"It's a delicious irony, to say the least," he said from Chicago, where he is now the president of a taxpayer watchdog organization called the Civic Federation. "I had to smile. The situations are different in some respects, but it's basically the same thing. Same principles, same idea."

Eleven years ago, his "don't blame me" explanation succeeded only in irritating fans here. No one wanted to hear it. The opinion in this badly wounded town was that all parties were responsible for this heinous act.

But as Baltimore now wrestles with mixed emotions after getting football back at Cleveland's expense, Hudnut's explanation sounds almost soothing.

He'll help you with any guilt you're feeling, that's for sure.

"I never saw it as stealing the Colts from Baltimore," he said. "I did not start Robert Irsay down the road he took. He was looking to move long before we got involved. We just put together a package that induced him to come, much as Baltimore put together a package that induced Art Modell to come.

"Sure, I felt remorse, and I recognized the pain and anguish [in Baltimore]. But it's a free market. As I said one night, what was I supposed to do, sit by the river of history, watch the water go by and eat bonbons? No, thank you. I was going to compete."

His decision turned him into a villain here. When he gave a speech at the Princeton Club of Baltimore two years later, he was given a police escort.

"People were angrier at Irsay than me, of course," he said. "But I got my share of letters, too."

Not that he felt he deserved any criticism for delivering the Colts to Indy, which, Hudnut said, "was the most exciting part" of his four-term tenure as mayor that ended in 1991.

"I will always contend that Baltimore lost the Colts more than Indianapolis stole them," he said. "Let's face it, attendance was down to 20,000. And the stadium was out of date. Bart Starr once told me that Memorial Stadium was regarded as the ash can of the NFL, but to my knowledge, no attempt was made to renovate it or turn it into a Camden Yards. No coherent effort was made to keep the Colts.

"I'm not sure that Irsay moved out of greed. He just felt conditions would be better [in Indianapolis] with a new stadium, more fan support and a better relationship with the media. Just a more congenial atmosphere all around."

And that, Hudnut said, is a fundamental difference between the Colts' move and the Browns' move.

"The Browns still have strong support at home, which makes this move particularly traumatic," he said. "I winced for Cleveland when I heard about it. The Browns really are more embedded there than the Colts were in Baltimore."

But as one of the pioneers of the franchise-hopping game overtaking pro sports, Hudnut is not about to cast aspersions on any city that has lured a team to town.

"Pro football is big business," he said. "The situation there [in Baltimore] is worlds apart now from what it was 11 years ago. They have a beautiful baseball stadium and I'm sure the football stadium will be beautiful. They obviously have done a first-class job. That's what you need to compete. That's what it's all about.

"Sure, the idea of the Baltimore Browns sounds funny, about as funny as the idea of the Indianapolis Colts sounded 11 years ago. But it sort of sinks in and after about 10 years everyone will catch on."

And in the meantime?

"Bottom line, it's just a lot more fun for a city to be inside the league than on the outside looking in," he said. "It's an ironic situation, but I'm happy for Baltimore."

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