Bidwill may spoil Cleveland celebration

ON THE NFL

February 11, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- On your mark, get set . . .

The race for the Cleveland deal is on.

Although the NFL promised Cleveland a team by 1999, it's unlikely the league is going to have to expand to fill that slot.

The Cleveland deal will be too good for the current owners to give it to a new kid on the block.

Not only will every unhappy team be able to use the Cleveland deal as leverage for the next three years, one of them is likely to take it.

The scary thing for Cleveland is that the front-runner could be Bill Bidwill, the owner of the Arizona Cardinals.

The 10-year lease Bidwill signed when he moved to Phoenix from St. Louis in 1988 will expire after the 1997 season, one year before the new Cleveland Stadium is ready.

For the record, Bidwill said at the meeting last week that he's free to move at any time.

That may be, but Phoenix would have a tougher time keeping him if the lease has formally expired. With little fan support and an old stadium, Bidwill would seem to meet the guidelines, if the NFL ever gets around to paying any attention to them.

The problem for Cleveland may be figuring out how to dodge Bidwill.

Cleveland fans were unhappy with Art Modell, who never lived down his firing of Paul Brown in 1962 and reminded the fans of that gaffe when he went along with the release of Bernie Kosar in 1993. The fact Modell never made the Super Bowl didn't help, either.

Modell, though, at least makes things interesting. He's a showman who's likely to charm the socks off Baltimore football fans. Even the Cleveland writers will admit they already miss his colorful quotes.

He often blurts out things he later regrets, but at least he's quotable. After coach Bill Belichick struggled in his first two years, Modell said he'd get out of football and leave Cleveland if Belichick wasn't eventually successful.

When Modell was reminded of that quote at a news conference Friday, he jokingly said, "I was half right."

Bidwill, by contrast, is a painfully shy man who's uncomfortable in public. Like Modell, Bidwill's never made it to the Super Bowl. But he hasn't even failed with style. He's likely to be at the bottom of anyone's list in Cleveland.

The team Cleveland wants is the Cincinnati Bengals. That's the team founded by the late Paul Brown.

But if the half-cent sales tax for stadiums passes in Cincinnati on March 19, the Bengals won't be moving. Even if it fails, it would be politically difficult for Mayor Michael White to steal another Ohio team. He aspires to statewide office, and he'll never get votes in Cincinnati if he steals that city's team.

Anyway, the maneuvering to get the money in Cleveland is going to be fascinating the next three years.

But it would be cruel for Cleveland to go through this ordeal and wind up with Bidwill as owner.

Evening the score

Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who can carry a grudge with the best of them and has been writing commissioner Paul Tagliabue since Modell announced his move reminding him about the way Baltimore was bypassed in expansion, should have been in Chicago last week. He would have savored every moment.

It was in Chicago two years ago that Tagliabue humiliated him during the expansion process. Schaefer stood against a wall in a crowded room while Tagliabue announced Carolina was getting a team.

This time, it was a different story. To justify the deal he made with Cleveland, Tagliabue had to force himself to say nice things about Baltimore.

"Baltimore at this point in time was the only city in the United States that was both one of our expansion finalists and a city that had traditionally supported a team. In that sense, Baltimore was unique. The emotion and history of Johnny Unitas, Gino Marchetti and Raymond Berry and some others, they were unique as the only city in America that was both one of our strong expansion candidate finalists and a former NFL city," he said.

That was typical rambling Tagliabue lawyer speak, but he was trying to praise Baltimore.

Isn't this the same city Tagliabue suggested two years ago could use its money for museums and plants?

If that weren't enough for Schaefer, he got the satisfaction of knowing the Redskins even voted yes. The Redskins had to do it to get the $73 million from Maryland for their stadium in Landover, but this time it was the Redskins dancing to Maryland's tune, not Tagliabue dancing to the Redskins' tune.

The Redskins did win one point. They're not moving their training facility to Maryland, so they'll remain a Virginia team and the players will continue to live in Virginia.

But the stadium will be in the middle of a field surrounded by acres of parking. It'll cause huge traffic jams off the beltway and is unlikely to cause any development around it. If Buffalo, New England and Detroit are barometers, suburban stadiums don't lead to much development.

The Baltimore stadium, by contrast, will be another jewel in the city's downtown skyline. Schaefer has had a long career, but few things could have been as sweet as this victory over Tagliabue.

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