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Vikings' McCombs openly lobbying for move -- or maybe he'll cash out

Updated: Wednesday October 27, 2004 7:55PM
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His team has a 5-1 record, his franchise quarterback is having an MVP-type season and his fan base is energized by the prospect of a Super Bowl run. Red McCombs, who owns the Minnesota Vikings, should be kicking back and letting the good times roll right about now -- but the 77-year-old Texan has his share of issues. He wants a new stadium, and he's tired of fighting for one. He is perceived as a penny-pincher by people inside and outside of his organization, partly because his head coach, Mike Tice, is by far the league's lowest-paid. He has resigned himself to the fact that he'll probably have to sell the team.

And if McCombs had his druthers, he'd be getting ready to move the Vikings to Los Angeles.

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"Let's face it. I would love to be in L.A.," McCombs said in an interview before the Vikings' 20-3 victory against the Tennessee Titans at the Metrodome on Sunday. "But I just can't pick up and go to L.A.; that's a league issue. I'm a team player, so I'm not going to test the courts and run off in the middle of the night.

"At this point, I don't see relocation as a viable alternative, because the league has said, 'You've got to make it work [in Minnesota].' The league knows I'd be very happy to be in L.A., but I'd also like to be here with a new stadium."

Such a statement is sure to make McCombs even less popular in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but he's past the point of worrying about his popularity. McCombs, who bought the team for a reported $250 million in 1998, is frustrated by what he calls a "third-world lease" at the Metrodome and the apathy of Minnesota's elected officials, and he seems ready to cash out. Even without a new stadium, McCombs believes the Vikings would fetch at least $600 million on the open market, which would represent a pretty decent return on his investment.

"The value of NFL franchises grows daily, because this product becomes more and more valuable to the public," McCombs said. "I'm frustrated, because I have not been able to move a lick on getting the [new] stadium done. They have to have a new facility to compete in this market, and I've hired Morgan-Stanley to assess the viability of making that happen. If they tell me it won't work, then yeah, I'll sell."

McCombs wouldn't be pinned down on an exact timetable, but he's certainly behaving like a man who doesn't want to dump a lot of money into something that may not be his much longer. It's true that McCombs has ponied up for improvements in the past -- he installed Field Turf on the team's practice fields and spent $1.4 million on a new, computerized video-editing system. He also surprised Vikings officials over the offseason by putting new, purple carpet on the second floor of the team's training facility in Eden Prairie.

"We're pretty excited about that," Tice said, without a hint of sarcasm, in an interview last Friday. "The situation is not as bad as some people might be saying it is. If we ask for something, we get it."

Yet the facility, in general, remains one of the league's shoddiest. It was Tice who dipped into his own expense budget to place a pair of new television sets -- a 50-inch Plasma screen and a smaller set for video games -- in the players' lounge. The coach also was responsible for reupholstering the chairs in the team's computer lounge. As a result, said safety Brian Russell, "guys are more likely to hang out at the end of the day than we were before. It has definitely helped facilitate a team atmosphere."

Said Tice: "I think it's important that we make the best of what we have."

Oddly enough, that seems to be McCombs' philosophy when it comes to his head coach. Tice, an offensive line coach who had never been a coordinator on any level, was named to succeed Dennis Green on an interim basis after Green's resignation late in the 2001 season. After the season McCombs hired Tice, signing him to a three-year contract with a club option for a fourth year.

As reported in this week's SI, McCombs said he plans to exercise that option, in January, "and at that time we'll sit down and discuss whether or not Mike wants to work out an extension. If he [loses the rest of his games], I'm still going to exercise the option. Mike is going to stay with me as long as he wants to."

Pardon Tice if he's not breaking out the Cristal to celebrate that statement. For one thing, McCombs may not own the team for much longer, so job security remains a constant threat. "I just want to win games and try to achieve our goals -- to win the NFC North and to win the Super Bowl," Tice said when told of McCombs's statement. "That's all I have to say about the subject."

Clearly, though, he's not thrilled by his uncertain contract status and relatively low salary -- he's making a reported $750,000 this year; he'd make $1 million in 2005 should McCombs exercise the option. Players say Tice frequently reminds them he's the league's lowest-paid coach, and in the SI story, he said his wife and daughter "comment about it all the time, how embarrassing it is; they're mad it's not being addressed."

McCombs said Tice is in the process of proving he deserves a raise, likening the situation to one he experienced in 1992, during his second stint as the owner of the San Antonio Spurs. "By January, when we exercise our option, Mike will have earned his place as one of the best coaches in the league," McCombs said.

"I did the same thing with John Lucas, after I bought the Spurs for the second time. I fell in love with Jerry Tarkanian, but after 20 games I'd realized that had been a big mistake. So I called up John Lucas and said, 'How'd you like to coach this team?'

"I got killed for that decision. Not only was he short on experience, but he'd been a four-time-loser drug addict -- I could relate to that, being an alcoholic, and I understood that it's possible to turn your life around. I kind of get a vicarious thrill out of reaching down and getting somebody that nobody else expects and watching that person grow into the job and succeed.

"Just as I told John that I'd be paying him less than any other coach in the league, I did the same thing with Mike. When Denny left, which was a huge surprise to me, and the season ended, I never intended to hire anybody but Mike. But to give Mike some credibility I had to go through the charade of looking at other candidates, and believe me, there were a whole lot of prominent coaches who had people contact me on their behalf to inform me of their interest.

"Finally, after 11 days, I couldn't keep it a secret any longer, so I gave the job to Mike, and we made a deal. I told him, 'Two people I respect very much think you're going to be a great head coach, but they don't think you're ready. I will see to it that you'll make three times what you're making now, but you'll still be the lowest-paid coach in the league.' My rationale was, 'I am taking the risk here. Your turn will come later.' "

Yet McCombs has never seemed completely comfortable with his end of the bargain. The Vikings, who went 6-10 in Tice's first season, roared to a 6-0 start in 2003 before dropping a 29-17 game to the New York Giants at the Metrodome. Afterwards, as reported in this week's SI story, Tice was about to address the team in the locker room when an angry McCombs interrupted and proceeded to tell his stunned players, "You embarrassed me and your fans out there today."

According to numerous players who witnessed the incident, an enraged Tice followed his boss' remarks by yelling, in a thinly veiled reference to the San Antonio-based McCombs:

"I'm sick of these f----- people who aren't with us every day coming in here and judging this team!"

After slamming his fist into a metal laundry bin, Tice stormed off -- only to be slapped on the back by an apparently oblivious McCombs, who drawled, "That's right, Coach Tice."

Asked on Sunday whether he regretted having upbraided his employees so harshly after their first defeat in seven games, McCombs said, "Not at all, because I was very honest. What I regret was that it got out of the locker room, but I don't regret saying it. I was embarrassed. I saw us doing what we did when we lost to the Giants 41-0 in (the 2000 NFC Championship Game). We didn't play our game; we didn't show our character. We were 6-0, and we came out and just laid an egg, like we were some kind of big deal.

"I was very hot, no question about it. But I think my players appreciate my honesty, and they know I pat them on the back a lot, too."

There's also no question that McCombs was angry when the Vikings blew a late lead to the pathetic Arizona Cardinals in their 2003 season finale, completing a collapse that left them with a 9-7 record. Thanks to a last-second touchdown pass from Josh McCown to Nate Poole, the Vikings went from being NFC North champions to missing the playoffs altogether.

In his season-ending address to the team the next day, Tice told his players he wasn't sure whether he'd be back. A team source said McCombs spent several days considering a coaching change before deciding against it, possibly because he didn't want to spend the extra money it would take to bring in a big-name coach.

To be fair, it should be noted that McCombs is not cheap. A man who gave $50 million to the University of Texas's business school -- among many large gifts he has bestowed upon his alma mater -- can insist, with some credibility, that he wouldn't blanche at paying big bucks for the right coach in the right context.

"It all depends on what the market is," McCombs said Sunday. "When I owned the Spurs, I brought in Larry Brown and paid him twice as much as what Pat Riley was making, when Riley was the highest-paid coach in the league. I did it because I wanted him and that was his market value."

Of course, McCombs, like virtually all of his peers, wants the public to subsidize a new stadium for his sports team and is not especially receptive to the notion of paying for such a facility out of his own pocket. During Jesse Ventura's term as governor, which ended in 2002, McCombs had no hope of succeeding in his quest. "To Jesse's credit, he was honest from the start," McCombs says. "He told me flat-out, 'There's no way I'm giving you anything.' So at least I knew. I like Jesse as a person; we just disagreed."

Ventura's successor, current governor Tim Pawlenty, has stated that he'd like to work out a deal with McCombs on the construction of a new stadium, so tbere remains a shred of hope.

"I felt like we had a very good chance to compete at the highest level since the first day I got here," McCombs said. "The year before I came every home game except the Green Bay game had been blacked out, and in the history of the franchise we had never sold out a preseason game.

"We've changed all that -- we're the toast of Minnesota now. In a way, when it comes to [the argument for relocation], we've shot ourselves in the foot. We've brought character and full houses back here, and the fan base is thriving. The people of Minnesota have responded; why their elected officials haven't followed suit is beyond me."

How this will all play out is, like a Daunte Culpepper bomb to Randy Moss, way up in the air. The league has set a 2008 deadline for getting a team in L.A. up and running -- or, less likely, abandoning the idea altogether -- and because of the current 32-team symmetry, complete with eight four-team divisions, expansion is a less-attractive option that the moving of an existing team.

Along with the Vikings, the Chargers, Raiders and Colts have unfavorable stadium situations. On Thursday, a league committee working on the L.A. situation will give an update to those attending the NFL's owners' meeting in Detroit.

Hopefully, the league's powers that be understand that ownership is the key to everything, that having an L.A. team with a bad owner -- and Al Davis isn't the only one among that aforementioned group -- would be worse than having no team at all in the nation's second-largest market and entertainment capital.

Assuming McCombs won't get his Tinseltown wish, he at least hopes his legacy in Minnesota won't be an overly criticized one. "I get tagged as, 'Red stole the Vikings,' " he complained Sunday. "Well, the Vikings were for sale for two years before I bought them. I bought them on the third auction, for $40 million more than the next-highest bidder. Hell, I didn't steal the damn team."

Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Silver sounds off weekly on SI.com.

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