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Posted: Thursday January 29, 2009 12:47PM; Updated: Thursday January 29, 2009 12:47PM
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Bidwills restore their family name

Story Highlights

Over 36-year run, Bill Bidwill has been one of NFL's least respected owners

Cardinals' losing culture began to change when Michael Bidwill came aboard

For years, team's front office suffered right along with Cardinals fans

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Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill was a ballboy for the Chicago Cardinals during their NFL championship season in 1947.
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The name has been misspelled so many times, in so many places, by so many otherwise diligent people, that the wrong version has practically become accepted as right.

According to a Google search, the misspelled name has appeared approximately 476,000 times on the internet. According to a Lexis Nexis search, it has appeared 1,922 times in wire services or major publications in the past 30 years. You would think the name is difficult, like Biddulph or Bierbaum or Bienkowski. But it's not. It's Bidwill.

Dan Bickley, columnist for the Arizona Republic, has written the name correctly on hundreds of occasions. But for every time he has typed the name Bidwill, he has seen the name Bidwell. This week, I wrote a story about the Cardinals' colorful history for the magazine and caught four references to Bidwell in the rough draft. It's infectious. "Has there ever been a public figure whose name gets misspelled more often than Bill Bidwill?" Bickley said.

Correctly spelling a person's name would seem to be a simple form of respect. In the 36 years since Bill Bidwill took sole control of the Cardinals, he has arguably been the least respected owner in the NFL, with the possible exception of the Saints' Tom Benson. But even Benson gets his name spelled right.

If Bidwill were ever upset about the name change, if he ever wanted to make a statement about the spelling, chances are no one would hear him. Mr. B., as he is known, stands out among the blustery owners of professional sports franchises because he is so inconspicuous by comparison. He wears a bowtie, and not to be ironic. He speaks so softly that microphones sometimes fail to pick up his voice. Bickley once described him as the "uncle who can't find the bathroom in his own house."

Bidwill is more commonly portrayed as football's version of Henry F. Potter -- the villainous banker and slumlord in Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life" -- due to his history of over-charging fans, under-paying players, and switching coaches more often than he changes those bowties. Of course, many owners have a similar track record, but they are better equipped to explain and defend themselves. Bidwill, in the most public of businesses, is either unwilling or unable to express himself in public. "I was once told never to argue with someone accompanied by a printing tank," he said.

After the Cardinals beat the Eagles in the NFC championship game and Bidwill accepted the trophy at midfield, he quickly retreated from the celebration. He seemed to be the only person in the stadium not smiling. He admitted he was more excited when the Cardinals won their last NFL championship in 1947 and he was a ballboy. When asked if he wanted to respond to any of his critics, he said he did not. When asked if he felt redeemed, he said he did not know. When asked if he had any sympathy for the St. Louis, which he left in favor of Arizona in 1988, he said: "I'm told there are a lot of people in St. Louis wearing Cardinal paraphernalia from 20 and 30 years ago. If this is going to any St. Louis radio stations, we do have up-to-date merchandise available." It was vintage Bidwill, an innocent joke that came across as horribly off-key.

Watching the trophy presentation on television in St. Louis was former Cardinals head coach Jim Hanifan, whom Bidwill once fired by changing the locks on his office at halftime. "I saw a man who was truly stunned," Hanifan said. "He seemed to be asking, 'Is this really happening? Is this really happening to me? My daughter called me and she was seeing the same thing. It was like, after all the crap this guy has taken over the years, finally it happened for him. This is real perseverance."

Those who played and coached for Bidwill, who were the victims of his seemingly insensitive management style, have a remarkable capacity for forgiveness toward him. Perhaps it is because they know how he got into this racket in the first place.

Charles Bidwill bought the Cardinals in 1932, and over the next 14 years he enjoyed exactly one winning season. Between 1942 and 1945, he endured a 29-game losing streak. Tired of failing, and prodded by Hall of Fame head coach Jimmy Conzelman to open the coffers, Bidwill morphed temporarily into the George Steinbrenner of the NFL. He put together what was known as the "Million Dollar Backfield," headlined by running back Charley Trippi, whom Bidwill signed to an unprecedented four-year contract worth $100,000. In April 1947, Bidwill died of pneumonia. In December, the Cardinals won the title.

"Mr. Bidwill devoted himself to providing the funds that let my father draft those players who won the championship," said Jimmy Conzelman Jr., the head coach's son.

Charles Bidwill bequeathed the team to his wife, Violet, who less than two years later remarried a man named Walter Wolfner. Wolfner was so popular with the Cardinals that Conzelman once threatened to throw him off a train ("I don't really think he would have done it," Conzelman Jr. said.) When Violet died in 1962, of a reaction to a shot she was given for a cold, the team was left to Bill Bidwill and his older brother, Stormy. Wolfner sued, reportedly on the grounds that Bill and Stormy misrepresented themselves at an heirship hearing by not acknowledging that they were adopted. But Bill and Stormy had no idea they were adopted. They found out in court. Though Wolfner's suit was thrown out, damage was done. Four-and-a-half forgettable decades ensued, with one playoff victory for the Cardinals.

"Change is the only thing they knew how to do," said Ed Cunningham, who played center for the Cardinals from 1992 to '95. "The coaches changed, the uniforms changed, even the name of the team changed. The turnover on the roster was astounding at times. From day one until the end of the season, it would be 30 percent different."

"Free agents rolled in and out," said Vai Sikahema, a kick returner for the Cardinals from 1986 to '90. "You can imagine what it does to the chemistry of a team when guys see that. They constantly fear for their jobs. They are constantly playing scared."

Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill joined the franchise in 1996.
Robert Beck/SI

Fittingly, it took a Bidwill to change the culture. Michael Bidwill does not appear to have much in common with his father. He is a former federal prosecutor, so he understands how to work crowds and win them over. After joining the organization in 1996, he embarked on arguably his toughest case of all: convincing a fan base that had given up on the Cardinals to help them build a new stadium. Voters in Mesa rejected a proposal. A site in Tempe was scrapped because it was too close to the airport. Phoenix proposed a site and then dropped out. Mesa tried again and dropped out again. So did an Indian community. Finally, after about half-a-dozen false starts, the Cardinals found their home in the suburb of Glendale. "This all started with Michael," said Eric Hill, a Cardinals linebacker from 1989 to '97. "He has brought a whole new perspective to the organization."

After the NFC championship, Michael stood in the middle of the Cardinals locker room, his father on the edge. Michael talked about working as a Cardinals waterboy in the 1970s and doubling over in agony as they missed field goal after field goal that could have clinched division titles and playoff berths. "Some of those losses upset your stomach," Michael said. "You don't know how to get up the next day." This is what Cardinals fans have long needed to hear, that their owners suffered right along with them.

The son may be rubbing off on the father, in subtle ways. Before leaving the locker room and making Super Bowl plans, Bill Bidwill turned to a couple of reporters, shrugged his shoulders, and said: "Well, I guess hope springs eternal." The family name, mocked for about half-a-century, has been restored. This week, it may even be spell-checked.

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