Last Thursday, Bill Bidwill recalled it was just about a year ago that he was in Arizona trying to decide whether to move his football Cardinals from the Valley of the Glum (never a playoff win in St. Louis and an average attendance last season of 27,821 booing fans) to the Valley of the Sun. He pulled into the Gila River Indian community just south of Phoenix, where he debated whether to buy a bumper sticker that seemed to have been made especially for him: CUSTER WORE AN ARROW SHIRT.
It would have been a fitting purchase for Bidwill, who is perhaps the most beleaguered owner in the NFL. After all, he routinely seems to draw the bow and point it in his own direction. On this occasion, though, Bidwill thought better of buying the sticker and instead bought a bolo tie. And several months later he decided to move his Cards to Phoenix.
But the autocratic Bidwill—"If I ever get a chance to help design a stadium, the owner's box will have one seat"—is getting off to a bumpy start in the desert. On Friday night at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, his team played its first home game as the Phoenix Cardinals. And after 12 years in which Phoenix-area civic leaders all but groveled in their attempts to get an NFL franchise, it did seem odd that only 51,987 fans showed up in a stadium that seats 72,168. That it was 106° for the 7:30 p.m. kickoff is no excuse; Arizonans expect the heat.
On the other hand, the largest crowd the Cards ever drew in St. Louis was 51,010 against the Rams in 1984, so attracting the biggest home audience in memory, for a preseason game no less, was certainly no disaster. It's just that, as a first date, it wasn't great, proof anew that anticipation of the prom is often better than the dance itself. What was missing were cheerleaders, a band, electricity—a sense of occasion. It all seemed, well, coldly professional. There is clearly a basis for friendship in this young relationship, and love may yet bloom alongside the saguaro. But right now neither the Cardinals nor their fans know quite what to expect of each other.
Oh yes, the game. Phoenix lost to New Orleans 33-28 with a combination of sometimes first-rate offense behind Neil Lomax and Cliff Stoudt, and often perfectly horrid defense. Last year the Cards were 25th among the 28 NFL teams in defense. They may not be as good this year. Indeed, if the organization doesn't find some cornerbacks, opponents' scores may reach three digits. Coach Gene Stallings admitted afterward that his defensive backs "did not play very well at times." (And Custer slightly underestimated the Indians.)
Basically, the Phoenix Cardinals played an awful lot like the St. Louis Cardinals. And reality set in fast with the fans. With the team now 0-2 in the preseason, the spectators were quick to observe that what they were getting was the Bidwill Cardinals and not the Lombardi Packers.
Some badly needed defensive leadership and mental toughness did surface in the person of linebacker Ricky Hunley, who during the off-season was first bad-mouthed and then traded by the Broncos. Said Hunley afterward, "The team will get better, I will get better, and the crowd will get better." Hunley suggested, for example, that the crowd should learn to holler "Dee-fence" when the visitors have the ball. Offensively, Tony Jordan, a surprising fifth-round draft pick, almost certainly made the team by carrying 11 times for 72 yards and two touchdowns. The No. 1 draft pick, linebacker Ken Harvey, continued to be unimpressive. So was the No. 3 choice, Tom Tupa, the former Ohio State quarterback.
But the football stuff will sort itself out. The Cardinals would have made the playoffs last year had they not lost their final game to Dallas. Their record was 7-8, which is a good guess for this year, too, give or take a victory over the full 16-game schedule. Of more pressing concern is the relationship between Bid-will and the populace. There is no question that the valley is thrilled to have an NFL team. Adele Harris, community relations director for the Cards, says interest in player appearances and endorsements is "triple what it was in St. Louis." For example, two-hour autograph sessions in St. Louis used to bring a player about $300; in Phoenix they bring $500 to $2,000. Two players have made car-dealership commercials at $10,000 each. Harris says "at least 200 more requests" for player appearances are waiting to be fulfilled. And, she adds, corporations are calling with open-ended offers such as "We have money. What do you need?"
But there also is a widespread opinion among the fans that, despite their affection for the new team, they are being jerked around by Bidwill and treated like rubes. As Arizona Republic columnist Bob Hurt wrote the other day, "Bill, you haven't won a bunch of friends here...."
Up in the loge seats sit Gaylen and Judy Brotherson. They paid $4,004 for two seats at 10 games—and that doesn't include a parking pass. What burns the Brothersons, though, is not the $4,000 but the $4 handling charge. As another local columnist said about Bidwill after his gall bladder operation last spring: The bladder was removed but the gall remained. "He's gouging the people of Phoenix," Gaylen says. "It will hurt him in the long run. He can do this to us, but if he doesn't win, it's going to be a miserable time out here. At these prices, we deserve a winner because we have paid for a winner."