Not many have fully grasped Robbie's structure of power or understood how he acquired such a mailed fist, remembering that the fist was always unclenched and (palm up) extended. It seems that the touchstone of his power is the general partnership agreement, out of which he was given (he drew it up himself) a magic document. Although he says he had a capital investment of only $100,000 in the club, the paper gave him the authority to control the Dolphins for 20 years. Why would his partners consent to such an arrangement?
The general partnership suited the original investors, mainly because it allowed them to take personal advantage of player depreciation (a very handsome tax write-off), which would not have been possible in a corporate structure. At the same time, though, it was dangerous. Every general partner was exposed to personal liability for the partnerships debts or obligations. The investors, none of whom had any zealous interest in football, emotional or otherwise, perused the danger zone and then seemingly leaped for the door, which Joe gladly opened. Why, yes, certainly, by all means, he would become the sole general partner and be responsible for all Dolphin obligations. Clearly, he had secured a position of strength. He alone could pledge the franchise as collateral, a fact that gave swing to his moves and the power he would eventually need.
A lawyer with 11 children who, it is said, never made more than $27,000 in one year in his entire career. Robbie quickly became more than just a curiosity. He became an obsession and anathema in Miami. He not only did not have the proper credentials, he did not have any money, either. He survived only on constantly revolving credit and that magic piece of paper which acquired the credit. "I'm where I am now," says Robbie, "for one reason. That's because nobody wants to put their own money up. They want something for nothing. They don't want to take any risks. That's why I have the club. I took the risk."
Jocular at first, criticism of the club and Robbie soon grew into intramural war in Miami (a conspiracy, says Joe) in which Robbie is cast as a robber baron and his operation as the cheapest in sports history. Didn't he fire the couple who catered for the press because the bill came to $110 (food included) a game? Writers covering the Dolphins now eat hot dogs.
Danny Thomas, for one, does not agree with that picture of Robbie. " Robbie," he says, "is a great guy in my book, rough and tough. Joe put the club together. He was the finder and came to me. We made a deal and went in. I got out a couple of years ago. Did I get hurt? Did I lose money? You must be kidding. Did you ever hear of a Lebanese losing money? I don't lose money. I only make money. I trust Robbie implicitly. Sure, he has a habit of saying things, but then he makes them happen."
It is impossible to know what promises Robbie made to John O'Neil (who has $500,000 worth of stock in the club) or what he said to him, but O'Neil is not even allowed near the Dolphin office, nor is he invited on road trips or to the owners' box. The reason, according to Robbie, is because O'Neil is subversive to the Dolphin organization. Once underground, the conflict between the two now is flaming in public. O'Neil, an original investor and the only one from Miami, recently aimed a civil suit at Robbie charging mismanagement of funds, using club funds for his personal use, raising his salary in violation of the partnership agreement and numerous other practices. He hopes to force an accounting in court. If the suit reaches court, it could be quite explosive. It could expose Joe Robbie as a hustler of considerable dimension or reveal him as an unjustly maligned man. Whatever, it will surely scar the Dolphins, a team already bent by a sad, comic and absurd four-year history, in which they have won 14 of 55 games.
Thomas and Robbie brought their operation to Miami in 1965, having obtained the franchise on Thomas' name and affluence and Joe's clout, the base of which is rooted in politics. Robbie is a good friend of Hubert Humphrey and former AFL Commissioner Joe Foss, who granted Robbie the franchise just before leaving office. Full of enthusiasm and verbal sock, Thomas and Robbie announced sponsorship of the franchise at the Palm Bay Club. "Doesn't every Lebanese boy who grew up in Toledo want to own a professional team?" said Thomas. Two years later Thomas was gone. "I never went into football to make money, only to have fun," he says. "I had all my fun on the first play the Dolphins ever ran. It was the opening kick-off, and I ran 50 yards for a score. Imagine, no other owner ever ran for a touchdown. This kid Joe Auer took it back 95 yards. I'm on the bench and I pick him up on the 45, me and my cigar. Yelling, I go the rest of the way. I fall flat on my face, right in the end zone. What an opening!" Why did he give up so much fun? He simply says that Robbie bought him out.
Long before Thomas' departure, however, the franchise had a feel of confusion and comedy that triggered cynicism and suspicion. ( Bud Adams, the president of the Houston Oilers, once described Robbie as "running a $2 million a year business like a fruit stand.") From the start it lacked style. Robbie opened up a two-room office in the DuPont Plaza and filled it with telephones and a girl to pick them up and listen to people who, rather than requesting tickets, were looking for jobs; the head coach position was most popular. One applicant was a hotel clerk who was certain he had a gift for organization. Another was a Pittsburgh trash collector. An itinerant evangelist even applied, convinced that he, being pure of heart, could never lose. The girl, small wonder, did not hire any of them, and Robbie eventually named George Wilson as his coach. Next, a training camp was chosen. The place would be St. Petersburg, and what happened there could be the germ of a whacky musical.
Desperate to save money, the Dolphins accepted an offer from Suncoast Sports, Inc., in which Suncoast would underwrite $70,000 in expenses. Chuck Burr, then the Dolphins' business manager, and Robbie were elated. The only trouble was that Suncoast suddenly did not exist; its only representative was a man named John Burroughs. From this point on it was all downhill. The practice field was a thin layer of sod over seashells, and soon it was only seashells; visitors still remember the wailing of the injured. Gallantly, Burroughs tried to roll the field, but the improvement was hardly noticeable. It was enough, though, to prompt George Wilson to try to appease Burroughs and hopefully keep him at the roller. Burroughs had a son who was a linebacker candidate. Wilson kept the kid around so long it was embarrassing. When he finally cut him, the old man and his roller disappeared.
The field was just part of the bleakness at St. Petersburg. The players had to use their hotel rooms as dressing areas and, two to a room, slept with jockstraps, shirts and damp pads hanging near their noses. The food was equally demoralizing: the hotel served so much Chinese food that Linebacker Wahoo McDaniel threatened that "from now on they'll have to carry me to practice in a rickshaw." Even George Wilson was having problems. When he cut a player, he had to reach into his own pocket and pay the player's air fare home; being from California was a definite advantage. Wilson soon refrained from cutting, and expenses rocketed. Creditors were in line, and the trials of the Dolphins were spread over the sports pages. Finally, Robbie, an absentee owner in Minnesota, where he said he had been marooned on account of an airline strike, arrived, snorting smoke. Eventually, Chuck Burr would take the fall; his lawsuit is now just one of many in Robbie's desk drawer.