For a time it seemed like a press agent's opium dream. All week long the upcoming Baltimore Colts-Miami Dolphins game was the cynosure of speculation, conjecture, theory and fantasy—and bold, bright headlines. The casual visitor to the grimy workingman's town called Baltimore might have been excused for wondering whether Miami was going to play its star, Joe Robbie, 54 years old, 5'10", 185 pounds, out of the University of South Dakota, and if so, whether Baltimore would counter with swivel-hipped Carroll Rosenbloom, 61, 5'11½", 170, out of the University of Pennsylvania. Students of international relations and comparative theology fairly salivated at the prospect. Dolphin boss Robbie, a Horatio Alger type, of Arabic ancestry, versus Colt owner Rosenbloom, a onetime industrialist (manufacturer of Army fatigues in World War II), of Jewish ancestry. Could Robbie throw from the pocket? Could Rosenbloom scramble? Both could; both did. By week's end, the two front officers were still playing their own personal game with joyful abandon, while thousands cheered and a few yawned. Almost as an afterthought, like a Peewee hockey game after the big-leaguers have gone to the dressing room, Rosen-bloom's Colts met Robbie's Dolphins on the old-fashioned green grass of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, the Colts winning 35-0.
The war between the two owners broke out last winter. With Rosenbloom 10,000 miles away in the Orient, the slick Robbie tempted Baltimore Coach Don Shula with offers of wine, frankincense, peeled grapes and about $750,000, and before Rosenbloom could dial Commissioner Pete Rozelle's private telephone number the deal was consummated.
"Tampering!" Rosenbloom cried, and Rozelle responded by awarding Baltimore the Dolphins' No. 1 draft choice for 1971. Rosenbloom, a package of vindictiveness, generosity, sensitivity, bluntness and sagacity, remained vaguely discontented. When Robbie telephoned him and opened up with, "Carroll? This is Joe Robbie," Rosenbloom snapped, "I don't want to talk to you about anything," and hung up.
At the NFL owners' meeting in Honolulu last spring Rosenbloom saw Shula hustling toward him with a smile and a ready hand. When Shula was a few feet away, Rosenbloom did an about-face and presented the back of his $300 suit. Not long afterward the two were accidentally juxtaposed in the men's room of a New York hotel. "Hi, Carroll," said Shula with a broad smile. Rosenbloom turned coolly to a third party, issued a remark about Shula that must be rated GP (parental guidance advised) and stalked out.
"It's like this," Rosenbloom explained during the height of last week's son et lumière in Baltimore. "I have not talked to Robbie or Shula since this happened. I will not talk to Robbie or Shula ever again. One stole something from me. The other allowed himself to be stolen." Fueled by a succession of such volatilities, the Robbie-Rosenbloom feud waxed all week. Baltimore newspapers chose sides, with The News American coming close to comparing Robbie and Shula to Sts. Peter and Paul, and the Sun-papers frantically trying to remind their readers that a crucial football game was going to take place, HOW ROSENBLOOM FLEECED COLT FANS, a News American subhead blared, and a column by Bert Bell Jr., himself a former Colt official, accused Rosenbloom of "a long series of front-office faux pas." Bell wrote that the Baltimore executives had pointed "the finger of suspicion at everyone but the guilty ones—themselves" and charged Rosenbloom with running "a smear campaign."
"The facts speak for themselves," Rosenbloom said. "I don't have to run a smear campaign. If Miami didn't tamper with Shula, why'd we wind up with their No. 1 draft choice? They got off easy. I would like to discuss it further, but Commissioner Rozelle called me and told me, 'Carroll, I wish you'd bring this to an end.' "
But while he was halfheartedly heeding Rozelle's request, Rosenbloom's actions were speaking bombastically. There was, for example, the case of "the Phantom Dolphin," which involved a highly imaginative young high school football coach who had been running around Everly, Iowa bragging that he was a weekend kick return specialist for Shula's new team. When a straight-faced story about the coach popped up in the Des Moines papers, the annoyed Dolphin ownership took the hoax with utmost seriousness, and Rosenbloom sallied into the opening that fate had provided him. "I can understand Joe Robbie's position because he hasn't any sense of humor," Rosenbloom announced. "Robbie was probably afraid the high school coach was getting into Dolphin games without paying." He followed this reference to Robbie's well-known nickel-watching with paeans to the young Iowa impostor, lauding him for bringing color to pro football and for proving once again that we are all dreamers, of which fact no one who lived in Baltimore last week needed reminding.
When Rosenbloom learned that a Florida sportswriter had been denied permission to travel on the Dolphins' plane after twitting Robbie publicly, he offered to fly the reporter to the Miami-Baltimore game at the Colts' expense. Robbie had already slipped the word to various members of his entourage that any representatives of the hated Baltimore Colts' organization were not persona grata. "A Miami sportscaster was talking to me," said Baltimore Assistant Coach John Idzik, "and all of a sudden he jumps and he says, 'Here comes Robbie, I can't be seen talking to you,' and he's gone."
Toward week's end came the unkindest cut from Robbie's stiletto. Prodded by Rosenbloom's enemies in Baltimore and encouraged by Dolphin operatives, a Colt fan club blandly announced that it wanted to make an award to Shula before the opening kickoff Sunday. "How stupid can people get?" asked a Colt official. "Can you imagine the scene on the field? If Shula goes out to accept the award and gets a five-minute standing ovation, we're embarrassed, and if he goes out there and gets booed for five minutes, he's embarrassed. So who can possibly benefit? We told the fan club to stuff it." Colt Assistant Trainer Dick Spassoff, a Bulgarian by trade, suggested, "Eef they want geev geeft to Shula, let 'em geev eet een locker room." As it happened, on Saturday a handsome color portrait of the prodigal coach was quietly conveyed to Shula in an empty ballroom of his downtown Baltimore hotel. Sixteen Colt fans were in attendance, crying, "Welcome home," and, "Good luck to you, but not on Sunday." And the new Miami coach and vice-president thanked them graciously and told them he would never have accepted the Dolphins' money if he had known the move would cause so much trouble. (Laughter.)
Shula, a former NFL defensive back who looks more like a battered house dick than a pearl of priceless worth, is not in the least reluctant to pop off at friend or foe, but he has chosen not to join in the tag-team match between the front offices. Indeed, Shula has implored Robbie not to answer Rosenbloom. When Shula left Baltimore, having shucked a self-perpetuating five-year contract in favor of "a tremendous opportunity for me to continue to coach and become active in ownership," he bowed orientally to all points of the compass, thanking the Baltimore fans for "the great moments and the disappointing ones that life presented to us here" and thanking Rosenbloom for releasing him from his commitment and "giving us the opportunity...." Then he called his new colleagues together in Miami and sketched the same kind of tough blueprint that had brought both championships and internal strife to the Colts.