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Like its real estate boom, Atlanta's sports boom required leaps into space. Mayor Ivan Allen began to construct a stadium in '64 before he had a reliable commitment from a football or baseball team. Charles Finley, then in Kansas City, and the Bidwill brothers of St. Louis had said they would deliver the A's and the football Cardinals, respectively, but backed out. For a while it appeared that Atlanta might have a ghost stadium, with kudzu growing on the fences and the bums from Underground Atlanta sleeping in the dugouts.
As the stadium began to take concrete form a number of teams did pay Allen court, but not too generous court. To get the Braves to move from Milwaukee before the 1966 season, Allen agreed to pay their moving costs and any legal bills and also granted the team all the revenue from the stadium concessions. The NFL then saw that the AFL was about to enter Atlanta and slipped the Falcons into the city under the younger league's nose. Unfortunately, the management that got the NFL franchise was hurriedly formed and turned out to be hollow.
Rankin Smith, then president (since demoted) of Life Insurance Co. of Georgia, was a leading supporter of University of Georgia football. ("President of the Bulldog Club," he says.) He had considerable inherited wealth and was big in civic affairs. He was also the former college roommate of Carl Sanders, then governor of Georgia and a leader in the sports-import movement. Smith recalls, "One evening the governor called and said, 'Come out here, I've got to talk to you.' I said, 'It's rush hour.' He said, 'Be out here in five minutes.' I had no inkling of what was going on. Got to the Governors' Mansion, and they said I was to make a pitch to Pete Rozelle about getting an NFL franchise. They needed an individual who had a local identity and could afford to take on 51%. I tried to ask a few questions and got nowhere. They'd say, 'You don't have to worry about that.' Little did I know."
"That's an old story in this town," says Atlanta saloonkeeper and maverick politico Manuel Maloof. "The power structure in this city always comes up with simplistic answers and tells people what to do."
In the beginning, the Falcons, who have always made money, sold plenty of season tickets to corporations and to upper-class families who rode buses to the stadium from their private clubs, the wives in the same sort of dressy dresses and crisp corsages they wore to Tech games. But the Falcons have seldom played good football, and their management has rarely, if ever, made a move that was not criticized and second-guessed.
Smith bungled at the outset when he signed his first head coach. He could have had Paul Brown. But an even bigger figure—reportedly and presumably Vince Lombardi—said he would take the job. Then, after Smith had rejected Brown, the bigger figure changed his mind. Again Atlanta had come up empty. "I couldn't go back to a man like Paul Brown and say, 'O.K., I changed my mind, I'll take you as my second choice,' " Smith argues. So he signed Norb Hecker, a Lombardi assistant, even though Lombardi had told Smith that Hecker was not ready for a head coaching job. Lombardi turned out to be right.
Hecker was followed by Norm Van Brocklin, who rebuilt impressively up to a point, but alienated his black players and the press with his high-handed ways. Van Brocklin called himself "a pinnacle of power that will never be toppled" and got pugnacious in press conferences. "If any of you guys wants to fight," he told one bemused gathering of scribes, "let's stack furniture."
"Sometimes he could charm you right off the field," says Smith. "But...his human relations were nil."
Meanwhile Smith's president, a C.P.A. named Frank Wall, was making stylish gestures like throwing a copy of the Atlanta Constitution at the feet of one of its writers, spitting on it and saying, "That's what I think of your story."
Smith himself once tried to give the team a pep talk. "I've only been to the dressing room once," he admits. "I'd had a few beers, I guess. I wasn't drunk, but it was bad enough that I'd had a few beers. I went down and cussed out all the players. I haven't been back since."