Game Changers

How two Texas oilmen invented the Super Bowl.

In the first years after World War II, a new breed of ultrawealthy oilman arose from obscurity to capture national attention as no Texan had since Sam Houston. The media, from the New York Times to Life magazine, christened this top layer of Texas society “the Big Rich,” and its richest representatives were the so-called Big Four: Hugh Roy Cullen, of Houston, the conservative gadfly who funded the University of Houston and jousted with politicians from Wendell Willkie to Dwight Eisenhower; Sid Richardson, the secretive Fort Worth oilman who hosted Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson at his modernistic island retreat off Corpus Christi; Clint Murchison, of Dallas, who introduced Texans to the joys of private airplanes and kingdom-size Mexican ranches; and the wealthiest of all, H. L. Hunt, a Dallas billionaire with three families—two in secret—and a burning desire to spread the virtues of conservative politics to postwar America.

By 1959, however, only Hunt remained an active oilman. From that year forward, the most notable exploits of the Big Four families would belong to their second generations, ambitious young men struggling to escape their fathers’ shadows. One of the first to make nationwide headlines was the youngest of Hunt’s sons: shy, well-mannered Lamar. Like many Texas oilmen, Lamar’s favorite sport was football, whose professional teams had emerged as a national preoccupation following the dramatic 1958 championship game between the John Unitas—led Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. Lamar thought football represented the future of American sports, and he grew determined to bring a team to Dallas; the city’s previous team, the Dallas Texans, had folded after one season, in 1953. In early 1959 Lamar, then just 26, approached the owner of the Chicago Cardinals, who refused to sell. So did the National Football League’s other owners, many of whom were just as upbeat about the league’s future. What Lamar didn’t realize was that he had run smack into an identical effort by Clint Murchison Jr.

In the annals of the Big Rich, the Big Four families seldom crossed paths in any serious way, and where they did, as in the lifelong friendship between Sid Richardson and Clint Murchison Sr., relations tended to be amicable. Texas, after all, was big enough for all of them. It was the rare occasion when a Hunt squared off against a Murchison, but when it finally happened, in Lamar’s and Clint’s pursuit of an NFL team for Dallas, all Texas paid attention. Clint had had a head start. A gifted but impetuous 36-year-old who would become known for his hedonism and womanizing, Clint was freewheeling and cocky, given to jumping into deals he barely understood. He had been a season ticket holder for the Texans—he had twenty seats, in fact—and had tried without success to buy the team before its Dallas demise. In 1955 he tried to buy the San Francisco 49ers but couldn’t. Finally, in 1958, he reached an agreement to acquire the Washington Redskins, but the talks fell through when the team’s owner, George Preston Marshall, sought a change in terms. When the NFL announced it would expand to fourteen teams in 1961, Clint changed tack and set his sights on starting a new team. In early 1959, just as Lamar was sending out his first feelers about buying a team, Clint began meeting with the owner of the Chicago Bears, George Halas, the chairman of the league’s expansion committee.

Once he discovered Clint was in the picture, Lamar realized it was unlikely he would win a franchise of his own. Like his father, though, Lamar was a creative thinker. After months of mulling over the issue, the answer came to him one night on an airplane. When he reached Dallas, he telephoned one of his father’s friends, a Houston oilman named K. S. “Bud” Adams, who had also attempted to buy the Chicago Cardinals; Adams wanted them for Houston. The two men had a long dinner at a steakhouse Adams owned in Houston, complaining about the NFL’s stodgy ways, but it wasn’t until Adams drove Lamar to Hobby Airport that H. L. Hunt’s youngest son turned to him and revealed his cards. “Bud,” he said, “I’m thinking about starting a new league. Would you be interested in joining me?” Adams’s reply: “Hell, yeah.”

And that was all it took. On August 3, 1959, Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, representing two Texas oil fortunes, held a press conference in Adams’s Houston office and announced the formation of the American Football League. Lamar had just turned 27 the day before. The league, they announced, had exactly two teams, the Dallas Texans and the Houston Oilers. Twelve days later, after fielding calls from dozens of interested owners, they would unveil four additional franchises, in Los Angeles, Denver, New York, and Minneapolis. For the most part, NFL owners snickered. Sportswriters quickly dubbed the two Texans and their pals the Foolish Club.

In Dallas, however, Clint wasn’t laughing. If Lamar went forward, his new team would divert attention from the NFL franchise Clint hoped to win; it would divide the market for season tickets, and worst of all, Lamar was already making noises about leasing Dallas’s only major football venue, the Cotton Bowl. Clint hustled to Chicago and pressed Halas to grant him a franchise immediately. Halas understood and prevailed upon his committee to give it to him. The news was flashed across television screens all across Texas, including one in a ranch house sixty miles southeast of Dallas, where an old man frowned at his set. It was the first that Big Clint had heard of his son’s plans. He thought professional football was a silly, money-losing proposition and had said as much, many times and loudly. In Big Clint’s mind, it was just another example of his son’s inability to focus on business that really mattered. But Clint was intent on building something of his own, something his father hadn’t given him.

“That’s gonna break that boy,” Big Clint murmured.

Dallas, it appeared, pending a

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