Game Changers

How two Texas oilmen invented the Super Bowl.

February 2009By Comments

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 final vote by NFL owners, would now have not one but two new professional football teams. But Clint was determined to prevent that from happening. He had met and liked Lamar at a dinner party when Lamar was still in college. When he got the Halas committee’s approval, Clint arranged a meeting at Lamar’s office. There Clint offered Lamar 50 percent of the NFL franchise if he would agree to kill the Texans. Lamar thanked him but said he simply couldn’t abandon his partners in the aborning AFL.

The game was on. Both Clint and Lamar forged ahead with their plans, Clint hiring as general manager a young CBS executive whom Halas had suggested, Texas E. “Tex” Schramm. Schramm tutored Clint on the ins and outs of sports ownership, emphasizing the chain of command, a polite way of telling Clint to stay out of football decisions. For the moment, Clint was more focused on securing final approval for the new franchise from the NFL owners. It required a unanimous vote, and the Redskins’ owner, George Marshall, had spread the word that he might blackball Clint, whom he reportedly found “personally obnoxious.” The problem, it turned out, was that after Marshall had withdrawn his offer to sell the Washington Redskins, one of Clint’s men, Tom Webb, had quietly purchased the rights to the Redskins’ fight song, “Hail to the Redskins,” from the song’s writer, who was embittered after being fired by Marshall. Webb thought of it as a bargaining chip. Marshall just wanted his song back, and badly.

The NFL owners met at Miami’s Kenilworth Hotel for the vote in January 1960. At a gathering the night before the vote, Marshall sent a wandering accordion player to Halas’s table to serenade him with “Hail to the Redskins,” a pointed reminder of his intentions to veto Clint’s efforts. Halas promptly sent the musician to Marshall’s table, where he played “The Eyes of Texas.” The next morning, Clint went to Marshall’s room, introduced himself, and phoned Webb. The two then performed an elaborate charade for Marshall’s benefit, Clint begging and wheedling the silent Webb to turn over the song. Clint hung up. Marshall implored him to try harder. Clint called a second time, again begging Webb to hand over the song, until finally Clint put down the phone and told Marshall the rights were his. Marshall promptly pledged to support the birth of the new Dallas team.

Back in Dallas, Clint and Schramm hired their coach, a stern New York Giants assistant named Tom Landry, then set about selecting the team’s name. Clint insisted on the Dallas Rangers. Schramm resisted, pointing out that Dallas already had a minor league baseball team called the Rangers. Clint prevailed. A press release went out, announcing the name. Schramm, however, wouldn’t give up and finally persuaded Clint to rename the team the Dallas Cowboys. It took years for Clint to warm to the name. Five years later, he issued a press release announcing that the team might change its name back to the Dallas Rangers. The reaction was immediate. Clint counted 1,148 phone calls to the Cowboys office. As he wrote in a note to a Dallas sportswriter, the tally came in at “Keep the name Cowboys, 1,138. Change the name to Rangers, 2. Murchison is stupid, 8.”

In an effort to compete with Lamar’s Texans, the NFL announced that the new Cowboys would begin playing a season earlier than planned, in the fall of 1960. Lamar and the other AFL owners promptly slapped the league with a $10 million antitrust suit, calling the move sabotage. In fact, despite Lamar’s barbed quotes in the press, he and Clint remained friendly rivals. At a luncheon just before Christmas 1960, Clint surprised Lamar by wearing a bright-red Texans blazer. A week later, Clint was hosting a gathering at his home when two friends dragged in a massive, six-foot-high gift-wrapped box. Clint stepped over, unwrapped the bow, and was startled when who should emerge but a smiling Lamar. The two men bore a passing resemblance, and more than once Clint found himself being introduced to people as Lamar. At one point, when a tall, bespectacled man appeared at the Cowboys offices looking for Schramm, a new receptionist asked, “Are you Mr. Murchison?” The man smiled and said, “Lamar Hunt.” Afterward Clint presented the woman with pictures of both of them, captioned “This is Lamar” and “This is Clint.”

During that first season, in 1960, both the Texans and the Cowboys played at the 75,000-seat Cotton Bowl. Neither drew the crowds Lamar and Clint needed. The Cowboys mailed 200,000 letters to prospective season ticket holders; 2,165 signed up. Barely 20,000 people appeared for the team’s first game, and attendance plummeted after that, falling as low as 2,000 one Sunday. It didn’t help that, forced to field a series of NFL cast-offs—one a rodeo cowboy, another an art teacher—Landry’s team failed to win a single game, finishing with eleven losses and a tie. The tie, in a December game against the Giants in New York, got Clint so excited that he scurried around the El Morocco nightclub trying in vain to find a Texan to tell. He arrived back in Dallas to find a Love Field welcoming throng of exactly two fans.

At one Cowboys home game, barely 8,000 people appeared, and when it began to rain, all sought shelter beneath the press box. From his perch inside, it appeared to Clint that the entire stadium was empty. It stung, though Clint kept his spirits up. When the New York restaurateur Toots Shor wrote seeking box seats for a Giants game in Dallas, Clint sent him the tickets along with a note. “In case you want to bring any of your friends with you,” it read, “I am also sending you Sections 1, 2, 3 and 4.” Shor opened an accompanying box to find every ticket in those sections, 10,000 in all.

Clint lost $700,000 that first year, but Lamar had it worse. Though his Texans won eight games and lost six against the other new AFL teams, the Texans’ crowds were even smaller than the Cowboys’—and their tickets cost less. At year-end, a Dallas sportswriter guessed Lamar had lost about $1 million. “At that rate,” he concluded, “he can only afford to lose for the next one hundred years.” Clint once said that the sole game he truly enjoyed in those early years was between the teams from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh: “It was the only game I’d seen since joining the NFL that hadn’t cost me fifty thousand dollars.”

The Cowboys and the Texans fought for the hearts of Dallas football fans for three long years, but nothing they did, not even winning a championship, as Lamar’s Texans did in 1962, could fill the Cotton Bowl. Finally, in 1963, Lamar ran up the white flag. He wanted to relocate the Texans to a city within easy commuting distance. He was poised to move them to New Orleans when, at the eleventh hour, its mayor refused to let the team play at Tulane Stadium, fearing the loss of Tulane fans. Instead, Lamar negotiated a $1-a-year stadium lease (for two years) with the mayor of Kansas City and in May 1963 announced that the Texans were moving to Missouri to become the Kansas City Chiefs.

The AFL, plagued with dwindling crowds, remained shaky until later that year, when Lamar ensured the league’s survival by negotiating a $35 million television package with NBC. Three years later, in June 1966, he would spearhead the AFL’s merger with the NFL and the creation of a title game between the two league champions. The NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, wanted to call the game the Big One. But it was Lamar, after seeing his children bouncing a Wham-O SuperBall, who came up with the name that stuck: the Super Bowl. His Chiefs would lose Super Bowl I to the Green Bay Packers, in January 1967, and the league merger would not be completed until 1970, but Lamar had managed to cement football’s future preeminence. Clint’s Cowboys, meanwhile, would go on to capture their first Super Bowl win in 1972 and eventually be anointed “America’s Team,” a feel-good antidote that would all but erase Dallas’s post—Kennedy assassination reputation as the “city of hate.” Lamar and Clint’s place in American sports history was secure.

Excerpted from The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes. Copyright © 2009 by Bryan Burrough, reprinted with permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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