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Born leaders

Bidwill at the heart of Cardinals' revival

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / January 29, 2009
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TAMPA - Even in the leanest of years, Bill Bidwill said the idea of selling the Cardinals never crossed his mind, but it was probably a frequent thought for Cardinals fans - first in St. Louis, then in Arizona - who felt Bidwill was selling the team short.

Prior to his team advancing to Super Bowl XLIII and a date with the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, the 77-year-old Bidwill was widely regarded as one of the most inept owners in the NFL, if not all of sports. Even though his family has been involved with the NFL since 1932, the Bidwill name doesn't resonate like the Rooneys (Steelers), the Maras (Giants), or the Halas-McCaskey clan (Bears).

The widely held perception of Bidwill was that he was a penurious penny-pincher who was unwilling, unable, or uninterested in fielding a winner; a stingy steward who since taking sole control of the team from his brother, Charles W. Bidwill Jr., in 1972 has presided over just eight winning seasons. That includes a 5-4 record in the strike-shortened 1982 season and this season's 9-7 record, which brought the franchise's first division title since 1975.

Quarterback Kurt Warner, who came to Arizona as a free agent in 2005 after flaming out with the Giants, admitted the prevailing opinion of the Cardinals was not flattering.

"I think a lot of people looked at it as more of a black hole, a place that hasn't had success," said Warner. "[People thought] 'If you go there, I don't know if you're going to have success or what's going to happen to your career.' And as great as the destination was, I don't think people were sold on the football part of it and whether they were committed to winning.

"But the great thing that I've seen since I made the decision to come here, I've seen this organization do whatever they can to help us become a winning football team. From Day 1, the Bidwill family . . . even though you can't make all the changes overnight, they were asking me, 'What can we do different? What can we do better? How can we help develop not only a winning attitude, but a winning edge in what we're doing?' "

The bow tie-wearing Bidwill said the negative portrayal of his ownership has never bothered him.

"No, no, I just didn't consider some of those things seriously at all," he said. "You know, winning is the answer to the situation. We've been winning lately, and we have a fan base in the building now every game, and they're our fans."

The idea of his father's legacy being that of an indifferent owner of a bungling franchise burns team president Michael Bidwill, who was the point person in the Cardinals' push to get a new stadium and has become very active in turning the team around.

Michael Bidwill said he wants fans to know the truth about his father, who was the ball boy for the Cardinals' 1947 NFL championship team.

"I can tell you I sat in games with him for pretty much my entire life, and he wanted to win every one of those," said Michael Bidwill. "He's been a lifelong Cardinals fan himself."

Part of the blame for Bidwill's ownership style is owed to the Cardinals' transient nature. The team was born in Chicago, moved to St. Louis in 1960, and then was taken to Arizona by Bidwill in 1988. It wasn't until 2006, when University of Phoenix Stadium opened, that the Cardinals had a true home field, having shared stadiums with the Chicago White Sox, St. Louis baseball Cardinals, and Arizona State Sun Devils.

The stadium and the revenue it generates have allowed Bidwill to spend more freely and retain talented players such as wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who signed a four-year, $40 million deal last offseason.

"The biggest thing was to get the stadium," said Arizona defensive end Bertrand Berry, "not being out there in Sun Devil Stadium in blistering temperatures with people not really wanting to go out there.

"I mean, we didn't really want to play out there, it was so hot. With the new stadium, it's brought excitement.

"With the new players that have been drafted and free agency, everything has just come together. It was a perfect storm for us."

Berry said the players are happy for Bidwill and his family and that nobody inside the Arizona locker room questions ownership's commitment to winning.

"You talk to Mr. B and he's not a man of many words," said Berry. "He definitely cares about this organization. He's grown up with it. He's a lifer. This is pretty much all he's known his whole life.

"To finally have a chance to win a championship, I know he's giddy. I've never seen him smile so much. It's refreshing to see him like this. You can just see the life in him. You can see the personality in him."

That was evident when Bidwill cracked a joke about the NFC title game and the support the Cardinals got from the home fans.

"When the Eagles came out for the pregame warm-up and they got booed, I thought that I was in Philadelphia again," said Bidwill, referencing the notoriously fickle Philly fandom.

Bidwill may never be an out-front, all-out owner in the mold of Jerry Jones or Daniel Snyder, but while his track record can be questioned, his commitment to winning no longer can.

"They can say whatever they want to say about the organization, but we're here now," said safety Antrel Rolle. "All that stuff is in the past. They can say [the Bidwills] haven't been committed to winning, but what are they committed to now?"

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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