Settling the Score

In hindsight, my first news conference as the newly appointed general manager of the New England Patriots should have been an omen. It was February 26, 1971, and the Patriots were engaged in yet another dismally familiar effort to remake a stumbling franchise. After Patriots president Billy Sullivan sang my praises — youthful, optimistic, just the shot in the arm this team needed — I stepped to the podium in the function room of the Cambridge Sonesta, reached for the microphone, and prepared to tell the assembled sportswriters just how great it was to be in Boston.

“Don't touch the mike!” a voice yelled suddenly. I jerked my hand back and glanced around nervously. The room was quiet, expectant. For a moment I thought I'd had some bizarre auditory hallucination. Then, since they were waiting, I put it aside and launched into my speech.

I would later learn that two years earlier, when Clive Rush was named coach, he had nearly been electrocuted by a short circuit when he grabbed the microphone, which left him stunned, though not dead.

I had avoided repeating Clive's entrance. But I had no answer for the first question. “Mr. Bell,” said Jack Clary of the Herald, “why in the world would someone like you, who has won championships with the Baltimore Colts, ever want to come to a franchise like this?”

It was a reasonable thing to ask. The Patriots were awful. The previous year they had finished last. There was no stadium; the team had played at Harvard, Boston University, Boston College, and Fenway Park. Various signs pointed to deep organizational trouble — the home game at Harvard's Soldiers Field, for example, for which no one thought to clear the snow from the seats, leaving fans no place to sit. Worse was the ownership situation. Sullivan was president, but there were many other owners and directors, all divided into warring factions. Most ominously, Rush had suffered a devastating nervous breakdown in the middle of the season.

My brief stint with the Patriots would prove a fitting chapter in a timeless story of Boston sports: the story of a franchise that has never quite figured out how to reward the loyalty and passion of its fans with a team consistently deserving of their cheers.

In mulling Sullivan's job offer, I gave little thought to the negatives. I was 32. Football was in my blood. My father, Bert Bell, had joined with Lud Wray to start the Philadelphia Eagles with $2,500 he borrowed from my mother; he later served as NFL commissioner. My earliest memories are of large bodies sprawled asleep on the floors of our house and draped over the furniture. The bodies belonged to Eagles players who were making so little money that they lived with us. Football was my youth.

The first time I had ever heard of Boston football was when I was about 12. My father had been commissioner for a couple of years. He spent half his life on the phone, including during dinner. “You can call me anytime,” he told everyone. And they did call — players, coaches, owners, reporters, all of them — especially owners.

Whenever my father was speaking with Kate Smith, the famous “God Bless America” singer who backed the Boston Yanks football team in the 1940s, his upbeat expression would sag so he looked like a bulldog in mourning. “How we doing up there in Boston, Kate? Your singing tour's going fine? That's great. Tell me, Kate, did you make the payroll this week? No? We gotta get the goddamned payroll paid, Kate.” Then, to us, shaking his head, he would say, “Christ, I gotta get on a train to Boston again.”

My mother, Frances Upton, would sigh. Before she married my father, she had been a Ziegfeld Follies star who had played in such shows as Little Jesse James, Hold Your Horses, and Me and My Girl, and had starred in Making Whoopee with Eddie Cantor. “Oh, Bert,” mother would say, “I just love Boston. I opened all my shows in Boston.” My father wasn't touched. “Christ, Frances, you opened all your shows there? I gotta go up and close this show.” (In the end, the show would close itself, when the Boston Yanks moved to New York in 1949, following the example of the Boston Redskins, which had moved to Washington in 1937.)

That was my introduction to Boston football. I would see my father shaking his head after one of those calls to Kate Smith, and I equated Boston football with one thing: suffering. I couldn't imagine that one day I'd see for myself.

Like many of football's early owners, Billy Sullivan didn't come from money. He was a throwback, like my father and other owners. Art Rooney had bought the Pittsburgh Steelers with his winnings from the track. Giants founder Tim Mara was a New York bookie and sports promoter. Those men, like most of their colleagues, had struggled mightily to establish their teams and keep them afloat. Sullivan was an ex-public relations man for the Boston Braves who had managed to make money in oil. He cobbled together an unruly group of directors not because he wanted to, but because that was the only way he could afford a team. And he brought an AFL franchise to Boston in 1959 after the city had gone 10 years without one.

Like Sullivan, what I really wanted was to own a team. But in 1971, when Sullivan asked me, I was willing to settle for running one. The question would be whether Sullivan and I could overcome our philosophical differences.

For the previous six years, I had been personnel director of the Baltimore Colts, helping to build two Super Bowl teams, including the previous year's champion squad. My confidence coming to the Patriots was sky high. The Pats had some good players already. They had acquired their first-round pick, Jim Plunkett, from Stanford, the best quarterback prospect in the country. A new stadium was going up in Foxboro. Here was an opportunity to build something from the ground floor. But despite Sullivan's effusive introduction that day, it was clear from the start our marriage was doomed.

“If they want you to cook the dinner,” Bill Parcells said when he quit Bob Kraft's Patriots, “at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” Sullivan and I had the same kind of differences — and not only over who would do the shopping.

Not all my headaches stemmed from our clashes, though, or from the fact that every time I turned around one of Sullivan's partners was twisting my arm to make common cause with him against someone else. With a franchise as troubled as the Patriots, I was never at a loss for problems — like the time shortly after I came onboard when we almost lost the entire team.

The first major event of my tenure was the league meeting held in Palm Beach in March 1971. Before I left, I instructed my staff to send out option letters, an automatic procedure by which every team renews the options of each player under contract. Back from Florida a week later, I got a call from the attorney for Phil Olsen, a former first-round-pick defensive lineman who had previously told me he wanted to leave the team.

“Thanks, Upton,” said the attorney. “It's wonderful that Phil's a free agent.”

“What do you mean?” I said. “He's under contract.”

“No. He never got his option letter, so I'm declaring him a free agent.”

Turned out it wasn't only Olsen's letter that had not been sent. None of them had. And with the deadline past, every player was technically a free agent. The whole team. I had been in Boston for barely a month, and my entire team was gone. The saving grace was that, as far as I could tell, the only player who recognized this was Olsen.

Bucko Kilroy was hired from the Cowboys to run my scouting, and when I told him the situation, he was speechless. “If we send them an option letter now,” I said, thinking aloud, “it will call it to their attention. Why don't we just send them all new contracts?” So we did, even giving some players a little bonus, which shocked more than a few since the Patriots franchise wasn't exactly known for its generosity. The whole thing took three months. Ninety days of getting up each morning wondering if this was the day the gaffe would blow up. But it never did.

Though the infighting at the ownership level continued to heat up, Kilroy and Peter Hadhazy, who came from the NFL office to be assistant GM, were whipping the front office into shape. We had signed Plunkett. Schaefer Stadium (now Foxboro Stadium) was close to completion (even if it was, as generations of fans will attest, the cheapest stadium money could build). With the NFL-AFL merger completed, the Patriots were now playing a full NFL schedule. Excitement about the team and its prospects was at a frenzy, fanned by a steady stream of positive press. Boston was going to become a great football town; I could feel it. Everything was leading up to our opening exhibition game against the New York Giants, inaugurating the new stadium. It was going to be sensational. We sold the place out.

Getting the stadium ready took us to the last moment, down to installing the goalposts. The smiles were short-lived. Sixty thousand fans were in the stands, with a commensurate number of cars in the parking lots, something neither the traffic engineers nor the state police had apparently considered. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of ticket holders never even made it to the game. And, afterwards, the mother of all traffic jams unfolded. Cars caught fire or were abandoned. Many people didn't get home until three or four in the morning.

The next day we got a call from the Department of Public Works. Change all the night games to day games, we were told, or we couldn't use our brand-new stadium. Sullivan agreed, but all the opponents had to be onboard, which they soon were — except the Los Angeles Rams. After all, the Rams said, it was hotter in the daytime. The players would suffer. All that suffering had to be worth something, the Rams figured — like, for instance, a discreet draft choice. So that's what they got — in exchange for moving one game from night to day.

The Board of Health was next to come calling — the day before the season opener against the Raiders. Engineers had discovered a small problem with the sewer system — namely, faulty plumbing. No toilets, no football. When in the colorful history of pro football had anybody ever seen a team's front office, including the president, poised over every single toilet in a stadium, ready to flush in unison on a countdown over the PA system?

The toilets flushed. The game was on.

After training camp, we were raring to go. Maybe we weren't going to be a challenge for the title, but with Plunkett we were sure to turn some heads. I even thought that one particular preseason move I devised might make us contenders. But it went down in flames, putting a huge strain on my relationship with the coach, John Mazur, who had replaced Rush.

My plan involved Duane Thomas, the previous season's rookie of the year, thought by some to be the greatest running back since the incomparable Jim Brown. Thomas played for Dallas, and for whatever reason he had become hugely disgruntled with the Cowboys' coach, Tom Landry. Our own running back, Carl Garrett, was also disgruntled, so I put out feelers to the Cowboys about a trade: our problem guy for their problem guy.

Cowboys GM Tex Schramm was a notoriously tough negotiator. But Schramm proved receptive, and our discussions extended right up to the preinduction banquet at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where I was one of the presenters. The moment the ceremony was over, I raced to my hotel room to get Schramm back on the phone. This was a complex situation, not just because of the deal itself — several players were involved in addition to Thomas and Garrett — but because of the unpredictables. Rumors of drug use swirled around Thomas. He was known as a strange guy — somebody once called him the biggest head case in the NFL (quite a distinction). Garrett wasn't the easiest guy in the world to handle, either. The Thomas rumors had me worried but not enough to quell my enthusiasm. It was the '70s, and drugs were getting to be a problem for every team. If Thomas was having trouble, we'd handle it.

That Saturday, Schramm and I reached an agreement. Thomas flew in and arrived at our Amherst training camp. When I arrived I found a very unhappy John Mazur. I knew he had never been in favor of this deal, but he hadn't opposed it, either. Now he was upset. Carl Garrett might have been troublesome, but Mazur at least thought he could handle him. Thomas was a different story. Mazur didn't want him.

The next day I met with Thomas. The conversation had barely started when he said, “You know, I'd feel more comfortable if we talked outside.” We went out to the middle of the practice field and sat cross-legged. The strangeness of this scene impressed others as much as it did me, including Don Gillis, the dean of Boston sportscasters, who started inching toward us with his camera crew as if he were a wildlife photographer.

Thomas got to his feet and froze Gillis in his tracks with the scariest, most demonic stare I've ever seen one human being give another. “Get out,” Thomas said. His voice was a low rasp. Gillis stopped dead when the stare hit him. When he heard that “Get out,” he and the camera guy scuttled way back.

With Gillis at a comfortable distance, Thomas sat back down, and we resumed negotiating. “Duane,” I said, “we'll restructure the contract to your satisfaction, but you should really be out on the practice field today. Why don't you get dressed and get out there with the team.” He agreed, and I went back to work, thinking, Well, we've gotten this far. We'll face the rest tomorrow.

The moment I got back to my desk I was on the phone. We had already brought in more than 50 players and were looking for others to try out. This was a team in need of a complete overhaul. Half an hour later I was deep in discussions when Bucko came in.

“Bad news,” he said.

I looked up. “What?”

“Mazur threw Thomas out of practice.”

I listened in disbelief as Kilroy described the confrontation. Mazur had told Thomas to assume his stance. Thomas said he was in his stance already, that in Dallas running backs line straight up with their hands on their thigh pads. Mazur resolved the question by kicking Thomas off the field, which was a message to me as much as to Thomas. “I just do not want this guy,” Mazur told me afterwards.

I won't rehash the excruciating details of how I managed to reverse the deal with Tex Schramm, except to say that it involved the league's commissioner, Pete Rozelle, and the fact that Thomas hadn't passed his physical. The result was that we started the season with our original running back, Garrett, who was good, though not great. And the Cowboys played with Thomas, who, of course, led them to the Super Bowl.

The ordeal over Thomas was only one of the things that convinced me John Mazur was not the coach I wanted. He was a decent guy, but I didn't think he was the man to lead us into the future. We finished the 1971 season with six wins against eight losses, up from 2-12 the previous year, and I was looking forward to replacing Mazur, maybe with Joe Paterno or Chuck Fairbanks.

By the end of the season my relationship with Mazur had reached bottom. Even more disconcerting was that Billy Sullivan and I were also in a downward spiral. Still, the team had done well, and everyone knew it would take three or four years to turn the franchise around. So as the season came to an end, I had a good measure of optimism.

That changed with a call from Boston Globe sportswriter Leigh Montville. “Are you watching television?” he asked me. “Billy just said you have no authority to fire the coach, that it's up to him and the board of directors.”

The next morning the controversy was all over the front pages: “Sullivan Denies Bell Right to Hire and Fire Coach,” complete with editorial cartoons and follow-up stories. I ran into then-mayor Kevin White one day, and he said, “What's going on? You're in the papers more than I am.”

Finally, a special meeting of the board of directors was called in a private room at Anthony's Pier 4. No Patriots general manager had ever been invited to a board meeting, but I asked for the opportunity.

The place was crawling with so many reporters when I arrived, you might have thought the president was there. Behind closed doors I laid out my case. They'd brought me here to build a team. To do that I needed total authority. I would never have left the Colts if I thought I wouldn't be able to do my job here. We had beaten some good teams, but the next week we'd get blown out by a stinker. That, to me, indicated we had decent talent but that Mazur wasn't up to handling it. Reason was surely on my side, but Sullivan was adamant. He wanted me out, and this was one way of making it impossible for me to stay. But I had my defenders, too. In the end, we struck an agreement that is unique in the annals of pro football.

This was the deal: We had one game left, against my old Colts, the previous year's Super Bowl champions who were again on their way to the playoffs. It was agreed, in all seriousness, that if the Patriots lost by a touchdown or more, I could fire Mazur. But if the Patriots lost by less than seven points, or won, I'd have to keep him. Mazur, of course, had no idea of this. Neither did the assembled media who heard only the sweetest of nothings when the meeting broke up.

I agreed to this travesty for several reasons: The issue was not going to be resolved in my favor otherwise; the Colts had crushed us earlier in the season; and the Colts had to win to get home-field advantage for the playoffs. They'd be motivated. The odds were against us. I was torn between wanting my team to win and seeing a way to force out a coach I thought was wrong for the future.

At the end of the first half, the Patriots had a 14-3 lead. I was confident the Colts would come back, however. A third-quarter touchdown by the Colts reassured me. But by the fourth quarter, the collapse I had anticipated wasn't happening. With two minutes left, the Patriots had the ball. Plunkett dropped back to pass and hit Randy Vataha for an 88-yard touchdown. I was still in shock when Will McDonough walked by and said, “Hey, Upton, that's a mighty long face for someone who ought to be pretty happy right now.” I wondered if he knew.

It didn't matter. A deal made with the devil and a touchdown pass had done me in. In the end, neither Mazur nor I survived the next season. He left two-thirds of the way through a dismal year. I lasted a few more weeks.

Bud Collins used to call the Patriots the “Foxboro Follies.” Others thought the franchise was cursed. Despite two Super Bowl appearances and the occasional playoff run, the Pats always seem to be in a state of siege. It's been that way for 40 years. Someone warned me in my first year with the team: “You know, this franchise has killed others. It will kill you, too.” You know, it almost did.