Former Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill leaves a unique legacy

Oct 2, 2019, 5:52 PM | Updated: 8:02 pm
Owner Bill Bidwill of the Arizona Cardinals holds up the George S. Halas trophy after winning the N...
Owner Bill Bidwill of the Arizona Cardinals holds up the George S. Halas trophy after winning the NFC championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles on January 18, 2009 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Eagles 32-25 to advance to the Super Bowl. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Death is complicated. It leaves a mess. And here in Arizona, Bill Bidwill leaves behind an uneven, awkward legacy.

The former Cardinals owner was a good man bad at sports. Charitable to the core while fighting agents over nickels. Indifferent to professional vanity and the compulsion of winning. He rolled his eyes at those kind of guys.

He was painfully immune to criticism. The louder you screamed, the less he heard. I learned that very quickly.

But as we close the book on one of the league’s old-school guardians and one of their great contrarians, here’s the bottom line on Bidwill, for all of eternity:

No one else brought an NFL team to Arizona.

For that, we must be thankful.

“He was a very low-key, close-to-the-vest kind of guy,” Valley icon Jerry Colangelo said. “But he was a giving, caring person. And he was a major contributor to the Valley and the state of Arizona.”

Bidwill, who died Wednesday at the age of 88, is part of the NFL’s DNA. He’s the son of a founding father, Charles Bidwill, who purchased the Cardinals in 1932. He learned he was adopted in a court proceeding after his father had died.

A late hit by anyone’s standards.

He was a ballboy for the Chicago Cardinals, the football team favored by Al Capone and his boys, where fights in the stands often rivaled action on the field. His family moved the team to St. Louis, but he moved the team to Arizona, where he was quickly let down by those in closest proximity. By men who shook his hand and promised him a new stadium. By head coach Buddy Ryan, who famously abused his position and power.

Michael Bidwill is rightfully praised for changing the competitive culture in Arizona, atoning for the competitive sins of his father. But after much legwork and political investments, Michael has also been working off the fruits of a new stadium.

Who knows how history would’ve been altered had Bill Bidwill been given the stadium he was promised, liberated from spending Sundays in a college football stadium, where his ever-shrinking fan base fried on aluminum bleachers. Or how his civic pride and competitive mindset was skewed by promises that went broken upon arrival, something he would never do.

Until the end, Bidwill was hard to read. Immovable. A non-conformist. His NFL peers embraced him for his loyalty to collective interests, privately toasting his tolerance for 10-loss seasons. No matter what the outcome, he loved post-game ice cream at the Sugar Bowl in Old Town Scottsdale. He loved history and reading and reading about history.

On the record, he said nothing. Off the record, he loved telling old jokes. He’d stand on principle, especially when the principle seemed absurd.

My favorite story:

When Colangelo returned to Wrigley Field for the very first time with his fledgling baseball team, the Diamondbacks owner stayed at the Westin Hotel on Michigan Avenue. He ran into Bidwill, who was also in town on business.

Colangelo was stunned. He asked if Bidwill would like to attend a baseball game at Wrigley Field in the upcoming series. As his personal guest. To help commemorate their mutual homecoming.

“I’m a White Sox fan,” Bidwill sniffed, before walking away.

Colangelo understood the joke immediately.

“He had a sense of humor that people didn’t see very often,” Colangelo said.

The miserly lore of Bidwill’s tenure isn’t fully accurate or fully false. He inherited a football franchise that was purchased for $50,000, and over 75 years later, he was less than three minutes away from winning the Super Bowl. He raised a family that will be millionaires forever, raising them better than he did his football franchise. Nothing wrong with that.

By contrast, when Joe Robbie died in Miami, his Dolphins and his family imploded. That will not happen here, in the state where Bill Bidwill was recruited, rejected and ultimately vindicated. Exonerated by those that knew him best and loved him most.

May we all be so lucky.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Former Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill leaves a unique legacy