Longtime football Cardinals owner Bidwill dies at 88

Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill (pictured in front of his son, Michael, in 2012) headed a family operation that dated to 1932.
AP

TEMPE, Ariz. — He owned one of the oldest franchises in professional football and rarely talked about it.

William V. “Bill” Bidwill would much rather tell stories about growing up in Chicago, his days in the Navy or the great restaurants in St. Louis than about the current state of his Arizona Cardinals, a franchise that struggled for decades before making a stunning run to the Super Bowl after the 2008 season.

Bidwill, who died Wednesday at age 88, was reviled by fans at times for what they perceived to be his penny-pinching ways. But privately he was an extremely charitable man, distributing money to many local causes, usually done quietly with no publicity. Charitable contributions also were made through the Cardinals Foundation, formed shortly after the franchise moved to Arizona in 1988.

“Our dad passed away today the same way he lived his life: peacefully, with grace, dignity and surrounded by family and loved ones,” Cardinals President Michael Bidwill said in a statement released by the franchise. “We are overwhelmed by the support our family has received, not only now but throughout the latest chapter of his life.”

Bill Bidwill ignored critics as the team went a half-century without a playoff victory before making it as a wild card team in 1998 and upsetting the Cowboys in Dallas.

The bowtie-wearing Bidwill headed a family operation that dated to 1932, when his father Charles purchased the Chicago Cardinals, reportedly for $50,000. The younger Bidwill was a ballboy for the 1947 team that won the franchise’s lone NFL championship.

Charles Bidwill did not live to see his team’s triumph, dying earlier that year. Bill Bidwill’s mother, Violet, ran the franchise after that, moving the Cardinals to St. Louis in 1960.

When his mother died in 1962, Bill and his brother, Charles “Stormy” Bidwill Jr., co-owned the team. Bill Bidwill took over sole ownership in 1972.

After a stadium dispute in St. Louis, Bidwill moved the Cardinals to Arizona with a handshake agreement that a stadium would be built here for the team. The Cardinals toiled for 18 seasons at Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Stadium, often in front of sparse crowds, before voters finally approved a bond measure that resulted in the construction of a state-of-the-art facility in the suburb of Glendale that opened in 2006 and has since hosted two Super Bowls.

The Cardinals sold out every home game after making University of Phoenix Stadium — now called State Farm Stadium — home.

On Wednesday, condolences poured in from across the country, including everyone from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to former Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner.

“Although never one to seek the spotlight, Bill had an incredible sense of humor and he made extraordinary contributions to the NFL,” Goodell said in a statement. “Bill’s vision brought the Cardinals, the NFL and multiple Super Bowls to Arizona.

“He was a leader in embracing diversity and employed the first African American female executive, and the first African American general manager and head coach tandem. We extend our condolences to Bill’s family and the Cardinals organization, which along with his faith, meant so much to him.”

The Cardinals had their most successful season in Arizona in 2008 when they made a surprising run to the Super Bowl, defeating Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia in the playoffs before falling to Pittsburgh 27-23 on a late Steelers touchdown.

Cardinals star receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who has been with the franchise 16 years, said he has many fond memories of the man often called “Mr. B.”

He referenced Bidwill’s charity interests, the Super Bowl run, informal lunches around the team facility and his commitment to diversity.

“Definitely before his time,” Fitzgerald said. “He was a forward-thinking person. He didn’t care about the color of your skin, your race or your gender. If he felt like you could do the job to the best of your ability to help us become better, then you were the right person for it.”

At the Super Bowl, Bidwill — always reluctant to do formal interviews — spent a few awkward minutes with reporters. He told them he never thought of selling the franchise through all the troubled years.

“It never crossed my mind,” he said. “I love the business, I’m accustomed to it. I don’t let it get to me if we have a bad game or a bad year. I just go back into it and try to get better.”

Asked how he celebrated his team’s NFC championship victory over the Eagles, his answer was pure Bidwill.

“I went home, finished up the morning’s coffee in the microwave, went to bed and got a good night’s sleep,” he said, “and woke up with a smile.”

Michael Bidwill was asked at the Super Bowl what people should know about his father.

“That he’s wanted to win all through those years, and that he’s a really great guy and he’s been a terrific boss and father,” he said.

Bidwill was born in Chicago on July 31, 1931, and told stories of working in the “cash room” of the racetrack owned by his father. He was particularly fond of a tale about how mobster Al Capone calmed an upset crowd at the track one day.

He attended Georgetown University before joining the Navy. He was discharged in 1956 and began working for the Cardinals.

Bidwill had long ago ceded day-to-day operation of the franchise to Michael.

He is survived by his five children, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.