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Original Issue


Calling anew for a merger with the NFL, Joe Foss retires as AFL commissioner. He forecasts destructive fighting unless the pro leagues curb their 'avarice' and temper the frantic pursuit of college talent

With the resignation of Joe Foss and the hiring of Al Davis to replace him as commissioner, the American Football League last week moved into a new era—one that Foss himself calls Phase Two. Although it was his own decision to quit the $50,000 job with nearly two years still to go on his contract, Foss feels that he was—in a way—a victim of success. "I predicted that when the league got into the black my position would change," Foss said, puffing on a cigar in a Dallas hotel room (right) the day after he had read his letter of farewell to AFL owners in Houston. "The league has come to the stage where problems are fewer and the owners have more time to get into mischief. I have never been a dancing bear for the owners, and never could be. This is the time for me to leave."

Phase One for the AFL began at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles in 1959 when the league's founders, Lamar Hunt, Bud Adams, Barron Hilton, Harry Wismer, Bob Howsam, Max Winter and H. P. Skoglund, approached Foss about becoming their commissioner.

"I worked the first six weeks for nothing," Foss said, "because the league had no money. I started traveling around the country. Some of the owners criticized me for not spending enough time in league cities, but I realized that people in the small towns had television sets and we had to have ratings or we could get no sponsors and no big television contracts. I appeared at conventions, anywhere they'd listen to me. Eventually we succeeded, but it was a miracle we ever made it."

Phase One, then, was the pioneering phase. The beginning of the end of Phase One was the signing of a five-year $43 million contract with NBC-TV. Foss nearly quit as commissioner a year ago, when the contract went into effect. The direction of Phase Two is as yet uncertain. But the exchange of Foss—war hero, sportsman, former governor of South Dakota—for Al Davis, a 36-year-old Brooklynite, a fast talker and slick dealer who rose from assistant coach at San Diego to head coach and general manager at Oakland, indicates that Phase Two will be warfare with the National Football League on the basis of slap for slap. Foss does not like intrigue; Davis is a master at it. Foss was made to look silly several times by owners bumbling around behind his back with secret drafts. If there are any more secret drafts—which is very likely—Davis will be in on them. Probably the AFL will copy the NFL tactic of using baby-sitters to hide high draft choices until they can be signed. The prospect is for warfare that will be destructive for both leagues.

"I'm alarmed about this," Foss said. "I'd like to plead with the owners in both leagues not to follow this crazy route of the big bonuses. The avarice of owners, coaches and players is amazing. They're shooting the whole industry out of the sky. The veterans are upset, and should be. Not merging the leagues is knocking the bottom out of the barrel. It is creating problems, hurting the image of the game and causing some people to use methods that are not right.

"I happen to know that in the last 30 days the NFL had a meeting of 100 new scouts to tell them about a program under way right now for signing college boys for the coming season. One of the NFL scouts made the mistake of writing down the instructions, and I saw them. They intend to sign the kids to open, undated contracts that allow them to play pretty much where they choose, as long as it's in the NFL. 'Get next to the boys right now' is the policy. The AFL, I'm sure, is going to combat that plan with one of its own. The NFL is going to wind up being sorry this ever started.

"Last year the NFL spent $300,000 on baby-sitters. This year the figure will be more than $350,000. A merger is the only way to solve these crazy actions. We should take a page from baseball and have one commissioner and two league presidents. Merging, I think, will be Phase Three."

According to Foss, previous rumors that a merger was close had not the slightest element of truth.

"The closest we ever came was a few owners in one league talking to a few owners in the other," he said. "There is no faction in our league that is opposed to a merger, but there is a strong faction against it in the NFL. They feel: Why should they give us additional publicity? They're doing well enough as it is. Pete Rozelle feels that way. He's never made a secret of it. Pete is a fine chap and we've talked over our mutual problems, but he doesn't want to get near us. Of the 15 NFL owners, I would say six or seven want to merge."

The lack of a merger, however, is not what has aroused criticism of Foss. At various times—especially in the past year—Foss has been blamed for the AFL's loss of Atlanta to the NFL, for never being in his New York office, for traveling too much, for going hunting in Africa for a TV series called The American Sportsman (on his right wrist Foss wears a bracelet made from the tail hair of an elephant he shot) and several other supposed sins. During that same period he has ceased to be credited with swinging the NBC-TV deal that assured the AFL of survival. Some reports now say that Sonny Werblin, owner of the New York Jets, did the television negotiating—which sounds logical, since Werblin, as former president of the talent agency, MCA, would certainly have had the knowledge and contacts to do so.

"The truth is," said Foss, "that I negotiated that contract myself, all alone. Sonny wasn't there. I talked to NBC, and they gave me a figure that our people were willing to accept. Our people told me not to push it. I knew my head was on the line, but I pushed the figure forward by $6 million. At the negotiations I didn't take Billy Sullivan [then president of the Boston Patriots and of the league] or even a lawyer. Some of our people said we ought to do it by committee, but I know you can't negotiate by committee. I wouldn't have gone to the meeting with NBC if I hadn't gone alone.

"The complaints about me going to Africa are ridiculous. I was there 26 days two years ago on my vacation, and we shot all the films in that time. The films have been running for two years.

"The Atlanta deal was something else again. A year before we ever granted a franchise to Atlanta, I proposed expanding to Atlanta and Miami, but I couldn't get enough support from the owners. On my own I went to Atlanta and met with the mayor and Leonard Reinsch [president of Cox Broadcasting Corp.]. We had many more meetings and phone calls, but I was trying to do it quietly. Finally our executive committee met with Reinsch. The mistake was that Reinsch didn't come with the stadium lease in his hand. I asked him how soon he could get the lease, and he said 48 hours. Meanwhile Arthur Montgomery [chairman of the Atlanta Stadium Authority] or someone called Pete Rozelle and said to get down there at once. So the NFL got the stadium and the franchise. Who dropped the bag? It wasn't Joe Foss."

Foss had some notable battles with every owner in the AFL—which was to be expected. "But they didn't stay mad at me long," he said. "We had our fights in the meeting room and left with a united front. I have fined owners and coaches but never made it public. If I was a puppet commissioner, I'd like to hire a puppet like that. Some owners became irritated because I would never be frightened or directed. I wouldn't call the owners and report to them all the time just to gain Brownie points. If I went to a congressional committee I might write a note to the league about it and I might not. I guess I could have done a lot better job as commissioner as far as the owners and public are now concerned if I had stayed in my office and done public relations work. But that is not in my nature."

The idea of Foss being frightened by anything Bud Adams, Sonny Werblin or Sid Gillman might say about him appears laughable. At 51, Foss did 150 push-ups one day last week in a 25-minute exercise session that included a one-mile run in place. In 1943 he won the Congressional Medal of Honor for shooting down 26 Japanese planes in four months.

"I never have been one to worry about myself," said Foss. "I chuckle about guys who didn't know me in the old days. They have the wrong idea of what sort of character I am. I laugh at the coaches, too. 'Joe,' they say—unless they're mad at me and call me Commissioner—'we don't want the lousy press corps in our locker rooms right after a game. We want a cooling-off period.' Well, I coached guys for life and death, not for some lousy score on a big electric board. We were under pressure on Guadalcanal, but as soon as we hit the ground the press was there and we talked without cooling off."

Although Foss and Werblin are friends—it was at a birthday party given by Werblin for Foss in 1961 that Foss broke up a near fight between Werblin and Harry Wismer—Foss was angry about Werblin's comments on moving franchises last fall. "We had always kept that kind of stuff to ourselves," said Foss, "and here was Sonny saying Denver should move, and things like that. It was his statements that made me tell the owners in January to shut up or be fined $25,000. Bud Adams was absolutely furious at me for three days after I voided the trade of Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison to Houston. But he got over it. People tell me Ralph Wilson was after my hide, but I consider us friends. A commissioner is the bird who has to do the job and be his own man and take charge. That's what I hope Al Davis does. He's young and vigorous and full of ideas, but he'd better take charge right from the start.

"It's time for me to take a rougher and bigger job," Foss said. "I was getting tired of looking at placid waters. Now that the league is prospering, I'm ready to move on. My mission is accomplished."