'I lobbied as hard as I could for two or three days. I sold San Diego the way I used to sell used cars.'
--Eugene V. Klein in his autobiography
"First Down and a Billion: the Funny
Business of Pro Football"
It just may rank as the biggest come-from-behind, go-for-broke, trick-play victory in San Diego sports history.
The Chargers' 41-38 overtime victory over the Miami Dolphins at the Orange Bowl in 1981, with Kellen Winslow performing repeated death-defying acts?
The Padres' overtaking the Cubs in the 1984 playoffs, capped by Steve Garvey's home-run trot, fist thrust triumphantly in the air?
The Sockers' many championships?
These were all fine feats but, no, the biggest gut-buster of them all, bringing more money and more celebrity to our little patch of sunshine than all the rest combined, took place not on a playing field populated by strong and swift young men, but rather in a smoky hotel room in Washington, D.C., where the combatants were much older, richer, and, by many accounts, a good deal more cutthroat.
The date was May 24, 1984, the day when the owners of National Football League franchises met to decide who would reap the 1987 and 1988 versions of the biggest bonanza in the world of professional sweat: the Super Bowl.
Pasadena's Rose Bowl won the 1987 nod, and what then transpired was the longest and most-heated deliberation in NFL history, nearly three hours and seven ballots, with Miami and San Diego knotted 14-14.
"I couldn't convince a single owner to change his mind," former Chargers' owner Klein wrote in his book. "I had about as much chance of getting seven owners to change their minds as I did having (arch-enemy) Al Davis drop by the house for a barbecue."
When you can't complete a pass, you try a quarterback sneak, right?
After a break, and a tete-a-tete with Philadelphia Eagles owner Leonard Tose, Klein suggested dropping the 21-vote rule in favor of majority rule.
The result: a San Diego victory on the next secret ballot, 16-12.
Three years later, NFL owners still talk about that night--and Klein's persistence.
"Without Gene, San Diego would never have made it," said Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns. "We've never seen anything like it before or after. He was twisting arms and sweet-talking people all night. San Diego had never had a Super Bowl, and NFL owners are reluctant to do anything new or different when money is involved."
Klein, who knew that night that he planned soon to sell the Chargers, is now a successful horse breeder and upscale home developer in the San Dieguito River Valley.
Did What Had to be Done
He's upbeat about Super Bowl XXII, to be played Sunday in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, but still a bit tight-lipped about what was said and done to get the game here. Secrets leak out of an NFL owners' meeting about as frequently as from the College of Cardinals.
"Let's just say that what had to be done, was done," Klein said with a smile during a recent interview.
Planning for San Diego's assault on the Super Bowl had begun months earlier in a meeting called by since-deposed Mayor Roger Hedgecock. In attendance were longtime San Diego sports booster Leon Parma and Herb Klein, editor-in-chief of Copley Newspapers, which publishes the San Diego Union and the Tribune.
From that meeting came the committees, the contacts and the brochures that were the San Diego pitch. (Parma was later to bribe a bellboy $100 to make sure each NFL owner had the San Diego brochure on his pillow the night before the vote.)
"Committees are nice, presentations are nice, but that's not really going to sway the votes," Klein recalled. "I hustled the owners that were my friends, and tried to neutralize those who weren't. Over the years, I had done some favors for some owners, and I let those owners know that."
Something to Sell
Salesmanship, of course, is not new to Klein.
This is the man who donned a cowboy suit in the early 1950s and hawked cars on Los Angeles television as Cowboy Gene. He turned four used car lots in the San Fernando Valley into a billion-dollar conglomerate called National General Corp.
"Putting on a cowboy suit wasn't hard," Klein said. "Selling isn't hard if you have something good to sell which, in this case, I did."
On the opposing side was Joe Robbie, owner of the Miami Dolphins, who wanted Super Bowl XXII for his planned new stadium.
Aiding Robbie was Raiders' owner Al Davis, whose feud with Klein is legend and later resulted in a damage suit won by Klein over the issue of whether Klein's heart attack was caused by Davis pursuing a spurious lawsuit against him.
"Robbie wanted it for Miami, and Davis just wanted to screw me, so he was doing all he could," Klein said. "He went so far as to offer several owners lucrative pre-season games with the Raiders to win their votes. The league controls the league schedule, but each team controls its own pre-season."