Today in Kansas City, about 220 miles down I-70 from where the Rams play their home games, Los Angeles tries to get back into the pro football business by participating in the NFL's version of "The Gong Show."
Stage right: Mark Ridley-Thomas and the New Coliseum Crusaders, singing the praises of a new and improved Coliseum while hoping no one in the room pays much attention to the part about the same old neighborhood.
Stage left: Michael Ovitz and his All-Time Laker All-Stars, parading around artists' sketches of the Carson Hacienda, which looks more like a Taco Bell on steroids than a football stadium, lacking only--although it could be coming next--a talking Chihuahua declaring its unrelenting love for 325-pound creatine-glutted offensive linemen.
And all the while, Houston is lurking in the wings with a stadium deal that is signed, sealed and all but delivered--in football terms, taking a 21-point lead over L.A. into the two-minute warning.
It didn't have to be this way.
It didn't have to come down to computer graphics and laser pointers and Shaquille O'Neal extolling the virtues of a sport he never played, informing the masses, "I have won at every level, except college and pro and the National Football League."
Once upon a time, Los Angeles had more professional football than it knew what do with, as the L.A. Express of the United States Football League kept telling itself while it went down for the count in 1985.
It has been host to seven professional football teams at one time or another--and two others that billed themselves as "Los Angeles," although neither ever played a game any farther west than Kansas City. In 1926, the Los Angeles Buccaneers of the National Football League and the Los Angeles Wildcats of the first American Football League played all their games on the road because at the time, USC exerted enough control over the Coliseum to keep any and all professional jackals out of it.
(Two "Los Angeles" pro football teams that never play in L.A. Old Ram and Raider fans can relate.)
Los Angeles also had its Chargers and its Dons, its Express and a Southern California Sun--nine teams total, over a span of 68 years. Most, however, had less hang time than a Pat Studstill punt. Four franchises either folded or moved after a single season. Three others failed to survive beyond a fourth season.
Only the Rams, who spent 49 seasons in Los Angeles and Anaheim, and the Raiders, who rented the Coliseum for 13 seasons, could ever lay down a five-year plan and see it through to fruition.
(Of course, in the case of Al Davis and the Raiders, the five-year plan was: Gut it out with the Coliseum Commission for five seasons, then revisit the never-ending task of scoping out a better deal.)
Pro football was rarely in it for the long haul in Los Angeles, but if not for a fit of impatience here, a chance meeting there, or a brain cramp around the corner, the Southland would still have pro football today--and no need to send competing entourages to Kansas City to play intramural tackle football on the carpet of some hotel conference hall.
Five twists of fate to ponder, guaranteed to keep NFL-deprived local football fans screaming well into the night:
What if . . .
1. The Rams had hired the other finalist, instead of George Allen, in 1978?
This is what the choice came down to when the Rams were scouting out a coaching successor to Chuck Knox in 1978:
George Allen, already fired once by the Rams in 1968, then rehired, then fired again in 1970.
Or Bill Walsh.
Walsh, then the coach at Stanford, interviewed twice with Ram owner Carroll Rosenbloom after being recommended by an old friend, Don Klosterman, then the Rams' general manager.
"When Chuck Knox left, Bill was my pick," Klosterman says, "Carroll was always a stickler about our offense. He'd say, 'God, our offense is so conservative.' We were winning, but he wanted a more wide-open offense. I told Carroll, 'Bill Walsh would be exactly what you'd like. He wins, he's smart, he's innovative.'
"So we had him come down and interview twice. The first time, we went out to Carroll's house in Malibu, on the beach, and we had a great meeting. Two weeks later, we had him come down to the desert, to Palm Springs. I thought it was a done deal. I thought Carroll liked him very much.
"And then somebody put a word in for George Allen--'He can beat the Cowboys.' "
At that point, those were magic words to Rosenbloom. In 1973 and '75, Knox took 12-2 Ram teams into the playoffs against Dallas, only to get waxed, 27-16 and 37-7.
Meanwhile, as coach of the Washington Redskins, Allen beat the Cowboys seven times from 1971 through 1976.
"Carroll Rosenbloom thought George Allen had the Cowboys' number," says Pat Haden, a quarterback with the Rams from 1976 to 1981. "He figured for us to get to the Super Bowl, we had to beat Dallas, so he hired George Allen."
Klosterman says he tried to talk Rosenbloom out of it.