How New Orleans got an NFL Team, by Mike Detillier - Part 1

Mike Detillier writes on the story of how the City of New Orleans was able to land an NFL franchise.  Based on his personal conversations with Dave Dixon and Buddy Diliberto.
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How New Orleans Got an NFL Team… 

In 2003, then WWL Radio Sports Director, Buddy Diliberto, spoke to me about obtaining as much information as possible on how New Orleans got an NFL team.  Diliberto first covered the beginning of getting a professional football team in the newspaper business and then covered the New Orleans Saints on television and the radio.

We both went to a host of different sources to get the behind the scenes information for the book, but in early 2005 Diliberto passed away, and I put our information away.

In this nine-part series on "How New Orleans got an NFL Team," I will give you the information from a host of sources. Mainly the most vital piece to get the New Orleans Saints was Dave Dixon. Dixon worked behind the scenes to place a team in New Orleans, and later he became the Father of the Louisiana Superdome.

Part I

I asked Dave Dixon what was the motivating force for him to try and land a professional football team in New Orleans.

“Well, I will do it in a few short sections, and I can tell you the first thoughts to place a professional team in New Orleans came for me in 1949, “Dixon said. “It was the starting point because in late December of 1949 the President of Tulane, Dr. Rufus Harris and the other board members at the school, came to the conclusion that they would de-emphasize athletics at Tulane. At this time Tulane had won the Southeast Conference football championship three times (1934, 1939 and 1949). Three times in 11 peacetime years, that had some interruption due to World War II, but Tulane was an SEC champion in football. 

The Green Wave had been a national power, and now the top people in the academic world were saying that having a winning and successful sports department was not an asset to the school. This decision eventually led to Tulane leaving the Southeast Conference after the 1965 season.

The powers at Tulane lived in a privileged world and didn’t realize the impact of sports in our area and what it meant for community spirit. Not to mention the sports dollars it brought to the school, city, and the state. 

That day in December of 1949, they decided to eliminate degrees in physical education. I just knew from that moment even though I was a young man that it was going to be a sinkhole for Green Wave athletics. We have had some good times since athletically, but it has just been short moments in time, and Tulane has never fully recovered from that decision. I knew this was a football town, and people loved to follow and support high school and college football. That moment in time planted the roots for me to eventually get involved in landing New Orleans, a professional football team.” 

I asked Dixon about his thoughts on having the state build a domed stadium to play football and other events. 

“I was reading a newspaper article about the owner of the then-Brooklyn Dodgers Walter O’Malley wanting to build a domed stadium to replace old Ebbets Field on the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue,” Dixon said. “This was in the mid-1950s literally a decade before the Astrodome in Houston. My thought was we could build that here in New Orleans and have the greatest sports facility and concert stadium in the world. 

In 1950’s money, it would have cost O’Malley $6 million dollars to build in New York, but there were issues with getting the property and city officials wanted a stadium built elsewhere, and so O’Malley moved the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. It was the start of the boom to move professional baseball out west. But that was the origin of The Louisiana Superdome. It was not an original thought of mine to build a domed stadium, but it gave me a great blueprint.” 

Dixon spoke about the heightened efforts locally to try and obtain a professional football team that came in the late 1950s. 

“The big push to land a professional football team came in 1959 and a committee was formed, The Louisiana Professional Sports, Inc., a group to help land an NFL exhibition game at City Park Stadium and in 1960 that game between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers drew 16,500 folks. NFL preseason games were not drawing big crowds, even in NFL cities. So I formed a second group, New Orleans Football Club, Inc., and I wanted to bring to New Orleans a professional football team.

Back then, the mayor of New Orleans “Chep” Morrison was pushing hard to get a professional baseball team. But, I convinced him we had the stadium already (Tulane Stadium), and we had such a huge football fan base, and so after listening to me preach the gospel of football, he changed his mind. We had a great group of people willing to give up their time and efforts to bring pro sports to the city.

Just up the road from us, LSU football under Paul Dietzel in the late 1950s had thrown gasoline on the football fire in Louisiana. Dietzel had won a national championship in 1958, and Dietzel was building a juggernaut football program in Baton Rouge, with over 90% of players from Louisiana. I was happy for LSU, but as a Tulane guy, I thought about what could have been for Green Wave and how the people considered the “smartest men in the room”- sort of speak- shipwrecked that for the school in the late 1940s.” 

The Father of the Louisiana Superdome recalled a conversion he had with the new Commissioner of the NFL, Pete Rozelle, in the spring of 1960. 

“Pete (Rozelle) was a surprise pick by the owners, to be honest. In speaking to a few of the owners before the vote, none of them mentioned Pete Rozelle to me after the death of the former Commissioner Bert Bell. Pete was an honorable man and a visionary. He knew we were entering the television age of sports. Pro football was perfect for television. The NFL was an Eastern, Midwest, and California league. Nothing in the Deep South, but an expansion team had been placed in Dallas in 1960. He told me eventually the plans were to expand the league and put teams in the South. He mentioned New Orleans, Miami, Atlanta, and even Memphis, Tennessee. But he told me some of the owners themselves had trouble segregating their own teams and the segregation laws in the Deep South, as they existed in 1960. I knew we had competition, but we had a great stadium at that time (Tulane Stadium), a tremendous football fan base, and I was hoping to get some support behind a new stadium that would be the envy of the NFL. In a nutshell, those events led me to get full force behind getting a professional football team.”                

Getting a professional football team almost happened as fast as the idea to land one. Dave Dixon spoke about almost landing the Oakland Raiders franchise after the 1961 season, and he reflects on his pursuit of the AFL team. 

“I had a deal in place with the ownership group in Oakland to buy the Raiders for $236,000 at the end of 1961, “Dixon said. “Can you imagine buying a professional football team for $236,000?

We came to a tentative deal, but the main owner at that time, F. Wayne Valley, he told me he given his word to the AFL Commissioner (Joe Foss) to talk to him before he did anything with the team, but I had the deal in place to buy the Raiders.”               

Dixon gave some history on how Oakland got an AFL franchise for the 1960 season.

“Explaining the backdrop to the story is that Oakland got the AFL franchise after Minnesota pulled out of the new league. When the NFL saw that the AFL had got the franchise in Minnesota, the NFL came running in late and offered a team to Minnesota to join the NFL in 1961. The ownership group decided to go to the NFL instead.                

But Barron Hilton had made it clear to the other AFL owners that if there was not another team on the West Coast, he would not be part of the original AFL group. Hilton was initially given the franchise in Los Angeles. So the league put another team out west in Oakland, but it was chaotic at the top.”               

Dixon said the main owner of the Raiders, Chet Soda, stayed only one season as both owner and general manager.

“Chet (Soda) was the general partner and general manager of the Raiders in 1960. They had a group of 8 different secondary owners of the team back then. Many people think Al Davis owned the Raiders back then, but in 1960 Al Davis was an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Chargers. The Raiders had to move around from Kezar Stadium in San Francisco to Candlestick Park to close out the 1960 season. Soda resigned as general manager after Year #1, and a couple of weeks later, his share of the team was bought out by Valley, Ed McGah, and Robert Osbourne.

Wayne Valley became the point man in ownership, and the Raiders go (2-12) in 1961, and he wants out. They had lost over half a million dollars in 1960, and they were bleeding even more cash in 1961. They played their home games at Candlestick Park in 1961. Valley had to get a $400,000 loan from Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson just to stay afloat. He wanted out, and the politicians in Oakland were not helping him. So we met and cut a tentative deal, but Joe Foss (the Commissioner of the AFL) knew that if the Raiders left Oakland, the Chargers are leaving California also, and it could mean the fall of the new league. 

Behind the scenes, Foss met with the mayor in Oakland, and he got better community support, more financial assurances from the owners, and a handshake agreement that they would build the Raiders a new stadium. The Raiders played in a 22,000 seat capacity stadium in 1962 (Frank Youell Field). But it set up the construction of the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, and they felt that building the football stadium would also help land them a major league baseball team in the future. Sure enough, the owner of the Kansas City Athletics, Charlie Finley, moves the team to Oakland to play in the stadium in 1968.

It’s the long version to answer the question, but I did have a tentative deal in place for the move, and they would have played in Tulane Stadium, but Joe Foss and the Mayor of Oakland got involved, and they kept the Raiders in Oakland.” 

In the book “A Proud American-The Autobiography of Joe Foss,” Foss talked about Dave Dixon not only wooing the Raiders to move but also having serious discussions with Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers owner Barron Hilton. Dixon gave his thoughts on Foss’ comments about pursuing the Chargers.

“I had discussions with Barron (Hilton), but it was never serious talks, and we never talked money, “Dixon said. “I knew he was unhappy with his stadium deal. The Chargers played the 1960 season in the Coliseum in Los Angeles, and they were successful on the field, but they couldn’t compete for fan support with the Los Angeles Rams in town. So Barron moved the team to San Diego in 1961. They were playing in Balboa Stadium in San Diego in front of maybe a little over 20,000 at best back then. Hilton got great support from the local newspapers and politicians, and they eventually got a new stadium for the 1967 season. Jack Murphy, a terrific sports editor and writer in San Diego played a huge part in pushing that new stadium deal through. Like in Oakland, the thought of the San Diego politicians and businessmen were early on that if they built the stadium, they could also lure Major League Baseball to the city. It happened. In 1969 San Diego got one of the four expansion teams in baseball.

But what I can’t tell you is what Barron Hilton told Joe Foss. Maybe he indicated it to the Commissioner. He was seriously thinking about moving, but that would have only happened if Oakland left California. When his father, Conrad Hilton, decided to leave the hotel business, the board of directors asked him to succeed his father as president and chief executive officer of the Hilton Hotels Corporation, and he sold the team to Gene Klein in 1966. He sold the team for at that time a record price for a professional football team-$10 million dollars. In just a few years, that tentative deal to get the Raiders for $236,000 looked pretty good, right?”

Part 2 of Mike Detillier's series, "How New Orleans got an NFL Team" will be available on Sunday, June 28, 2020.