"There could hardly be any argument that John Mecom Jr. is better off than most. He is young, handsome as a singing cowboy, owns more racing cars than the ordinary man owns neckties, has a lovely wife and family, a large home in Houston, a ranch on the Mexican border stocked with eland and other exotic creatures and he has his personal professional football team to play with. What would you give this man for Christmas—a hotel? Forget it, he's got a few.
One thing Mecom does not have is acceptance into the inner circle of National Football League club owners and executives. He is allowed to attend their meetings if he pleases, a privilege he earned by paying $8.5 million for a franchise that went into business last season in New Orleans. You may notice him standing in the lobby of the Gotham or the Waldorf in New York, chatting with Art Modell of Cleveland or Tex Schramm of Dallas. But they are probably talking business. Despite the success of the Saints at the gate—and their relative success on the field—Mecom is still treated like a new boy at a prep school.
It is not simply that Mecom is recently arrived in the game. For several years he was spoken of as a potential franchise holder. If the conflict with the AFL had continued and the NFL had ever decided to expand into Houston, Mecom would most likely have been selected as the representative to stand up against Bud Adams and the Oilers. That was when Mecom seemed to be highly favored in Pete Rozelle's court.
In those days Mecom, Bedford Wynne and George Owen were a threesome at NFL gatherings, where their hands could be seen grabbing checks, massaging shoulders, snapping lighters to others' cigarettes. Owen, once a partner with Wynne and Mickey Mantle in a Dallas nightclub, was a smooth and likable front man for Mecom. Wynne, an attorney and one of the original minority owners of the Dallas Cowboys, had the connections to open doors that would have remained closed had the only calling card been Mecom's financial statement. It may never be known how much money Mecom spent to buy a seat at the club-owners' table, but it was considerable, just as was Wynne's influence.
When Mecom finally was voted his franchise, he set up a committee to run the operation. The members of the committee were Mecom, Wynne and Larry Karl, former assistant general manager of the Cowboys. The committee did not last through the Saints' first training camp. Mecom began to complain about the bills that were flooding in, including such items as a $50,000 bonus to a punter, Tennessee's Ron Widby, who was cut and eventually picked up by Dallas, where he is now one of the best in the league. After a disagreement with Tom Fears, the coach, Wynne left the training camp and the Saints organization. A couple of months later Karl followed. To replace them, in came Bert Rose as general manager at Rozelle's request, according to Mecom. Rose had worked for Rozelle when the NFL commissioner was general manager of the Rams and had himself been the first general manager of the Minnesota Vikings.
Rose started looking for places to trim the New Orleans budget. He decided he could do without several employees, one of whom was George Owen, who was by then on the Saints' payroll as director of player relations. Mecom decided he would rather do without Rose. Rose was fired and has since moved to Philadelphia, which has become pro football's Siberia.
Former Chief Scout Vic Schwenk, who does not get along especially well with Fears, replaced Rose last March. One problem he has had to deal with was the trade Mecom made for Dave Parks, a fine receiver who had played out his option at San Francisco. When the Saints and 49ers could not agree on proper remuneration for Parks, the matter was turned over to Rozelle. The commissioner ordered New Orleans to give up top 1968 draft choice Kevin Hardy plus the No. 1 draft choice for 1969. There were screams that Rozelle was punishing Mecom for the treatment of Wynne, Rose and Karl. However, a player of Parks's quality is worth quite a price, and the Saints paid it.
Mecom's punishment has been more in the nature of exclusion, sometimes subtle, sometimes not. One NFL owner had been particularly chummy with Owen and Mecom. Suddenly he stopped calling. "When we played them, I saw him on the field before the game and asked what was wrong," Owen says. "He turned around and said, 'George, from now on our relationship is strictly business.' The only owner who invited us out to dinner this year was Bill Ford at Detroit."
Although he would prefer to be liked by the NFL's inner circle, Mecom no doubt will be able to struggle through life somehow and keep having fun. He has built excellent practice quarters for his Saints out near the New Orleans airport. The executive offices are downtown at Lee Circle in a three-story brown building with two floors of black iron-lace balconies. The building is next door to another building, which is covered with ivy except for the doors, windows-and turrets. A sign in front of that building says: U.S. OIL OF LOUISIANA, INC. That is another Mecom company, and the two buildings are connected by passageways.
Like Ford, his recent dinner companion, who has installed a direct wire from the owner's box to the bench, Mecom enjoys staying close to the game, sometimes so close that Fears finds himself giving instructions to his owner instead of his quarterback. Mecom, who has lost 40 pounds through hypnosis—a state that he can induce himself by snapping his fingers—works out with his players and is occasionally mistaken for one. When several football players were summoned last summer to test the synthetic grass in Houston's Astrodome for publicity purposes, it was Mecom who ran out for a few passes and pronounced the surface suitable. He has the role of third-string quarterback in the new Charlton Heston movie, The Pro.
Fears cannot be expected to shiver with delight over watching the owner romp around with the players, but, of course, he keeps fairly quiet about it. He has enough difficulties trying to turn an expansion team into a contender. The team has a good record, considering its newness, winning three games last season and winning three and tying one so far this year. Lately, Fears has had to work without a healthy quarterback, other than the No. 3 man, rookie Ronnie South.
Last year the Saints seemed reasonably set at quarterback with Gary Cuozzo, Bill Kilmer and Gary Wood. But Cuozzo demanded that he be given the starting job or be traded (he was traded). Wood was shipped back to New York. Now Kilmer is playing on a fractured ankle, and his sub, Karl Sweetan, has a sprained ankle. Both have understandable trouble throwing the ball to Parks and the Saints' other outstanding receiver, Dan Abramowicz.
Abramowicz has been a stunning surprise. A 17th-round draft choice for the 1967 season, he was not expected to make the team. Before one preseason road trip he asked Owen at what hour the plane would leave. "You'll probably be cut before then," Owen said bluntly. "So what will happen if you cut me and I won't go away?" countered Abramowicz. He wound up leading the team with 50 receptions and is leading again this year with 44. "He catches the ball on his knees, behind his back, anyplace," Kilmer says. The offense is also helped by Fullback Don McCall, who has gained 530 yards.
The New Orleans defensive unit insists its 38-year-old left end, Doug Atkins, now out with a knee injury, should be All-League. Safetyman Dave Whitsell, like Atkins a veteran of the Chicago Bears, tied for the NFL lead in interceptions last year and has five so far this season.
But where the Saints have most impressed the NFL has been at the ticket windows. In their first season the Saints drew an average of more than 75,000 fans to Tulane Stadium, site of the Sugar Bowl. That average is holding up again this year, even though it has rained on four of the six home-game days. And what exuberant fans they are Last year's Dallas game was delayed more than 10 minutes because of the noise the crowd made demonstrating against an official's call.
"It sounded like we were inside a washing machine," says Dallas' Pete Gent. Against Chicago last week, with Mecom pacing the sideline and Owen marching about with a clipboard, looking more like a coach than some of the coaches, 78,225 people turned out despite early rain and late fog to watch the Saints lose.
But football is not the only reason the fans show up. During his brief stay in office Rose hired Tommy Walker from Disneyland to think up the half-time shows. Walker, who produced the first Super "Bowl's $40,000 halftime spectacular, once had a figure of Mary Poppins float into the stands and dump free tickets. He is very big on balloons and pigeons. "I feel this need to have a lot of pigeons," Walker says. "A lady came up to me the other day and wanted to know how I get all those pigeons back into their cages on Sunday night."
Walker should have told her not to worry. The boss can afford a new flock every week. What he really needs is more football players.