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THIS MAN FIRED FLIPPER

Dec. 15, 1969
Dec. 15, 1969

Table of Contents
Dec. 15, 1969

Texas-Arkansas
Show Biz
Howls So Jolly
College Basketball
Pro Football
Fishing
Skiing
Joe Robbie
  • He is Joe Robbie, a Lebanese lawyer out of South Dakota and the owner of the Miami Dolphins, who likes to play touch football with his kids but can't figure out why he isn't loved. Of course, he thought the world's most adorable mascot was an extravagance

19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

THIS MAN FIRED FLIPPER

He is Joe Robbie, a Lebanese lawyer out of South Dakota and the owner of the Miami Dolphins, who likes to play touch football with his kids but can't figure out why he isn't loved. Of course, he thought the world's most adorable mascot was an extravagance

Joe Robbie is an owner in pro football, which means he should have a III or a IV after his name and emit a fragrance of old, old money or, considering the decline of everything these days, some new, new money with the smudge of heavy industry or the stain of oil on it. For the privileges of a franchise, primarily the one of making more money, the owner is expected to avoid publicity and sign the checks promptly. He can, though, sit on the bench in his well-tailored suit, practice expressions of emotion, and one day even make a banal contribution to a title celebration on television. But none of this is Joe Robbie, which is one of the reasons why not many can understand how Joe Robbie became and remains an owner in pro football.

This is an article from the Dec. 15, 1969 issue Original Layout

To those who appraise style with a jeweler's eye, Joe just isn't right, especially not for Miami, the capital of the smooth facade He looks like the business agent for a labor union, wears electric-green anklets, and his grip on a cocktail glass is that of a longshoreman holding a schooner of beer. Is this image the real one? Is there a darker side—or a lighter one? In any event, how can an unheeled prairie lawyer control the Miami Dolphins? Nobody really knows, except the people he used and Joe Robbie himself. But indisputably, he is a preeminent figure among the many odd, secret harvesters of wealth in Miami and easily one of the most provocative names in all of football.

"Everybody knows Joe Robbie," says Raleigh Tozer. "You walk down Biscayne Boulevard in front of the Everglades Hotel and eight out of 10 people will say, if asked, 'Joe Robbie? Why, he's that son of a something on the 11th floor of that building.' "

"You hate him?"

"No, I don't hate him," says Tozer, who after starting the Dolphin radio network was eliminated by Robbie. "If I hated him, I could have had him killed. I declined. I'll take care of him myself. Without a gun. He'll break one day. Every time I see him, I say, 'Hello, Joe, you son of a something, how are you?' "

Insinuation of blood line aside, the comic truth or trouble is that everyone knows or thinks he knows Joe Robbie. He is, the pitch goes, odd, secret and reprehensible. He is odd, to some, because he doesn't have a middle initial, hardly ever signs checks promptly, if at all, and not being a wasteful man, would never allow himself to be drenched with champagne; he would, it is felt, drink it and then sell the bottles as souvenirs. Joe Robbie is already celebrated as the man who fired Flipper, the movie star dolphin who used to cavort in a tank in the end zone. Robbie got rid of Flipper because the city of Miami and the Seaquarium refused to pay for tank repairs and the cost of transporting the animal to and from the Orange Bowl. Robbie is secret because he is Lebanese, a fact that conjures up intrigue to a citizenry that is conditioned to a Meyer Lansky and the town's nest of international safe crackers. He's reprehensible because...well, he's just reprehensible.

Joe Robbie, it is clear, doesn't light up any rooms with his presence, but he is a singular entity as an owner. In many ways he is almost a period piece, not unlike (on a limited scale) the Morgans and the Rockefellers and other despotic emperors of commerce, now deified as philanthropists. He certainly has their tunnel vision, their touch at the wheel and deal and their insensitivity to intimidation, all of which prompts even his detractors to suggest that he may be without peer in the cobweb corner of sports finance. He is, they say, a shrewd manipulator of men and money, tough as a wharf rat and as charming as a rent collector.

Estimates of the fortune he has made out of Miami football confuse Robbie. "Pure nonsense," he says. If he sold, he says, three or four million would satisfy him. But, really, he adds, "I'm not truly interested in the money." The inflection, the Lyndon Johnson sincerity, carries the right touch for one who qualifies as the poorest man to obtain a sports franchise in the last 20 years; contrary to rumors, he wasn't out in front of a Kuwait oil combine or a Persian rug monopoly. He was, too, unique in other ways. From far off in Minnesota, he was leading a Lebanese consortium, composed of Actor Danny Thomas and Entrepreneur George Hamid, in an assault to the jugular of suspicious Southerners and sniffing sophisticates. Besides, whoever heard of an Arab running anything in Miami? Thomas and Hamid soon found an exit, but not Robbie. He had found an arena (a graveyard for pro football, many thought) worthy of his broken field agility.

Pro football, especially with a new league and expansion, had changed. To some extent it was similar to its early days, that time of the scramble and the gamble. It was, of course, no longer as crude, but the door was flung open for careful plundering. All during the '50s and '60s football was that great bauble that hung up there in finance, just ripe for picking. It offered rich lodes of television revenue and great liquidity: there were no charge accounts and, even better, those who wanted to be assured of a seat paid for the privilege well in advance. One owner, a very prosperous oilman, described a franchise as the surest kind of gamble. With intricate tax escapes and the growing power of the collateral itself, few owners would have to tap resources. A franchise quickly became a property one bought with paper, and it helped if one was an artisan inside the banks.

Like Segovia working a complex arrangement, Joe Robbie is flawless playing the banks. At football games he grandly introduces his lineup of bankers to the press as if he were unveiling new draft choices. "What the hell is this?" somebody asks. "A bankers' convention or the Orange Bowl?" "No," says Joe, "they've just come to inspect the collateral." Yes, says a Chicago banker, "and I must say it is the most interesting collateral I've ever been associated with." Fine, but despite the clubroom atmosphere bankers are not dolts, or terribly impressionable. Ultimately, just what did Joe Robbie have to offer, besides nimbleness and brass?

Not many have fully grasped Robbie's structure of power or understood how he acquired such a mailed fist, remembering that the fist was always unclenched and (palm up) extended. It seems that the touchstone of his power is the general partnership agreement, out of which he was given (he drew it up himself) a magic document. Although he says he had a capital investment of only $100,000 in the club, the paper gave him the authority to control the Dolphins for 20 years. Why would his partners consent to such an arrangement?

The general partnership suited the original investors, mainly because it allowed them to take personal advantage of player depreciation (a very handsome tax write-off), which would not have been possible in a corporate structure. At the same time, though, it was dangerous. Every general partner was exposed to personal liability for the partnerships debts or obligations. The investors, none of whom had any zealous interest in football, emotional or otherwise, perused the danger zone and then seemingly leaped for the door, which Joe gladly opened. Why, yes, certainly, by all means, he would become the sole general partner and be responsible for all Dolphin obligations. Clearly, he had secured a position of strength. He alone could pledge the franchise as collateral, a fact that gave swing to his moves and the power he would eventually need.

A lawyer with 11 children who, it is said, never made more than $27,000 in one year in his entire career. Robbie quickly became more than just a curiosity. He became an obsession and anathema in Miami. He not only did not have the proper credentials, he did not have any money, either. He survived only on constantly revolving credit and that magic piece of paper which acquired the credit. "I'm where I am now," says Robbie, "for one reason. That's because nobody wants to put their own money up. They want something for nothing. They don't want to take any risks. That's why I have the club. I took the risk."

Jocular at first, criticism of the club and Robbie soon grew into intramural war in Miami (a conspiracy, says Joe) in which Robbie is cast as a robber baron and his operation as the cheapest in sports history. Didn't he fire the couple who catered for the press because the bill came to $110 (food included) a game? Writers covering the Dolphins now eat hot dogs.

Danny Thomas, for one, does not agree with that picture of Robbie. "Robbie," he says, "is a great guy in my book, rough and tough. Joe put the club together. He was the finder and came to me. We made a deal and went in. I got out a couple of years ago. Did I get hurt? Did I lose money? You must be kidding. Did you ever hear of a Lebanese losing money? I don't lose money. I only make money. I trust Robbie implicitly. Sure, he has a habit of saying things, but then he makes them happen."

It is impossible to know what promises Robbie made to John O'Neil (who has $500,000 worth of stock in the club) or what he said to him, but O'Neil is not even allowed near the Dolphin office, nor is he invited on road trips or to the owners' box. The reason, according to Robbie, is because O'Neil is subversive to the Dolphin organization. Once underground, the conflict between the two now is flaming in public. O'Neil, an original investor and the only one from Miami, recently aimed a civil suit at Robbie charging mismanagement of funds, using club funds for his personal use, raising his salary in violation of the partnership agreement and numerous other practices. He hopes to force an accounting in court. If the suit reaches court, it could be quite explosive. It could expose Joe Robbie as a hustler of considerable dimension or reveal him as an unjustly maligned man. Whatever, it will surely scar the Dolphins, a team already bent by a sad, comic and absurd four-year history, in which they have won 14 of 55 games.

Thomas and Robbie brought their operation to Miami in 1965, having obtained the franchise on Thomas' name and affluence and Joe's clout, the base of which is rooted in politics. Robbie is a good friend of Hubert Humphrey and former AFL Commissioner Joe Foss, who granted Robbie the franchise just before leaving office. Full of enthusiasm and verbal sock, Thomas and Robbie announced sponsorship of the franchise at the Palm Bay Club. "Doesn't every Lebanese boy who grew up in Toledo want to own a professional team?" said Thomas. Two years later Thomas was gone. "I never went into football to make money, only to have fun," he says. "I had all my fun on the first play the Dolphins ever ran. It was the opening kick-off, and I ran 50 yards for a score. Imagine, no other owner ever ran for a touchdown. This kid Joe Auer took it back 95 yards. I'm on the bench and I pick him up on the 45, me and my cigar. Yelling, I go the rest of the way. I fall flat on my face, right in the end zone. What an opening!" Why did he give up so much fun? He simply says that Robbie bought him out.

Long before Thomas' departure, however, the franchise had a feel of confusion and comedy that triggered cynicism and suspicion. (Bud Adams, the president of the Houston Oilers, once described Robbie as "running a $2 million a year business like a fruit stand.") From the start it lacked style. Robbie opened up a two-room office in the DuPont Plaza and filled it with telephones and a girl to pick them up and listen to people who, rather than requesting tickets, were looking for jobs; the head coach position was most popular. One applicant was a hotel clerk who was certain he had a gift for organization. Another was a Pittsburgh trash collector. An itinerant evangelist even applied, convinced that he, being pure of heart, could never lose. The girl, small wonder, did not hire any of them, and Robbie eventually named George Wilson as his coach. Next, a training camp was chosen. The place would be St. Petersburg, and what happened there could be the germ of a whacky musical.

Desperate to save money, the Dolphins accepted an offer from Suncoast Sports, Inc., in which Suncoast would underwrite $70,000 in expenses. Chuck Burr, then the Dolphins' business manager, and Robbie were elated. The only trouble was that Suncoast suddenly did not exist; its only representative was a man named John Burroughs. From this point on it was all downhill. The practice field was a thin layer of sod over seashells, and soon it was only seashells; visitors still remember the wailing of the injured. Gallantly, Burroughs tried to roll the field, but the improvement was hardly noticeable. It was enough, though, to prompt George Wilson to try to appease Burroughs and hopefully keep him at the roller. Burroughs had a son who was a linebacker candidate. Wilson kept the kid around so long it was embarrassing. When he finally cut him, the old man and his roller disappeared.

The field was just part of the bleakness at St. Petersburg. The players had to use their hotel rooms as dressing areas and, two to a room, slept with jockstraps, shirts and damp pads hanging near their noses. The food was equally demoralizing: the hotel served so much Chinese food that Linebacker Wahoo McDaniel threatened that "from now on they'll have to carry me to practice in a rickshaw." Even George Wilson was having problems. When he cut a player, he had to reach into his own pocket and pay the player's air fare home; being from California was a definite advantage. Wilson soon refrained from cutting, and expenses rocketed. Creditors were in line, and the trials of the Dolphins were spread over the sports pages. Finally, Robbie, an absentee owner in Minnesota, where he said he had been marooned on account of an airline strike, arrived, snorting smoke. Eventually, Chuck Burr would take the fall; his lawsuit is now just one of many in Robbie's desk drawer.

"When I was fired," says Burr, "it was the culmination of a situation that began the day I got there. My contract said I was to be a senior executive. Well, I had the responsibility, but not the authority. I couldn't make the decisions. They all were made by Robbie while he was in Minnesota and we were on the scene in Miami. We never had any money. I couldn't even write a check for a pencil sharpener. Even the paychecks were made out in Minneapolis. It was so bad that at one stage I had to dip into my own bank account to put the club on the road. I had to come up with about $11,000 for the players. Others connected with the club put up their money at times, too. I was in charge of business operations, but there was no money to run the business."

Nothing, according to Joe Robbie's opposition, has changed much since those days in St. Petersburg. The players do not like their inferior seating on plane trips, on which stockholders and others receive the best seats; once, Robbie ordered a curtain hung between the players in back and he and his pals up front. Recently, the players literally mooed like cattle as they filed toward the plane. Joe Thomas, director of player personnel, is not happy, either. "He's disgusted and he's said so," says one Miami writer. "He's only getting $8 per diem, excluding hotel, to do his job, which in big part consists of entertaining coaches and contacts. Few clubs go beneath a $100,000 scouting budget, but Joe's was only $42,000 last year. Then he gets a memo from Robbie saying he had a lousy draft in 1969." Recently, there was another memo. Henceforth, Robbie wrote, all exchanges used by coaches on outgoing calls must be recorded and turned in for feasibility study.

Robbie's response to critical charges, on the sports pages or elsewhere, is unfailing. "That's actionable," he usually says. Then, shaking his head, he expresses bewilderment over what he calls a "morbid preoccupation with the club's finances." He is also not fond of the attention given to his behavior in his own offices or his handling of employees. He has had lour business managers, it is often noted, and has tired numerous secretaries, some of whom he suspected were leaking information to O'Neil's underground resistance movement. Often, his office conduct is used to illustrate his tyranny, but much of it is petty and irrelevant. Yet, the question persists: How is it that an owner, responsible for millions, is the target of such small-beer complaints and rumors? It suggests that Robbie has exposed himself too much on one flank.

"When I was there," says Marsha Bierman, the valuable assistant to the coaches who was fired by Robbie, "he even had his nose in the paper clips. For a big man he's very small. Nobody thinks much of him, especially those like lawyers and partners who are no longer under his hand."

Robbie dismisses such prattle, but he says he does not take self-preservation lightly. He is, to say the least, a master at preserving himself. One of his former partners, Bud Keland, would agree with that. Keland, whom Robbie got to buy Danny Thomas out when Danny tired of running kickoffs back, assumed that he was buying total control of the Dolphins, and that, especially in a deal with Robbie, was his first mistake. "When we bought out Thomas," says Keland, "Joe didn't come up with the money to buy his half, so I figured I was in control. But it didn't work out that way, and then, when Joe wanted to do some refinancing, he needed me to do it. I said, 'Look, you haven't done your part in this thing." That's when we decided to let Rozelle handle the matter."

Keland remains mute about what happened in the meeting with Commissioner Pete Rozelle, but this much is certain: Keland, who was the majority stockholder, was eliminated from the scene. "I bear Joe no ill will," says Keland. "He's all right. I learned a lesson from him. If you're going to run with sharp operators, you've got to be smart. He came up with a group of five from Miami to buy me out, and I guess he's got them doing the same thing for him, supplying the money so he can run the club. When I was there, that club and office were run like a bunch of school kids."

Quite abrasive in his relations with the press and others, Robbie appears to be learning how to use the knife more deftly against his critics. For example, this article he wrote in the Dolphin program in which he plays a journalist covering the newspapers:

The first thing I did was call Ed Pope, sports editor of the Herald, and tell him I was covering the newspapers.

"Strange," said Ed, "nobody has ever done that before."

"It's long overdue," I agreed. "How is the public to know whether you people are doing an accurate job or not if no one watches over you?"

"Well, exactly what is it you want to know?"

I consulted my notes. "First thing, can you please tell me your total budget, your salary and the salary of every writer on your staff?"

"I'm sorry...."

"Also the salaries of your rim men, correspondents and copy boys?"

"...We consider that confidential."

"But it's of great interest to the public. I'm checking out rumors that Miami sportswriters' pay is the lowest in the league, next to Denver."

"We don't give out that information."

"But," I argued, "pay has a direct bearing on product. Can you at least tell me how much expense money you give your photographers when they cover Dolphin games out of town?"

"We don't send photographers on Dolphin road trips."

"Oh," I said. "Cheapskates," I wrote in my notebook. "Let's get off finances," I suggested. "Can you tell me why last Sunday you elected to run an eight-column 72-point italic head on your strip story instead of a 72-point Bodoni italic?"

"Well..." he faltered.

"O.K.," I cut him short. On my notes, I jotted, "indecisive. Tends to shunt responsibility on others."

[At another paper a reporter tells Robbie he should speak to his editor.]

"Oh, I don't need to talk to him. I already have a sensational item about him. I got it from a cab driver who knows a 7-11 clerk who knows the relief bartender at the Press Club. Scandalous item. Absolutely delicious."

"And you're going to print it without checking it out?" he asked.

"Oh, no," I said. "I don't print that sort of thing. I've hired a lady columnist who lives in Bakersfield, Calif. She'll print it. That way nobody will ever know it came from me."

I would have liked to talk longer, but I had to cut it short. I had a deadline for my first article. It's very complimentary, actually. It's entitled: Expansion City Sportswriters Getting Better—But Still Have Room to Improve.

"The whole thing is this," says Robbie, sitting at his desk, a view of Biscayne Bay out the window. "I brought pro football here when nobody else would get near the place. I protected football in this community. But the club and I have been under constant pressure since the day we got here. I didn't have to come down here to have people try to prove I'm a cheapskate. It's been personally offensive to me. It's against my nature, against my family's nature, not to give...give the shirt off your back if somebody needs it. I've been brought up this way. There's no charge that I'm more sensitive to than that.

"I've been on the board of governors at St. Jude Hospital for 10 years. I've traveled every place they wanted me to, even on a monthly basis, at my own expense. I've always been involved in charities. For nothing. That's the kind of lawyer I was, too. The people I represented I represented without fee most of the time. These pack rats that are trying to gnaw on my bones! No man ever left my office unrepresented who came in and said he had no money. The St. Petersburg training camp was unfortunate, but it would never have happened had I been on the scene. The incident there has been the cause of all my trouble. As soon as I got to St. Petersburg I got the club out of there. The other reasons for our image here have been disloyal employees and John O'Neil. O'Neil disagreed with some of my decisions, and he's been trying to wreck the club ever since. The reporters won't even listen to him anymore because he gives out so much misinformation. I had to lire him as community-relations director.

"We've had to live by our wits here in Miami. I think some people have thought that if they could damage or destroy our financial structure they could move in and take over. I've been a target because some people resent the fact that I have control of this ball club and have had the legal control of it from the first day. I've been vulnerable because I was not operating from a strong financial position. Now let me say this. There is not an investor who has ever put one red copper cent into the operations of this club. Every cent that has ever been paid in by an investor has been used to pay the franchise debt to the AFL, and a $100,000 annual payment debt to be made to the NFL. Every bit of operating money has been obtained from income or from banking arrangements I make. I'm the only one personally liable in this place.

"I'll say this. I've had people in politics dislike me thoroughly, but nobody ever questioned my integrity. Nobody's ever suggested that I don't pay my bills. But...I find it amazing down here. The owner of a sports enterprise is not ordinarily so public a figure. Once people sympathized with the guy who could climb up the ladder, the Horatio Alger thing, you know. But I think this affluent society where lots of people have lots of money, they resent a working still" making it. That kind of thinking exists particularly in the glamorous area of professional sports, which always has been a rich man's plaything in the past. They're big business now, and there's going to be more and more of my kind one day. Nobody, I'll say this, will run me out of this town. I know how to light. I come from a town called Hard Times."

Joe Robbie, 53, was born and raised in Sisseton, S. Dak. (pop. 3,218), where two of his father's great uncles (Lebanese peddlers passing through the town) decided to live. Joe's father was born in a town about 50 miles from Beirut. He left Lebanon in 1900 at the age of 11, mainly because his mother wanted him to escape military conscription by the ruling Turks. She tied a money belt around his waist, put him on the boat and gave him letters to Lebanese in Marseilles and Liverpool. When he reached the United States, his money belt was nearly empty. A tin-ear immigration official stared at him coldly and asked him his name. "Arabi," he said. "It sounds like Robbie," the official said to his partner. "That's good enough. Make it Robbie."

Joe himself has always been at ease with the language. It is apparent to all within range that he is an indefatigable talker. At Northern State College and the University of South Dakota, where he spent a total of seven years and only $300, he became a debating champion. "I loved to talk," he says. "I learned that it could be a weapon, too. But it was really enjoyment for me. Debating and the sports pages were my only distractions." College was just plain work—slinging hash, sweeping, anything to make a dollar. After college, and now a lawyer, he entered politics, a Democrat in a Republican state. Later, he won his party's nomination for governor but lost in the general election. As a politician he says, "I was always interested in people's personal problems."

At the moment Robbie has his own personal problem in the Dolphins. The team, despite its dismal record, is his only passion, other than occasional deep sea fishing trips, during which he works his own and everybody else's line. Looking up at the fish on his office walls, he says: "One thing I'd never do is mount another man's fish." More frequently, he takes his ease on the Dolphin sideline. There, with his children running behind him, he sprints up and down the yard stripes, pounding players on the back, selling as if he were in the charge at Manassas and banishing people from the area who have suddenly incurred his disfavor.

At work he keeps an eye on the banks, writes memos and spends a good deal of time trying to whip up public sympathy for the Dolphins. His pitch is built on three points: Miami is an expansion team; he says he has spent more money on top draft choices than any other team in football; he has been victimized by the press, a fashionable gambit these days. When the applause does not swell, Robbie is petulant. "Win me?" he says. "What did I do to this town but try to give them a football team?" He cannot understand the sniping, why he ignites violent emotion in others, but the clamor and pointed fingers have not eroded his spirit. "I have an affinity for futility," he says. "It is a Don Quixote complex."

Yet, for all his exposure he is not personally indelible. Except for his bent nose, furtive eyes and the hint that he is always coiled and ready to pounce, he is eminently forgettable. Because of his guile and gall in deals, the anatomy of which no one is certain, he will leave his mark on Miami. But he is, it seems, a failure in a sense, that is if you appreciate art, whether it is in a jewel heist or in the gray rooms of finance. On the inside Joe Robbie was said to be delicate, cool and brilliant. Now, whether out of desperation, confusion, or maybe because of a lack of style under pressure, he somehow seems to have become—to those who watch him closely—just another prairie pirate with the touch of a blacksmith.

PHOTOFlipper and Owner Danny Thomas cut up in 1966. Now both are gone. So are the laughs.PHOTORobbie watches his Dolphins drop another game. "I have," he says, "an affinity for futility."PHOTO