The Man Who Rebuilt the Arizona Cardinals
Days away from the NFC Championship Game, owner Michael Bidwill reflects on the master plan that set everything into motion ... and shares his favorite story about Bruce Arians’ penchant for the F-word
The Cardinals have been in the Bidwill family since 1932, when Charles Bidwill bought the then Chicago-based franchise for $50,000. The team won one NFL Championship, in 1947, but there have been a lot of lean years in franchise history.
But that started to change in 2007, when Michael Bidwill—the grandson of Charles, and the son of Bill Bidwill—assumed the team’s day-to-day operations. When the Cardinals play the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, it will be the team’s ninth postseason game since Michael took over as team president; in the previous 73 years, since the NFL instituted a postseason in 1933, the Cardinals played just seven playoff games.
Michael Bidwill had a plan to turn the Cardinals into a winner, and it’s worked. They rolled to the Super Bowl seven years ago, losing a heartbreaker to the Steelers, 27-23. Between then and now he’s rebuilt the team by hiring head coach Bruce Arians, GM Steve Keim and QB Carson Palmer—and they’re one win away from getting back to the NFL’s biggest stage. A couple days after the adrenaline had worn off from Saturday night’s thrilling overtime win against Green Bay in the divisional round, Bidwill talked about his vision for the family business—and how close he is to seeing it through.
VRENTAS: Let’s start with that crazy win against the Packers. Aaron Rodgers completes a Hail Mary TD to Jeff Janis to send the game to overtime, then your team wins with two plays to career Cardinal Larry Fitzgerald. What were your emotions in those final minutes?
BIDWILL: Well, in the NFL you try to not get too high nor too low, but … all I was thinking was Detroit, when [Rodgers] threw that Hail Mary and it was caught. I saw the replay [of Janis’ touchdown catch] on the video screen in the stadium and I thought, They’re not going to overturn this. We’re going to overtime. I’ve witnessed a lot of crazy finishes, but there is nothing that was more exciting and more back and forth quickly than the finish Saturday night. It was an unbelievable finish. I’m so happy we won. Even though we went to overtime, I felt like, we’ve got the home-field advantage, the offense is explosive, on defense somebody has gotta make a play. I felt like we were still going to win the game, but boy, we just made it harder on ourselves. We were able to pull it off and it was great to see Carson Palmer to Larry Fitzgerald twice to get us the six points to win the game.
VRENTAS: Where were you when the overtime coin flip didn’t flip?
BIDWILL: At the two-minute warning, I walked down to the sideline with Steve Keim. I didn’t see the flip, but I saw all the players in the huddle around the official sort of back up. You could see their expressions; clearly something had happened. Then I saw the official pick up the coin and flip it again. I thought, What is going on? I waited, and as soon as the [second] flip happened, I could obviously see that Carson was happy. And if Carson is happy, I’m happy. I found out later that the coin didn’t flip on the first deal. So it was kind of weird. Not just “kind of” weird. I’ve been around this sport my whole life, and I’ve never seen a coin toss not be successful and have to re-do it.
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VRENTAS: That game has sparked a lot of talk about the NFL overtime rules, and whether or not they should be changed to give both teams a chance to touch the ball. Obviously it worked in your favor on Saturday, because you got the ball first and scored a touchdown to win, but do you think the rules should be changed?
BIDWILL: I like our overtime rules better than I liked the old version, where it was just the first team to score. I think what we have now is more fair, and I like our version better than I like the college version where both teams get a chance to touch the ball. I just think sometimes you are on the wrong end of it. Obviously the Packers were, and we’ve been on the wrong end of it as well, but I like our rules as they are.
VRENTAS: Three years ago, you picked Steve Keim as GM and Bruce Arians as head coach, and they’ve been one of the most successful partnerships in the NFL since. How did you get those hires right?
BIDWILL: It was focusing on the three things I really wanted to see, which was leadership, accountability and performance. I wanted to see a coach with a lot of experience with different personnel, with different teams, and with having not just success everywhere he went, but seeing him be able turn a team around. With Bruce, it was clear—he had done it in so many different places, he had worked alongside so many great quarterbacks and helped develop great quarterbacks. And then a big thing was just following my gut. I really felt like we needed a strong leader, and after spending a little time with Bruce, there was no doubt we were going to get a strong leader. Plus, he had just come off a test drive of being a head coach, being the interim coach in Indianapolis. He did a terrific job there under what were very difficult circumstances. And I just thought the way he handled everything with the team, and keeping the light on for Chuck Pagano and keeping his space open on the bus—he really kept the team focused on what was important, and playing for something important.
With Steve, it was the same thing: his leadership, the plan that he put together, the accountability that I had seen him institute as our VP of personnel, and prior to that the director of scouting, prior to that a regional scout, prior to that as an area scout. He worked his way up in the organization. I knew him for a long, long time. He’s very bright, but he put together a terrific plan. When I completed the interview process, there was just no question in my mind he was the right guy for the job.
VRENTAS: With Arians in particular, he had been passed over a lot. He wasn’t hired as a head coach until he was 61. Plenty of teams in that hiring cycle in 2013 didn’t even bring him in for interviews. What did you see that other teams missed?
BIDWILL: A little bit of it may have been just the timing. Some teams want to make a very fast hire after they make a coaching change. Typically, you see teams within two weeks make a decision, and some of the best coaches are still coaching in the playoffs. Bruce was on a lot of successful teams, so I think that was a contributing factor. I also think Bruce had a little bit of a reputation as a guy that said what he felt was important to say, speaking the truth. That was something that I embraced, and that might be something that some people shied away from him for. But from my standpoint, I just thought he was going to be the perfect fit. And he’s come in and done what I thought he would do, which was get us to a point to where we are one of the best teams in the NFL. I didn’t anticipate that we’d lose the defensive coordinator, that he would start his coaching tree after year two, but it’s great news for Todd Bowles. Todd has had success, and I expect there are other coaches from our coaching staff who will get hired on in the future as head coaches as we continue to have success here.
VRENTAS: Last offseason, you met with Fitzgerald one-on-one to try to work out a way for him to continue to be a Cardinal. Why was it important for you to get personally involved?
BIDWILL: It was about restructuring the contract that we had, and it was about Larry and me sitting down and having dinner. He and I have been together since we drafted him in 2004, and I felt like this was the kind of discussion that didn’t need to be between Steve and [Fitzgerald’s] agent. It needed to be between Larry and me. And so I got involved. We had dinner at my house; I invited him over. We had dinner for probably two and a half hours, and of that time, we only spent about five minutes talking about his desire to continue to play for us and to get it done. And I said great, because I wanted to see him retire a Cardinal. So we worked out the details; Steve and his agent worked out the details of his contract. He’s practically part of the family, and he’s an important member of our community and our team and I couldn’t think of any place other than here where he should play. I was glad to see he shared the same opinion.
VRENTAS: What did you have for dinner?
VRENTAS: Another key move was trading for Palmer in 2013. You sent a sixth-round pick and a conditional pick to Oakland to get him, which was considered something of a gamble at the time, but now that looks like a pittance. Why did you have faith in him?
BIDWILL: Our personnel department, Steve and others, took a look at his tape, as well as Bruce and the coaching staff, and they still felt like he was a great quarterback. We just needed to surround him with the right kind of team, the right kind of offensive line, and running game, and great receivers. We had the great receivers; we were working on an offensive line and a running game. Those things came together over the last three years, and Carson has really been able to shine in this offense. And we knew he would. Bruce Arians has been a part of so many great offenses, there was no doubt that we were going to be a top-five offense, and that Carson would shine in that offense with the great receivers we have, with Larry and Michael Floyd, and we drafted John Brown—and also we knew we were going to continue to work on that offensive line. We felt like he’d be successful in this system, and it turns out we were right.
VRENTAS: How have you brought about this Cardinals renaissance over the past several years?
BIDWILL: I put together a plan, and the cornerstone of it was going to be the new stadium and the revenues from it to start building the kind of organization we wanted and get the right kind of people. We talked about Bruce and Steve, and there are other folks in the organization that have helped us keep that stadium full. We’ve sold out all 104 games at University of Phoenix Stadium [since it opened in 2006]. That’s 100 regular season and preseason games, plus four postseason games, including Saturday night’s win over the Packers. We’ve done a lot to reposition the team on the field and reposition the brand off the field, and we feel like we can be among the best in the league. We’ve got to continue to get it done on the field, get ourselves on national TV and continue to tell the stories of some of our fun players and personalities around the team and the coaching staff.
VRENTAS: What does it mean to be a third-generation owner, and how much more are you seeking a championship because of that?
BIDWILL: It’s definitely something that I think about. I think this team, this organization and our fans are ready for another championship, and ready to win a Super Bowl. We’ve worked very hard. We’ve obviously got more work in front of us. To me, it’s a motivator. My grandfather, and my father, and now me, have all had the opportunity. My grandfather unfortunately passed away earlier in the year, in 1947, before the team went on to win the NFL championship that year. That was the last one we had. We came close in 2008 during Super Bowl XLIII, but we’re hopeful to get it done this year.
VRENTAS: There have been a lot of lean years for the franchise. What does your dad think about the recent success?
BIDWILL: Oh yeah, he’s got a big smile on his face. He’s very proud. He’s excited for the success. Not just for the players and coaches in the organization, but especially for the fans.
VRENTAS: You’ve said that Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has been a mentor to you. How has he helped you?
BIDWILL: He’s been a longtime leader in the NFL, and he and I talked about this several months ago. His team was undefeated at the time, and we were off to a great start, and we were talking about, boy, wouldn’t it be great to have these two teams meet in the playoffs. Jerry Richardson is about the game and the NFL, and he puts the NFL first. I think that’s something that is very important in this era of all the different changes going on in the NFL; we really have to stay focused on is the game and our fans. That’s something he keeps coming back to, and I think it’s a good reminder for everybody running an NFL team.
VRENTAS: Your role in league circles has grown, including your appointment in December 2014 as the chair of the NFL’s new conduct committee. A little more than a year after the league implemented its new personal conduct policy, what have the results been?
BIDWILL: Absolutely it has gone in a positive direction. You hate to say there is a trend after one year, but the statistics got my attention. Arrests were down by 38 percent between 2014 and 2015, so clearly the two years of training we’ve been doing and the emphasis on proper conduct, the message has gotten through. And I think we’re going in the right direction. Certainly there is more we can do. I just had a meeting with some of the college athletic directors along with some of the league staff out here in Phoenix around the national championship game to emphasize that we’re hopeful the message is getting down to the colleges. And it is that if you want to play in the NFL, you’ve got to make sure that you’re not making mistakes during college. It’s really important that we continue to push that message down to the colleges and high schools, not just because of the careers of future football players, but also because it’s the right thing to do. We have an important place where we can share that message.
VRENTAS: The Cardinals have relocated twice in the past, first from Chicago to St. Louis, and then from St. Louis to Phoenix, so you understand the process. Why is moving the Rams to Los Angeles a good fit, and what will it take to make the move work?
BIDWILL: Now that the decision is made, I think it’s in everybody’s interest to make sure that the Rams, and if it’s the Chargers also, are very successful there. L.A. is the second largest market in the United States, it is the entertainment capital of the world, and the NFL has been gone for more than 20 years. Now that the NFL is going to be back with one, and potentially two, teams, for that fan base to really get activated in the L.A. area is going to be fantastic. I will say also, from the standpoint of the Cardinals being in the NFC West, the Rams went from our longest road trip to our shortest road trip [in the division], and we’ll stay in the same time zone. So we see it as a positive. Also, with the rivalries between the NBA Phoenix Suns and the L.A. Lakers, and the Arizona Diamondbacks and the L.A. Dodgers, it’s not going to be hard for the Phoenix-L.A. rivalry to get stoked up.
VRENTAS: After making it to Super Bowl XLIII, and the Steelers defeating the Cardinals in the final minute, what was your plan from there to try to get back to the big game?
BIDWILL: That game was the best game of my life until the last 36 seconds, I can tell you that for sure. I think the key is you’ve gotta have a great quarterback with a balanced offense and a terrific defense. We had that that year. I think some people felt like it was a little bit of a fluke that a 9-7 team got all the way to the Super Bowl, but we had great leadership with Kurt Warner, with Larry Fitzgerald, with some of the great players on our defense, including Adrian Wilson, Bertrand Berry and others. We spent years after Kurt retired searching for that great quarterback that could get us back. We were able to identify that person when it became clear that Carson may be available via trade, and we decided to trade for him. We continued to build the offense around him, as well as beef up our defense, and now we are in a position hopefully to continue to take the next step—and get there and get back and hopefully win it this time.
VRENTAS: You’ve played in six nationally televised games this season, all Cardinals’ wins. Have you ever seen interest around the Cardinals as high as it is right now?
BIDWILL: No. Just looking at when you see all the Cardinals fans coming out to stadiums on the road. I talk to them. Some of them are traveling from Phoenix and following us from Arizona, but we’ve got a lot of fans from the Midwest, and we’re picking up fans all around the country. People really like some of the stars we’ve got on the team and they like the way we play, so interest has never been higher. And we hope to grow it.
VRENTAS: Let’s end with this. What’s your best Bruce Arians story?
BIDWILL: Oh, my best Bruce Arians story. Well, I don’t know if you can print it. It was at dinner the night before his formal interview [for the head coach job]. He and Steve and I went out to have dinner, to get to know each other before the formal interview. We ate at a restaurant here in Phoenix called Tarbell’s. The three of us, we were not going to talk football, but of course we were talking football. Well, you know Bruce is known for his colorful language. At one point during dinner, he used the F-word three times in one sentence—as a noun, an adjective and a verb. I was counting, one, two, three; noun, verb, adjective. And I totally understood what he was saying. He said, the m------------ f----- the f------ thing up. And I thought, Holy cow, I think he’s right.
VRENTAS: Well, what was he talking about?
BIDWILL: Oh, you know, that’s not important. But that’s the story. That’s my favorite Bruce Arians story. To me, we hit it off immediately, and I didn’t have any issue with his language or anything like that. I thought it was great. Bruce is just being Bruce.
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