It didn’t take long for news to spread that the Vikings had finally achieved their goal of getting a new stadium built to assure that the Vikings would remain a part of the Minnesota landscape for the next generation and beyond.
In the instant-news era, the news made it south quickly, including an office in San Antonio where former Vikings owner Red McCombs. McCombs, you’ll remember, threw up his hands in frustration eight years ago after running into a brick wall from then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He sold the team to Zygi Wilf, but said a big part of his heart remains in Minnesota and he’s sharing in the joy Vikings fans are feeling today.
“Purple Pride!” were the first two words McCombs said when he got on the line to discuss the stadium deal Thursday afternoon – a mantra McCombs used to help energize a moribund franchise in 1998. He set in motion the string of consecutive sellouts that has continued the last 14 years and will undoubtedly continue well into the future. McCombs said that, although he is far removed from the day-to-day operations of the Vikings, he is overjoyed about the news.
“I’m happy for all Vikings fans,” McCombs said. “There are millions of them throughout the country. My family and I still have such fond memories of the people of Minnesota and those that we got to know and work with. Those years will always be among the fondest of my life.”
McCombs tried to get a stadium deal done for seven years. It would take seven more years for the Vikings to finally get the job done. It took longer than most anticipated it would, but McCombs was convinced this day would come.
“It had to get done,” McCombs said. “When I got to Minnesota in 1998, it was 12 days before the first preseason game and I was shocked to hear that not only was the game not sold out, there were 25,000 to 30,000 unsold seats. I told every staff member they had an additional job here – to sell those tickets. I told them I would sell 15,000 myself. The other 50 people were in charge of selling the other 10,000. I traveled the entire state of Minnesota in those two weeks and learned firsthand the passion and pride that Minnesotans have in the Vikings. From that point on, I knew a stadium deal would eventually get done and that Minnesotans wouldn’t let their team go.”
Still, McCombs views the inability to get a stadium deal done one of the more agonizing processes in his business career. He ran up against two governors – Jesse Ventura and Tim Pawlenty – who refused to get involved in stadium support. He believed that without the power of a governor behind a stadium project, it would be virtually impossible to get anything done quickly. That was the reason, McCombs said, he got impatient and wasn’t willing to wait.
“I’ve gave some serious and long thought about staying and seeing this day for myself,” McCombs said. “However, I run at full speed at all times. The state government doesn’t run at that pace. It isn’t part of my makeup to try to wait out a governor and put something off year after year. I knew that the Vikings would get a stadium over time, but I felt it should be someone else that took over such a long-term task.”
McCombs’ frustrations were very similar to what the Wilfs experienced when charged to go find a local partner for a stadium project. For McCombs, it wasn’t Arden Hills, it was Anoka County. He brokered a deal with the county commissioners to build a stadium – “the team would have been in that stadium for two years already by now,” he said – but, like the Wilfs, opposition forces came out against the project and it fell apart. His frustration was primarily focused on Pawlenty, who he felt didn’t keep his word and eventually was the catalyst for the sale of the team.
“The people of Minnesota couldn’t have been more generous to my family, but politics is something completely different,” McCombs said. “Before he was elected, Governor Pawlenty told me that he would help out. You have to have leadership from the top to get a stadium deal done. We didn’t have that with Jesse – he was pretty up front with saying that he wasn’t going to run for another term and that he had no intention of helping the effort. Governor Pawlenty said he would help, but, after putting it off year after year, he finally told me he didn’t want to keep stringing the Vikings along and said he wouldn’t be helping get a stadium done. Without leadership at the top, it’s virtually impossible to get anything done.”
Pawlenty didn’t mince his words and neither did McCombs.
“Within 30 minutes of that conversation, I told him my plan was to sell the team,” McCombs said. “I wasn’t going to move them and take them away from their fans in Minnesota, but I wasn’t going to continue to fight a losing battle with the leadership in the state. (Pawlenty) told me that I was just angry and to settle down, but once I knew he wouldn’t be supporting a stadium, I knew that my time as owner of the Vikings was up. Less than an hour after that conversation, the process of selling the team began.”
McCombs, who joked with a faux-Minnesota accent – using the Scandanavian-tinged “Minneso-o-o-o-da” – said that his fondness for the team and the fans were the only things that gave him second thoughts about selling the team and leaving an area he and his family had grown to love as seasonal Texas transplants. Now, he heartily congratulates those within the current Vikings organization for their tireless effort to get a stadium deal done and keep the Vikings in Minnesota.
“I’ve been a professional sports owner for 33 years of my adult life,” McCombs said. “I knew in the end that the voices of the millions of Vikings fans would be heard and a stadium would get done. I just wasn’t willing to wait for all those years to get it done. That’s just not me. I put in seven years of a struggle to get that job done. It took seven more years before it would happen. But, in the end, it did get done and Purple Pride will always be an important part of life in Minnesota. I’m ecstatic for that.”
It would be understandable for the passage of a stadium bill to be somewhat bittersweet for McCombs. He laid the groundwork for the stadium effort and it didn’t happen on his watch. For a successful businessman from Texas known for getting deals done, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that he could harbor some resentment. But McCombs said just the opposite is true. He’s a Vikings fan to the end and looks forward to the day he can visit the new Vikings stadium to see the fruit borne from his initial efforts and the exhaustive work put in by the Wilfs in the subsequent years.
“It’s not bittersweet at all,” McCombs said. “I’m delighted it happened. It’s going to be a beautiful day in Minnesota tomorrow knowing that the Vikings are staying where they belong. In time, I believe all Minnesotans will embrace that they got the stadium that kept the Vikings. I left Minnesota, but I’m still a Viking. My family and I will always be Vikings. I’m 84 now and hope to still be alive when it opens and I get a chance to see it for myself. That will be a great day.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.