November 30, 2009

1959: Joe Foss Named Commissioner of AFL

The last week of November 1959 was a tumultuous one for the fledgling American Football League as it prepared to take the field for the 1960 season. The first draft of college talent was held on the 23rd, in order to get a head start against the established NFL. However, as the AFL owners met in Minneapolis, newspapers reported that the ownership group of the franchise slated to play in that city had been successfully wooed by the older league to become an expansion franchise for 1961. While the defection of the Minnesota franchise to the NFL didn’t become official until January of 1960 (it was replaced by Oakland), it was hardly the type of publicity that the new league was looking for.

On November 30, it was announced that Joe Foss would be the AFL’s commissioner. There had been other names floated in the preceding months, most significantly Frank Leahy, the former Notre Dame coach, and Fritz Crisler, former coach and current athletic director at Michigan. Bert Bell, the NFL commissioner, had even been sounded out in the hopes that he would extend his reach over both leagues and thus avoid warfare between the two. Bell politely turned the AFL’s overture down, and it became a moot point when he died in October.

Foss, ironically enough, had first been sounded out by one of the Minneapolis group whom he encountered while staying at the same hotel during a league organizational meeting. Unlike the other candidates for the job, he had no background in football. However, he was a well-known figure with an impressive personal history: a World War II fighter pilot who shot down 26 enemy aircraft in four months and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and later a two-term Governor of South Dakota. A quintessential self-made man, he had a reputation for honesty, candor, and leadership that made up for his lack of previous involvement in the game.

Foss gave the AFL credibility, and proved to be an able administrator. He successfully concluded an all-important $36,000,000 television deal with NBC in 1964 and, when New York Titans owner Harry Wismer (a frequent Foss antagonist) was nearing bankruptcy, found a buyer for the team (a group headed by Sonny Werblin, who later also became a Foss antagonist).

While Foss was given a five-year contract extension following the 1961 season, he took his share of criticism and occasionally battled with each of the AFL’s owners. He invalidated a secret draft conducted in November of 1961, and on occasion fined owners and reviewed transactions (a deal with San Diego sending DE Earl Faison and DT Ernie Ladd to Houston was invalidated due to unspecified tampering by Oilers owner Bud Adams, who needless to say was infuriated). His frequent travels on behalf of the league often made him difficult to communicate with. And he took heat when an apparent deal to put an expansion team in Atlanta for the 1966 season was undercut by the NFL.

Foss resigned shortly before the merger agreement with the NFL was resolved in 1966 – he had advocated merging, but also didn’t want to see the league lose its identity.

In summing up, as well as explaining the timing of his resignation, Foss told Sports Illustrated, “Some owners became irritated because I would never be frightened or directed. I wouldn't call the owners and report to them all the time just to gain Brownie points…I guess I could have done a lot better job as commissioner as far as the owners and public are now concerned if I had stayed in my office and done public relations work. But that is not in my nature…It's time for me to take a rougher and bigger job. I was getting tired of looking at placid waters. Now that the league is prospering, I'm ready to move on. My mission is accomplished."

Al Davis, the head coach and general manager of the Oakland Raiders, succeeded Foss as commissioner. His reign was short – the merger was announced a few months later – and he returned to the Raiders as Managing General Partner.

Foss went on to host two syndicated television shows for outdoorsmen and was later president of the National Rifle Association. He didn’t return to the world of pro football, but his steady leadership in the AFL’s early days played a part in that league’s eventual success.