The Charlotte Observer
DEJECTED BELL SEES DREAM END
Looking northwest through the window of Upton Bell's office on the 36th floor of the NCNB Plaza Building, you can see the site near I-77 where a downtown master plan 10 years ago envisioned a new major stadium for Charlotte.
Later in the afternoon of the most disappointing day in his 38 years, Bell stared our the windows in that direction.
"I used to look out here everyday and imagine a new stadium there, begin filled, people having fun, having parties and picnics before the game," Bell said.
"There was an electricity in the stands during a game here, whether the crowd was big or small, that I never saw anywhere else."
Anywhere else, in Bell's case, would have to include Philadelphia, where his father Bert Bell helped to found the Eagles four years before Bell was born; Baltimore, where Bell worked his way up to the job of player personnel director for the Colts during the John Unitas years; and Boston, where he was general manager of the New England Patriots until about three years ago.
Wednesday morning Bell got out of bed about 7 o'clock after another of the sleepless nights that have become habitual in recent weeks, knowing as he dressed that it might be the last day of existence for the World Football League (WFL) and his Charlotte Hornets.
Last week the governors of the 10 WFL teams had met and agreed to talk this week by conference phone call to evaluate the future of the league in view of dwindling attendance and growing financial problems for some of the franchises.
Bell had a normal workday schedule for Wednesday, so he tried to put the future out of his mind. He still thought there was a good chance the league could continue operation.
He met with pubic relations Director John Evanson and assistant Bob Dickerson to discuss arrangements for the planned visit this weekend of an NBC television crew that was doing a feature on the Hornets.
He met with Coach Bob Gibson to discuss the squad limit report that had to go into the league office every Thursday. He didn't eat lunch.
A few minutes after 1 p.m. the call came. The discussion lasted two hours, ending with a vote on whether the league should continue.
"I told them that we were willing and able to play and wanted to play," Bell said. He voted to continue, but he was in the minority.
After 16 months of full-time effort, most of it without pay, investing at least $75,000 in the Hornets, close to the limit of his own financial recourses, surviving the collapse of the original WFL, last year, the decision Wednesday left Bell "broke," he said, and with an uncertain future.
Bell smiled a little, smoked a lot, and talked about his disappointment, which, he insisted, had a little to do with his personal finances.
"I didn't get into this with the idea of making a lot of money," he said. "Money isn't that important to me."
Bell's tendency to make that kind of statement has provoked some skepticism among people who don't know him well, but apparently not among people who do.
"I don't think about my own future now," he said. "That isn't the way I operate, I'm just thinking about my responsibility for the buttoning things up there."
After he hung up on the phone, his first thought was that he had to tell the staff and the team - "The hardest thing I've ever had to do," he said.
He brought the office staff in and gave them the bad news and then called Gibson.
"I told him to tell the players immediately," Bell said. "I wanted them to know before it hit the wires."
The news hit the wire services shortly after 3, with a news conference scheduled by WFL President Chris Hemmeter in New York for 3:45.
The telephone in the Hornets office began ringing as fans called to find out what was happening.
Bell had turned down an offer to become the director of the Boston Symphony and had toyed with several business opportunities in Boston before he became convinced in the summer of 1974 that the Charlotte area would be a great location for a team in the new league.
"If I had it to do over again, I'd do the same thing," Bell said Wednesday.
"Football is really a melting pot for every walk of life. Everybody has some part of them that's a frustrated athlete. Everybody has a common interest in sports," he said.
"I liked what I was doing. If I didn't like it, I wouldn't have done it, because sometimes it was a nightmare. There's the burden of every day of your responsibility to the players and the staff, and to the public, and you can't ever escape that.
After the press conference he came back to the office to find a stack of calls in return, including some from contacts in the National Football League interested in some of the Hornets players now that they're no longer under contract.
"I'm going to answer the those calls," he said. "I'd like to try to get them some jobs."
Bell said he won't be in an hurry to get out of town.
Bell's wife, who works at Harvard, and their young son still live in Boston. They planned to move to Charlotte later this year.
But he doesn't have any idea, he said, what he would do here if he stay.
"If there's one place I'd like to live it would be in this area. I love the area and the people," he said. "I don't think people really appreciate what it's like to live in a city like this. You just don't have the problems they have in other cities where I've lived."
After he finishes the job of holding up the Hornets, Bell said, "I'd like to take a vacation in North Carolina. I've never taken a vacation here, and it's such a beautiful place... either the mountains or the beach, I don't know which.
"Maybe just take off for a couple weeks. But I'd probably cut it off after a day or two and get back on the telephone. I don't know who I'd be talking to... I'm just so used to being on the phone."
PRO FOOTBALL IN CHARLOTTE
The Charlotte Hornets are not the only professional football attempt in Charlotte. There have been at least three other attempts at pro football here - although all were at a lesser scale than the Hornets.
- In 1932, the Bantam Austins, sponsored by an automobile company, played at old Wearn Field. But the were too good for their competition, winning all 10 of their games easily.
- In 1941, the Charlotte Clippers began operations, and drew crowds between 7-10,000 at Memorial Stadium. They were interrupted by World War II, but later played until disbanding in 1949.
- in 1965, the Charlotte Vikings were established and played in the Southern Football League with Will Campagna as coach. The club lasted one year, ending about $25,000 in debt with little support.
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