In his 1991 bestseller “The Sum of All Fears,” author Tom Clancy writes of a nuclear bomb being detonated by Syrian terrorists at a Super Bowl in Denver between the San Diego Chargers and the late-rallying Minnesota Vikings, wiping out both teams and 60,000 people in the stadium.
“An embarrassing coincidence,” said Clancy, 51, the other day, after bidding an NFL-record $200 million last month to purchase a controlling interest in the same Vikings he once fictionally nuked.
His bid is on hold, awaiting approval from NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Clancy and his lawyers consider that a mere formality. The team’s previous ownership-by-committee voted 8-0 to sell the club to Clancy and his group of minority investors.
One of his minority partners (Clancy will own at least 30 percent) could be Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a close friend who allowed Clancy to take a 20 percent minority interest in the baseball team.
But Vikings team president Roger Headrick, a minority owner who tried to buy the Vikings with an initial bid of $180 million, has since come back to his former partners with an offer of $205 million after they voted to sell to Clancy. Headrick says he should be the rightful new owner, despite what Clancy scornfully describes as his initial “low-ball bid.”
Tagliabue held a 5-hour hearing Feb. 19 and will make a decision within a few weeks. Clancy professed to be not the least bit concerned about the viability of Headrick’s case during a 45-minute interview at his secluded 500-acre estate in rural Calvert County.
“All of their investors voted to sell it to me,” Clancy said. “It doesn’t get much more solid than that.”
Casually comfortable in faded khakis and yellow golf shirt, Clancy sat in his highceilinged study on the top floor of his $2 million home atop Peregrine Cliff overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. An old Sherman tank (a gift from his first wife) is on the front lawn and a football field with goalposts at both ends (left over from the previous owner) is not far from the electronically controlled security gate.
The book-lined hideaway is where he produces the 1,000-page “techno-thrillers” that have made the one-time insurance man and native Baltimorean a multimillionaire.
Forbes Magazine estimated he earned $65 million from 1995 to ‘97, and last year, he signed book and electronic media deals reportedly worth about $100 million. His work in progress, “Rainbow Six,” is due April 1.
Too skinny and nearsighted to play competitive sports as a youngster, he’s been a baseball and football fan all his life.
Twice before Clancy attempted to secure an NFL team, forming one of several groups in Baltimore’s unsuccessful bid to get an expansion franchise, then barely missing out on purchasing the New England Patriots four years ago. His latest effort began quietly last fall, and he kept his interest well concealed until the day he formally bid on the Vikings.
“We started playing around with it in October,” said Clancy, advised from the start by Chicago sports consultant Marc Ganis, a close friend who will be among the new Vikings investors. “People in Minnesota didn’t know I was even in the running until the day I made the bid. We were stealthy about it. It helped us with Mr. Headrick. If he knew it, he would have upped his offer. We did it nice and quiet. There’s no sense jumping up and screaming. You can always do that later.”
If Tagliabue rules in his favor and league owners vote him into their exclusive club next month at their meetings in Orlando, Clancy believes he can make millions more. He purchased the Vikings for what many believe is a bargain price, considering the next wave of expansion is expected to cost any new owner twice that amount, if not more.
“Why buy the Vikings?” he said. “Why not? It’s a good team, a lovely area. Minneapolis is one of the nicest cities in the country. They were available… . They’re talking 300 to 400 million dollars for an expansion team.”
Still, this is more than a business deal for Clancy, who grew up idolizing the Baltimore Colts before the late Robert Irsay moved the team to Indianapolis in 1984. Clancy has said that move tore his heart out. He’s never been to a Baltimore Ravens game (the team that once was the Cleveland Browns before they relocated), or watched them on TV, but he can recall the exact location of his season ticket at Memorial Stadium - “Section 6, Row 1, Seat 9, first row of the upper deck on the third-base line.”
Aside from the financial data, Clancy professes not to know all that much about the Vikings, save for their ability to make the playoffs in five of six years since coach Dennis Green arrived in 1992. He’s had one brief telephone conversation with Green, who wrote a controversial autobiography released midway through the ‘97 season with a final chapter detailing his grand plan to buy the team.
“It was five minutes of ‘Hi, how are you, look forward to meeting you,”’ Clancy said of his preliminary dealings with a coach who has said he will honor the final year of his contract in ‘98, no matter who owns the team. “He’s a pretty good coach. I’m not going to fire the guy. I don’t have any reason to, even if I wanted to.
“The only bad thing I’ve heard about him comes from one of my guys in the FBI who says he’s not Mother Teresa’s son.”
Several requests for a telephone interview were made to Green to respond to Clancy’s remarks. He said through a Vikings spokesman he did not want to comment until the ownership situation is settled.
Green’s tenure in Minnesota has been controversial almost since the day he arrived. He’s the first black head coach in team history, now one of three black head coaches in the NFL.
In 1995, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported allegations of sexual harassment made by several women going back to Green’s days as the head coach at Stanford. Green has never been prosecuted in California or Minnesota on any charges. He has steadfastly denied the allegations.
Most of his players have voiced strong support for Green, who has had an adversarial relationship with the local media. His autobiography infuriated many of the team’s previous owners and was blamed by many fans for the team’s second-half swoon.
Clancy said he hasn’t read Green’s book, but was impressed with what he’s seen of the team the Vikings fielded last year.
“As it is, I think it’s a healthy operation,” Clancy said. “They’ve been in the playoffs and they looked pretty good beating the Giants (in the first round of the ‘97 playoffs at Giants Stadium). I don’t see that many changes are needed. I’ll spend one year learning how to be an owner. I’m a fast learner.”
Asked if Headrick, a widely respected administrator around the league, would be retained as a club executive, Clancy smiled, shook his head and waved both hands in the “bye-bye” motion.
Tagliabue had said Headrick would remain team president until the ownership issue was decided, and had instructed him to proceed with the business of football. On Feb. 12, he signed tackle Todd Steussie to a five-year, $22-million deal with a $6-million signing bonus, making him the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman in history. Last week, Headrick made John Randle the highest-paid defensive tackle ever, with a five-year, $32-million contract, including a $10-million bonus.
Didn’t Clancy at least expect a courtesy call from Headrick to let him know about the big money deals?
“Honestly, no,” Clancy said.
Privately, several sources said, Clancy and some of his investors are seething. They’re wondering if Headrick is running up the payroll to make Clancy rethink his investment and possibly walk away, leaving Headrick to retain control.
But during the season, Headrick said the Vikings were going to do all they could to re-sign their top four free agent players - Steussie, Randle, wide receiver Jake Reed and running back Robert Smith. He also has said that the league’s new $17.6-billion TV contract justified the record amounts to keep Randle and Steussie.
Clancy has promised never to move the team and has said he will make no demands for a new stadium because the state legislature has said it will help make improvements on the Metrodome. Most of all, he said he’ll try to turn the Vikings into a fan-friendly operation that will keep the lid on ticket prices and spend what’s necessary to ensure a team that is a title contender.
When Clancy arrived in the Twin Cities for a news conference two days after his bid was accepted, he was greeted like the Jack Ryan hero of so many of his novels. New season-ticket sales set February records and several newspaper polls have shown stunning approval rates in the high nineties for his potential ownership.
“I’m not sure God is more popular right now with those fans,” Clancy said. The previous ownership “just couldn’t get their act together. I’m actually surprised they wanted to get rid of it, but I gather it wasn’t marketed very well. I have a fairly positive public persona. I gather Headrick is not very popular. A lot of (the positive response to Clancy) is a negative response to him.
“My intention is to make sure the fans know the team is there for them, and to make sure the players know that, too. It’s simple stuff, really… . I’m not going to be calling the plays from my box. I’ll delegate. If I hire the right people and let them do their jobs, I’ll try to keep out of the way.
“I believe the fans will fill the stadium, and they seem to be loyal fans. I’m going to walk around the parking lots and steal a hot dog or a beer before the games. From what I understand, they’re my kind of people.”
Clancy has no plans to relocate to Minnesota, though he will find an apartment and spend as much time as he can in the Twin Cities during football season. He’s going to keep writing his books and working on a variety of other projects.
“My brain right now is in this book,” he said, dropping a not-so-subtle hint that the time for talking was almost over. “This is how I earn my money. Sports books? I don’t think so. I don’t see myself selling two million books about sports, do you?”