Friday, July 19, 2013

Ron Mix Interview, Portland Storm GM

In March of 1974 the Portland Storm became the 12th and final team to join the World Football League.  With less than four months until the start of the season the franchise had a lot of work to do (especially since the WFL draft had already taken place and other teams were signing players).  Ron Mix, who was a couple years removed from wrapping up his Hall of Fame career in the NFL, was hired as the Storm’s general manager.

WFL Nation: What were you doing prior to joining the World Football League?
Ron Mix: Well, I played in the National Football League for 12 years.  10 years with the San Diego Chargers, 2 years with the Oakland Raiders.  While playing for the San Diego Chargers I went to law school at night.  A four-year program.  So I was already an attorney by the time I started playing for the Raiders.  Then once I finished with the Raiders the Chargers offered me a job as their in-house attorney to, among other things, negotiate player contracts and certain other duties and I did that for approximately a year.  Starting the second year I was contacted by a friend of mine, Bruce Gelker, former University of Southern California football player.  We played in different eras but I attended the University of Southern California also.  And he told me that he had purchased the Portland franchise of the World Football League and he offered me a chance to be the General Manager and part owner of the team.  And in any event for a bunch of reasons I decided to do that.  In retrospect I think it was a foolish move because I think it’s foolish anytime you move away from the National Football League.  But at any rate that was my first foolish move and I accepted that job.
I actually believe that it was the perfect time to start a new league because the salaries in the NFL were really depressed and the players were not being paid fairly.  And I thought that was a real opportunity for a new league to start and for the league to be able to obtain outstanding players both through the draft but also by the league signing NFL players whose contracts had expired or in fact even signing them to future contracts.  Waiting until their team contracts had expired.
In any event, that’s what I thought.  I was wrong because the league really was not operated adequately.  There was not consistently a well-funded group of owners.  There were a couple of owners that were well funded but not everybody was and so in retrospect it was probably doomed from the start.  But it was an interesting experience if not a frustrating experience.  But I would trade it in an instant, I would trade it in an instant to have not made that decision.

WFLN: Why do you say that?
RM: Well, it was just a bad decision.  I think I was the first in-house attorney any NFL team has ever had and so I think it would have put me in a good learning position to perhaps someday be a general manager of a team.  But once work history was tainted with working in the World Football League, a league that did force the NFL to start paying salaries that were really much much more fair than previously had been.  I don’t think any NFL team would have been particularly enamored with hiring me.  Although I didn’t make any effort either.  I just started practicing law.

WFLN: When Bruce Gelker first reached out to you what was your main interest to join the WFL?
RM: Well, I had already decided that at that time the San Diego Chargers were in a very big downward spiral.  They had been severely fined by the league for providing unauthorized illegal drugs to their players and it just seemed like there was no real direction that I could look at for the team having any long-term success.  They just seemed to be misguided.  So I looked at it and saw that it was an unstable job and I thought well I might see it’s a job 2 years, 3 years, 5 years… What if I’m in it five years and then football is somewhat unstable and then lose a job.  In the meantime I will not have learned how to practice as an attorney and maybe I have to leave town, join another football team and I didn’t want to leave San Diego on a more permanent basis.  So when Bruce offered the job at a salary greater than I was receiving with the Chargers and with a 5% ownership interest at no cost I decided it was worth the risk.  I thought I’d just be risking one year of my life.  If it worked out it’d turn out great, if it didn’t no big deal I’d just start practicing law.
But in retrospect the Chargers really did right the ship.  And the owner Gene Klein really became an outstanding owner.  It just took him a while to understand how to run a football team even though he is a brilliant businessman in all other respects.  He turned out to be an outstanding owner.  I should have had more patience.

WFLN: When you first went to the Storm what was your plan as their general manager to put together the Storm’s roster?
RM: The lowest paid players at the time were offensive/defensive linemen and my plan was to go into the NFL, it was really more of a two year plan, find out which players contracts would be expiring and then sign them up for the following year at a very significant pay increase.  And expecting that by the second year with the outstanding, because we would have had the influx of top NFL players offensive and defensive linemen.  But also try to get players that what we’ll call the skilled but overrated positions.  I think it was technically a good plan.

WFLN: What other responsibilities did you make priorities when you first stepped in as general manager?
RM: Well, of course the priority was to really sell tickets.  But that was something that would almost have to take care of itself.  You have to have a winning team, an exciting team, you have to have people who are a population who’s convinced they are going to see a good brand of football, a good level of football.  The football was pretty good.  There was a weakness as there always is in a new league.  The weakness would have been, generally speaking, at quarterback.  Generally speaking throughout the league there were a few good quarterbacks.  But the overall attendance of the league was really not very good.

WFLN: How was the football team received in the Portland area?
RM: There was a good core of fans but it was a small core of fans.  I forget what our average attendance was but I think it was probably somewhere in the range of 12-15,000 a game and it probably would have taken 25,000 a game to break even.
(Ed. note- Attendance figures show the Storm averaged just under 15,200 per game.)

WFLN: When you first took over the team, as you were heading into the season what were your realistic goals for that first year of the franchises existence?
RM: I thought it would really have to be a two-year plan before we could become a really good team.  So the goal really was to just be competitive and put on a good product and I think [head coach Dick] Coury was able to do that.

WFLN: The team started the season 0-7-1.  Do you recall anything about that rough start with the team?
RM: I don’t even recall it.

WFLN: Really.
RM: Yeah, I don’t recall that that was the start.  If you were to ask me how did we finish I’d probably tell you I think we were a .500 team.  Am I close to my recollection?

WFLN: Yeah, after that rough start you did go 7-5 the rest of the way.
RM: Yeah, I think the problem was I believe the Portland franchise started later than the other teams and the signing of players.  So I think they were at a handicap and it took us a while to bring in the bodies, then it took a while for Dick Coury to educate them properly so he could form them into a team.

WFLN: Do you have any specific recollections about any games from that [1974] season?
RM: I think our first game was an away game in Philadelphia and my wife traveled with me with the team to go to that game and the stadium was absolutely packed.  I told her “Oh my gosh it looks like we made the right decision.”  And then later we found out that the team ownership had like papered the house by about 40,000 free tickets to people.  So I remember how disappointed we were to learn that.  Then of course there were just attendance problems throughout the year by all teams.
(Ed. note- Attendance in Philadelphia for the season opener was reported as 55,534.  It was later reported only 13,800 purchased tickets.)

WFLN: You mentioned before the finances of the league and the struggles.  What was the financial situation like for the Storm?
RM: Well, it started out right away Bruce Gelker sold the team.  He may have sold it before the first game.  And it sold to a guy from Canada named Bob Harris and Bob reportedly was wealthy but he stopped putting money into the team.

WFLN: What was that like for you?
RM: Oh, it was very distressing.  To not be able to pay the guys.  Very distressing.  That was the ugly part of being associated with that team is that nobody ever received the full amount of their salary.  In fact neither did I.

WFLN: Really?  What was that like for you as well?
RM: I had a personal guarantee from Bruce Gelker on my salary and then I hadn’t received anything.  I didn’t receive anything at all during that entire time I was with the team so I ended up having to sue my friend Bruce Gelker and about three years later, it took that long to get to court, about three years later I got paid.  But of course I got paid after attorney fees so financially it didn’t turn out so hot either.

WFLN: Are you guys still friends?
RM: I can refer to him as a friend.  We knew each other.  We knew each other prior to the relationship but it wasn’t like a long-standing social relationship.  And with the passage of time we became social acquaintances again.  We were cordial in each others presence.

WFLN: Getting back to the team.  There’s lots of stories of bills not getting paid.  Was there ever any talks of a boycott from the players about not getting paid that you guys had to deal with on a management level?
RM: No, I don’t recall that.  No, no the guys… I think they kind of resigned themselves to if the league survives maybe we’ll get paid.

WFLN: That must have been really tough on you to have to deal with.
RM: Well, again it was distressing not being able to help them out.  I’ll say this, the players had a great attitude.  A great attitude about it.  They naturally were unhappy they were only getting a small fraction of what they were supposed to be getting every week and they still kept practicing hard and playing hard.

WFLN: When you reflect back on the league and that season now.  It’s going on almost 40 year later now.  What do you think?
RM: I think they missed a great opportunity to come up with a competitive league.  There just wasn’t the financial backing.  The league never should have got off the ground with the type of financial batch generally existed with the league.  There should have been certain safeguards that should have included that each owner is required to drop a bond, whatever amount of dollars they anticipated to operate a team for a year.  There was just no safeguards at all.  It was a huge missed opportunity because America was ripe for more teams in more cities and the players were not being paid adequately in the NFL and were ripe for being, to use a farm analogy, were ripe for being harvested to move over to another league.

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