Bill Bidwill's life with the Cardinals began during his childhood, when he served as a ball boy, back when the team was located on the South Side of Chicago. His father, Charles, a successful lawyer and prominent figure in sports circles there, had bought the team in 1932 for $50,000, and although Charles, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is considered one of the founders of the NFL, there was precious little success through the years. Eight months after Charles' death in 1947, with his wife having taken control of the team, the Cardinals won the NFL championship -- and not much more after that.
"I broke out the red jacket for this," he joked with reporters at media day, his crimson blazer around his shoulders.
The Cardinals lost that Super Bowl to the Pittsburgh Steelers, however, and Bidwill, the longest-tenured owner in the NFL, died Wednesday at age 88 without having won a title as the sole owner. But the appearance in that game helped finally ease the reputation of a beleaguered owner of what had been one of the NFL's most maligned teams.
Bidwill spent his entire life enmeshed with the Cardinals. He became a vice president of the team while still an undergraduate at Georgetown and, after a stint in the Navy, eventually went to work for the organization full time, going on to assume sole ownership in 1972. He belonged to the small fraternity of longtime family owners in the NFL, a group that included the late Dan Rooney of the Steelers. When the Cardinals opened a gleaming new stadium in the Phoenix suburbs in 2006, the Steelers agreed to fly across the country to play in the first preseason game there -- and Rooney said his team did so out of respect for Bidwill.
Even as the value of his team soared and the Cardinals finally turned a competitive corner, Bidwill remained unassuming. He said that after Arizona won the 2008 NFC Championship, he celebrated by going home and reheating a cup of coffee in the microwave, drinking it before he went to bed.
For years, Bidwill was accused of running his team on the cheap -- former players told stories of their paychecks being docked if they needed an extra pair of socks. The Bidwill family maintained that they simply couldn't afford to spend money until a new stadium was built -- a process that wound up requiring a major relocation and nearly two decades to complete.
After moving the team out of St. Louis, where he'd found himself in a stadium standoff -- Bidwill, near tears, admitted at the meeting at which NFL owners voted in support of the relocation that he had "mixed up" feelings about it -- and heading for Phoenix, Bidwill endured 19 years of political machinations. He went door to door to implore voters to support a new facility; his team played before thousands of empty seats at Sun Devil Stadium. Finally, after an effort spearheaded by his son Michael, University of Phoenix Stadium opened.
With Michael, a former federal prosecutor turned team president, becoming more heavily involved as his father aged, the Cardinals enjoyed the fruits of their new revenue stream, retaining big-ticket players like Larry Fitzgerald. Their stunning postseason run at the end of the 2008 season marked the first time they won their division since 1975 (when they were still in St. Louis) and included just their second home playoff game in franchise history (the first was in 1947). The Cardinals won another division title in 2009. Then in 2015, they took the NFC West crown with a franchise-best 13-3 record, eventually losing in the NFC title game.
Bidwill was mostly reclusive -- he did not grant many interviews and did not bother to refute the reputation that had developed around him -- although he was a familiar presence at the Cardinals' training facility and stadium, often wearing a bow tie. During the Super Bowl run, he explained -- at a press conference that lasted just a few questions -- that he didn't say anything when he and the team were criticized for failure, so he wouldn't say anything when they earned praise for success. It fell to Michael to argue that his father had been misunderstood over the years.
"It's mainly because a lot of things that have been written and said about him just aren't true," Michael told the Associated Press. "That he didn't care about winning, that he didn't put money back into the team. ... He cared deeply about winning."
But while fans might have thought Bidwill was tight-fisted, he was privately very generous. According to The Arizona Republic, soon after the team moved to Arizona, Bidwill stopped by St. Peter Indian Mission outside of Chandler, Arizona, offering to help should the school ever need it. After a storm damaged the school's roof, one of the nuns called him, and Bidwill sent a check for $20,000. Later, he would give game tickets to the school and pay for a dozen students of the school to attend Catholic high schools.
That was the side of Bidwill that fans never saw. For so long, the small part they did see led some to wonder if he would ever give up on the Cardinals, if the years of futility might have prompted him to consider selling the team.
Sitting in a chair, reveling in that Super Bowl moment, Bidwill made clear that his life's work was also his life's pleasure.
"It never crossed my mind," Bidwill said that day. "I love the business. I'm accustomed to it. I don't let it get to me if we have a bad game or a bad year. I just go back into it and try to get better."