Former Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs reminisces on stadium-politicking days

Red McCombs went through failed efforts for a new stadium with two governors before deciding it wasn’t going to happen for the Vikings on his ownership watch. He’s happy Vikings fans are finally getting their palace.

Earlier this week, Viking Update caught up with former Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs to talk about his foray into looking to lure disgruntled Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis to relocate his team to San Antonio, McCombs hometown and base of operations.

As part of the conversation, McCombs reminisced about his time in Minnesota and the problems he ran into trying to convince then-governors Jesse Ventura and Tim Pawlenty to build a new stadium to compete in the modern NFL – an issue that was at the heart of the Rams, Chargers and Raiders all looking to relocate to Los Angeles.

McCombs said he is still following the Vikings and has a soft spot in his heart for the team, adding that he likes what he sees in the team Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman are building.

“I still keep an eye on the Vikings every year,” McCombs said. “I’m impressed with how they did this season. You guys gave it a great shot.”

He also said he was saddened by the Vikings’ loss to Seattle and the heat that rained down on Blair Walsh after he missed a chip-shot 27-yard field goal that would have won the game.

McCombs felt the pain of Vikings fans. In situations like when the Vikings lost in the 1998 NFC Championship Game, the pain that is felt can be intense, but it’s based on love, he said. If fans didn’t care, the Vikings losing wouldn’t have that heartbreaking impact on them.

“That’s the way it is,” McCombs said. “It reminds of a story a guy told me about the loss of a dear friend. He said he was grieving so much and couldn’t get over it. His friend said, ‘That’s not all bad. What if you weren’t grieving at all? His life would have been meaningless to you.’ I had never thought of it that way. The football world hates to see those things, but they happen.”

While the 2015 Vikings had a sad end to their run at TCF Bank Stadium, the 2016 Vikings are going to do something McCombs hoped to do, but never saw bear fruit – play in a new state-of-the-art stadium. That new stadium is now nearly 90 percent constructed and the opening this summer is on track.

McCombs talks of his effort to get a new Vikings stadium as one of the biggest failures of his professional career. His inability to sway Minnesota governors was a hurdle he simply could not clear. One of them was honest with him. The other played political games. But McCombs felt the stone wall he hit could have and should have been prevented and the Vikings could already be playing in a top-notch facility.

“There was nothing I would have loved more,” McCombs said of getting a stadium deal accomplished. “Jesse was straight up with me. When he got elected up there, it surprised everyone – including him. I went to see him immediately and he said, ‘Red, I don’t want to mislead you. It’s a freak that I got elected. I’ve got three things on my plate and I’ll have enough trouble trying to get those done. I’m not going to help you any, but I want you to know that coming in.’”

McCombs felt that Ventura wasn’t politically equipped to push legislation through with the complexity of a stadium bill and, from that first conversation, he knew that any opportunity for the Vikings to escape from the Metrodome was going to have to wait until Minnesotans could elect someone else to the office.

“I figured, well, we don’t have a chance then for four years, because of the way the laws were in Minnesota,” McCombs said. “You have to have (the support of the governor). Jesse told me, ‘I want you to know that I’m surely not going to hurt you.’ I told him, ‘You’ll be hurting me by not helping me.’ But he was pretty strong in his opinion that he wouldn’t be helping us.”

McCombs didn’t like what he heard from Ventura, but at least he could respect his candor and blunt honesty about his position. It was a stance McCombs strongly disagreed with because, in the modern era of football, stadiums and arenas can revitalize entire sections of a metropolitan area, from the construction of the facility to the ancillary benefit seen by businesses adjacent to the stadium.

But when it came to Governor Tim Pawlenty, it was a different story for McCombs. He kept being effectively told that the check was the in mail when it wasn’t. As Ventura has been forthcoming that there was no room for a stadium bill on his watch, Pawlenty was an old-school politician who knew who to schmooze at the right time and when to drop the political hammer.

“Pawlenty was different,” McCombs said. “Before he was elected, I spent time with him because it looked like he was going to win and, of course, he did. He said, ‘I understand this is for the people of Minnesota, not just for you.’ I told him that I was just a steward. This belongs to the people. He said he would definitely help me (get a stadium built). After he got elected he said he’d have to wait a year because he’s got so many things on the plate.”

McCombs took Pawlenty at his word. But when he checked in to revisit the issue, he found out he was still on the political back burner. As Pawlenty became more of a political animal, he started picking and choosing his battles because, by Year 2 of his first term, he was already looking for a second term. Getting involved in a sketchy political climate by embracing a controversial topic of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars going into a new stadium would mean the political wind was blowing in the wrong direction for Pawlenty.

Once was bad enough. Twice was worse. Three times was a deal-breaker.

“Then the second year, (Pawlenty) said, ‘Red, we’ve got to hold on another year,’” McCombs said. “Then after the third year, he said, ‘Red, I have information that you’re doing really well with the team.’ I said, ‘Governor, this is not for me. This is for the people of Minnesota so we can be competitive five, 10, 15 years from now.’ He then came right out and said he wasn’t going to do it. That was when I decided I was going to get out of here.”

Nobody is shedding any tears for McCombs. In 1998, he bought the team for $250 million. Seven years later, he sold the team for $600 million. He did fine.

But there is still the lingering issue for McCombs as to what could have been had he been able to convince the governor or key legislators to approve a new stadium before the roof of the Metrodome collapsed – proving beyond all doubt that it was a substandard facility.

Even had he waited it out with no guarantees, he isn’t certain he wouldn’t have thrown up his hands in 2006, 2008 or 2010. He has some inner regrets, but as time has passed, he looks back on his time donning purple sport coats in Minnesota as happy times full of memories he will treasure.

“A couple of months ago, I celebrated my 88th birthday,” McCombs said. “I’m glad that the Wilfs were able to get it done, but I don’t know if I would have had the patience to stay with it and still not be playing in it, although it is going to happen next year. But I am so happy for the people of Minnesota. That was a special thing for me to get the reaction from so many people up there. They love their team and I tried to help them everywhere I could. I developed a great feeling for the people of Minnesota.”

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