As we approach the start of another Miami Dolphin’s season, not many fans realize how close Miami was to losing the Dolphins in 1969. Prior to the hiring of the legendary coach Don Shula, the three straight Super Bowl appearances, and the unforgettable Perfect Season, which the franchise will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary this year, the team was close to leaving Miami for Seattle.
From its inaugural season in 1966 through the 1969 season, results on the field and in the stands were underwhelming. The team experienced losing seasons through each of its first four seasons, with five victories as the high win total for a single season during that stretch. The bigger disappointment were the results at the box office, averaging less than 30,000 fans per game through the team’s first four seasons.
When a Wisconsin businessman acquired the shares of majority owner Danny Thomas, he was more interested in a quick return on his investment rather than a long-term plan that would require patience. The team needed to change fortunes both on the field and at the box office for the new majority owner to view his investment in the Dolphins as a long-term venture. Joe Robbie was unaware of what was coming following the 1968 season, a turbulent time for the founding partner who was committed to keeping the Dolphins in Miami and bringing the city a champion.
Danny Thomas Sells Ownership Interest
When actor Danny Thomas and lawyer Joe Robbie’s ownership team was awarded an American Football League (AFL), franchise for the City of Miami, it was considered an underdog story. There were a number of cities vying for a team, and a number of ownership groups vying to land a franchise in Miami, so Thomas and Robbie had to lean on their strengths to be the group awarded the coveted new AFL team for South Florida.
While Thomas and Robbie had Lebanese roots in common, the two men brought different strengths to the pitch to land a football franchise for Miami. Thomas was the affable, well-known actor who brought name recognition and cachet to the group, while Robbie leveraged his strong relationships within the community and with the AFL commissioner, Joe Foss, to help guide a decision in their favor. When the franchise was awarded to the Thomas Robbie ownership group, Danny Thomas was the majority owner while Robbie became the general manager of the operation.
However, after the first season was completed in 1966, Thomas was ready to sell a large portion of his ownership interest in the team. On February 4, 1967, it was announced that Willard “Bud” Keland and George N. Gillet, both from Racine, Wisconsin, had purchased a “substantial minority interest” in the Miami Dolphins.
Bud Keland had married into the Johnson family of Johnson Wax and was the company’s VP of Corporate Communications until he left to become president of the Wisconsin River Development Corporation in July of 1966. Gillet was a partner with McKinsey & Company, as well as, having extensive investments in real estate, farm, and cattle in Racine.
A few months later, on September 8, 1967, the Miami News reported that Keland and Robbie purchased the remainder of Danny Thomas’ shares in the Dolphins providing the two men with ninety percent ownership in the team. The remaining ten percent was shared by John O’Neil Jr, J.M. and E.R. Haggar of Dallas, Texas. The three minority shareholders were original investors in the Miami Dolphins when the team was awarded in 1965. Absent from the list of owners in September of 1967 was George Gillet, who was likely bought out during this reshuffling of the ownership group.
At a press conference that followed the announcement, Joe Robbie made clear how his responsibilities would differ from Bud Keland’s role. According to Robbie, Keland would serve as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the corporation, while he would serve as President and General Manager of the team. Robbie would focus on the day-to-day operation of the franchise and would guide both business and football decisions for the ownership group. Keland would more or less by a silent partner.
While the two men appeared to be on the same page at the time of the announced change, within a year and a half after that press conference, Keland and Robbie were embroiled in a power struggle that would determine the team’s fate in Miami. The outcome of this power struggle would be heavily influenced by a clause included by Robbie in the original franchise agreement.
Disappointing Second Season (1967)
The Miami Dolphins ended their first season with a total of three wins to eleven losses during their inaugural season in 1966. They opened their second season on September 17, 1967, with a big home win over the Denver Broncos (35 – 21), at the Orange Bowl. The game featured the debut of the team’s first round pick, Bob Griese, who was the number four overall pick out of Purdue in the combined NFL / AFL draft in 1967.
The Broncos were the first team that the Dolphins beat in franchise history when they defeated them 24 to 7 in the Orange Bowl, on October 16, 1966. Bud Keland had to be ecstatic to see his new investment reward with him with a victory in the first game of his ownership tenure.
However, the Dolphins struggled over the course of the next eight games dropping all of them to fall to one and eight during a season which began with so much promise. The fan base expected the team to improve their win total over their inaugural season, but more than half way through the second season they became discouraged. The frustration showed up in the home attendance totals, which dropped from an average of over 30,000 in the first two home games to well under 30,000 for the final five games at the Orange Bowl.
Despite the lagging home attendance, the Dolphins ended the season by winning three out of their last five games to finish with a record of four and ten. All three wins were at home, but the last game of the season was a blowout loss, 41 – 10, to the Houston Oilers in the Orange Bowl.
A one-win improvement over the prior year was not a terrible finish for a second-year expansion team, but both Keland and Robbie were hoping to provide a product that would excite the fan base. The impact that the eight-game losing streak had on attendance put a strain on finances for the Dolphin’s organization, which was deep in debt and could ill afford lower than expected revenue.
Rough Start to Third Season (1968)
The third season for the Miami Dolphins began the way their last season ended. On September 14, 1968, the Dolphins lost to the Houston Oilers, 24 – 10, at home in the Orange Bowl. The opening day loss dovetailed into a 0 – 3 start for Miami which triggered speculation about a coaching change either during or after the season. However, the Dolphins did earn their first win of the season against those same Oilers in Houston on October 6th, allowing Joe Robbie to provide words of encouragement for his head coach, George Wilson.
During a press conference conducted on October 9, 1968, Robbie was asked about his head coach’s job security. Based on Robbie’s response the writer for Miami News summed up Wilson’s position as follows:
“The coach next year will be Wilson, if he desires the job, unless something catastrophic should happen, and right now the Dolphins are ahead of their goal. They figured if they could win one game in their first four against the league’s three toughest on paper, that would be satisfactory, and they did that.”
In the same press conference, Robbie was asked if the rumors of the team being for sale were true. His response was direct and stern when he said:
“I’m not selling to anybody. That’s utterly ridiculous. It’s not only absurd. It’s past the point of absurdity. It’s preposterous. It’s never been discussed. Somebody starts these rumors with a purpose.”
Needless to say, one reporter touched a nerve during this press conference. The Miami News article went on to point out that Robbie doesn’t act like someone getting ready to sell the team. At the time it was published, Robbie was having a pool built at his Bayfront home with two stone dolphins spouting water.
The writer ended the article with the following observation about what the construction of the pool could mean:
“It looks as if he’d have some other kind of statuary if he were leaving the Dolphins, like a couple of stone piggy banks to spout his new fortune in a silvery spray.”
The Dolphins finished the season with a record of 5 – 8 – 1 (one tie), adding one game to their win total from the previous year. While Robbie was communicating how the team was on schedule in their build process, his partner’s frustrations began to mount. Bud Keland not only had issues with the slow progress on the field and at the ticket office, but by the end of the 1968 season, his business relationship with Robbie had completely soured.
Rumors of a Sale Became Real in 1969
The time between the end of a season and the amateur draft is generally quiet for most professional football teams, but this wasn’t the case for the Miami Dolphins in 1969. When Keland and Robbie bought Danny Thomas’ shares in September of 1967, Robbie didn’t have enough money to buy a fifty percent stake of Thomas’ ownership interest. So, Keland covered Robbie’s shortfall and assumed that that meant he was majority owner and had controlling interest.
By the end of the 1968 season, Keland was concerned about the way the team was being run. Robbie was well-known for being very frugal which led Bud Adams, the owner of the Houston Oilers, to describe his fellow owner as someone who is “running a $2 million business like a fruit stand.” This was not how Keland was used to running a business, so he decided to find a buyer for his shares.
By mid-January, the group that was most interested in buying Keland’s shares were based in Seattle and were constructing a stadium to accommodate either an expansion franchise or one that they could be moved to the Emerald City. Given Keland’s understanding of his ownership stake, he felt he was empowered to negotiate the sale and move the team from Miami to Seattle. However, he did not read the fine print of the original franchise partnership agreement.
Verbal negotiations had proceeded to a point where the two parties, Keland and the Seattle group, were ready to seek league approval for the sale and move the team. However, once the lawyers began to read the franchise agreement, they learned that Robbie included a tidy little clause that stated he would still have say-so about the Dolphin’s destiny as long as he had some ownership stake in the team. Once the prospective new ownership group learned of this contractual snafu, they backed off and shifted their attention to attracting an expansion franchise. The city was awarded the Seahawks in June of 1974, which began play during the 1976 season.
While these negotiations were occurring in the background, Keland was publicly trying to wrest control of the team from Robbie. On January 8, 1969, a bold headline in the Miami News sports page proclaimed: “Big Shakeup is Likely in Dolphin’s Front Office.” The article indicated that Keland owned 70 percent of the team and was ready to oust Robbie and take full control of the operations of the organization. The article indicated that Robbie owned 16 to 20 percent of the team and insinuated that a change was inevitable.
Despite having majority ownership of the team, Keland suggested that he and Robbie meet with the NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Keland was hoping that Rozelle would help him convince Robbie to step aside and sell his shares, but the commissioner urged the two men to resolve their differences quickly and quietly. After the meeting concluded, it was Joe Robbie who put together the plan to resolve this conflict.
Local Businessmen to the Rescue
Joe Robbie knew that he had to get creative in order to hold onto control of the team and keep the Dolphins in Miami. He quietly began reaching out to his network of local business leaders to recruit a new group of minority owners to buy Keland’s shares. Robbie had an extensive network of business executive contacts due to his involvement in the community with local charities and other civic organizations.
On March 25, 1969, the Miami News reported that the feud over control of the Dolphins has been settled with an agreement for Keland to sell his interests in the Dolphins to Joe Robbie and seven Miami investors (there were actually eight investors). The article was published before the agreement was finalized, so there wasn’t a formal announcement of the new minority owners until May 16th, at which time the new ownership team was introduced at the Jockey Club.
There were five new investors along with three original limited partners (O’Neil and the Haggar brothers who held 30 percent ownership interest in the team). The newest Miami Dolphin’s minority owners were:
- Earl Smalley: President of Dextra Corporation and member of the Board of Directors for the Dade County Metro Transit Authority, Hertz Corporation, and member of the Board of Trustees for Saint Leo’s College in Tampa from which he graduated.
- Harper Sibley Jr.: Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Jockey Club and of Ocean Reef Resort, and member of the board of Western Union.
- Wilbur Morrison: Former Vice President of Pan American World Airways where he developed their Latin American Division, and member of the Board of Directors at the First National Bank of Miami.
- Frank J. Callahan: President of Jenks Metal Corporation, and Vice President of the Dade County Metro Transit Authority and Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
- James W. McLamore: Founder and President of Burger King Corporation, and member of Board of Directors of Pillsbury.
None of the five considered themselves big sports fans before making the investment, but all five believed it was in the best interest of the City of Miami for Dolphins to remain in South Florida.
The result of the buyout of Keland meant that Joe Robbie now had controlling ownership interest of the Miami Dolphins for the first time. Once the introductions of the five new investors were done, Robbie remarked:
“This is a big a day as we’ve had in the history of the Dolphins. It now becomes a true community endeavor. We not only have Miami money now, but we have more emotional muscle.”
In many ways, winning the power struggle with Keland gave Robbie the confidence to dream big. Little did he know on May 16, 1969, that the Miami Dolphins would begin a stretch of good fortune beginning with the hiring of a future Hall of Fame coach who would lead the team to three straight Super Bowl appearances over the course of the next five years. One appearance culminated in the NFL’s only perfect season in January of 1973.
Robbie’s Seminal Achievement
It is a bold statement to declare Robbie winning his power struggle with Bud Keland as his most important accomplishment as the Miami Dolphin’s owner. After all, he was part of an unlikely prospective ownership group to be awarded the Dolphins in 1965. Later, he hired Don Shula, arguably the greatest coach in NFL history. That hire led to Miami appearing in five Super Bowls from the 1971 through the 1984 seasons, winning two championships, one of which was the only perfect season in NFL history.
Later, he privately financed and built a stadium when he couldn’t get the City of Miami to upgrade the Orange Bowl. Robbie’s list of accomplishments could fill the team’s home field, of which this long-time Miami Dolphin fan will never stop referring to as ‘Joe Robbie Stadium’. During his long tenure with the Dolphins, Robbie cemented his reputation as a frugal, tenacious, and tough businessman. Sometimes it worked against him, and other times it ensured sports fans in the Magic City had a team to root for in Miami.
However, if he had lost his fight with Bud Keland, it may have been Seattle that hired Don Shula as their head coach, allowing the Emerald City to experience all the success that Miami enjoyed during the halcyon years of the Dolphin’s franchise. If you are a fan of the team, the next time you walk by Robbie’s statue at ‘Joe Robbie Stadium’, take a moment to reflect on what he meant to ensuring the Dolphins were relevant, and most importantly, still in South Florida.Click Here to Subscribe
- Sports Illustrated: “This Man Fired Flipper”, by Mark Kram on December 15, 1969.
- Miami News: “Dolphins Have Two New Owners”, February 4, 1967.
- Miami News: “Robbie Now General Manager”, September 8, 1967.
- Miami News: “Wilson Likely to Return”, October 9, 1968.
- Miami News: “Robbie, Miami Investors Gain Control of Dolphins”, March 2, 1969.
- Miami Herald: “Dolphins Land 5 New Owners”, May 17, 1969.
- Fort Lauderdale News: “Here’s a Brief Look at New Dolphin Partners”, May 17, 1969.
- Miami News: “5 Dolphins Owners All Qualify for Mr. Clean Award”, May 17, 1969.
- Miami News: “Seattle Group Came Close to Moving Dolphins West”, July 23, 1969.
- Florida Today: “Smalley Helped Shape Dolphin’s Destiny”, January 29, 1983.
- Cover: Joe Auer in a Preseason Game on August 12, 1967. Courtesy of WPTV.
- Figure 1: Joe Robbie and Danny Thomas at Super Bowl VII in 1973. Courtesy of Getty Images.
- Figure 2: Bob Griese Debut on September 17, 1967. Courtesy of Ghosts of the Orange Bowl Facebook page.
- Figure 3: Joe Robbie and Jackie Gleason in 1968. Courtesy of the Miami Dolphins.
- Figure 4: Headline in Miami News Sports Section on January 8, 1969. Courtesy of the Miami News.
- Figure 5: Headline in Miami Herald Sports Section on May 17, 1969. Courtesy of the Miami Herald.
- Figure 6: Statue at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami Gardens.