A NOT SO BRIEF HISTORY OF THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
1960 - The Patriots are founded by local Boston businessman Billy Sullivan. Sullivan along with his sons Patrick and Chuck will over the next generation distinguish themselves as perhaps the most inept ownership team in the history of American sport. Their reign of errors is characterized by instability, meddling, poor business decisions, and chronic mismanagement. The Pats start out playing their home games at Boston University’s tiny Nickerson Field.
1963 – The Patriots move from tiny Nickerson Field to tiny Fenway Park. In their first decade of existence, the Patriots will have no fewer than five “homes.” In spite of a mediocre 7-6 record, the Patriots enjoy a rare moment of glory when they advance to the AFL playoffs and then stun Buffalo in the semi-finals. One hopes the Sullivan family enjoyed that playoff victory – the franchise wouldn’t have another post-season triumph until 1985. Regardless, the glory of the ’63 Patriots post-season win fades quickly as San Diego squeaks by the Patriots in the AFL title game, 55-10.
1969 – The Patriots once again change their home, this time moving to Boston College’s campus in the leafy suburb of Chestnut Hill. Things continue to go poorly for the star-crossed franchise as Coach Clive Rush nearly fatally electrocutes himself at a press conference when he grabs an ungrounded microphone. Press wags joke that if there had only been a few more amps he would have gotten off easy.
1970 – The Patriots move again, this time to Harvard. The success and prestige of the Crimson does not rub off on the woebegone Patriots. They go a league worst 2-12.
1971 – The Patriots finally get a real home in bucolic Foxboro, MA called Schaefer Stadium. It’s almost like something a real franchise would have. It holds 60,000 people and has proper football stadium dimensions. But this new gridiron paradise is not without its problems. The Sullivans were perennially cash strapped so most of the funds to build the Stadium came from the Schaefer Beer Company who got naming rights in exchange. Schaefer builds the stadium on the cheap; it is widely acknowledged as the worst structure of its kind on the continent. The vast majority of the seats don’t have backs and the plumbing is notoriously fickle.
But the problems don’t end there, Foxboro is located about 25 miles from Boston and the stadium is only accessible by Route 1, a narrow 4 lane road that was not designed to accommodate a weekly onslaught of 60,000 visitors. Thus, each Patriots game for the following three decades triggers an epic traffic jam. To alleviate this problem, many fans get in the habit of beating the traffic by arriving at the Stadium’s unpaved pasture-like parking lot several hours before the game to “tailgate.” Because the New England climate is often blustery, Patriot enthusiasts spend the hours in the parking pasture imbibing their alcoholic beverage of choice to ward off the cold. As we’ll see, this tradition of inebriation is to have dire consequences for the franchise.
1973 – After six straight losing seasons with a combined record of 22-51-1, the Patriots hire Oklahoma’s Chuck Fairbanks to lead them to the Promised Land. Fairbanks turns out to be a good coach who will be bedeviled by the Patriots’ notoriously meddlesome ownership as well as the franchise’s penchant for misfortune.
1976 – Monday Night Football visits Schaefer Stadium for the first time. Things don’t go well. Over 60 inebriated fans are arrested as a virtual drunken riot breaks out in the stands. Two fans die due to heart attacks brought on by the chaos.
1976 – The Patriots make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years with an 11-3 record. They journey to Oakland where they outplay the 13-1 Raiders but lose because of a roughing-the-passer call by referee Ben Dreith that is universally acknowledged as atrocious. The Raiders go on to win the Super Bowl. The Patriots are believed by many experts to be the most talented team in the league and for the first time in their history the future looks bright.
1978 – Fed up with the Sullivan family’s constant and inept meddling, Coach Fairbanks arranges a covert deal with Colorado University to be their coach after the 1978 season concludes. The patriarch Billy Sullivan discovers the deal on the eve of the playoff bound Patriots’ final regular season game. A piqued Sullivan piously declares “You cannot serve two masters” and fires Fairbanks in the bowels of Miami’s Orange Bowl as the Patriots ready themselves for the meaningless regular season finale. To make matters even worse, the always obtuse Sullivan appoints not one but two interim head coaches to lead the Patriots that evening. The Patriots famously receive a pre-game pep talk from each head coach. Unsurprisingly, they go on to lose. After the game the players protest Fairbanks’ dismissal. Oddly sensitive to his players’ complaints, Sullivan demotes both interim head coaches and re-instates Fairbanks. Embroiled in turmoil, the Patriots play horribly in Schaefer Stadium’s first playoff game losing 31-14.
1980 – Monday Night Football returns to Schaefer Stadium. The fans are still good and drunk but try as they might they fail to match their previous record of 63 arrests. This time only 56 fans are arrested but because there aren’t adequate paddy-wagons on the scene the authorities chain them to a fence to await appropriate government transportation. This makes a memorable image duly recorded by the always kind Boston media.
1981 – Despite still being a talented team, the Patriots’ players finally succumb to the chaos swirling around them and go a league worst 2-14. And after yet another Monday Night fiasco, the league swears off returning to Schaefer Stadium for any more night games. Foxboro will not host another evening tussle until 1996.
1983 – The Sullivan family takes sole ownership of Schaefer Stadium. The ever modest Billy Sullivan re-christens the creaking edifice “Sullivan Stadium.”
1985 – The Patriots have the greatest year in franchise history up to that point. They make the playoffs and win their first round game against the slightly favored Jets. In the second round, the Patriots stun the heavily favored Raiders. The end of this game is marred by Patriots ownership scion Patrick Sullivan rushing up to Oakland Raiders Matt Millen and Howie Long to taunt them over their defeat. Long and Millen are not amused and proceed to pummel the scrawny executive. It requires the efforts of several oddly reluctant Patriots to rescue their erstwhile general manager.
The Patriots go on to upset the Dolphins in the conference championship and meet the juggernaut Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl. The Patriots lose 46-10 in a game that was not as close as the final score indicates.
But the humiliation was just beginning. A day after the Patriots’ historic thrashing, it is revealed that at least a dozen players have been using drugs during the season and that coach Raymond Berry has vowed to resign unless the situation is addressed. After a brief moment of glory, the Patriots instantly return to being a league-wide joke.
1987 – Finally something good happens. Looking to expand the family fortune, Chuck Sullivan, in a deal brokered by notoriously crafty boxing promoter Don King, wins the honor of promoting Michael Jackson and the Jackson Family’s “Victory Tour.” King doesn’t think much of Chuck’s negotiating ability and labels him Charlie the Tuna for his willingness to bite at anything. The tour is a disaster that bankrupts the Sullivan family. A region rejoices as it becomes clear that the Sullivans will have to sell the franchise. Victor Kiam of Remington Razor fame becomes the new Patriots owner and renames the Patriots’ home “Foxboro Stadium.”
1990 – As the team plods along in sub-mediocre fashion, off-field disaster strikes once again when several naked Patriot players verbally harass Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson in the locker room. Kiam handles the crisis in a fashion so maladroit it calls to mind the Sullivan era. At a speaking engagement, he asks his audience what Lisa Olson and the Iraqis (then fighting America in Gulf War I) have in common. Answer: They’re both seeing a lot of Patriot missiles. This is perhaps an unwise tack for Kiam to take since his principle business, Remington Razor, sells many of its products to women. The scandal and the resulting boycott eventually do enough damage to Kiam that he has to sell the team to Robert Orthwein who intends to relocate the franchise to his St. Louis home.
1993 – To get the team ready for sale or relocation, Orthwein decides he needs a marquee coach. After being rejected by Mike Ditka and Bill Walsh, he convinces Bill Parcells to come out of retirement. Almost immediately, Parcells scares the Patriots into respectability and they stop being a joke.
1994 – Amidst speculation that the team will move to St. Louis, Boston businessman and longtime Patriot season ticket holder Robert Kraft swoops in and buys the Patriots with the express purpose of keeping them in New England. As if to reward Kraft, the team makes the playoffs for the first time since 1986. Kraft also commences several long overdue initiatives such as paving the parking lot, improving the stadium’s plumbing, and cracking down on rowdy fans. Only a short while into the Kraft reign, it actually becomes safe to take your family to a Patriots game for the first time in franchise history.
1996 – The Patriots have a fine season but tension swirls between Parcells and Kraft. Parcells is furious that Kraft will not give him complete control of the organization. In a surprise, the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl. Parcells spends all of Super Bowl week bitching about Kraft, complaining that he doesn’t give him enough control; Parcells repeatedly volunteers to the assembled media that he doesn’t think he wants to come back to New England once his contract expires after the Super Bowl. In spite of the obvious inappropriateness of Parcells’ airing of dirty laundry during Super Bowl week, the Boston media takes Parcells’ side and begins sarcastically referring to the diminutive and unathletic Kraft as “Amos Alonzo Kraft.” Given the circus atmosphere created by their coach, the Patriots play a surprisingly competitive game against the heavily favored Green Bay Packers losing 35-21. In a typically classy move, Parcells doesn’t fly back to Boston with the team. He announces his plans to leave the franchise days later.
1997 – Pete Carroll is brought in to replace Parcells. During his three year stewardship the team slips back into mediocrity. Under Carroll old time Patriot embarrassments begin to make a comeback. Most notable is an incident where a stage diving behemoth lineman virtually crushes an innocent co-ed at an Everclear concert. More embarrassingly, the stage diving lineman is cheered on by superstar quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Superstar wide receiver Terry Glenn also fills up the police blotter on occasion.
2000 – Bill Belichick is hired and given the kind of complete control of the football operation that Kraft wisely refused to give the juvenile and petulant Parcells. The Patriots go 5-11 in Belichick’s first year and the fans grow restless.
2001 – 2005 - The Patriots begin the 2001 season 0-2 with the second of those losses appearing to be disastrous as Drew Bledsoe is injured and seems lost for the season. He is replaced by unheralded 6th round draft pick Tom Brady. Brady and the Patriots go on to stun the football world by winning 14 of their next 17 games including the Super Bowl.
In the ensuing three years, the Patriots become the envy of the sports world, the very model of professionalism, poise and class. They become a dynasty. Only the far from formidable Philadelphia Eagles stand in the way of the Patriots winning their third title in four years. The local media who for decades had taken a sadistic delight in belittling the franchise now actively compete to outdo one another in an unannounced sycophancy contest. The same writer who called the team’s owner “Amos Alonzo Kraft” now refers to him as a “civic treasure.” The team which for so long had been a source of embarrassment is now an object of regional pride.
For longtime Patriot fans, the past four years hardly seem real. But if it is indeed real, it is fitting recompense for a long suffering and loyal (although often drunk) fandom.
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James Frederick Dwight