Hunt's legacy looms large in MLS

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The man got out of his Jeep Cherokee and walked toward the open practice field at a suburban Dallas private school. He came to me, stuck out his hand and introduced himself. We had probably met a couple of times before, but in the days leading to the start of the first Major League Soccer season in 1996 he saw a lot of new faces, especially those of the media in Columbus.

The Crew needed a place to practice leading to their game two days later in the Cotton Bowl against the Dallas Burn and an open field at Greenhill School -- fit the need. As Crew players went through a light workout, this man in slacks and dress shirt went after the balls that bounced outside the coned field.

He was Lamar Hunt -- probably the richest ball-retriever in soccer history.

Hunt had stopped by after watching his son compete in a track meet for Greenhill at an adjacent facility. As owner of the Crew and Burn, as well as the Kansas City Wiz (remember that name?) at that point, he had a strong interest in the upcoming match. Yet, even though he was one of the most recognizable and financially well off people in U.S. sports, he was just another fan eager to help get the balls back where they belonged.

Hunt liked being around athletes, not to worship them, but because they are motivated to be the best. That's one reason he was a charter investor in MLS -- he wanted American players to have a top-level league of their own. I thought of Mr. Hunt this week in advance of Saturday's Pioneer Cup between the Crew and FC Dallas as it honors the legacy of the late Crew founder. The game will be at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco.

There likely wouldn't be an MLS without the financial backing of Hunt Sports Group, which owned 30 percent of the league's franchises when it was formed. But his love for the sport and willingness to spend his money in pro soccer is legendary.

There's the tale that probably was first told about some other millionaire in a different setting but has long been attributed to Hunt: It seems some friends of Hunt's father had gone to the old man worried that Lamar had lost $1 million in one year of ownership of the Dallas Tornado in the North American Soccer League.

"Aren't you concerned he is headed to financial ruin?" they asked.

Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, founder of Hunt Oil, leaned back in his chair and, in a slow Texas drawl said, "Well, I guess he'll be broke in 400 years."

End of discussion. But not Lamar Hunt's involvement in soccer. When Columbus voters turned down two tax issues to build a soccer stadium, he used his own resources to fund the $28 million Crew Stadium. The cost and grandeur of the venue can't match the gleaming stadiums that have since followed, but somebody had to be the first to commit his resources to ensure the long-term viability of the MLS.

He also believed the MLS Cup could become a major event -- certainly not on the worldly scale of the Super Bowl, but even that had humble beginnings. We had a conversation at the Crew awards luncheon following the 1999 season, and he explained how his sons had come up with the word "Super Bowl" based off a high-flying rubber toy called a Super Ball.

Hunt also pointed out that the first three title games between the AFL and NFL were called the "World Championship Games." It was his suggestion that Roman numerals be used to designate each game. He thought it was used for the first time for the fourth Super Bowl, but two days after our talk, he faxed me a letter saying he was wrong.

"I was off by one year in my recollection," he wrote. "It was game number five [January of 1971] before Roman Numerals were used."

He also attached copies of the program covers and tickets from the first five games. It's a letter I treasure. He didn't have to take the time to write some reporter from Columbus, but he did so because accountability mattered to him.

So did winning. He was fortunate enough to see his Kansas City Wizards win the MLS Cup in 2000 and the Crew two years later claim the tournament renamed in his honor: the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Hunt passed away in December 2006, nearly two years before the Crew won their only MLS Cup. He would have been proud just as he would have beamed last November at the massive and energetic turnout for the title game in Seattle between Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles.

People may wonder how Hunt would have reacted to the current labor strife. Would he have sided with his fellow owners to keep much of the financial structure he helped implement at the start? What about his attitude on players' rights?

It's a sure bet Hunt in his quiet way would have given this advice to both sides: Be respectful and honest. It's not about you, but what's best for the league.

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