Monday, February 16, 2009

Tampa "Mobs" Orlando, 2/7/74

On Feb. 7, 1974, the Symbionese Liberation Army announced in a letter that it was holding William Randolph Hearst's granddaughter, 19-year-old Patricia Hearst. The kidnapping drama that would captivate the nation for over a year had only just begun.

A drama of another sordid variety had just begun here in central Florida as well, over of all things, the quest for a National Football League expansion team. Although the NFL would go on to award an expansion team to the Tampa Bay area in April 1974, a rival group based in Orlando still held on to very slim hopes of being awarded Florida's next team.

Rommie Loudd, a former pro personnel director for the New England Patriots, led the charge for the Orlando group, known as the Florida Suns Booster Club. A collegiate standout at UCLA, Loudd went on to play linebacker for the Los Angeles Chargers and Boston Patriots of the American Football League from 1960-62. After retiring, he joined the Patriots coaching staff and made history as the first black assistant coach in the AFL.

Loudd arrived in Orlando in 1972 and announced his intention to land the city an NFL franchise. The effort to bring a team to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area had taken flight in 1968 and, by anyone's reckoning, was better organized and had more stability. Still, Loudd persisted in his quest and sought to alienate anyone who chose to align with Tampa's efforts over his own.

The key to Orlando's hopes rested on the expansion of the Tangerine Bowl (today the Citrus Bowl). Revenue bonds would be needed to finance the stadium's improvements, and by February 1974, nobody had stepped up with the financial backing to make this happen. At a booster club meeting for his Florida Suns on Feb. 7, Loudd shared his theory why.

According to a Suns booster who attended the meeting, Loudd alleged "Tampa syndicate money is being pumped into Orlando to fight the Suns and the expansion of the Tangerine Bowl football stadium." Loudd also said he reported the wrongdoing to NFL expansion committee chairman Dan Rooney. The booster called Frank Vaught, the sports director of WDBO Channel 6 in Orlando, who went on air with the report.

Made aware of the report, state attorney E.J. Salcines of Tampa responded to its damaging nature by threatening to subpoena Loudd for any information he may have had concerning organized criminal activity in Tampa.

Loudd, for his part, initially did not deny making the statements and said any comments he made were meant for the consumption of the booster club and not the public. Salcines, however, did not see it that way.

Salcines and Orlando state attorney Robert Eagan issued separate subpoenas on Feb. 9 for Loudd to testify about his statements. If the statements were false and made by an "overzealous enthusiast," Salcines said, then Loudd owed immediate public apologies to anyone he offended in Orlando and Tampa.

On Feb. 11, Loudd met with attorneys from Orange and Hillsborough counties. Predictably, Loudd said his comments were taken out of context.

After his meeting with Loudd, Eagan said "the sum and substance is that no evidence was forthcoming of a mob or syndicate being involved. We told him this kind of statement was damaging to all and we were happy to hear him say he didn't make it."

Loudd also denied ever reporting any wrongdoings to the NFL or Rooney. In an interview with the Tampa Tribune, Rooney confirmed he had not spoken to Loudd since he became chairman of the expansion committee.

His credibility in tatters, Loudd's long-shot chances of bringing an NFL team to Orlando had effectively come to an end. P.R. Inc., a Winter Park-based media firm representing Loudd and the Florida Suns Football Club, issued an immediate press release ending its affiliation with the group.

The public embarrassment did not completely derail Loudd's effort to bring football to Orlando. Later in the year, he successfully landed a World Football League franchise, known as the Florida Blazers, to play at the Tangerine Bowl.

Beset by severe financial difficulties despite reaching the league championship game, the Blazers relocated to San Antonio for the 1975 season. Loudd's legal problems, however, were not entirely a thing of the past.

In February 1976, almost exactly two years to the day he made his comments to the Suns booster club, Loudd was sentenced to two years in prison for conspiracy to deliver cocaine in Orlando.

Loudd later moved to Miami and became a minister, but at the age of 64, he died of complications from diabetes in 1998. Today, he is remembered as one of the many colorful characters that populated the Central Florida landscape leading up to the arrival of the NFL.

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