1934, District Headquarters, Ft. Meade
(July 7, 1916 – January 7, 1990)
MIAMI -- Joe Robbie, the hard-driving, tempestuous owner of the Miami Dolphins whose team went from an expansion franchise to two-time Super Bowl champions, died on Sunday night at an undisclosed hospital. He was 73.
Details of Robbie's death were not available early today, but he reportedly had been ill for several months.
"I was aware he was seriously ill, but I only found out about this a half-hour ago. And it's still a shock," Dolphins coach Don Shula said.
"Nobody wanted to win more than Joe did. When you think back on Joe Robbie, you think about the good times, the Super Bowl years. I had hoped we would get back in the playoffs this year because Joe wanted it so badly," Shula said.
The Dolphins went to the Super Bowl in 1972 and '73 and '74, winning in '73, and '74. They also went in '83 and '85, losing both times.
"I know how proud he was when the stadium was built and opened and I know how much it meant to him. I don't know of anybody else who could have accomplished it," Shula said.
Joe Robbie Stadium in North Dade is Robbie's $102 million legacy, known as The House That Joe Built. It was the culmination of a lifetime dream for the gruff team owner who took an expansion team in 1966 and built it into two NFL championships and three other AFC titles.
"It's just a big loss to us, that's all," said Wellington Mara, president of the New York Giants.
Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, called it "a very sad day. He was a great contributor to the NFL and he had a lot of vision and courage. He will be sorely missed. Joe Robbie marched to his own tune. He certainly did in building his own stadium, which is his greatest contribution. He was very frank, very candid and very bright."
Tex Schramm, former president of the Dallas Cowboys and commissioner of the International League of American Football, said on Sunday night: "He was a unique person who built a world on his own back. He started from zip and made a hell of a lot of contributions. That's a heck of a stadium down there."
"He was a go-getter from the start," Howard Wolf, who graduated from Sisseton High School in South Dakota with Robbie in 1935, said in a 1987 interview. "He was always a competitor -- not in athletics as much as in tests of intelligence. He was marked as different from the other kids in that way. He had tenacity. It is a difference that I guess has carried through his whole life."
He was a hard-nosed, impulsive, tempestuous businessman who never backed away from a battle. He was powerful, successful, and a hard-driving perfectionist, a demander of extreme loyalty from the people who surrounded him.
"I think there is some misunderstanding of who I am and what I am," Robbie said in 1987. "I recognized what the public perception of me is.
"But I don't think I'm a harsh man. When you are driving to get a job done, everybody doesn't stand around patting each other on the back. You have to drive forward. You don't accomplish things without stirring feathers or causing friction. I ruffle feathers because I'm competitive. But that is something that's been rooted in me all my life. It's part of my heritage."
Joe Robbie was born on July 7, 1916, the son of a Lebanese father and an Irish mother, in tiny Sisseton, S.D., just a few miles from the Minnesota border.
The Robbie family did not have much in the way of material belongings. But neither did many others in the agricultural community carved just 20 years before from an Indian reservation. Robbie's father ran a restaurant, pool hall and boarding house, and later was the police chief. His mother was a pastry cook.
Robbie attended high school in the depths of the Depression. He was a kid who hitchhiked wherever he went and had little money to spend when he got there. Still, he says he has no bad memories of the time and his best is not of a single event but of the camaraderie of the town's families.
"We never felt hungry," he says. "We never considered ourselves poor. My best memories are of people helping each other because we all recognized we all faced the same thing. I remember when a farmer's barn burned down, the whole town turned out to build a new one. And we had a barn dance when we were done.
"We lived quite simply back then, on a do-it-for-yourself basis. That basis has been part of my life all my life."
Robbie spent three years at Northern State before switching schools and career interests. After transferring to the University of South Dakota, he set his eyes on a career in law and politics. But that was delayed by war. A day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Robbie joined the U.S. Navy and then spent 45 months in the South Pacific, taking part in five invasions and winning the Bronze Star.
After the war he came back to South Dakota and finished law school at USD on the G.I. Bill. He would move on to a high-profile life of law and politics and sports, but he never would forget USD. He eventually would be recognized as one of the school's most ardent benefactors. (Years before he would build his stadium in South Florida, Robbie would seek design plans and help raise money, including making the largest contribution himself, for the university's own football stadium, the Dakota Dome.)
It was a chance occurrence that brought Robbie and the Dolphins to Miami. He was hired by Philadelphia businessman Victor Potamkin to approach Joe Foss, commissioner of the American Football League, about a team franchise for Philadelphia.
Robbie knew Foss from the University of South Dakota, the state's politics and from serving in the Navy together in the South Pacific. Foss said a Philadelphia franchise was unlikely, but Miami had a chance. Potamkin lost interest, but not Robbie. He put his well-honed tenacity in gear and proceeded to overcome both financial and political obstacles in seeking the franchise.
Late last year, Robbie announced the establishment of a living trust for the franchise that he said ensured family ownership for at least the next generation. The trust was designed to preclude the franchise ownership being tied up in probate for an extended period upon Robbie's death.
Three of Robbie's 11 children work for the Dolphins. J. Michael Robbie is executive vice president-general manager, Timothy J. Robbie is vice president- public affairs and Daniel T. Robbie is director of sales and promotions. Robbie's widow, Elizabeth, is vice president of the team.
"He is the toughest man, pound for pound, I have ever met in football," said Norris Anderson, long-time columnist for Football News.
Robbie was a successful trial lawyer when he got involved in the sport at age 49. He overcame financial odds as well as objections from the Orange Bowl Committee and University of Miami to secure the Dolphins franchise in the American Football League in August 1965.
In 1970, Robbie hired as coach Shula, who had taken the Baltimore Colts to two NFL championship games. In his first season, Shula improved the Dolphins' record from 3-10-1 in 1969 to 10-4. Two years later, the team compiled a 17-0 record -- still the best in league history -- to give Miami its first NFL title.
The Dolphins repeated as NFL champions in 1973.
In 1987, the Dolphins moved their home games from the half-century-old Orange Bowl to Joe Robbie Stadium. Super Bowl XXIII was played there last Jan. 22.
"It's simply the finest stadium in the league," Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman said.
THROUGH THE YEARS
-- July 7, 1916: Born in Sisseton, S.D.
-- March 3, 1965: Meets with AFL Commissioner Joe Foss in Washington, and Foss advises him to apply for an expansion franchise in Miami.
-- May 6, 1965: Meets with Miami Mayor Robert King High to ascertain the availability of the Orange Bowl.
-- Aug. 16, 1965: AFL awards its first expansion franchise to Robbie and television star Danny Thomas for $7.5 million.
-- May 16, 1969: Robbie becomes majority owner of the Dolphins when he is joined by five Miami businessmen in purchasing interest of W.H. Keland.
-- Feb. 18, 1970: Hires Don Shula, 40, as head coach and vice president after Shula served seven years with the Colts.
-- March 5, 1984: Robbie announces plans to build a multi-purpose stadium in north Dade County.
-- March 14, 1985: Miami is selected as the site for Super Bowl XXIII.
-- Jan. 22, 1989: Joe Robbie Stadium holds Super Bowl XXIII only 1/2 years after its opening.
-- Nov. 14, 1989: Robbie announces the establishment of a living trust for the franchise that he said ensured family ownership for at least the next generation.
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