You spend weeks interviewing people about Michael Bidwill.
You are told he’s intelligent, driven, ambitious and insanely competitive.
You hear he’s pushy, arrogant and condescending, a tyrant who bullies his way through life.
There are numerous stories about his charity work and sense of humor and just as many about his ruthlessness and vindictiveness.
It’s difficult to sift the truth from perception, but one thing’s certain: He’s not his dad, and these aren’t his father’s Cardinals anymore.
HE’S THE MAN
Make no mistake: Michael Bidwill is calling the shots for the Cardinals. Bill Bidwill still has the title — chairman and president — but he has stepped aside to let his second-oldest son run the show.
"I went to him a couple of years ago and asked him to consider allowing me to lead some change around this organization in different areas," said Michael, officially the club’s vice president and general counsel. "He told me that was something he approved."
Since then, Michael Bidwill has tried to tow the backward-thinking organization into the 21st century.
Department heads who talked only when they bumped into each other in the hallway now meet at least twice a month.
The Cardinals have dropped their long-held philosophical objection to contract incentives such as voidable years and two-tiered signing bonuses. The result: In the past two years, all of their rookies have been signed within a week after training camp started.
Coach Dennis Green is being paid $2.5 million per year, a significant upgrade for an organization that often hired its coaches wholesale.
The football people are making football decisions, an obvious business practice, yet a departure from how the Cardinals operated in the past.
The changes have yet to produce victories — Arizona was 4-12 last season and may be hard-pressed to match that record this year — but decades of incompetence and intransigence aren’t changed overnight.
"Either he’s going to turn things around or he’ll go insane," said Kerry Dunne, a close friend of Bidwill’s and former executive director of the East Valley Partnership. "He’s not going to take this. I can tell you that much."
IN HIS BLOOD
Although he left the nest and built a life of his own, Michael Bidwill, 39, was born for the job.
He was a ballboy for the St. Louis Cardinals when he was 9 years old, earning $9 per game and saving enough money to buy a BMX bicycle.
"The first time I worked a game they made me stand behind the bench in case somebody came off (the field) and I’m lost and get clobbered," Bidwill said. "Don’t tell the labor department."
His competitiveness was born at Georgetown Prep, a Jesuit boarding school near Washington, D.C. He played football and wrestled as a 165-pounder.
It was at Catholic University in Washington D.C., however, that Bidwill began to shape himself as the man who would reshape the Cardinals.
A friend suggested he would be a good lawyer and recommended he take a job as a clerk with the U.S. Attorney’s office. Much to his surprise, Bidwill was assigned to the homicide unit.
"I realized pretty quick I had grown up in a special place," Bidwill said. "I was there for six months before I saw anybody die for more than a $25 rock of crack cocaine."
The courtroom trials hooked Bidwill and after graduating, he became a federal prosecutor in Phoenix.
"I felt like I wanted to go out and do my own thing and prove to myself and others I could be successful," he said.
Bidwill specialized in prosecuting homicides and violent crimes. In one case, he convicted two brothers of kicking a man to death on the Navajo Reservation.
"He obviously didn’t need that job, but he put his heart and soul into it very quickly," said Joe Lodge, an assistant U.S. Attorney based in Flagstaff. "He relished the courtroom battles."
After six years on the job, however, Bidwill felt as if his career had plateaued. He also felt a tug to come back home. The Cardinals’ efforts to get a new stadium built were going nowhere, and Bidwill believed his experience trying cases — and the contacts he made while working for the Bob Dole presidential campaign in 1996 — would serve him well as the organization’s point man.
He was right.
It took four years and two ballot measures, but in November of 2000 Maricopa County voters approved financing for a $350 million retractable domed stadium.
"He’s the No. 1 reason why there will be a new facility in the Valley," said Fiesta Bowl president John Junker. "He pursued it like a bulldog."
A bulldog’s bite leaves marks, however, and it was during the stadium process that Bidwill’s image began to change.
Fiesta Bowl officials said Bidwill courted them until the stadium was assured, then tried to negotiate what the bowl felt was an unacceptable lease arrangement.
Relations were strained for some time, but the two sides have since called a truce.
The Fiesta Bowl’s dissatisfaction is typical of the criticism directed at Bidwill. Some business leaders and politicians who have dealt with him say he has no interest in cultivating relationships as he pursues his agenda.
"I think cold and calculating is a fairly accurate description of Michael," said Charles Coughlin, president of High Ground, a public affairs consulting firm. "He’s going to find a way through the woods, and if he has to fell a few trees in the process, that’s going to happen."
Former Mesa City Council member Bill Jaffa said Bidwill looks at things, "strictly from a business standpoint. It probably makes people on the other side of Mike less willing to bend."
"He could be friendlier," admitted Dick Neuheisel, a member of the Tempe Sports Authority and a Bidwill friend. "He’s not a glad-hander. I just think he gets focused real quickly and then is driven to achieve the goal he sets for himself."
Coughlin believes Bidwill has a sense of entitlement. One story well-known in political circles: Bidwill phoned a local politician and ordered him to call a radio station that was bashing the stadium deal. The politician’s response: I’m not your kept man.
Coughlin said Bidwill phoned him after seeing a political ad produced by Coughlin’s firm that questioned the amount of money made by the Indian gaming casinos and equated the mystery to, among other things, the Loch Ness Monster and the Cardinals’ master plan.
"Michael was irate. He said, ‘Why did you do that?’ " Coughlin recalled. "I said, ‘We tested it and most people thought it was hysterically funny. It worked.’
"He goes, ‘Well, you worked for us once.’ I said, ‘I don’t work for you anymore. I’m working for a client.’
"But that’s Michael. In his world, loyalty is a one-way street."
Told of the comments by Coughlin and others, Bidwill said, "I would say I’m driven. I would hope I’m smart. I would hope I’m assertive in trying to do what I think we need to do. I’m disappointed people might think I’m condescending and arrogant. I don’t mean to be.
"Yeah, there are times when I’m moving forward quickly and balancing a lot of issues and maybe I don’t have time to take someone out on the golf course and play a round of golf. Maybe all I have is an hour to sit down and have lunch and get right to it.
"I don’t play golf because I decided I can either be a good golfer or we can have a stadium."
Bidwill’s supporters say the criticism is unwarranted. They point out that the Cardinals have long been regarded as laughingstocks, and Bidwill has needed to push hard to achieve the organization’s goals.
"I think a lot of people in the Cardinal world have been painted by the brush of looking through Bill Bidwill Sr.," Dunne said. "I think Mike has had to fight through a tremendous amount of baggage."
Ted Ferris, president and CEO of the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority, said there’s a family dynamic to consider as well.
Michael Bidwill is extremely close to his father and has been pained by the criticism directed at his dad, Ferris said. What son wouldn’t fight hard to, in essence, clear his father’s name?
"It’s on his shoulders," Ferris said. "I think he has a lot of responsibility to deliver on behalf of the family."
The Cardinals long have been a Norman Rockwell portrait — trapped in the 1950s. Michael Bidwill is painting on a new canvas.
"I do think it’s safe to say it’s a much more aggressive approach than what this organization was used to in recent years," said Rod Graves, Arizona’s vice president of football operations.
One example: Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals’ first-round draft pick last April, signed a six-year contract worth potentially more than $50 million.
In the past, the Cardinals would have been resistant to offering such a big deal, and Fitzgerald would have missed a majority of training camp, like former first-round draft picks Wendell Bryant (2002), L.J. Shelton (1999), Andre Wadsworth (1998) and Simeon Rice (1996).
"Michael is making sure that if we have snags along the way that we just don’t sit on the fact that we’ve done it this way for so many years," Graves said. "I think he’s pressed us to research things, to find alternate ways of doing business."
Yet, what seems like much-needed change has been met with some resistance within the organization.
A few players have privately called Bidwill, "Daniel Snyder without the money," a reference to the think-he-knows-it-all owner of the Washington Redskins.
When Bidwill criticized the Cardinals after their 44-6 loss to Cleveland last year, a player tacked the article to a bulletin board in the locker room and wrote a profanity next to Bidwill’s name.
"You know what, that was a terrible game for the Cardinals. I was very frustrated by last season," Bidwill said. "We were a team that didn’t win a single road game. That is totally unacceptable.
"Look, I’m a fan. I want to win. If there’s a player or two downstairs that doesn’t share that opinion, well, speak up. Getting beat the way we did in Cleveland, how can anybody take offense to somebody in the organization being frustrated at witnessing that?"
Those within the organization who dislike Bidwill won’t speak publicly. Privately, they say he’s created a culture of paranoia and fear, and he’s more a tyrant than a leader.
Bidwill believes whatever resentment exists is not a reflection of how he does business but a natural reaction to change.
"I think there was an element in our organization that felt like, ‘Let’s just do it the way we did last year,’ " he said.
"I used to hear that. I’m like, ‘Excuse me, but last year we didn’t do very well. Let’s not do it the way we did last year. Let’s explore other models, let’s explore other ideas.’
"Change may be a scary thing, but I think somebody ought to stand up in this organization and say we want to win and we’re going to take all the necessary steps to do that."
A LIGHTER SIDE
Those who think Bidwill’s life is a 98 mph fastball may be surprised by his hobbies.
Bidwill, who is single, loves to travel, particularly to the south of France or anywhere his cell phone doesn’t work.
His "happy place" is his Beechcraft King Air 10-seat plane. A pilot since he was 19 years old, Bidwill often flies the plane to games.
He doesn’t watch much television — HBO’s Sex and the City being a notable exception — but he’s an aficionado of rock music.
He also has a dry sense of humor that few get to see.
At a Sports and Tourism Authority meeting he sat down in the front row next to a reporter and whispered, "I’m going to get you some quality air time on TV tonight."
Bidwill continued to gesture and whisper throughout the meeting. After a while he said to the reporter, "that ought to do it."
The reporter’s face made every newscast in town.
Challenges define Bidwill, however, and the Cardinals are his windmill.
"When you’ve been told the majority of your childhood that your team is a loser, that your dad should sell the team, I think that drives you in a different way," Graves said.
"When you have an opportunity to get actively involved and change things, it’s personal.
"I think he wants to see this organization succeed not only because of his dad but for the benefit of the whole family. I think also he wants to see this organization perceived in a different way. So many years (the Cardinals) have had this cloud over their head. I think he envisions a day where this can be recognized as one of the best run and most successful organizations in the NFL."