clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Minnesota was part of AFL ... until it wasn’t

NFL granted state an expansion franchise at the last minute

Fran Tarkenton

In the late 1950s, several cities across the United States were earmarked for possible expansion for the National Football League (NFL). Not that the league was going to expand – in fact it was adamant about not expanding into new cities.

Over the years several wealthy businessmen had inquired about being owners of an NFL team, mainly expansion into their hometowns. What the NFL told them instead was if they wanted into the league they needed to purchase an existing team. Period.

Lamar Hunt of Dallas was a young rich oilman. He had tried for years to buy the Chicago Cardinals but to avail. He again went to the NFL and was told by the league commissioner to stop his inquisition about expansion. So, he began his own league in 1959 and called it the American Football League (AFL). With his negotiations with the Cardinals he knew of a man from Houston who wanted in on the pro football scene by the name of Bud Adams. In addition to his own team called the Dallas Texans, he contacted Adams and asked if he had any interest in a pro football team. Adams’ new team would be labeled the Houston Oilers.

And so, the new league was off and running. Approximately 250 college football players graduate each year with only around 60 that make NFL squads. That left about 190 players available and football ready.

At this point, Hunt began to seek out potential owners for the AFL. He knew that for the new league to have credibility he needed franchises in New York and Los Angeles, but had contacts from the cities of Denver and Minneapolis. Hunt felt the Minneapolis franchise was just as crucial to the new league because of the location in the upper Midwest.

The State of Minnesota was not new to professional football with clubs in the past such as the Minneapolis Marines (1905-1924), Duluth Kelleys (1923-1925), Duluth Eskimos (1926-1927) and the Minneapolis Red Jackets (1929-1930).

Which brings us to the Vikings of the American Football League.

One of the men who had petitioned the NFL about an expansion team was Max Winter; who had once been part owner of the Minneapolis Lakers of the National Basketball Association. When contacted by Hunt, Winter (along with business partner Bill Boyer) jumped at the chance to rekindle pro football back to the state. Suddenly the AFL had confirmed clubs in Dallas, Houston, Denver and now Minneapolis-St. Paul. Besides Los Angeles and New York, other cities on the agenda were Seattle, Kansas City, St. Louis, Buffalo, Louisville, and Boston. In the end, Buffalo and Boston would round out the final alignment.

The AFL was complete — eight teams to begin in the fall of 1960. The next step was to set up a college draft. Meetings and the draft would be held November 21-23, 1959 in Minneapolis. Representatives and owners from every club were on hand. The assembly was arranged by Winter, Boyer and minority owner H.P. Skoglund.

In the meantime, various representatives from the NFL were in contact with several new owners of AFL teams to inquire if they would prefer to have an NFL expansion team instead. Crude tactics indeed, but the thought process was that if at least two owners accepted franchises now, quite possibly the entire structure of the newly-formed league would implode and simply close up shop before it got going. The NFL had experienced plenty of headaches with the rival All-America Football Conference from 1946-1949 and didn’t want to trudge down that financial explosion again. Back then quite a few NFL clubs were about to fold because of the competition for players, fans and advertisers - not to mention escalating player salaries. The feeling was that now it would be more cost effective to simply admit a few teams now, promise a few more a spot in future years and go about business as usual.

Houston owner Adams was offered an NFL expansion for $650,000, to which Adams declined (he explained he was a man of his word). The owner of the Los Angeles franchise was offered part ownership in the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. Even Hunt, the founder of the league, was offered half stake in the newly-formed Dallas expansion club.

George Halas of the Chicago Bears was the head of the NFL’s Expansion Committee. He set up two meetings with Hunt to discuss closing up the AFL to avoid a financial war. Hunt countered that he wanted all of the committed AFL teams to merge into the NFL. Halas’ response was that the NFL would add teams in Dallas and Minneapolis in 1960, then add Houston and Buffalo in 1961 but had no interest in adding a second team in Los Angeles or New York; and had zero attraction in fielding a team in Denver whatsoever.

Halas then contacted the principal owners of the Minneapolis team and told them the NFL was definitely expanding into Minnesota and offered them the ownership group.

All of the AFL owners were in a meeting room at the hotel in Minneapolis on the eve before the inaugural draft. The owner of the New York Titans burst into the room holding a local newspaper with the headline “Minnesota to Get NFL Franchise.” The article explained how Halas had gotten the group to bolt the AFL for the established league and that the new team would begin play in 1961. At the time this was considered a major blow to the infant league. Other owners had the chance to become partners in NFL teams and yet, had passed.

The AFL draft went on as scheduled. The irony was that the one team that defected was also the team that hosted the event. Several months later the AFL announced that Oakland, Calif. would be given the eighth franchise.

Prior to Hunt’s idea of a rival league, the NFL had said that expansion would be out of the question. After only a few weeks of the announcement of the birth of the AFL, suddenly there were two new franchises and an announced expansion of two more in 1962 (which did not happen).

On Sept. 27, 1960 the Minnesota Vikings were officially announced as the NFL’s 14th franchise. They drafted quarterback Fran Tarkenton in the third round of their inaugural draft, who was later traded to the Giants in 1967.