Tom Clancy died last night at the age of 66, after a long and prolific career as one of the country's most popular military and espionage writers. But during a whirlwind few months in 1998, Clancy nearly joined the ranks of that most American club: dilettante NFL owners.
Already a very rich man by 1993, having published The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and The Sum of All Fears, Clancy was part of the group organized by Peter Angelos to purchase a prospective Baltimore NFL team. But when the Rams moved to St. Louis instead, Angelos turned their sights on the Orioles, then up for auction after former owner Eli Jacobs declared bankruptcy. The final purchase price was $173 million, and though Clancy was only a minority owner, it was a significant minority: a 2000 article estimated his stake in the team at 24 percent.
But Clancy still carried a torch for football. 1994 saw a failed attempt to purchase the Patriots. In 1998, the Vikings were put up for sale by their fractured ownership group. In flew Tom Clancy, whose bid was announced as one of three finalists. His group was offering significantly more money than the others—more than $200 million, to a reported $186 million runner-up. Clancy was coy on the size of his stake (he would be majority owner), and the exact amount of the bid: "It's real money, I can tell you that," he told the AP. "You could buy a stealth bomber."
The fact that Clancy had once murdered the entire Vikings team was forgiven and forgotten. In The Sum of All Fears, Syrian terrorists partially detonated a nuclear bomb at a Super Bowl in Denver(!). The Chargers were winning, but the Vikings were making a furious comeback when the thing blew. "An embarrassing coincidence," Clancy said of the Vikings' fictional vaporization.
On Feb. 3, 1998, Clancy's bid was announced as the winner. The vote was 8-0 among the outgoing ownership group. Clancy took the owners out for lunch, the Pioneer Press later reported, but when the check came he told them he had lost his wallet.
The very next day, the first complication arose. Team president Roger Headrick raised his bid, claiming the franchise's bylaws gave him the right to match any offer. The matter went before the NFL, but Minnesota was solidly behind Clancy. A local columnist called him the perfect owner. A TV station's poll found that 98 percent of viewers wanted Clancy to own the team.
On March 19, commissioner Paul Tagliabue ruled in favor of Clancy. But a month later, things started going to hell. Tagliabue announced that "preliminary indications on the ownership structure and financing raise serious questions for us."
The NFL was concerned that Clancy didn't have enough money to follow through on his purchase, even after he claimed to secure $100 million worth of additional financing from Citicorp. He had also brought in as a partner Rockets owner Leslie Alexander, who many Minnesotans believed wanted to eventually buy out Clancy and move the team to Houston. Clancy moved to reassure fans. "Having witnessed the damage done in Baltimore when the Colts left," he said in a statement, "I would never inflict that on the Twin Cities."
The real problem was in a courtroom. Clancy was in the middle of an acrimonious divorce from his wife of 29 years. Not only was Wanda Clancy seeking 50 percent of the proceeds from Jack Ryan Enterprises (named after Clancy's recurring protagonist), in which she owned an equal share, but she wanted her half of future earnings from the Jack Ryan character. A Los Angeles Times article explained her reasoning, and his comeback:
Mrs. Clancy has never claimed the role of Clancy's muse. But it is noted in the divorce papers that she supported him by working as a nurse in the early years of the marriage and rearing the couple's four children.
Clancy has counterclaimed that she was never supportive of his writing. His court papers state that "Mrs. Clancy contributed nothing to the development of his books, that she opposed his literary efforts, and that the value of the marital property is due solely to his efforts unaided and often opposed by Mrs. Clancy."
Clancy skipped a scheduled meeting with the NFL Finance Committee—he claimed he was on a press tour for the recently published Rainbow Six. He asked for a week's extension; the NFL gave him two days. "It appears to me quite clear that Tom Clancy does not have the resources to be the owner of the Minnesota Vikings," an outgoing co-owner told the AP. "That much has come through loud and clear in the last 24 hours."
On May 20, the deadline to present his finances to the league, Clancy announced he would withdraw his bid. The dream was dead. The rest of the ownership group quickly collapsed. San Antonio businessman Red McCombs, whose initial bid had lost to Clancy's, stepped up with a revised offer. And even better, he told the Pioneer Press, "I've got that cash in my hip pocket."
The Clancys finalized their divorce in January of 1999. Wanda retained her half of Jack Ryan Enterprises. As part of the terms, she also received half of Tom's share in the Baltimore Orioles. Her attorney told reporters that Wanda was always the baseball fan of the couple.