PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – They could have called it “defect-gate.”
Eighteen years ago this week, then-Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. flew to New Orleans for Super Bowl XXXI with one mission: convince New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft to move his franchise to Rhode Island’s capital city.
The Pats were about to appear in their first Super Bowl in a decade after defeating the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship game, but this wasn’t the Patriots team we know today. For one thing, they weren’t very good, having gone 63-99 with just two playoff appearances in the 10 years leading up to their Super Bowl run. They were also playing in aging Foxboro Stadium with few luxury boxes at a time when new stadiums were popping up all over the country. Kraft had made it clear he wanted a new field, possibly in South Boston.
Providence, meanwhile, was flourishing. A beneficiary of a booming national economy and the federal funding that came with it, Providence would be named one of the country’s five “renaissance cities” by USA Today later that year. By 1997 Cianci had rehabilitated his public image and was still years away from the corruption scandal that ended his political career. Most importantly, Providence was fresh off beating out Boston to be named the host city for the AFC Championship game, which officials said brought millions of dollars to the state.
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Over the next eight months, Cianci and other Rhode Island leaders would put on a full-court press to try to woo the Patriots to Rhode Island, with promises of a 69,000-seat stadium – funded in part by taxpayers – in downtown Providence. Cianci was on vacation this week and unavailable to comment, but he related his version of the story in his 2011 memoir.
Cianci wrote that his current home, The 903 Residences behind the Providence Place Mall, would have been on the 40-yard line of the stadium.
“As I said, ‘you can have the greatest tool-and-die plant in the world, but it’s going to be written up as news,’” Cianci wrote about his efforts to bring the Patriots to Providence. “I really fell for the whole concept – just as Mike Bloomberg in New York and so many other mayors did.”
He wasn’t kidding.
Talk of a move to Providence heated up in early January when then-Boston Mayor Tom Menino and other officials said they opposed Kraft’s proposal to build a stadium on the waterfront in South Boston. A Providence Journal report published Jan. 9, 1997, said then-Congressman Patrick Kennedy, state Sen. John Celona and former Gov. Bruce Sundlun were all backing a plan to move the team to Rhode Island. Kennedy wrote a letter to Menino. Celona and his Senate colleagues approved a resolution inviting the team to the state.
Not everyone was sold on the idea. The Providence Journal reported that then-Gov. Lincoln Almond said “my personal feeling is it’s a New England team and that Massachusetts is their home,” though he told reporters at the time that he would be prepared to have discussions with the Krafts about a move to Rhode Island.
By Super Bowl Sunday, Providence was Patriot-crazy.
Cianci traveled to New Orleans — where the Pats would lose to the Green Bay Packers on the field — to meet with Kraft. The Providence Journal reported that Cianci hired an architectural firm from Kansas City to create a sketch of a stadium in Providence. He also hired an accounting firm to figure out the cost of the project.
“We want to show our face at the Super Bowl,” Cianci told the Journal. “I want to put Providence’s best foot forward. That’s the reason I’m going out there.”
In February, days before Kraft announced that the Patriots were withdrawing plans for the stadium in Boston, Cianci released a poll that showed 73% of Rhode Islanders supported bringing the team to Rhode Island, according to a Journal report. Only 10% said they opposed the idea.
That didn’t mean there weren’t skeptics. Almond’s office issued a press release saying, “We cannot and will not throw all caution to the wind and raid the public treasury to get the Patriots to relocate to Rhode Island.” Providence Journal sports columnist Jim Donaldson wrote “we stand ready to build our Field of Schemes.”
“The question is how Kraft really feels about Rhode Island in general, and Providence in particular,” Donaldson wrote. “Are we the apple of his eye? Or merely the carrot on a stick?”
But the idea also created strange bedfellows. Myth York, a former state senator who lost to Almond in the 1994 and 1998 governor’s races, wrote a letter to the Journal saying “the governor has the responsibility to provide leadership, yet there have been too many instances when the personal animosity of the governor toward the mayor of Providence has interfered with proper state conduct.” In 2014, of course, York ran attack ads on Cianci during his bid for mayor.
Prying the Patriots away from Foxboro remained a top issue well into baseball season.
By July, Almond had come around on the idea. The Providence Journal reported that the governor and Cianci were planning to send a stadium proposal to Kraft by Labor Day; during a joint telephone interview, the two longtime rivals were said to be “finishing each other’s sentences like an old married couple.”
“If there was something within reach that we could do that would draw the Patriots, there’s going to be no problem between the city and the state,” Almond told the Journal.
In the end, nothing came of the plan.
State and city officials continued talking with Kraft late into September, but on Oct. 1, 1997, Kraft announced a plan to refurbish Foxboro Stadium rather than move the team. Cianci blamed Almond for not being “totally immersed in the negotiations.”
“I like to get things done,” Cianci told the Providence Journal. “I like to set a goal, I like to put my team on the field, a full team, and move. The governor, I think, is more reflective and more deliberative then I might be. I like to get things done and show results for the people who pay my salary.”
That wasn’t the end of Kraft’s flirtation with moving the Patriots, however.
In 1998, state leaders in Connecticut said they would be willing to finance 100% of a new stadium in Hartford to lure the team there. Connecticut’s legislature approved the deal, but Kraft pulled out the following year when the state said it couldn’t build the stadium by 2002. It was the second time in less than a decade a deal to bring the Patriots to Connecticut had fallen through.
“It’s now official. I am a New York Jets fan, now and probably forever,” Conn. Gov. John Rowland said at the time.
You know the rest of the story.
Kraft kept the team in Foxboro, using private money to build Gillette Stadium. Since that 1997 Super Bowl appearance, the Patriots have become one of the NFL’s most successful franchises, compiling a 202-86 regular season record and winning three Super Bowls. They’ll try for their fourth next Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
As for Providence, Cianci eventually admitted that Almond’s initial hesitance about building a stadium for the Patriots was justified.
“Here’s a good rule of thumb: if building a stadium were a profitable venture, the owners of the team wouldn’t be begging for someone else to do it,” Cianci wrote in his memoir.