Sunday, February 25, 2018
Sports

Fennelly: Longtime Rowdies, a self-made owner and bruised feelings

Where have all the Rowdies gone?

I mean the old Rowdies, from the kick-in-the-grass glory days. The Tampa Bay soccer club, when reborn in 2010, leaned on its brand, on men like Perry Van Der Beck, who was drafted by the Rowdies out of high school in 1978 and whose devotion to the franchise and its fans was and is unwavering. He loves this club.

Love had to be the only reason why Van Der Beck was in the stands at Al Lang Stadium Saturday night as the Rowdies played their first match since he resigned as the team's assistant general manager and vice president of community relations. Old Rowdies never die, they just move to section 5, row 10.

Van Der Beck's resignation severed the final link between the original Rowdies and today's NASL entry. It's a sad thing. It can't be a good thing. Something has been lost. In August, Rowdies GM Farrukh Quraishi, the first college draft pick in Rowdies history, was fired nine months after being hired, along with coach Thomas Rongen.

That, kiddies, brings us to the man who did the hirings and firings and who might turn up as an exact match if they ever dust Van Der Beck's departure for fingerprints: Bill Edwards, the wildly successful St. Petersburg businessman and wildly hands-on Rowdies owner and CEO.

Edwards, 71, stood near the field at Al Lang before Saturday's game. He wore a black Rowdies warm-up suit and cap. Half an hour later, having sized up this unfiltered man, I asked Edwards if he'd prefer "Crazy Bill" or "Wild Bill."

"Crazy Bill, not Wild Bill," Edwards said.

Where have all the Rowdies gone?

"There are a lot of old Rowdies still around if you look," Edwards said. "But I decided after much deliberation that if you want to run your team, you have to do it. If I want to make sure it runs the way I want it to run, I'm going to have to be the one who makes things happen. This is how I live. That's how I make things successful from not successful. I have to do it. I'm a pain in the a--."

Edwards, self-made, has made millions, always his way. He's the guy with the oversized footprint on downtown St. Petersburg — and in area charitable causes. He's the casino high roller, the owner of three private jets and a 145-foot yacht. Edwards loves that boat. He named it himself. It's called …

"I Love This Boat," Edwards said.

Guy cracks me up.

"You know what the best part of being me is? Being me."

What that has to do with running a sports franchise is unclear. The Rowdies won a NASL championship in 2012, but haven't made the playoffs since Edwards purchased controlling interest in December 2013.

True, Edwards saved the Rowdies from financial collapse. He spent millions making Al Lang a first-class soccer facility and has added high-profile signings, including midfielder Joe Cole, 34, who made his Rowdies debut Saturday. The announced crowd was 6,702. It made real noise. A good time.

"Yes, I've been through a few coaches and GMs, okay?" Edwards said at the news conference introducing Cole. "But I believe in this trip through the maze of soccer I've figured out, I believe, how to run a team and get the team to do what you want them to do."

Edwards had never watched a soccer game until he bought the Rowdies. He sits behind the home bench at matches.

"Somebody on Facebook said I was like the Mark Cuban of soccer, out there wearing the colors behind the bench," Edwrads said.

I'd add a helping of Jerry Jones and a pinch of George Steinbrenner.

"I'm very patient, but I expect things to happen fast," Edwards said.

Neither Quraishi nor Rongen, who are still under contract, will speak publicly about their old boss.

Then there's their old boss.

"I'm surprised they lasted that long," Edwards said. "I was being nice. They shouldn't have lasted that long."

Van Der Beck emailed a statement to friends and colleagues when he resigned, but never mentioned Edwards by name. But why would he leave a team that means so much to him unless he'd had it with the owner?

"Ever think it might be the other way around?" Edwards said. "I have people and I direct them what I want them to do in their job, and if they don't want to do the job I directed them to do, then I don't have a job for them."

The departure of the old Rowdies has angered some fans, including members of "Ralph's Mob," the club's rabid supporters group and in-game noisemaker. Last year, after the Quraishi and Rongen firings, the Mob staged a silent protest, staying stone cold quiet for an entire half.

"The interaction with the old Rowdies made it feel like family," Mob member John Sasse said.

"I think we're one of the more solid teams in the league," Bill Edwards said before Saturday's game. "We're here to stay. We want to be here."

After Saturday's game, Perry Van Der Beck went down to the field and chatted with some Rowdies players, staff and fans. There were a lot of hugs. It's hard to leave what you love.

 
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