Cover Story: The Lucky One

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Posted By on January 28, 2021
Bill Shover

Valley visionary and father of the Fiesta Bowl recalls his fortunate life

Civic booster and Fiesta Bowl founder Bill Shover has been making things happen in the Valley for nearly 60 years. “I was a lucky guy,” he said, making light of his accomplishments. “It was the newspaper. I was just a guy doing it for the paper.”

His career in newspapers is straight out of central casting. He got his start at 6 years old, selling newspapers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I learned to make money as a child,” he said, explaining that his Irish Catholic family was short on cash but long on love and had to scramble for whatever they had.

It Started with Notre Dame

Shover’s affection for college football dates back to 1933, when his father took him to see Notre Dame play. Later, a well-off brother-in-law treated Shover to one game every season. “I saw every Notre Dame team through those years,” he said.

Consequently, Shover dreamed of attending Notre Dame, but couldn’t afford it. So he cashed in some of his luck. A high school teacher had taught him typing and got him into the U.S. Army Headquarters Company at Fort Ord in California. After a 13-month stint, Shover used his G.I. benefits to attend Butler University in Indiana, where he majored in journalism.

Promoting the Papers

After graduating, Shover wanted to be a sports writer, but there were no openings. So his first newspaper job was with the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News, not as a reporter, but working to promote the papers.

Shover organized and promoted events that the newspapers put on, which got him out of the newsroom and into Indianapolis. He wrote unbylined stories about the newspapers’ charities and was on the editorial board. “The publisher let me do a lot of things that gave me many advantages. I was lucky,” Shover said.

A Great Adventure

In 1962, the newspapers’ larger-than-life publisher, Eugene Pulliam, transferred Shover to Phoenix, then a burgeoning city of 350,000. Pulliam gave Shover a simple but broad mandate: “Do good things, but don’t spend too much money.”

Along the way, Shover got a masterclass in leadership, courtesy of Pullium, who also owned The Arizona Republic and the now-shuttered Phoenix Gazette; Walter Bimson, the chief of Valley National Bank; and attorney Frank Snell. Known collectively as the “Big Three,” these men founded the Phoenix 40, which spawned today’s successful Valley Leadership program.

“It was a great time to be here,” Shover said. “Pullium let me roam with all the top people in town with the two great newspapers in the community at the time behind me. It was a great adventure.”

The Big Three taught Shover the key to getting things done: not caring who got the credit. “They were three men who stayed in the background and let others look good. To work with them was the inspiration of my life,” he said.

The Birth of a Bowl

Before long, that lesson on the value of behind-the-scenes influence would serve Shover well in a major pursuit: creating a postseason college football bowl game.

It started in 1968 when the Arizona State Sun Devils won eight games yet didn’t receive a bowl bid. ASU and University of Arizona officials lobbied the Sun Bowl, one of two sanctioned bowl games west of Dallas, and Sun Bowl officials said they would invite the winner of the 1968 ASU-UA game to participate. But then, they buckled to the ultimatum issued by Wildcats coach Jim LaRue, who said, “Take us now” … or else. As a result, Arizona played in the Sun Bowl, despite losing to the Sun Devils 30-7.

Bill Shover is a legend in the world of Arizona sports. In addition to spearheading the creation of the Fiesta Bowl, he helped launch the Phoenix Suns and chaired the effort to bring Super Bowl XXX to Tempe.

Frustrated, G. Homer Durham, the president of ASU at the time, made an off-the-cuff remark that if the university couldn’t get invited to bowl games, maybe it should create its own. The next day, a local advertising executive named Glenn Hawkins walked into Shover’s office to talk about starting a bowl game.

“I said, ‘Well, let’s get a bunch of guys in town who are sports-minded and see if there’s interest in doing it,’” Shover said. Hawkins and Shover sent out invitations and hosted a luncheon at the Adams Hotel downtown. “I said, ‘Guys, what do you think about doing this?’ And they said, ‘Let’s get going!”

Although hundreds of people throughout Arizona were critical to making the notion a reality, a core group of nine men combined their skills and wills to convince the National Collegiate Athletic Association to sanction a bowl game in Arizona. Joining Shover and Hawkins were lawyer Don Meyers, Coca-Cola general manager George Taylor, media executive Karl Eller, banker George Isbell, accountant Don Dupont, hotelier Jack Stewart and stockbroker Jim Meyer.

“We had nine people full of enthusiasm, who passed the hat to raise money to go to Washington DC, and make the presentation,” Shover said. “We didn’t worry about who got attention. We were all nine tied for first, I guess you could say.”

Making the Case

Shover and company worked diligently to put together the financial support, university endorsements and stadium plans. They lugged a massive model of Sun Devil Stadium to Washington to show the NCAA’s Extra Events Committee that they had secured a setting with 55,000 seats. Shover made a presentation accompanied by a stirring audio-visual show about the history of bowl games and how they were unfair to teams in the West. “All the teams in the East with so-so records were getting in bowl games when ASU couldn’t get in a bowl game, or Utah, or the good teams we had here at that time,” Shover said.

Central to the pitch was the idea that this bowl would be “more than a game.” Profits would go to community efforts, including a program to fight drug abuse. With drug use on campuses on the rise, U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell came to the presentation and let it be known that the administration wanted this game. “All the schools wanted to have programs about drugs at the time, and Mitchell came in with his heavy hand from Richard Nixon and told the committee, ‘We want this game,’” Shover said.

With the Western Athletic Conference and the federal government backing the effort, prospects for a bowl game in Arizona looked good. The NCAA accepted the proposal in early 1971.

The Inaugural Game

Community spirit was high on Dec. 27, 1971, when more than 51,000 fans packed into Sun Devil Stadium to watch the first Fiesta Bowl. Mariachi bands, Native American dancers, a jazz choir, and marching bands from local high schools entertained the excited crowd before kickoff.

The game itself featured top-10 Arizona State against top-20 Florida State. Arizona’s first college football bowl game was a nail-biter, decided in the final minute when ASU’s Woody Green dove straight into the end zone from two yards out to give ASU the first Fiesta Bowl win. The final score — ASU Sun Devils 45, Florida State 38.

Community Spirit Is Key

Today, the Fiesta Bowl hosts a variety of events every year, in addition to two elite football bowl games. Key to the operation’s success is the team of nearly 3,000 who volunteer their time and skills to the cause.

Community spirit has always been what sets the Fiesta Bowl apart. From the beginning, they were looking for a way to differentiate themselves from other bowls, like the Rose Bowl. “We said, ‘We’ll do something the Rose Bowl doesn’t do, we’ll have hospitality,’” Shover said.

The group rolled out the red carpet for visiting teams, meeting them at their planes in their signature yellow jackets, taking them to their hotels and remaining at their beck and call. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of hospitality. No one had ever done that before.” The teams, fans and families loved it.

Doctors, dentists and babysitters were on call for whatever the teams needed while guest cars transported them around town. “We even had arrangements to fly them over the Grand Canyon,” Shover said. “We had so many opportunities that other bowls didn’t have because we had Arizona.”

An Anchor in Arizona

Over the years, Shover continued to be one of Arizona’s biggest boosters. In 1987, he helped coordinate Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the state. He was also a key player in making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday in Arizona. And he chaired the effort to bring Super Bowl XXX to Tempe. But of all his achievements, he is most proud of one he believes hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

As part of his role on Phoenix’s American Bicentennial Commission, Shover led the campaign to bring one of the anchors from the battleship U.S.S. Arizona from Pearl Harbor to the Arizona State Capitol.

“It was cast in 1911 in Pennsylvania and was on the U.S.S. Arizona, which was in World War I and of course went down on Dec. 7, 1941,” Shover said. Today, the 16,000-pound anchor along with one of the Arizona’s two masts are part of a vast memorial park for U.S. conflicts and wars in Wesley Bolin Plaza in Phoenix.

“We brought in the national director of the Bicentennial, and he marveled. We had more events in Phoenix than they had in Boston and Philadelphia. And the culminating event was the anchor,” Shover said.

The Ugly Seven

Shover retired from The Republic in 1998 and, at 92, still leads an active life. Following the death of his wife, Murny, he continued spending time with their longtime friend, Kay, whose husband had also passed away. “Our friendship grew into love and we got married. We’ve been married now for six years,” Kay said.

Blessed with good health, Shover and Kay spend summers in Boise and enjoy time with their families, who get along well. When in Arizona, he also spends time with a group called the Ugly Seven. Hugh Downs was one of the first members and today the group boasts 10 Valley leaders. “We meet once a month, and we just tease each other, tell dumb stories and blab about our past,” Shover said.

Only one woman has broken into the Ugly ranks: Kax Herberger, who called the men her Boy Scout troop. “We gave her a Boy Scout hat embroidered with Den Mother. And Kax would wear that hat wherever we went. We’ve met in truck stops, roadhouses, the nicest restaurants, the dumbest places,” Shover said, joking that no place would host the group twice.

Arizona Proud

Despite all of his accomplishments, when asked what one word describes him, Shover said, “Shy.” He credits his family, country and men like Gene Pullium for giving him a chance to play a defining role in our state.

“I’m so proud of Arizona, because when I came here, it was still a little state. And it has emerged into a major, major player in the United States,” he said.

And in this year, when the little football bowl he helped to create is celebrating its half-centennial, Shover counts himself fortunate for the job that gave him the opportunities he’s had. “The paper was the one behind it,” he said. “I was the luckiest man in the world.”

Karen Werner

About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.