Harvey Robert (Bum) Bright prides himself on being a shrewd, tough, honest businessman whose word is as good as a signed contract. "It's pride that keeps you honest, keeps you honorable." Bright carefully screened prospective partners for his purchase of the Dallas Cowboys, letting some drop by the wayside if he decided "this cookie just doesn't fit our mold." He didn't, for example, want anyone on a "big ego trip." The National Football League checked each of the buyers out thoroughly. "Pete Rozelle NFL commissioner told me, 'we ran every one of these people to the ground and you put together a bunch that just checks out to be squeaky clean.' "
A good-old-boy network connects Bright to most of the investors who came in, no questions asked, because of Bright. When longtime owner Clint Murchison let it be known last year that his franchise was for sale, Bright just picked up the phone and raised the $60 million. Bright ticks off the names: "I went to school with George Underwood and I know Ed Smith's brother. He's drilled a lot of wells for us. I was a close friend of Foster Yancey's father and I knew Foster as a little kid. I know Brad Camp, his partner, through Yancey. J.L. Huffines I've known well for a long time . . . "
George Underwood Jr. and his son, George Underwood III, of Underwood Development Corporation each have 10 percent. "Bum just called me on the phone and I said, 'Hell, if you're going to do it, just deal me in." Underwood Jr. and Bright played football against each other in grade school. "When I was playing left tackle about 1933, every time Bum would go through he left his footprints in my face. That's the last time we ever played against each other -- we've been on the same side of a deal ever since. Bum's honest as the day is long and has been that way for 50 years. I would trust him with my life."
Comparing childhood poverty has become an art form among these millionaires, and the word "little" is used a lot, as in Underwood's "We're just little farm people. We don't change. Growing up, my daddy was a struggling doctor. Bum's daddy was a great guy, but he was lucky to have a job." Underwood makes getting rich sound so easy. "I just caught the building boom on the upswing -- you just couldn't do anything wrong in 1947." He is chairman of the board of his real estate development company, owns Riverhill Country Club, has large land holdings in North Dallas and is on the board of governors of Southern Methodist University. His son, following in his footsteps, says, "Basically we're in deals to make a profit. This thing doesn't make much money, but the Cowboys are such great ambassadors for Dallas. And what's good for Dallas is good for business."
For a while, it looked as though there would be one genuinely flamboyant character in the cast of owners -- J.L. Williams. Another real estate developer, Williams tools around in his white Rolls Royce with the initial license plates, wears a watch with free-floating diamonds that remind you of one of those games where you try to shake the beads into holes. He has one of the most lavish of the many lavish boxes at Texas Stadium that originally sold for $50,000. (Owners have spent up to a quarter of a million to decorate them, and a double box recently went for $1 million.) "It's called the 'Let 'Em Eat Cake' box," says Williams with an engaging grin, showing off the red-velvet-draped box complete with crystal chandeliers, flocked wallpaper, velvet chairs and Louis VI furniture. During games, drinks are served by liveried servants.
Bright, the antithesis of ostentation, says of Williams, "I know him not well. We're not in the same social group." Somewhere along the way, Williams -- who has developed a string of high-rises in Dallas and has many out-of-state ventures as well -- dropped out, citing the length of time it took to get the deal consummated. "He had other things he wanted to do with his money," says Bright. So Bright got on the phone once again and got someone else to take over that 5 percent -- Amelia Lay, the widow of Herman Lay, who founded a little old company called Frito-Lay. Like another partner, Arthur Temple Jr., Mrs. Lay, the only woman in the crowd, didn't want any publicity and did not return phone calls.
Temple, former vice chairman of Time Inc. and the forest products financier, has another 5 percent. "Then there's Ed Smith, down in Houston," says Bright. Smith, President of Alamo Barge Lines Inc. and member of the board of directors of Houston Natural Gas Corporation, has 15 percent.
J.L. Huffines Jr., sitting in his office of deep rich wood and rows of objets d'art, looks very much the banker he is. He has lots of ranching and real estate interests, is chairman of the board, Bank of Dallas, and owns 10 percent of the team. Huffines calls Bright "one of the shrewdest businessmen I have ever known" and it didn't matter to him whether Bright was talking oil or real estate or pro football. He joined in immediately.
With the exception of George Underwood III, all these men are of Bright's generation. There are three younger investors who fit their same mold of hard-working, self-made millionaires. "We're working rich," is how Underwood Jr. puts it.
Foster Yancey and Brad Camp, who own 10 percent, are in their forties and somewhat the odd-couple partners in construction and real estate development companies. Camp jets around the world with his wife and young family, from Acapulco to Brussels, at the drop of an airline ticket. Yancey, on the other hand, "lives a very simple life" and is content to be a loner, fishing or restoring old cars. He is now building a replica of a 1932 Phaeton. Friends since high school, they began with nothing.("I had $400 and a '55 Oldsmobile I still owed payments on," says Camp. Yancey says, "I had a '55 Ford, owed more than it was worth, and a little credit.") Several workaholic years later they prospered in their land development and have, as Yancey puts it, "done a few little shopping centers."
Camp bursts with Dallas Cowboy chauvinism. "When you're in a foreign country they know two things about Texas, the series 'Dallas' and the Cowboys. In Pakistan, you will find Cowboy T-shirts. I have a Texas flag on my briefcase and I was in Cannes, and the doorman asks me, in English, where I was from. I said Dallas and he asked, 'Do you know J.R.?' And in Brussels, there are Cowboy picture books in windows. Businessmen all around the world, with whom I deal, know about the Cowboys. To participate in the most valuable sports franchise in the United States is a rare thing."
The only newcomer to Texas is Michigan-born Craig Hall, who seems as if he could be some long-lost son of Bum Bright's. At 34, he is the founder of a $1.5 billion real estate empire that includes holdings in Michigan and Virginia as well as Texas. He moved to Dallas 2 1/2 years ago. When he heard the Cowboys were up for sale, he contacted team president Tex Schramm and said he was interested. Schramm put him in touch with Bright and Hall came in for 10 percent.
Hall started in business with a lawn-mowing service at age 12 and hasn't stopped. In college, he bought some student housing for a song, then at 24 he started a resort community a la Reston near Detroit.
"I'm real basic," says Hall, and jokes that the first phrase out of his mouth was "buy low, sell high and keep the difference."
Last but not least is Schramm, who owns 3 percent of the team. In his Texas stadium office there are pictures of Murchison, the former owner and a longtime friend, who decided to sell the team following poor health and intrafamily financial feuds. Schramm looks close to tears as he talks of Murchison, the millionaire oilman who paid $600,000 in 1960 for the right to have the initial franchise. For 24 years, the team had only one coach, Tom Landry, and only one general manager, Tex Schramm. Selling the team marked the end of this three-man era that produced 19 straight winning seasons and two NFL championships.
Schramm was given the voting trust, which means that he retains the power to continue to represent the Cowboys in league matters. "It sure was a sad day," says Schramm, referring to the sale. But then he brightens. Next to Murchison, adds Schramm, he couldn't think of a better man to work for than H.R. "Bum" Bright.