Many of the power brokers in the National Football League scowl at the sight of him. Others would rather not see or talk to him. But when retired dentist and real estate entrepreneur Jerry Argovitz speaks, they not only listen, they cringe.
Argovitz built his reputation as a tough-negotiating agent. Now he is the general managing partner for the Houston Gamblers in the U.S. Football League, a team that begins play in 1984 and has already signed, among others, quarterback Jim Kelly of the University of Miami, a first-round pick in this year's NFL draft.
"I'm a fighter. I fought a system I hated--a closed system. To compete with the NFL, it was like David and Goliath," Argovitz said this week in a telephone interview from his Houston offices.
"I became such a thorn in the side of the NFL that they tried to get me out business. Scouts told young players not to go with me. They drafted around my players."
At one time Argovitz represented 30 NFL players; now he only represents Detroit running back Billy Sims. But he is being challenged because he recently represented two star running backs (San Diego first-round pick Gary Anderson and Buffalo's Joe Cribbs), who have signed with the USFL. Some people are crying "conflict of interest."
"It's defintely a conflict of interest," said Brig Owens, assistant to the Executive Director of the NFL Players Association.
"You can't find more blatant evidence of a conflict of interest," said William H. Sullivan, Jr, President of the New England Patriots.
"I think it's pretty obvious that it's not only a conflict of interest, but that it's immoral and unethical, too," said Eugene Klein, owner of the San Diego Chargers, who also called Argovitz an "out and out liar" because of the Anderson negotiations. Anderson now plays for the Tampa Bay Bandits.
"I'm not an attorney, but it does have that tint," said Kay Stephenson, head coach of the Buffalo Bills, a team that won't have the sevices of all-pro halfback Cribbs after the 1983 season. Cribbs signed with Birmingham of the USFL last Saturday.
Argovitz says once Sims signs he will divest himself of his agent business.
"He told me that once his two remaining (Cribbs was the other one) were finalized, then he would get out of the business," said USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons. "That's the agreement that we have. If he did become an agent again, then his agreement with the league would be abrogated and we would take action against him."
Argovitz, 44, has talked to several companies about buying Argovitz and Associates, a sports representation firm he started in 1980 with Gene Burrough (brother of Houston Oilers Ken). He sits on the 24th floor on South Post Oak in downtown Houston, talking about Land Baron Investments, his Houston real estate firm in which he made his millions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while simultaneously keeping up with a dental practice he began in 1964 after graduating from the University of Missouri-Kansas City dental school.
"If you know what you're worth, then you're not worth much," he said through a thick Texas drawl. "The only thing the GMs understood was the numbers. Every time."
A shrewd businessman usually feels good about himself. "It takes guts to borrow money and then invest it all," Argovitz said.
His life with wife J.J., sons Brent, 22, and Rickey, 19, and daughter Kari, 17, keeps him busy, as do his several houses, including a high-rise condo across from The Summit. "I retired (from dentistry) at 34. Yes, I'm happy."
He listens to the complaints from the NFL, and is amused.
"It may have been a conflict of interest, but it's the players who make the final choice," Argovitz said. "I get paid whether the player signs for the USFL or the NFL. The NFL should quit screaming conflict of interest and get off their butts and do something.
"I hope they still keep saying that I have a conflict of interest. The NFL has been doing things a certain way for so long, it's hard for them to change. Well, they're going to have to."
Argovitz's first client was Green Bay's Eddie Lee Ivery in 1980. At a cocktail party, someone asked Argovitz what he thought of Ivery's prior contract with the Packers. "I said: 'My grandmother could have done better.' "
Burrough, who overheard the remark, asked why. "The deferred payments were much too long," Argovitz recalled answering. Later, Burrough brought Ivery and his wife in to see Argovitz at his real estate offices. "I agreed to see if I could help Eddie Lee. I went back to Green Bay and redid his contract. Green Bay was a very fair organization."
Burrough, with a list of 10 potential college players, teamed up with Argovitz, eventually signing seven of the 10 after their college eligibility was up. Five of those seven, including Sims, Cribbs, Jacob Green (Seattle) and George Cumby (Packers), were first-round draft choices in 1980. Cribbs and Sims were named AFC and NFC rookies of the year.
Argovitz admits he's a "late signer," and likes to negotiate through the newspapers. "As an agent, I had nowhere else to go. Before the USFL, the NFL had a total monopoly. The only other job was way up north. These young men put their futures in my hand."
The NFL general managers were unprepared for Argovitz's wide-open style of negotiating.
"That's his operation, it's very predictable, and I think amateurish," said Jim Finks, the Chicago general manager who had to negotiate with Argovitz over Jim McMahon, the Bears' 1982 top draft choice from Brigham Young. "He is a most unique person. He'd rather have the negotiations surrounded by controversy than get the thing done.
"We'd have an exchange of proposals, and then he'd go on the attack through the media. But, I've never taken that too seriously," added Finks.
Former Baltimore general manager Dick Syzmanski, now a scout for the Atlanta Falcons, handled the talks with Argovitz and Curtis Dickey, the Colts' No. 1 choice in 1980. "The only new thing he did was try and put a lot of pressure on management by talking to the press and TV. He'd call them and say how cheap the Baltimore Colts were. I always thought we'd get Curtis Dickey. We laughed about it afterward."
Syzmanski doesn't believe that Argovitz's conflicts are as bad as some others in the NFL. "There are some agents, and I won't give names, who represent players, coaches, and general managers. I consider that more of a conflict of interest," he said.
Argovitz, who says he considered his work as an agent to be a hobby, expects to be out of the business soon. But in the meantime, he has replaced former NFLPA executive director Ed Garvey as the No. 1 villain among NFL management.
"The NFL did want me out of the agent business," Argovitz said. "You know how much money they lost over the years. They finally got their wish. They didn't know that I'd take players with me."