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Bob Sambol's Got Quite the Stake in the City Landing the College Football Hall of Fame

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Here's an interesting little fact left off the two press releases announcing the city's efforts to lure the College Football Hall of Fame from South Bend, Indiana, to downtown Dallas: It was all Bob Sambol's idea. Seriously. But the namesake of Bob's Steak & Chop House on Lemmon Avenue figured, well, what with his current legal issues and all, it was better to stay off of the podium and instead sit out in the audience during this morning's press conference. Sambol denies he did so at the mayor's request.

But make no mistake: "Bob was kind of the catalyst for the whole thing," says TM Advertising president Tom Hansen. "Bob was the catalyst, the centerpiece, the guy in common." Indeed, sources say it was Sambol who first brought the idea to the likes of T. Boone Pikens, Troy Aikman and Ray Hunt, which went unacknowledged during today's announcement. "But with all that's going on, he said, 'I should step aside, because it won't help,'" Hansen says. "He's a class guy, and he's the one who got all the support of everyone who's been involved," including Mayor Tom Leppert.

Sambol, when reached by Unfair Park this afternoon, was more than happy to confirm his involvement with the project, which he began kicking around a year ago with "30-year friend" Steve Hatchell, president and CEO of the National Football Foundation, which is the parent entity of the College Football Hall of Fame. Hatchell's been unavailable for comment all day, no doubt because he doesn't want to be seen as the bad guy in South Bend, where officials in Mayor Steve Luecke's office tell Unfair Park they hear about someone trying to move the Hall "every couple of years" before shrugging it off.

Sambol says he and Hatchell talked about it for a while, with Sambol expressing such enthusiasm for the project that Hatchell told him, "If you can get people interested in this town, where it's hard to do anything, give it a shot." And eventually, Sambol says, they settled on a vision for the Hall of Fame as something more than a museum filled with old helmets and pads. "It needs to be the center of amateur football in America, whether it's the academics, injury prevention, turf research, whatever," Sambol says. "Get a bunch of companies to collaborate and make it the biggest, best hall of fame you can imagine."

Sambol and Hansen both say that the steakhouse owner took the idea to Mayor Tom Leppert about a year ago, and that he expressed wholehearted support for the idea: It would be connected to the convention center hotel, after all, and it wouldn't cost taxpayers a dime, as all parties expect it to be funded with private and corporate contributions.

Hansen and Sambol do want to make one thing clear: They expect -- and certainly want -- this to happen even if the convention center hotel doesn't wind up being built. And they have their reasons: "I'm in the hospitality business and have watched our out-of-town business go down and down, not only to an intolerable level, but the type of visitor we bring doesn't bring any money," Sambol says.

He adds that Atlanta's also gotten involved in trying to lure the College Football Hall of Fame there, and that the city will need to be "aggressive" to bring it here.

"Atlanta has Chick-fil-A and Coca-Cola behind them," says Sambol, who says the College Football Hall of Fame could being between 400,000 to 700,000 visitors to Dallas annually, where, now, it brings but 70,000 to South Bend. "But we can be very aggressive and beat them out."

A year ago, Sambol says, they were told by developers and architects, including those involved with the planning of the hotel, that the hall of fame would run between $50 to $70 million to build. "But that's gone down drastically because of the state of the economy," he says, suggesting that $30 million might be closer to a realistic guesstimate.

"But our intention was to always do it privately with people who do business with football and want to be involved," he says. "We want to deal with sponsorships, and if Boone Pickens or Ray Hunt want to throw in $10 million and name the stadium or field, we'll take that. It's a wonderful opportunity for the city. Honestly? I am in favor of the convention center hotel but we also need an attraction like the College Football Hall of Fame."

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