Rozelle made NFL what it is today

Updated: April 18, 2005, 11:59 AM ET
By Bob Carter | Special to ESPN.com

"I firmly believe that when the final history of the National Football League is written, the all-time hero of the NFL, the man who contributed the most to changing America's Sunday afternoon watching habits, is Pete Rozelle," says Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series

Pete Rozelle
Pete Rozelle's lasting contribution to pro football was creating the Super Bowl and transforming it into the biggest event in American sports.
National Football League owners thought they knew what they were getting in January 1960 when they couldn't decide on a new commissioner and settled for a third option. Split between two candidates after 22 ballots, the owners turned to Pete Rozelle, the 33-year-old general manager of the Los Angeles Rams. Here was a bright and unassuming man, they figured, who could be twisted in their favor.

"They finally picked Pete as a compromise," said longtime Dallas Cowboys executive Tex Schramm, "because both sides thought they could control him. But they were wrong. Pete was a lot stronger than any of them realized."

Replacing the late Bert Bell, Rozelle quickly showed that behind the quiet demeanor were daring vision and strength of conviction. A former public relations executive, Rozelle turned professional football into America's No. 1 sport.

Under his leadership, the NFL generated huge contracts with network television, merged with the young American Football League, created the Super Bowl, Monday night games and instant replay, and developed a marketing and merchandizing bonanza never seen before. The NFL even was taken overseas for occasional games.

"Pro football was nothing until he became commissioner," said Red Auerbach, the legendary Boston Celtics coach.

The NFL had 12 teams worth about $1 million apiece when Rozelle began his rule. When he left in 1989, there were 28 teams, most worth more than $100 million.

In 1999, three years after his death, The Sporting News acclaimed him as the 20th century's most powerful person in sports.

Alvin Ray Rozelle was born March 1, 1926 in South Gate, Calif. The older of two boys, his father had run a grocery store, but it failed during the Depression and he worked the rest of his days for Alcoa. Nicknamed Pete by an uncle, Rozelle grew up in Lynwood, a suburb of Los Angeles, and played basketball and tennis at Compton High School.

After graduating, Rozelle served in the Navy, including time on an auxiliary tanker in the Pacific, from 1944 to 1946.

When the NFL expanded westward in 1946, the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles. They practiced at Compton Junior College, where Rozelle was a freshman. He helped out the team's publicity department, and met Schramm, then a Rams executive.

After Compton J.C., Rozelle attended the University of San Francisco, where he became USF's publicity director for athletics. He graduated in 1950 and took on a second job, assistant athletic director. Two years later, he was hired by Schramm to be the Rams' PR director.

In 1955, he left to become a partner in a firm that did publicity work for the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. He returned to the Rams as general manager in 1957.

On Jan. 26, 1960, Rozelle was voted NFL commissioner after seven days of balloting. He was told of his election in the bathroom, and when he emerged, he jokingly told owners, "I come to you with clean hands."

He moved the league's offices from suburban Philadelphia to midtown New York that year and set to work on building a television package. Bell had gotten a national TV deal for the NFL's championship game, and Rozelle went a big step further.

He helped to push a bill through Congress that legalized single-network contracts for pro sports leagues and negotiated a league-wide agreement that replaced the 12 teams' separate TV packages. In 1962, CBS paid $9.3 million for two years to televise NFL games, an agreement that spawned much larger contracts.

Smaller markets rejoiced. "What Pete Rozelle did with television receipts," Packers coach Vince Lombardi said, "probably saved football in Green Bay."

In early 1963, Rozelle faced one of his biggest challenges: a gambling scandal that tore at the league's image. For three months, he gathered evidence. Then in April he suspended two of the league's brightest stars, Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, for betting on games.

The action drew wide-spread approval, from owners, sports writers, fans and even Lombardi, Hornung's coach. "He gained once and for all," said Schramm, "everybody's complete respect."

Later that year, though, he was widely criticized for allowing games to be played just two days after the assassination of President Kennedy. Later, he said, "It was the most regrettable decision I ever made."

In 1969, Rozelle sparred with another star, Joe Namath. He threatened to suspend the Jets quarterback if he didn't sell his interest in a New York nightclub, Bachelors III, because it was frequented by gamblers. At first, Namath retired. But six weeks later, he changed his mind and returned to the Jets as he complied with Rozelle's edict.

Though Rozelle had a reputation for acting firmly and decisively, he wasn't a strong-armed power broker as much as a consensus builder who listened well. In 1974, owners rewarded him with a 10-year contract.

The NFL's growth became contingent upon a merger with the AFL, and Rozelle and his staff worked with owners and Congressional members to make it happen. After months of secret meetings, the leagues agreed to merge in June 1966, with the two leagues becoming one in 1970. Congress approved the action, passing a bill that exempted the merger from antitrust action.

The merger opened the door for the first Super Bowl, which was known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game in January 1967. Though the initial contest between Green Bay and Kansas City drew only 61,946 fans in the 100,000-seat Los Angeles Coliseum, it would eventually become the biggest annual one-day spectacle in American sports.

Rozelle worried that the AFL couldn't compete with the more established NFL, but the Jets eased concerns when they upset Baltimore in Super Bowl III.

TV ratings continued to spiral upward, and in 1970 the league certified its appeal with the debut of ABC's Monday Night Football. Rozelle pushed the Monday night idea hard on the networks, and ABC - last in the Nielsen ratings - took the gamble and watched it succeed beyond all expectations. Today, only CBS' 60 Minutes has been on the air longer.

"There are a lot more TV sets in use on Monday night than on Sunday afternoon," Rozelle said. "We're undoubtedly getting a lot of new fans."

Though Rozelle took satisfaction in the NFL's immense growth, he didn't relish the legal scrums, particularly those involving Al Davis, the Raiders' brash executive. The two were longtime rivals, dating to 1966 when Davis briefly was the AFL commissioner.

In 1980, when the Rams shifted from the Los Angeles Coliseum to nearby Anaheim, Davis tried to move the Raiders to L.A. but was rebuffed by the league. The Coliseum sued the NFL, and the Raiders joined the antitrust action.

After the first trial ended in a hung jury, an all-woman jury in 1982 cleared the way for the Raiders' move when it ruled against the league. That same year, Rozelle faced his second work stoppage (the first was a preseason strike in 1974), and the league lost seven games while players sat out for 57 days. In 1987, another strike cost one week of games before the league brought on replacement players to continue for three weeks.

One of Rozelle's biggest legal victories came in 1986, when the U.S. Football League brought a $1.6 billion antitrust suit against the NFL and was awarded only $3, effectively sealing its demise.

The labor strife and litigation, though, wore on Rozelle, and the commissioner resigned in 1989, leaving a legacy that few could have predicted. "He moved the NFL from the back page to the front page," New York Giants owner Wellington Mara said. "From daytime to prime time."

Rozelle and his second wife, Carrie, retired to southern California, where he remained a consultant to the league. He died of brain cancer at his home in Rancho Santa Fe on Dec. 6, 1996. Pete Rozelle was 70.

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