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NFL 100 – Pete Rozelle

30 Oct

One of the most important figures in the 100 year history of the NFL being celebrated this year is former commissioner Pete Rozelle. He wasn’t considered very important when he first took over the job in 1959 following the death of then-commissioner Bert Bell. He was a young general manager of the Los Angeles Rams at the time and wasn’t a popular choice for the commissioner’s post. It took 23 ballots by the owners to get him confirmed for the job. He took over at age 33 and wasn’t shy about making changes to the game during his tenure. The NFL at the time was a 12 team league playing their games in half-filled stadiums and television wasn’t much of a part of the league’s plan, as only a few teams had local or regional TV contracts. He took over the same year a rival circuit, the new American Football League, was being formed with a plan to start play in 1960. Rozelle took immediate action to counter the new league. The NFL added an expansion franchise in Dallas and a year later in Minnesota, and allowed the foundering Chicago Cardinals franchise to move to St. Louis, effectively cutting off the AFL’s path to 3 different cities they were considering. The AFL’s Dallas franchise, owned by league founder Lamar Hunt, was forced to move to Kansas City after 3 seasons and an AFL team slated to be placed in Minnesota had to be quickly relocated to Oakland before it even started play. Rozelle recognized the power of the media to promote the game early on and negotiated a deal with the CBS network to carry NFL games regionally. He also championed the cause of shared revenue with the owners, which they agreed to. The shared revenue model still exists today and is a major reason the league is as competitive as it is. The owners awarded Rozelle with a five year contract to remain in his job in 1962. He faced a couple of his most important decisions the next seasons. Prior to the 1963 season, Rozelle suspended Green Bay’s Paul Hornung and Detroit’s Alex Karras for gambling, a powerful move on his part. In November of that year, however, he made a decision that he later said was his biggest regret during his tenure as commissioner. He allowed NFL games to be played on the weekend of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a decision that was widely criticized. The rival AFL had cancelled their games and drew praise for that decision. Also, the AFL had negotiated a television contract of its’ own with NBC and began competing for players with the established league, landing a big fish when the New York Jets signed Joe Namath. When the New York Giants signed Buffalo placekicker Pete Gogolak, it started an all-out war between the leagues to “raid” each other’s rosters for star players. Established NFL stars like John Brodie, Mike Ditka and Roman Gabriel signed “future” contracts with AFL teams. Rozelle, realizing the battle between rival league owners was hurting the game, worked behind the scenes with Cowboys’ executive Tex Schramm and Chiefs’ owner Hunt among others to negotiate a merger of the two leagues. The negotiations were successful and in 1966 the merger was announced. Due to television commitments, the two leagues remained separate until 1970 but a common draft was instituted and an annual AFL/NFL Championship game was set up to be played after each season. During this time the AFL added expansion franchises in Miami and Cincinnati.

 

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Pete Rozelle after the NFL/AFL merger was successful

By 1970, pro football was beginning to grow into the television monster it has become today. The annual championship game, which would become known as the “Super Bowl”, became the top sporting event in the country if not the world. Today the game has almost reached the status of becoming a national holiday. Before the leagues could effectively merge, Rozelle had to convince 3 NFL owners to move their franchises to the newly formed American Football Conference, since the NFL had 16 teams and the AFL only 10. Cleveland and Baltimore, two teams that had been merged from the old All American Conference in 1950, were chosen along with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Rozelle also came up with the idea of a weekly prime time game, and with his vision Monday Night Football was born and another network, ABC, was added to the league’s revenue stream. The man who was regarded as professional sports’ most successful commissioner presided over its’ golden era, but wasn’t without his troubles over the years. Oakland Raiders’ owner Al Davis was a constant nemesis, beginning in the days of the merger when Davis, who was AFL commissioner at the time, had to give up his post to allow Rozelle to preside over the newly merged leagues. He battled in the courts with Rozelle over moving his franchise from Oakland to Los Angeles and back again. (The Raiders are planning another move, to Las Vegas, next season.) When the Raiders won the Super Bowl following the 1980 season, Rozelle was put in the awkward position of having to award the Lombardi Trophy to Davis.

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Rozelle presents the Lombardi Trophy to Al Davis

Rozelle retired from the commissioner’s post in 1989, citing health issues. Davis would later say he regretted giving Pete so much grief during his time as commissioner, and felt that he may have contributed to Rozelle’s health issues. Rozelle left with the sport in great shape and left behind a legacy that is unmatched by anyone in the game’s 100 years when it comes to how much he helped grow the game. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985 while still serving as commissioner and in 1990 the league instituted the Pete Rozelle Award to be given to the MVP of the game he helped create, the Super Bowl. Rozelle passed away of brain cancer in 1996. Taking a look at the sport today compared to when he took over: a 12 team league now has 32 franchises, the Super Bowl is the world’s most popular sporting event, the league’s players are among the most recognizable sports heroes and the annual draft of college players has become a cottage industry in itself.

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Rozelle presides over the 1966 draft, on a blackboard

 

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