Same old song plays for Colts in Indianapolis

JOHN EISENBERG

September 27, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

It is all coming around again. The team is losing. The coach is going to get fired, later if not now. The star player wants out. The front office is hopelessly inconsistent. The fans are disgruntled, leaving thousands of seats empty.

If it sounds familiar, it should. It happened here in Baltimore in the years leading up to the Colts' snowy departure in 1984. Now it is happening in Indianapolis, that destination city where the moving vans stopped with the Colts' equipment and Bob Irsay's tumblers.

Question: Who has it the worst these days, football fans in Indianapolis or Baltimore? Answer: Good question. One would think it is better to have a poor team than no team at all, but that's not such a certainty with the Colts.

At least we football-poor folks in Baltimore can dream about an expansion team with prudent management. The people in Indianapolis -- and they were good fans excited about pro football -- are stuck with a bad franchise getting worse. The Colts are in even poorer condition than when they moved.

Here, they had a competent general manager, Ernie Accorsi. Their primary failing was cheapness. Now, Irsay's 31-year-old son, Jimmy, is running the team -- into the ground. He had no experience when he took over in 1984, and has made enormous mistakes. He is spending money now, but the team is no better for it.

The Giants ended 20 years of bad football by hiring George Young to run the team; now they're a contender. The woeful Jets finally hired Dick Steinberg this year; watch, they'll make the playoffs in a few years. Hiring a competent general manager is the way out of a black hole. The Colts are stuck with the owner's son.

Worst of all, the elder Irsay, who has owned the team for 18 years -- he has had 10 head coaches and five winning seasons -- will hand ownership of the team down to Jimmy, ensuring that this incompetence continues into the next century.

People in Indianapolis probably never expected sympathy from anyone in Baltimore, but what has happened to them is a shame. Few franchises in any sport have been greeted with a louder thunderclap of excitement than the Colts in Indianapolis, but the thrill is gone just six years later.

In the beginning, if you recall, there were more than 200,000 orders for season tickets to the 60,000-seat Hoosier Dome. Thousands of fans flocked to training camp practices. Every game was sold out. The crowds generated a spectacular din.

When the team went 12-36 from 1984-86, though, the novelty began wearing off and empty seats appeared. Jimmy Irsay moved boldly -- and foolishly -- to immediately improve the team and regain the support of the fans, forfeiting the future in the process.

To get Eric Dickerson, Irsay gave up three high draft picks and Cornelius Bennett, a brilliant young linebacker. A year later, to get a good-but-not-great linebacker named Fredd Young, Irsay gave the Seattle Seahawks two first-round picks -- twice what he was worth.

Dickerson did provide a jump-start, helping the team to a division title in 1987, a strike year. But it wasn't a good trade. Dickerson arrived with a reputation for recalcitrance, and, at 27, maybe five good years left. He is now 30, injury-prone and suspended, and clearly wants out.

The trade helped generate two winning seasons, but the Colts gave away their future because they thought Dickerson could take them to the Super Bowl, and, considering the team they had, it was a silly notion. Jimmy Irsay, who bragged about the trade, now blames coach Ron Meyer for wanting it.

Since 1987, the Colts have traded away four first-round picks, two second-rounders and four players of Pro Bowl mettle. Now Jimmy says he is changing philosophies, that he is going to hoard draft picks and build for the future. If his old man didn't own the team, he'd be looking for work.

Jimmy did make another bold stroke this year, trading a load of young talent for the first pick in the draft, then taking quarterback Jeff George, who signed a $15 million contract. The only problem is there are two schools of opinion on George. Some personnel men think he is less than a sure thing.

That the fans are getting fed up was evident when 11,000 empty seats showed up for the Colts' first home game this year. It could get worse. If they lose in Philadelphia on Sunday, the Colts would drop to 0-4. This is becoming a lost season. Sustaining interest will be difficult.

Watching from a distance here in Baltimore, it is easy to laugh. The pattern of behavior is so familiar. Here, the Colts fell from sellouts to sparseness, from Super Bowls to last place. In Indianapolis, where they started out with that long waiting list for season tickets, there are plenty of good seats available.

Our loss was their gain back in the beginning, but now our loss is just their loss, too. They are stuck with this franchise, years of bad football looming until, well, you can almost hear the moving vans starting up, can't you? From this chair, it would appear they have only one hope. They need to introduce the Irsays to Howard Spira.

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