'Best ever,' Rozelle dies at age of 70 Former commissioner guided NFL to the top of U.S. sports industry

Brain cancer is cause

TV deals, Super Bowl marked 29-year tenure

December 07, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Pete Rozelle, who transformed the NFL from a struggling 12-team league into the greatest success story in modern American sports during his 29-year tenure as commissioner, died yesterday from brain cancer at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. He was 70.

Rozelle, who was 33 when he was named commissioner as a surprise compromise choice in 1960, resigned as the NFL's leader in 1989. He underwent surgery for brain cancer in December 1993.

"He was the best commissioner there ever was in any sport," said his close friend Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "He took the NFL from barnstorming to the preeminent sport in America."

Ravens owner Art Modell, who helped Rozelle negotiate the NFL's ground-breaking television contracts, said: "There was only one Pete Rozelle. No other commissioner in any sport could equal his talent and ability.

"He didn't do it in an autocratic way. He did it with persuasion. He was masterful with the owners in this league, who are all egomaniacs. He had a very special talent and was the right man at the right time."

Under Rozelle, the NFL became much more than a sports league. It became an integral part of the American entertainment industry. "Monday Night Football," which he started in 1970, is one of the longest running prime-time shows in television history.

He also created the Super Bowl and elevated it from a league championship game into America's most-watched sporting event, a midwinter holiday that draws corporate executives and jet-setters from around the country.

"No one was more responsible for the success of the league and public passion of the NFL game than Pete Rozelle," said commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who succeeded Rozelle. "Though he would credit others, Pete was the driving force in changing the face of professional sports in this country."

Perhaps Rozelle's greatest triumph was to persuade the owners to share their television revenue equally and pushing to make legal a single TV contract for all teams. That set the stage for national contracts, which allowed small markets such as Green Bay to compete on an equal footing with big markets like New York.

Rozelle also presided over the 1966 merger with the American Football League, which added 10 teams to the NFL in a single stroke, and paved the way to start the Super Bowl.

His deft touch in getting the antitrust exemption through Congress that made the merger legal was a classic example of his ability to do the behind-the-scenes dealing necessary to accomplish the league's agenda.

Rozelle gained the support of a powerful congressman, the late Hale Boggs of Louisiana, by promising New Orleans an expansion franchise.

When Boggs told Rozelle just before the vote, "Just for the record, I assume we can say the franchise for New Orleans is firm?"

Rozelle replied, "Well, it looks good, of course, Hale, but you know I can't make any promises."

Boggs replied, "Well, Pete, why don't you just go back and check with the owners. I'll hold things up until you get back."

Rozelle paused and said, "That's all right, Hale. You can count on their approval."

Rozelle had the clout to deliver the votes for expansion, and later that year, New Orleans was awarded an expansion team.

"He was able to put together a coalition," Rooney said. "When there would be a problem at a meeting, he'd say, 'Let's take a bathroom break.' It might take three hours, but he would talk to people and get it done."

Modell said: "He had the ability to achieve a consensus and make a decision and stick with it. He didn't use the committee approach as others have in all sports. He acted alone."

Rozelle achieved all that success even though he was something of an accidental commissioner. After Bert Bell died of a heart attack at an NFL game in October 1959, the owners gathered the next spring in Miami Beach to elect a successor.

They turned to Rozelle, general manager of the Los Angeles Rams, on the 23rd ballot, only after they failed to agree on any of the other candidates after nine days.

When Rozelle was told to leave the room while they discussed his candidacy, he hid from the small contingent of media members in the men's room. Whenever somebody entered, he'd wash his hands.

After he was elected, he came into the room and said, "Gentleman, I can honestly say I come to you with clean hands."

It was example of the wit that would serve him well over the years.

Rozelle once said, "The reason I was selected was probably that I was the only one who hadn't alienated most of the people in that meeting. They said I'd grow into the job and that, in effect, is what I did."

It didn't take him long to take charge. He immediately moved the league office from outside of Philadelphia to the media center of New York.

At the league meeting in 1961, Rozelle quickly showed his mettle.

Rooney remembers that the late George Preston Marshall, owner of the Washington Redskins, used to come to meetings in a bathrobe and slippers.

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