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Robert Irsay, Colts owner, dies at 73 Controversial figure broke fans' hearts, moving team to Ind.

January 15, 1997|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Mr. Irsay acquired the team through an elaborate "franchise swap" that saw Rosenbloom trade them to Mr. Irsay for the Los Angeles Rams. Mr. Irsay simultaneously purchased the Rams for $19 million and swapped them for the Colts in a pre-arranged transaction that gave Mr. Rosenbloom a team in a big market without having to pay capital gains taxes. Mr. Rosenbloom also paid Mr. Irsay a few million dollars.

Five games into his first season as owner, Mr. Irsay fired the coach, Don McCafferty, despite his Super Bowl victory over the Dallas Cowboys two seasons earlier. The next year, Mr. Irsay's general manager, Joe Thomas, summarily traded legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas to San Diego.

Mr. Irsay became something of a legend for his public denunciation of players and staff in Baltimore, and for calling in plays from the owner's box. During one game in 1974, he showed up on the sidelines to forcefully suggest a change of quarterbacks, an idea coach Howard Schnellenberger rejected. Irsay fired Schnellenberger after the game.

In 1983, the chaotic reputation of the franchise prompted John Elway, the No. 1 college draft pick, to refuse to sign with the Colts. After an embarrassing standoff, Mr. Irsay traded the soon-to-be star quarterback to Denver -- without informing the team's general manager or coach.

Moreover, Mr. Irsay made little secret of his dissatisfaction with Memorial Stadium and in 1976, started a public courtship with Phoenix, Memphis, Tenn., Los Angeles, New York, Jacksonville, Fla., and Indianapolis.

As reporters chronicled his wanderlust, his relationship with the media grew more stormy. In a famous exchange on Jan. 20, 1984, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Mr. Irsay stood next to Mr. Schaefer, pumped his fingers in the air and shouted.

"I have not any intentions of moving the goddamn team. If I did, I will tell you about it, but I'm staying here," Mr. Irsay said. Later it was learned that news leaks had prompted him to cancel a meeting that day with officials from Phoenix, where he was thinking of moving the team, and fly to Baltimore.

The team moved to Indianapolis two months later, and bumper stickers reading "Will Rogers never met Bob Irsay" were soon common in Baltimore. An ice cream shop hung a sign in the window reading "Honk if you Hate Irsay." Vandals pelted Mayflower trucks with stones.

Noted sportswriter and Baltimore native Frank Deford wrote of the move that year in Sports Illustrated: "A man who could screw up professional football in Baltimore would foul the water at Lourdes or flatten the beer at Munich."

Mr. Irsay said the move, executed secretly on the night of March 28, 1984, was sparked by a surprise measure moving through the Maryland General Assembly that would have allowed the city to seize the team through eminent domain. Schaefer disputes that account, saying the team owner was aware of the bill in advance and that the state would probably not have approved the funds to buy the team anyway.

David R. Frick, who negotiated the Colts deal on behalf of Hudnut, said Indianapolis officials felt they were close to agreement with Mr. Irsay but news of the Maryland legislation speeded up the deal.

More importantly, while Baltimore was seeking money to renovate Memorial Stadium, Indianapolis was offering a new, domed stadium, with skyboxes and other modern amenities, as well as a revenue guarantee, a new training complex and a subsidized-interest loan to help with the team's debt.

Mr. Irsay claimed Baltimore did not follow through on promises regarding the stadium and he complained about "hounding" from the news media and lackluster fan support.

"We were sort of marked with the Unitas era at Baltimore and I guess any player that did anything -- if his name wasn't Unitas or Art Donovan or Raymond Berry -- he could never be a star there," Mr. Irsay said in 1984.

Mr. Schaefer first learned of the move from late-night radio news broadcasts and later fumed that the team owner did not call first as promised.

Born Robert J. Israel -- the family name was changed when he was young -- in Chicago to Jewish-Hungarian emigres, Mr. Irsay made a fortune in the heating and air conditioning business he learned from his father. Family members accused him of founding a competing company and driving his father out of business.

Estranged from his parents and brother, who accused the team owner of inventing an impoverished upbringing and denying his Jewish roots, Mr. Irsay was called "a devil on earth" by his mother in a 1986 interview with Sports Illustrated.

"He stole all our money and said goodbye. He don't care for me When my husband got sick and got the heart attack, he [Bob] took advantage. He was no good," Elaine Irsay told the magazine.

He had a well-documented habit of embellishing his past: a claimed mechanical engineering degree from the University of Illinois was repeatedly disputed by the university, which said he attended the school but never completed a degree.

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