Irsay updates family portrait

Owner credited with reviving Colts in wake of father's missteps

Super Bowl

February 03, 2007|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,Sun reporter

In Baltimore, people have spat the name like a curse for 23 years.


When it was slapped on the door of the men's room at John Unitas' old restaurant, the Golden Arm, nobody had to ask why. For Baltimoreans, it meant filth and waste.

Yet Robert Irsay, the man who moved their beloved Colts, passed his name and his team on to his son, Jim. And as Jim Irsay's Indianapolis Colts prepare to play in the Super Bowl tomorrow, the man with the accursed name is credited as a driving force behind the franchise's success and stability.

Instead of imitating his father, who was known as a hard-drinking reactionary, Irsay, 47, has looked to the grand old owners of the NFL - Wellington Mara, Art Rooney, Lamar Hunt - as his models.

He has ceded personnel control to general manager Bill Polian, paid big bonuses to keep his top stars and deferred credit to coach Tony Dungy and the players.

He dealt with potentially embarrassing stories about his addiction to pain medicine in a straightforward way that came out while trying to negotiate a new stadium deal. That deal, reached two years later, would keep his team in small-market Indianapolis and bolster its revenues.

He chartered flights for more than 100 Colts players and employees to attend funerals for Dungy's teenage son and father.

"He knows football," Polian said at Super Bowl media day. "We have meetings that take 20 minutes that might take two hours with someone else. He's usually one step ahead of me when it comes to anticipating what needs to be done, what the issues are, so it's a joy working for him. He's a wonderful, kind, generous person, and he's the reason we're here."

William Hudnut, the former Indianapolis mayor who helped engineer the Colts' move from Baltimore in 1984, said, "I think Jim has, over the last 23 years, matured into not just a fine owner but a fine citizen, a good, caring and God-fearing individual. He's not the swashbuckler his dad was. He's really more quiet and unobtrusive. There's a serenity about him."

Irsay has always maintained a delicate line between paying tribute to his father and distancing himself from his legacy.

"We all have characteristics of our dad," he said Tuesday. "My dad was a brilliant guy in the air-conditioning and ventilation business when he was in his prime. It was difficult for him in terms of coming into this business, and he struggled with it. It was emotional, and there was the drinking. ... The biggest difference is, he didn't grow up in this business like I did from 12 years old."

If Irsay bows to tradition in football, he's far from the standard, buttoned-down billionaire.

He's collected Elvis Presley's guitars and can, on demand, pick tunes by Neil Young or Led Zeppelin. He used to hang with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. The wildly eccentric Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005, told Chicago magazine that he was the voice of the reason when the pair got together. In 2001, Irsay swooped in on his helicopter, bid a record $2.43 million for the original scroll on which Jack Kerouac penned On The Road and flipped off reporters as he departed.

A team in turmoil

Though Irsay has always paid homage to Mara, Rooney and Hunt, theirs were not the legacies he inherited.

He had to steer a franchise whose glory had faded into a haze of on-field failure and off-field bitterness under his father's guidance.

In 25 years as Colts owner, Robert Irsay left a trail of quickly fired coaches and lost seasons. In a scathing Sports Illustrated profile, his mother and brother accused him of trying to run his father out of business. Ex-Colts, from Unitas to Bert Jones, said the elder Irsay was a man of no morals whose word was far from bond.

And, in the image Baltimore fans will never forget, he took away the Colts in a fleet of Mayflower trucks under the cover of darkness.

Jim Irsay was around for most of that journey. He served as a Colts ballboy and worked various jobs in the front office. Even then, the personal touch seemed to come more easily to him than to his father.

"His father was shy. He didn't come down and spend time with the workers very often," said Bob Leffler, who runs a sports marketing agency in Baltimore and worked for the Colts before they departed. "Jim's more gregarious."

Journalist and author Jeffrey Marx was an 11-year-old ballboy for the Colts when he met the younger Irsay in 1974.

"Jimmy always had a big heart," he said. "He enjoyed hanging out with guys on the team. And the players enjoyed having him around. When I think back to young Jimmy, those are the first two things that come to mind - his passion and his relationships."

When defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann's teenage brother was dying of cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Irsay brought a boom box to the room so the Ehrmanns could "crank the Rolling Stones," Marx recalled.

He also remembered an evening at Irsay's apartment with retired Colts Toni Linhart and Marty Domres. They got to reminiscing about Linhart's game-winning kick in a 1975 game against Miami.

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