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Can Meyer and Irsay Coexist? : Colts’ New Coach and Owner May Be Perfect Team

Times Staff Writer

Few football coaches have drawn more public criticism in recent years than Ron Meyer, who was so unpopular with the New England Patriots that they fired him in midseason of 1984, although after 2 1/2 years there, he had a winning record of 18-16.

Six months earlier, the Baltimore Colts had slipped out of Maryland, in the middle of the night, on their way to a new home in Indiana. And since then, few National Football League club owners have drawn more criticism than Colt owner Robert Irsay.

The criticisms:

--Of Meyer, former New England football star John Hannah once said that he’s “the sorriest excuse for a coach I’ve ever seen.” E.M. Swift, a reporter for Sports Illustrated, said that Meyer “alienated his players and management to an extent seldom seen in pro football,” while with the Patriots.

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--Of Irsay, who, according to his wife, has a drinking problem, Swift said that the famous Colt dynasty was “dismantled by (this) one man.”

The most thorough, if not the most outspoken of Irsay’s recent critics, Swift added that the Colts were “destroyed, not by luck or circumstance, but by what numerous people cite as (Irsay’s) incompetence.”

In private, most National Football League coaches and players familiar with their achievements agree that Meyer isn’t the greatest coach in football and that Irsay isn’t the greatest owner.

It has been said that, at the least, both men are socially unpredictable and unconventional.

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And so, earlier this month, it seemed wholly fitting to most NFL people that Meyer and Irsay should finally get together. At Irsay’s new habitat in Indianapolis, Meyer has become his third coach in three years--and the franchise’s ninth since 1972.

What’s more, the partnership with Irsay is one that appeals to Meyer, whose team meets the Raiders at the Coliseum Sunday.

Asked this week how it feels to work for an unpredictable, controversial owner, Meyer said: “Well, he hired an unpredictable, controversial coach. I’d say we are a good mix. That is, till after Sunday’s game.”

Irsay has been known to fire a coach after a Sunday game. In fact, he has fired a couple during Sunday games.

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When a reporter asked Meyer if the adverse national publicity has affected his team, he compared the unfavorable notices he and Irsay have had to press criticism of Raider owner Al Davis in Los Angeles and said: “It doesn’t affect the Raiders.”

Meyer was speaking from Indianapolis on a California media conference telephone line. He did not return a Times call.

Stung by Hannah’s comment that he’s a sorry excuse for a coach, Meyer said he responds to such criticism “the way you respond to criticism.” Then he said: “Way too much has been made of that. It’s in the eye of the beholder.”

He said he had made some mistakes in New England several years ago, but when asked to be specific, he wasn’t.

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In social relationships, Meyer is a colorful speaker who often uses animalistic analogies. After a win over Atlanta three weeks ago, he said the Colts were as “lucky as a blind dog in a meat house.”

This week, referring to the mood of the team when he replaced Rod Dowhower as the Indianapolis coach, Meyer said: “We were like two stray dogs who meet and sniff around.”

So far they’ve enjoyed the relationship. The Colts have won their first two games under Meyer after losing 13 straight under Dowhower.

On the conference call, Meyer listed honesty first when describing his qualifications. And at Purdue University this week, there was some discussion about that.

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The view there is that Meyer, a Purdue graduate and former assistant coach, flagrantly used his old university this year while nailing down his current job.

Before hiring Texas’ Fred Akers last week, the Boilermakers were apparently close to hiring Meyer.

They thought they were, anyway.

“Yes, we did talk to (Meyer), but we never had an agreement with him,” Athletic Director George King said.

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A spokesman for King added that Meyer’s old friends at Purdue particularly resent that when he was negotiating with them, “he never once mentioned that he was also negotiating with the Colts at the same time.”

The spokesman added: “The feeling here now is that Meyer (reasoned) that if he couldn’t catch on with the Colts, he would catch on with us.”

Meyer has kept up his Purdue contacts for years. Said Jim Vruggink, the university’s sports information director: “I think it’s very likely that if he hadn’t gone to the Colts, he’d be our coach today.”

Responding, Meyer described his round of activities at Purdue this winter as “mainly a fact-finding mission.” But he did say: “At some point, they expressed some interest (in me).”

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Purdue’s point is that the feeling was mutual. “Meyer had a lot of Purdue people convinced,” Vruggink said. “He’s a very smooth talker.”

That smoothness is often mentioned by those who know Meyer. He makes an agreeable first impression.

Raider lineman Mitch Willis, who played for Meyer at SMU, said: “You have to accept him for what he is. He’s a used-car salesman. But that’s what you need in college--someone to sell the program.”

One of Meyer’s linebackers, Duane Bickett of USC, the Colts’ top draft choice in 1985, added: “He’s a positive, fiery guy, a go-getter.”

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As a football coach, what are Meyer’s other strengths?

“He surrounds himself with good football people,” said Willis, who will be starting against Meyer Sunday in the injured Bill Pickel’s position. “I think six of his (college) assistants are coaching in the pros now.”

Although Meyer doesn’t have an NFL playing background himself, he was a defensive back at Purdue. And at 45, distinguished and well tailored, he looks like an old defensive back who has prospered.

Born in Westerville, Ohio, Meyer was one of four children of a truck driver. His brother Vic played at Navy.

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His wife and four children are still in Dallas, where Meyer was a sports agent between NFL jobs. Among his clients is Craig James, New England running back.

The main Meyer question is, can he get along with Irsay?

Meyer says he can. But those who have made the case against the Colt owner--in the Baltimore newspapers and in national magazines--are doubtful.

During their investigations, they contacted Irsay’s mother, Elaine, 84, and brother, Ronald, 55.

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His mother said: “He’s a devil on earth, that one. He stole all our money and said goodby. I don’t even see him for 35 years.”

His brother said: “I don’t know how else to say this, but my brother tried to run my father out of business. Bob actually worked to destroy his own father.”

Irsay, 63, was unavailable for comment on these and the other, more serious charges in the Baltimore papers and Sports Illustrated.

President Art Modell of the Cleveland Browns, who was also asked to comment, said:

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“I don’t know whether these charges are true or false, but if they’re true, I’m embarrassed for (Irsay). If the quotes are accurate, it says a lot about a man that he hasn’t seen his mother for 35 years. Personally, I’ve found (Irsay) to be decent, if volatile. But if the stories are true and well researched, a lot of people are embarrassed.”

In New York, NFL spokesmen declined comment, noting that Irsay is threatening to sue.

On the Colt team this week, they comment when asked, but they’re really thinking about something else, namely their current little winning streak, not Irsay. Suppose Meyer finishes the season undefeated. What will his critics say then?


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