Pete Rozelle chose a warm afternoon on the desert, in the midst of a convention of people he has known for decades, to step down as commissioner of the National Football League, an office he has held for the last 30 years.
The end for Rozelle was as abrupt and as surprising as the beginning. Almost no one expected him to be elevated in 1960--when at 33 he was a relative child among the men of the NFL--and his resignation Wednesday was equally unexpected.
As the league’s club owners began making plans to replace him this summer with two people--a president as well as a commissioner--Rozelle said that his health at age 63 had nothing to do with his decision, which was prompted, he added, by just one consideration.
“I want to spend some stress-free time with my family,” he said.
Exhibiting the same astuteness in geography that he often showed as a commisssioner, Rozelle said that after helping with his successor’s transition period, he will relocate to San Diego from Rye, N.Y., where he has lived in recent years with his wife, Carrie.
The first NFL move Rozelle made in 1960 was to transfer the league’s headquarters from Philadelphia to New York--"because that’s the capital of America,” he said then.
But he had been born in California, in the South Gate area of Los Angeles, and 30 years in the suburbs of New York were obviously enough. His first move in retirement will be to come home.
Sometimes called the most influential sports commissioner in America, Rozelle was a prime developer of a league that has grown so expansively--in so many complex ways--that no one person could lead it in the 1990s. Or so many owners believe.
They prefer a league with two equally responsible chiefs, a president and a commissioner.
“The president would deal with the business aspects of the game,” said Cleveland’s Art Modell, one of the owners favoring twin leadership. “He could be someone like Jack Kemp.”
A former Buffalo Bills quarterback and congressman, Kemp is now in President Bush’s cabinet.
“The commissioner would be responsible for the integrity of the game,” Modell said. “He could be someone like (Judge) Matt Byrne or (Justice) Byron White.”
Doing it all has kept Rozelle hopping, Modell said.
“Pete grew up with the league,” he added. “Pete was there when the changes were made. That’s how he could stay abreast. I don’t see that anyone else can.
“We need a president to represent the owners in labor negotiations, in television negotiations, and in all our other business affairs. And we need a commissioner to represent all the people of the league in the integrity things--gambling, street drugs, steroids and all the rest.”
It is a measure of Rozelle that he has been able to make the commissioner’s office effective in both business activities and in areas of integrity. Financially, he negotiated the first billion-dollar TV contracts in sports, persuading all three networks--CBS, NBC and ABC--to join in and work together.
“Pete led pro football’s march into the realm of television,” Ram President Georgia Frontiere said. “He made our game accessible to all Americans.”
Rozelle has also been a restless opponent of gambling, once banishing two popular players, Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, for a year for making small bets on their own teams.
Drugs have been more difficult. The centerpiece of Rozelle’s war against street drugs was random testing, which has been thrown out by the courts. But this week, in his last official move, he outlined a tougher anti-steroids program that will begin this summer.
Raider owner Al Davis, Rozelle’s main antagonist in the courts, said: “He was a great competitor and we had our competitions, but I always respected him and I think he respects me. We got caught in a Vietnam affair for the past 10 years and that was unfortunate.”
Rozelle came into sports as a publicist, beginning as a Ram public relations assistant in 1948.
By 1952, he was in charge of Ram public relations. And in 1957, after a brief vacation from football as an airline publicist, he became general manager of the Rams. He had turned 30 that year. Three years later, he was NFL commissioner.
Rozelle is remembered in Los Angeles as no more than an average public relations man and as a somewhat better general manager, but his old friends have always said that he found his real home in the commissioner’s office. “Pete was born to be a commissioner,” Times football reporter Frank Finch said a quarter-century ago, after disagreeing with some of Rozelle’s judgments as a general manager.
In New York, Rozelle’s long suit as an NFL executive has been his facility in bringing opponents together. “The thing that makes (him what he is) is his ability to get everyone on the same page,” said Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, who as president of the American Football Conference will be on the search committee for Rozelle’s successor.
Wellington Mara, owner of the New York Giants and also a member of the search committee as president of the National Football Conference, said the NFL constitution provides for a two-thirds vote for commissioners.
With 28 clubs, 19 votes will be required, said Mara, who 30 years ago was instrumental in Rozelle’s election.
In other important NFL matters, the requirement is 21 votes. “Don’t ask me why,” Mara said. “That’s the way (the constitution) reads.”
Modell, placing Rozelle in NFL history, said: “We’ve had two giants, George Halas and Pete Rozelle. Halas founded the league, and Pete played the biggest role in our (development).”
Art McNally, supervisor of officials, said Rozelle’s announcement “came as a shock to all of us.”
Taking note, Rozelle said: “Carrie and I are in trouble with all our friends. They won’t believe this.”
Joe Browne, the NFL’s director of communications, was informed just a few hours before the public announcement.
“You’ll remember that Carrie’s son, Jack--Jack Kent Cooke II--died suddenly in January,” Browne said. “They felt very close to him, and I think that was a (major factor) in Pete’s decision. It made him realize how important a man’s family time is.”
Rozelle leaves with two years left on his $1-million-a-year NFL contract. “He’s as healthy as he tells people he is,” Browne said. “Since he stopped smoking (more than a year ago), his voice has come back strong.”
The problem with discarding cigarettes, Rozelle said, is, “I’ve put on 30 pounds.”
Asked what it takes to make an effective commissioner, Rozelle thought a moment before responding with one word: “Patience.”
One of the things that he remembers most fondly was his 1960 ascension--"Being elected by a ringing mandate.”
The hardest thing he has done? “Leaving after 30 years.”
His verdict on the Rozelle Era? “I did my best.”
This time next year, Rozelle said, he will be playing tennis or fishing, and reading about the latest sports problem, instead of trying to solve it. He is a deep-water fisherman who expects to have his own boat in San Diego.
Today, on the last day of his last convention, Rozelle will preside over a group that is bitterly divided over whether to continue instant-replay officiating.
The vote will come before noon.
Rozelle is in favor.