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Pete Rozelle Sold Entire Nation on His Sport

Paul O’Neil, the late, great Life magazine writer, once approached me with a problem. He was doing a piece on the commissioner of football, Pete Rozelle. He knew I knew him.

“Underneath that poached-egg-on-toast exterior, what’s the interior?” he wanted to know.

“Well,” I told him, “you will find some iron filings in the yolk if you try to take a bite. But he will give you to believe the interior is poached egg, too. This is the supreme Organization Man. Madison Avenue times two. As a PR man, he’s without an equal. He could make Castro President of the U.S.”

Rozelle’s great strength was in appearing to compromise without really doing so. He made everybody feel he was their best friend. He understood public relations as few people have in our generation.

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The Super Bowl is his monument. It exists because of Pete Rozelle. He built it from scratch. Michelangelo has his David, Da Vinci his Mona Lisa--and Rozelle has the Super Bowl.

Few people remember that the first Super Bowl was almost a disaster. It fell 30,000 short of selling out as it was, but it might have been much worse if Rozelle hadn’t come to town, rolled up his sleeves and put it on Page 1 and the 11 o’clock news.

At last year’s Super Bowl, $100 seats were going for $1,000. Rozelle made the Super Bowl an American tribal rite. He made it easy for scribes to get their stories. He courted publicity. He would call the competing teams together and explain to them the importance of media cooperation. He encouraged media wives to attend by arranging tours and Super Bowl week activities for them. No other sport did that.

When Coach Vince Lombardi wanted to keep his team in Green Bay before the first Super Bowl game, Rozelle needed smelling salts. He ordered Lombardi west--to Santa Barbara--on the double. The game needed the ink. He was almost the only guy who could tell Lombardi what to do. Lombardi loved him.

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The World Series was the great American hype when Rozelle came along. A heavyweight championship fight. A bowl game was the Rose, the Orange. Basketball was hopeful but rudderless and unfocused. It used to have to play doubleheaders with the Globetrotters to attract crowds. Pete made Super Sunday into the single biggest sports event of the year. Not since Dempsey-Tunney had the whole nation come to a halt around a sports event.

He was not a flamboyant character but he had a grasp of show biz and hype P. T. Barnum would have envied. He had network television eating out of his hand.

Pete knew the last spontaneous entertainment on the tube was sports. And he believed pro football was the ultimate in television entertainment. If you sat up for a decade, you couldn’t design a sport that would fit the rectangular dimensions of the TV screen any better.

Pete didn’t give the game away. He was in his element with all those button-down collars in the TV executive suites. He was equally smooth in the corridors of power in Washington, where he wrung concessions from the solons with a suavity and an air of sweet reasonableness and eagerness to please that was disarming. He always had a tan and a smile. He didn’t manipulate, he bargained. He could have been a great lobbyist. Congress loved him.

He never took it for granted that you just had to throw a football out on the field, blow a whistle, and the public would break down the doors. He promoted football as energetically as Barnum had his circus.

When Pete came up, the game was run by a lot of crusty old football types, secretive, suspicious, in some cases, superannuated. Pete’s greatest coup was getting them to share the wealth. He got them to split the television pot equally. The last time anyone looked, that was $17 million per team.

Pete also got Congress--and the White House--to overlook the fact that this violated several provisions of the antitrust act while some other industries looked on in envy. He learned how to handle stubborn rich men the hard way.

The first time I met Pete Rozelle, he was handling the tour of the great Australian miler, John Landy, for an Aussie airline. Landry was the world’s second four-minute miler but he wasn’t Babe Ruth. I was coaxed into a magazine piece and, later, the whole world was teased into watching the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, featuring Landy and Roger Bannister. Pete was master of the soft sell.

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But later, when he was hired back by the Rams to act as buffer between the warring owners, Dan Reeves and Ed Pauley, he had to learn to walk a tightrope the Wallendas might have fallen from. It was a job that called for a referee more than a general manager, but Rozelle handled it, as usual, so smoothly that both sides thought he was their best friend in the world. In a way, he was.

And that was how he brought pro football into the 20th Century. The game hired him after Bert Bell died. It was kind of a cult game up till then. It flourished in the Northeast with the slow steady retreat of the Ivy League from big-time football, but it was little known in other hotbeds of football, notably the Southeast and Texas, and only beginning to catch on in the West.

Rozelle changed all that. Bell had sort of officed out of his pocket. Pete Rozelle took the business to Park Avenue--literally.

Pete was known as the Boy Commissioner when he joined the great game. He leaves with the stature of Lombardi, Art Rooney, Well Mara or any of the great coaches or great players.

He always managed to retain a little-boy attitude toward the game. You could always say Pete was a fan. He loved the game and understood it from his days as sports information director at Compton College and, later, the University of San Francisco (Pete still thinks of Ollie Matson as the greatest running back in the history of the game).

But his legacy is the wedding of pro football and television. He was, as Tex Schramm of the Cowboys--who hired Pete when they were both with the Rams--put it the other day, “a man for his times.”

Every sport, every business, has to be in awe of what Pete Rozelle has done for his sport. That he did it without making an enemy in the game is remarkable. It’s hard to build an empire without killing a few people.

But for Rozelle, that poached-egg exterior--and iron filing interior--worked beyond anyone’s dreams. If you don’t think so, just try to get a Super Bowl ticket next time around.

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