Twenty-nine years ago when, as NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle was planning Super Bowl I at the Los Angeles Coliseum, he seemed mainly concerned about one thing. He had decided on a top ticket price of $12--and that worried him. He thought it might be too much.
“This year, they’re charging $12 for the game program,” he said the other day. And tickets are $350.
Rozelle, 69, who headed the NFL for 30 years, was speaking from his home in Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County, where he will watch Sunday’s game. He has been at the Super Bowl only once since retiring in November 1989. But he still serves his successor, Paul Tagliabue, as a consultant.
“Paul doesn’t need that much [advice],” he said. “This has become a pretty big show.”
It has, in fact, achieved almost the status of a national holiday. And Rozelle is the individual who, presiding over the merger of the warring pro football leagues in the 1960s, played the principal role in the creation of
what has become the Super Bowl.
“Our goal from the first was to make this more than a game, to make it an event,” he said. “That was because of the initial perception that the champion of the American Football League wouldn’t be competitive with the National Football League champion.
“So we wanted an event, even if it wasn’t a competitive game. We wanted people to have some fun. That is the reason for the focus on happenings like the Friday night party. And [Tagliabue] has expanded on the idea with another big party, the NFL Experience.”
All that is good too, Rozelle added, for the game has seldom been competitive.
Super Bowl losers have been repeatedly routed, regardless of which conference dominated--the AFC for 15 years, then the NFC for the last 14.
“The champion usually seems so much the better team,” Rozelle said. “But I think there’s a reason why that doesn’t mean much to the size of the crowds, or the ratings, or the general interest: This is an event that overshadows the game.”
Rozelle and his wife, Carrie, who were the picture of health when they left the NFL stage, have both had brain-tumor operations during their retirement years in California, Carrie one and Pete two.
“We had a couple of tough years, but we’re getting healthier,” he said.
Pete was hospitalized for an operation in 1993, then Carrie in early 1994, then Pete again in December 1994.
His private secretary for the last 40 years, Thelma Elkjer, said, “The doctors at the Scripps Clinic told them the chances were 16 out of 10 million that a man and his wife would have brain tumors at the same time.”
Rozelle, who continues to work on NFL business as well as correspondence and other matters, said he spends every day at his Rancho Santa Fe office near his home.
On a clear day, you can see almost to San Diego from the hilltop house that Pete and Carrie built in the early 1990s as their first retirement project.
But Rozelle has never been one for just hanging around the house. During the commissioner decades, his only known hobby was reading newspapers, and it still is.
“We subscribe to a half-dozen daily papers,” said Elkjer, who joined Rozelle when he was the 1950s general manager of the Rams. “And the other newspapers, the ones they won’t deliver, I go out every day and pick them up.”
Rozelle is a California native who recalls with fondness his hometown, Compton, which he brought into the conversation once again. He was explaining why, during the Super Bowl’s first two years, he asked his publicists not to call the game by that name.
“I thought it was corny,” he said. “Super was a word we used at Compton High.”
So how did a game with a corny name--it was suggested by Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, who borrowed it from a popular toy of the day, the high-bouncing Super Ball--get so big?
“The game that made it what it is now was Super Bowl III, the Joe Namath game,” Rozelle said. “When the AFL champions--Joe’s New York Jets--showed they could not only play competitively but beat the NFL’s best team [the Baltimore Colts], that set the pattern for the future. The game took off.”
At the time, few sports fans seemed to understand that the Super Bowl was merely an extension of the NFL championship game, which has now been played annually for six decades.
“But perceptions count with people,” Rozelle said. “And the perception [in 1969] was that Namath’s league beat the old established league.”
By then, there had been a sharp but subtle change in the AFL, whose players and partisans didn’t fully realize that they had been swallowed by the NFL.
Said Rozelle: “The Super Bowl never would have got this big if it had been perceived after the merger as another game between two NFL clubs--which it used to be before the merger, and which it still is. The thing that made the Super Bowl prominent and important is that it was perceived as a new event--as a game between the champions of two leagues.”
For whom was Rozelle rooting in those early days?
“I was hoping the AFL could make it competitive,” he said.
In the early years, Rozelle insisted on an unwieldy but less corny and more accurate name for his showpiece event. He suggested AFL-NFL Championship Game, its title for the first two years.
During their last regular season as separate leagues, 1966, the AFL and NFL still had been so jealous of each other that Rozelle had to use two kinds of footballs when, on Jan. 15, 1967, their champions met for the first time, the AFL ball and the NFL ball.
The game was also televised live by two networks, the AFL’s, NBC, and the NFL’s, CBS.
All of the century’s previous championship football games had been played in the year of the regular season. And so when the Super Bowl became a January classic, historians and other football people were uncertain whether to classify the first one as a 1966 or a 1967 event.
“That’s why we started using Roman numerals,” Rozelle said. “It’s not an affectation, as some charge. It’s for clarification. When you say Super Bowl I, it helps you remember it as a 1967 game for the 1966 championship.”
Super Bowl I was closely played for a while, Rozelle remembers happily. He even remembers the halftime score, 14-10. The blowout occurred when the Green Bay Packers pounded in three more touchdowns in turning back the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10.
It is a measure of the NFL’s changing interest in Los Angeles that although no NFL club would be caught dead in the Coliseum today, Rozelle refused to consider any other stadium in America for that first game.
“It was the largest stadium,” he said.
But the crowd total disappointed him, reaching only 61,946. And it is a measure of Los Angeles that, with tickets at $12, $10 and $6, only the $12 seats sold out.
“I think the size of the crowd was influenced by another perception,” Rozelle said. “Nationally, the sports public had perceived the  NFL title game as the championship game. They saw the AFL-NFL championship game--the first Super Bowl--as an anticlimax.”
Moreover, the NFL title game that season, won in Dallas by the Packers over the Cowboys, 34-27, was ranked by many fans as perhaps the greatest in football history. So the nation tuned in with interest--starting another unanticipated, curious trend. The real Super Bowl has almost never been the nominal Super Bowl. The year’s big game is usually a conference finale--most recently the Cowboys against the 49ers or Packers.
“So many things don’t go the way you expect,” Rozelle said.
As the father of the Super Bowl, Rozelle’s major contribution was persuading the U.S. Congress to authorize the AFL-NFL merger that made the first game possible.
Leaving his New York office, Rozelle spent the summer of 1966 in Washington, lobbying influential legislators of both parties in both houses.
“We couldn’t have merged if Congress hadn’t passed that law,” he said. “And without a merger, we couldn’t have had a Super Bowl. If we’d tried to do it on our own, the antitrust people would have challenged us sooner or later.”
The merger law was the second that Rozelle generated for the NFL in Washington as a congressional lobbyist. At 34, during his second year as commissioner in 1961, he had persuaded both houses of Congress to authorize single-network NFL television.
That’s the law that shielded the NFL from antitrust TV suits. It led to revenue-sharing and roughly equal prosperity for the league’s various clubs, a condition that baseball hasn’t yet reached.
“Many NFL cities, Green Bay included, wouldn’t be in football today if they had to negotiate their own TV contracts,” Rozelle said.
Thus, NFL old-timers still identify their old commissioner as the greatest sports leader in U.S. history, citing, in addition to the two Rozelle laws, his insistence on such things as revenue-sharing and Monday night football.
They recall that for a while, he was the only believer in Monday night football, which he offered first to CBS. Scoffing, the decision-makers there asked, “You want us to move Doris Day?”
So Rozelle went to ABC.
After all these years, Rozelle has concluded that he made his largest personal sacrifice the night he spent in a Watergate apartment in Washington, setting up the merger that set up the Super Bowl.
The apartment was Sen. Russell Long’s and, Rozelle recalls, he sat up until dawn hoisting a few with Long and other influential legislators.
“Russell was Huey Long’s son,” Rozelle said, referring to the former Louisiana political leader. “And he told Huey Long stories all night. One was about Huey’s brother Earl, who won a close election one year by promising the New Orleans Police Department that he would ease up on state gambling enforcement policies. When he didn’t ease up, they complained to one of Earl’s assistants, who went straight to the boss and asked, ‘What do you want me to tell them?’ Said Earl, ‘Tell them Earl lied.’ ”
To promote Super Bowl I, Rozelle said, he made other sacrifices too, but the one that night helped the most. It was also the most fun.