Pete Rozelle, who made “Monday Night Football” and the Super Bowl parts of American culture during his tenure as commissioner of the National Football League, died Friday at his home in Rancho Santa Fe. He was 70.
Rozelle, who headed the NFL for 29 years until his retirement in 1989, had been suffering from brain cancer.
A former Los Angeles Ram public relations executive and general manager, Rozelle brilliantly used television to make the NFL the most powerful league in professional sports. Under Rozelle, who engineered the NFL’s merger with the American Football League in 1966 and created the Super Bowl as the league’s championship game and annual showcase, the NFL grew from 12 teams to 28, and its television revenues skyrocketed.
The Super Bowl is America’s most-watched sporting event and “Monday Night Football” is the longest-running sports series on TV. Football widows can blame Rozelle for their loneliness on Sundays, for it was his idea to televise each team’s road games.
“He’ll forever be remembered as the standard by which all sports executives are judged,” said New York Giant owner Wellington Mara. “He did more for professional football and the NFL than any other sports executive has done.”
Rozelle negotiated the league’s first billion-dollar TV deal, a five-year, $2.1-billion agreement reached with the three major networks in 1982. The NFL’s current television contract, for which Rozelle did the groundwork, is worth $1.58 billion over four years from the Fox network alone.
During his tenure, Rozelle fought off challenges from three rival leagues and piloted the NFL through player strikes in 1974, 1982 and 1987. He also pioneered revenue-sharing long before other professional sports leagues considered it, seeing the equal division of TV revenues as a way to keep teams in small markets, such as Green Bay, on equal footing with teams situated in major markets.
He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, a rare honor for someone not yet retired.
“It’s the end of a great era,” said Art Modell of the Baltimore Ravens, an NFL owner since 1961. “What we enjoy every Sunday can be attributed to Pete’s vision and talents.”
Said Dallas Cowboy President Tex Schramm: “Now that I look back, Pete had always seemed to have destiny on his shoulder.”
Destiny may be the only explanation for the way Rozelle landed the commissioner’s job.
Rozelle began his football career in 1947, editing the Rams’ game programs while he was still a student at Compton College. From there he went to the University of San Francisco, where he was publicity director and assistant athletic director.
After three years as the Rams’ publicist, he left for a year to work for a public relations firm but returned in 1957 to become the Rams’ general manager.
He was far from the obvious choice to become the NFL’s commissioner after Bert Bell died in office in 1960. After long and acrimonious debates among the owners, Rozelle was the compromise choice on the 23rd ballot.
“The meetings went on maybe 10 days--day and night sessions--and an impasse developed,” Rozelle said.
“As I recall, seven clubs were supporting Marshall Leahy, who was an attorney for the San Francisco 49ers, and then you had four other clubs who supported several other people--judges, team people, all sorts of others.”
Mara, Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns and Dan Reeves of the Rams suggested Rozelle. He was elected the league’s sixth commissioner Jan. 26, 1960, at the age of 33.
“I was totally shocked,” he said, “because I was so young and because they’d considered so many other people who had so much more experience in football than I.”
Mara acknowledged that owners approached Rozelle “out of desperation.
“All the owners had discussed compromise candidates,” Mara recalled. “One of them was Vince Lombardi. I think in the last analysis, Dan and Paul and I and maybe one or two others said, ‘Well, how about Pete?’ He was the next guy on the list--maybe the last one.”
Rozelle took office about the same time the AFL began to challenge the NFL for players and TV ratings. He soon began making the bold and visionary moves that characterized his stewardship, and in 1962 negotiated a $9.3-million TV contract with CBS. That coup won him another term as commissioner.
In 1963, he solidified his power--but also made a move he regretted for years to come.
His first decisive stroke was banning Alex Karras and Paul Hornung, two of the league’s most charismatic stars, for gambling. But in the same year, he allowed games to be played on Nov. 24, 1963, two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Rozelle decided to proceed as scheduled after consulting with Pierre Salinger, an old schoolmate who was Kennedy’s press secretary.
“I said: ‘We’ve got planes with the players ready to get in the air and I don’t know when the services will be. What can you tell me?’ I was terribly upset,” Rozelle said. “It was difficult to talk to him about it. Pierre said: ‘I think you should go ahead and play the games.’
“I hung up and thought about it some more. I discussed it with everyone in the office. Late that afternoon, I made the decision. I had to. Our teams were calling, they wanted to know what to do.
“On Sunday, I went to church with my daughter and brooded about the decision. That was before I was recognized, so I didn’t have to face anyone. In the afternoon, I went to the Giants’ game. We had a moment of silence. I could not concentrate on the game. I brooded about my decision the entire game. You have to understand, I was more than depressed over the assassination. I had lost someone whom I’d respected as the leader of our country, but I was also a close friend of the Kennedy family.
“That week after the funeral and after our games were played, there were columns written against my decision across the country. Obviously, it was a mistake.”
It was among the few gaffes he made.
Among his most inspired creations was “Monday Night Football,” which he thought of and sold to then-ABC sports boss Roone Arledge in 1970.
Seeking wide TV exposure for his league--but limited in his options because the NFL had an agreement not to televise on Friday night or Saturday in competition with high school and college football--he settled on Monday night as a time to feature a game on national TV.
After being rebuffed by CBS and NBC, Rozelle approached ABC. Arledge loved the idea, and it proved a perfect marriage for the NFL and ABC, then regarded as the least consequential of the three networks.
Rozelle later steered the league through three player strikes, although he was criticized during the last two for staying on the sidelines and leaving negotiations to the NFL Management Council. In 1982, the league played a nine-game season and in 1987, it used replacement players for three games.
He also came through many lawsuits, including a bitter one with Al Davis after Davis moved the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles. The NFL lost that lawsuit, leading to what Rozelle dubbed “franchise free agency.” Five teams either moved or proposed moves in 1994 and 1995.
“The litigation and the lawsuits took so much energy, time and money, but I never felt like quitting,” Rozelle said two years ago. “Carrie [his wife] and I decided at the end of 30 years that it was a great time to see the other parts of life. Now I’m so glad we made that decision.”
Rozelle is survived by his wife, a daughter, Anne Marie, and two grandchildren.
* INNOVATIVE LEADER: Super Bowl, “Monday Night Football” part of Pete Rozelle legacy. C1