COLTS' LUSTER FADES IN INDIANA

THE BALTIMORE SUN

INDIANAPOLIS -- Sean Ferbrache buys two Indianapolis Colts caps every year, one as a souvenir, the other to throw away in frustration.

As he walked out of the RCA Dome Sunday, midway in the fourth period of the Washington Redskins' 41-27 win over the Colts, Mr. Ferbrache ripped his hat to shreds and then stomped on it.

Another game, another loss.

Another cap.

"Each season, I have this optimism, and then the Colts take it away," said Mr. Ferbrache, 29, an Indianapolis firefighter. "How could they lose to the Redskins? The 1-6 Redskins with a rookie quarterback? But I'll be back next week to watch again. Our motto is: Bad NFL football is better than no NFL football."

In 10 years since moving from Baltimore under the cover of darkness, the Colts have had three winning records and one playoff appearance, that during the 1987 strike season. It has been an organization of faceless coaches and nameless players.

Even in a city desperate for the money and prestige that enhances its reputation as a major-league sports town, season-ticket sales have fallen from a base of 60,000 to about 40,000.

David Fair has been a season-ticket holder for 10 years. This may be his last season.

"One can only take so much of losing," said Mr. Fair, 32, a laundry mechanic. "The Colts' honeymoon is finally over."

"Bad trades, bad draft choices, bad free agents," said Jade Gruner, 23, who runs an Indianapolis liquor store. "We'll keep the football team, but Baltimore can take the Irsays back.

"I have no problem with the old man, even though he occasionally pats a player on the back, then calls him by the wrong name," said Mr. Gruner. "But that Jim Irsay is a little spoiled brat who was unqualified and hired by his old man to run the team."

But many who live in Hoosierville are just happy to have a team.

"We've got our cake, but we'd like a chance to eat it, too, especially before it goes stale," said Joe Shipman, 32, a city construction worker, about the lack of wins.

Indianapolis fans want no part of the Baltimore Colts tradition, no visits from the old-timers. They really don't want the name Colts.

"I don't care about John Unitas one bit," said Derick Kendal. "No disrespect to the man, but what he accomplished was in Baltimore. Guys like John Mackey and Raymond Berry, the NFL championships, The Greatest Game Ever Played, that's a Baltimore thing.

"I wished we could have given the team our own name, our own identity," said Mr. Kendal. "I think people could relate to them much better."

Mr. Kendal, Chris Sanders and Bill Steadman are eating pizza and drinking beer at an Indianapolis restaurant. Mr. Sanders, 23, is a Chicago Bears fanatic. Mr. Steadman, 24, roots for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mr. Kendal, 24, prefers the Redskins.

All three live in Indianapolis.

"If you live here and you're over 15, then you either root for the Bears, Bengals or Browns because they're traditional favorites. That's why some folks have been slow to root for the Colts," said Mr. Kendal. "No tradition."

Losing seasons

The lack of tradition has been a blessing, in some ways, for the Colts.

These Colts never have won a Super Bowl or any conference championships. They don't have any of the team's nine Hall of Famers come back for an old-timers' day.

Losing has become the norm.

"If we ever tasted success, if we ever won a Super Bowl, I think people here would be upset about the Colts' record," said Mr. Sanders. "Right now, it's either 'They stink' or 'Who cares?' Look how long we had to put up with the [NBA's] Pacers before they started winning. Our fans are still tickled about this football thing."

They lack the passion of fans from Buffalo, Denver or Dallas. Indianapolis fans don't tailgate; they congregate. Denver fans wear jeans and sweat shirts. Colts fans wear polyester suits and ties. Dallas fans barbecue sides of beef. Indy fans buy cooked beef hot dogs. Buffalo fans chant, "Dee-fense! Dee-fense! Dee-fense!" Colts fans treat a sack as if it's part of a day at the opera.

"We're still learning how to be fans," said Perry Rossetter, 32, a Colts season-ticket holder for eight years. "It's a wine-and-cheese crowd, a place to be seen. It took us three quarters to finally learn the wave."

Son under fire

Ten years ago, it was Colts owner Bob Irsay who drew criticism for the demise of one of the league's greatest franchises. Now, it's his son, Jim Irsay, who is under fire for keeping it that way.

The elder Mr. Irsay, who acquired the Colts on July 26, 1972,

when he traded the Los Angeles Rams franchise to Carroll Rosenbloom for the Colts, has been relatively quiet the past couple of years.

He interfered with negotiations, causing the team not to sign 1987 top draft pick Cornelius Bennett.

But other than saying new director of football operations Bill Tobin was the only person with the authority to fire coach Ted Marchibroda, and in the same breath saying, "I'll fire him if I want to" two weeks ago, Bob Irsay has been a model owner.

He flies in from Chicago about three times a week but usually stays away from the practice field. He hasn't called a play or threatened to move the team. He is a supporter of many charities in Indianapolis.

"Maybe he learned from his mistakes in Baltimore or he has just mellowed, but he hasn't played that dramatic of a role here, at least nothing to talk or write about," said Mark Patrick, an Indianapolis television sportscaster.

Fan Kyle Miller, 31, said: "We can't say anything bad about Bob Irsay. He has opened up his wallet and gone out to get some players. But that Jimmy. . . ."

Jim Irsay, 35, became general manager of the Colts as soon as the move to Indianapolis was complete. His only previous front-office experience was in the Colts personnel department in 1983. He has a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism.

The worst trade was on Sept. 8, 1988. The Colts surrendered two first-round draft picks to the Seattle Seahawks for Fredd Young. Mr. Young, an oft-injured linebacker, was out of the league two years later. Jim Irsay also traded Pro Bowl offensive tackle Chris Hinton and wide receiver Andre Rison to the Atlanta Falcons in April 1990 for the first pick in the next draft.

With that pick, the Colts took quarterback Jeff George, who played for Indianapolis four years. Mr. Rison is one of the game's best receivers.

Jim Irsay's drafts were just as bad. Only one player from the top three rounds from 1984 through 1991 is on the present roster.

Jim Irsay basically handles the team's financial matters now. Mr. Tobin, one of the architects of the 1985 NFL champion Bears, handles player and coaching changes. Mr. Tobin apparently didn't like Jim Irsay's players either, because he got rid of 24 who played in the team's last game in 1993.

It was Mr. Tobin who selected running back Marshall Faulk with the first draft pick last April.

"I've tried to get away from the mistakes we have made in the past," said Mr. Tobin, who fired the team's personnel director and brought in eight new assistant coaches. "We're no longer going to sit back and let teams hammer at us. We're a long way from being there yet, but when somebody slaps us, at least we can slap them back now."

Boost for city

Jay Silbermann, 28, has been an operations manager at a number of sports bars in Cincinnati, St. Louis and Indianapolis.

"I guess about 90 percent of our business on Sunday comes from those home games," said Mr. Silbermann, who manages the sports bar in Union Station, the $70 million downtown hotel-restaurant-retail complex. "It's just not Colts fans, it's out-of-towners, too, who come over to drink and watch the big screen after the game.

According to a number of fans, downtown Indianapolis was a ghost town before the Colts arrived. Now,

it's a thriving, growing metropolitan area with restaurants, bars, shops and hotels in the Mile Square area. Approximately 4,500 new hotel and motel rooms have been built in the past 10 years.

Even though the city doesn't have official numbers, early estimates from the NFL were that the Colts would generate $30 million in economic activity yearly.

To help lure the team to Indianapolis, city officials guaranteed the Colts $7 million in ticket sales and broadcast revenues annually for the first 12 years. The Colts have reached that mark every year without a contribution from the city.

Eight days ago, the Colts agreed to stay in Indianapolis for the next 20 years in exchange for public help in financing a new, $7.5 million practice facility.

The Colts, already committed to staying here until 2009, extended their lease of the RCA Dome to 2014.

"Yeah, we'll give them what they want and not raise a fuss as long as it doesn't raise taxes," said John Striewe, 49, an accountant. "When and if that happens and they keep losing, it's going to get hot around here."

Or maybe not. "I think the success of the Pacers is going to put a lot of pressure on the Colts," said Jennifer Pope, 25, who helps orchestrate Colts pep rallies. "And if they don't start winning, well, I bet you the Colts could pack up one day, leave and no one would miss them."

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