Pete Rozelle, who transformed the NFL from a struggling 12-team league into the greatest success story in modern American sports during his 29-year tenure as commissioner, died yesterday from brain cancer at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. He was 70.
Rozelle, who was 33 when he was named commissioner as a surprise compromise choice in 1960, resigned as the NFL's leader in 1989. He underwent surgery for brain cancer in December 1993.
"He was the best commissioner there ever was in any sport," said his close friend Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "He took the NFL from barnstorming to the preeminent sport in America."
Ravens owner Art Modell, who helped Rozelle negotiate the NFL's ground-breaking television contracts, said: "There was only one Pete Rozelle. No other commissioner in any sport could equal his talent and ability.
"He didn't do it in an autocratic way. He did it with persuasion. He was masterful with the owners in this league, who are all egomaniacs. He had a very special talent and was the right man at the right time."
Under Rozelle, the NFL became much more than a sports league. It became an integral part of the American entertainment industry. "Monday Night Football," which he started in 1970, is one of the longest running prime-time shows in television history.
He also created the Super Bowl and elevated it from a league championship game into America's most-watched sporting event, a midwinter holiday that draws corporate executives and jet-setters from around the country.
"No one was more responsible for the success of the league and public passion of the NFL game than Pete Rozelle," said commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who succeeded Rozelle. "Though he would credit others, Pete was the driving force in changing the face of professional sports in this country."
Perhaps Rozelle's greatest triumph was to persuade the owners to share their television revenue equally and pushing to make legal a single TV contract for all teams. That set the stage for national contracts, which allowed small markets such as Green Bay to compete on an equal footing with big markets like New York.
Rozelle also presided over the 1966 merger with the American Football League, which added 10 teams to the NFL in a single stroke, and paved the way to start the Super Bowl.
His deft touch in getting the antitrust exemption through Congress that made the merger legal was a classic example of his ability to do the behind-the-scenes dealing necessary to accomplish the league's agenda.
Rozelle gained the support of a powerful congressman, the late Hale Boggs of Louisiana, by promising New Orleans an expansion franchise.
When Boggs told Rozelle just before the vote, "Just for the record, I assume we can say the franchise for New Orleans is firm?"
Rozelle replied, "Well, it looks good, of course, Hale, but you know I can't make any promises."
Boggs replied, "Well, Pete, why don't you just go back and check with the owners. I'll hold things up until you get back."
Rozelle paused and said, "That's all right, Hale. You can count on their approval."
Rozelle had the clout to deliver the votes for expansion, and later that year, New Orleans was awarded an expansion team.
"He was able to put together a coalition," Rooney said. "When there would be a problem at a meeting, he'd say, 'Let's take a bathroom break.' It might take three hours, but he would talk to people and get it done."
Modell said: "He had the ability to achieve a consensus and make a decision and stick with it. He didn't use the committee approach as others have in all sports. He acted alone."
Rozelle achieved all that success even though he was something of an accidental commissioner. After Bert Bell died of a heart attack at an NFL game in October 1959, the owners gathered the next spring in Miami Beach to elect a successor.
They turned to Rozelle, general manager of the Los Angeles Rams, on the 23rd ballot, only after they failed to agree on any of the other candidates after nine days.
When Rozelle was told to leave the room while they discussed his candidacy, he hid from the small contingent of media members in the men's room. Whenever somebody entered, he'd wash his hands.
After he was elected, he came into the room and said, "Gentleman, I can honestly say I come to you with clean hands."
It was example of the wit that would serve him well over the years.
Rozelle once said, "The reason I was selected was probably that I was the only one who hadn't alienated most of the people in that meeting. They said I'd grow into the job and that, in effect, is what I did."
It didn't take him long to take charge. He immediately moved the league office from outside of Philadelphia to the media center of New York.
At the league meeting in 1961, Rozelle quickly showed his mettle.
Rooney remembers that the late George Preston Marshall, owner of the Washington Redskins, used to come to meetings in a bathrobe and slippers.
"He was giving his opening address and Marshall interrupted him," Rooney said. "Pete said, 'Mr. Marshall, please let me finish.' Marshall sat there and then hit him with everything that was wrong. He said things like, 'You don't know what you're talking about.'
"Pete kept his cool and said, 'Thank you,' and went on to the next order of business. He didn't make a thing out of it. He showed he had the wherewithal to do the job. That's the meeting that made him. He showed he was his own man and he wouldn't back down when somebody attacked."
Rozelle's first public test came in 1963 when he suspended two of the game's biggest stars, the Packers' Paul Hornung and Detroit Lions' Alex Karras, for placing bets on their own games and other NFL contests.
The next year, Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year, and the Rozelle legend started to build.
The magazine quoted then-Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm, a close ally, as saying, "Pete Rozelle's handling of the investigation made everybody accept him as commissioner and no longer a boy playing his part. He gained once and for all everybody's complete respect."
The late Art Rooney, founder of the Steelers, was quoted as saying, "He is a gift from the hands of Providence."
Even more significant although it didn't get as much public notice, was his behind-the-scenes work to lay the foundation of the league's television empire.
Rozelle first had to get a law passed to make it legal to negotiate a single TV contract for all the teams. He accomplished that and then negotiated a two-year deal with CBS for the-then astonishing sum of $28 million.
Rozelle negotiated a landmark five-year, $2.1 billion contract with television's three major networks in 1982. Then he expanded the NFL's TV exposure to cable, selling a Sunday night series to ESPN as part of the next contract in 1986.
But from success came problems, legal battles with Al Davis over the move of the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles, labor battles with the NFL Players Association and unsuccessful challenges from the World Football League and U.S. Football League.
He had hoped to preside over another expansion and get a collective bargaining agreement, but announced to the owners in March 1989 that he was stepping down without achieving either goal.
Rozelle was born Alvin Rozelle on March 1, 1926, in Lynwood, Calif. As a junior high student, he was hired as a prep correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, earning 15 cents per inch of copy. He served in the Navy during World War II and went to Compton Junior College in Los Angeles and then the University of San Francisco.
He was hired as the USF assistant athletic director and head sports publicist at $400 a month after graduation. He went to the Rams as publicity director, served a stint at a San Francisco public relations firm, then joined the Rams again as general manager in 1957.
He was married twice, and his only daughter, Ann, was born in 1958.
He is survived by his current wife, Carrie, and her four children from her first husband, Ralph Cooke, the late son of Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.
Pub Date: 12/07/96