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Robert Irsay, Colts owner, dies at 73 Controversial figure broke fans' hearts, moving team to Ind.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Robert Irsay, the blustery, Chicago construction magnate who became Baltimore's most reviled sports figure when he moved his National Football League Colts to Indianapolis, died yesterday. He was 73.

Mr. Irsay died at 10: 15 a.m. at Indiana University Hospital in Indianapolis of apparent heart and kidney failure, said Pamela Perry, director of public affairs at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Mr. Irsay had been in and out of hospitals since suffering a stroke on Nov. 29, 1995, which left him partially paralyzed, forced to use a wheelchair and unable to speak above a whisper. His most recent hospital stay was three weeks ago when he was admitted for a day and then sent home.

On Monday, he was admitted again and doctors informed the family that the end appeared near. His wife, Nancy, was with him when he died, Ms. Perry said.

Mr. Irsay acquired the Colts in 1972, a year after the team had won the Super Bowl and several months after it lost a conference championship game to Miami and the chance to defend its Super Bowl title.

The Colts prospered for several years before the franchise gradually deteriorated into mediocrity. With attendance falling and negotiations to improve Memorial Stadium dragging on, he shocked the sports world by moving the team to Indianapolis in 1984.

The relocation had a profound affect on Baltimore, breaking the hearts of fans but creating the political will to fund the twin-stadium Camden Yards complex.

A complicated, self-made millionaire who was both embittered by personal tragedy and emboldened by financial success, Mr. Irsay evoked fierce reactions from those who came in contact with him.

In Baltimore, he quickly developed a reputation as a meddlesome, impetuous team owner given to drunken fits of rage. But his image softened in Indianapolis as he grew more comfortable in the public role of a team owner, moving to the new city and turning over some of the decision-making to others.

"He was a tough, shrewd businessman. He was a good, generous corporate citizen," said William Hudnut, who was mayor of Indianapolis when the team moved there in 1984.

"All of us have different facets of our personality. He was a much better person than many people thought. He got some bad press," said Mr. Hudnut, now a fellow with the Urban Land Institute in Washington and a resident of Bethesda.

That was not Irsay's persona in Baltimore, where he is remembered best for drunken public appearances and unstable management -- seven coaches in his 12 seasons -- that drove away fans from a franchise that had been among the most popular in sports.

"I think it's safe to say when you went over a list of people who could be counted on to make contributions to civic affairs, he wasn't on the list," said Walter Sondheim, a long-time community leader and confidant to mayors and governors.

"I don't think there was ever a feeling that he was part of the community. People felt he was an absentee owner," Mr. Sondheim said.

Mr. Irsay became a nemesis of William Donald Schaefer, who was mayor of Baltimore when the Colts left and, as Maryland governor, converted the outrage into the political will to build Camden Yards.

"He was a very strange individual -- hard to understand," Mr. Schaefer said yesterday.

In negotiations, Mr. Irsay misled the city and used its offers to pry better deals out of other suitors, he said.

"He didn't play fair with us. He didn't tell us what he was doing," he said. "The suddenness of pulling out at night -- that was too much."

But Mr. Schaefer, now a lawyer in private practice, said there were good times with Mr. Irsay, too.

"He's dead now so I don't want to say bad things. I can't say I totally disliked him. He was different. I've always liked people that were different," he said.

"He had a very strange complex, an inferiority complex. He always had to have something more, something better than the other guy. If you had a boat, he had to have a bigger boat. If you had a car, he had to have a bigger car," Mr. Schaefer said.

The Baltimore Colts had been a pillar of the league, winning championships and selling out 51 straight games in the 1960s. They averaged more than 60,000 fans in Irsay's first year of ownership.

By the time the team's gear was hauled away in a famous caravan of Mayflower vans, attendance had dwindled to an average of only 42,000. The team's once-proud record had also suffered under Mr. Irsay: a disappointing 68 wins, 104 losses and one tie came after the team had won the Super Bowl under Irsay's predecessor Rosenbloom.

"He never created any goodwill. He only created bad will. And that's why the fans hated him. They saw through him," said Tom Matte, a running back, occasional quarterback and, later, broadcaster for the Colts when they played in Baltimore.

Mr. Irsay acquired the team through an elaborate "franchise swap" that saw Rosenbloom trade them to Mr. Irsay for the Los Angeles Rams. Mr. Irsay simultaneously purchased the Rams for $19 million and swapped them for the Colts in a pre-arranged transaction that gave Mr. Rosenbloom a team in a big market without having to pay capital gains taxes. Mr. Rosenbloom also paid Mr. Irsay a few million dollars.

Five games into his first season as owner, Mr. Irsay fired the coach, Don McCafferty, despite his Super Bowl victory over the Dallas Cowboys two seasons earlier. The next year, Mr. Irsay's general manager, Joe Thomas, summarily traded legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas to San Diego.

Mr. Irsay became something of a legend for his public denunciation of players and staff in Baltimore, and for calling in plays from the owner's box. During one game in 1974, he showed up on the sidelines to forcefully suggest a change of quarterbacks, an idea coach Howard Schnellenberger rejected. Irsay fired Schnellenberger after the game.

In 1983, the chaotic reputation of the franchise prompted John Elway, the No. 1 college draft pick, to refuse to sign with the Colts. After an embarrassing standoff, Mr. Irsay traded the soon-to-be star quarterback to Denver -- without informing the team's general manager or coach.

Moreover, Mr. Irsay made little secret of his dissatisfaction with Memorial Stadium and in 1976, started a public courtship with Phoenix, Memphis, Tenn., Los Angeles, New York, Jacksonville, Fla., and Indianapolis.

As reporters chronicled his wanderlust, his relationship with the media grew more stormy. In a famous exchange on Jan. 20, 1984, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Mr. Irsay stood next to Mr. Schaefer, pumped his fingers in the air and shouted.

"I have not any intentions of moving the goddamn team. If I did, I will tell you about it, but I'm staying here," Mr. Irsay said. Later it was learned that news leaks had prompted him to cancel a meeting that day with officials from Phoenix, where he was thinking of moving the team, and fly to Baltimore.

The team moved to Indianapolis two months later, and bumper stickers reading "Will Rogers never met Bob Irsay" were soon common in Baltimore. An ice cream shop hung a sign in the window reading "Honk if you Hate Irsay." Vandals pelted Mayflower trucks with stones.

Noted sportswriter and Baltimore native Frank Deford wrote of the move that year in Sports Illustrated: "A man who could screw up professional football in Baltimore would foul the water at Lourdes or flatten the beer at Munich."

Mr. Irsay said the move, executed secretly on the night of March 28, 1984, was sparked by a surprise measure moving through the Maryland General Assembly that would have allowed the city to seize the team through eminent domain. Schaefer disputes that account, saying the team owner was aware of the bill in advance and that the state would probably not have approved the funds to buy the team anyway.

David R. Frick, who negotiated the Colts deal on behalf of Hudnut, said Indianapolis officials felt they were close to agreement with Mr. Irsay but news of the Maryland legislation speeded up the deal.

More importantly, while Baltimore was seeking money to renovate Memorial Stadium, Indianapolis was offering a new, domed stadium, with skyboxes and other modern amenities, as well as a revenue guarantee, a new training complex and a subsidized-interest loan to help with the team's debt.

Mr. Irsay claimed Baltimore did not follow through on promises regarding the stadium and he complained about "hounding" from the news media and lackluster fan support.

"We were sort of marked with the Unitas era at Baltimore and I guess any player that did anything -- if his name wasn't Unitas or Art Donovan or Raymond Berry -- he could never be a star there," Mr. Irsay said in 1984.

Mr. Schaefer first learned of the move from late-night radio news broadcasts and later fumed that the team owner did not call first as promised.

Born Robert J. Israel -- the family name was changed when he was young -- in Chicago to Jewish-Hungarian emigres, Mr. Irsay made a fortune in the heating and air conditioning business he learned from his father. Family members accused him of founding a competing company and driving his father out of business.

Estranged from his parents and brother, who accused the team owner of inventing an impoverished upbringing and denying his Jewish roots, Mr. Irsay was called "a devil on earth" by his mother in a 1986 interview with Sports Illustrated.

"He stole all our money and said goodbye. He don't care for me When my husband got sick and got the heart attack, he [Bob] took advantage. He was no good," Elaine Irsay told the magazine.

He had a well-documented habit of embellishing his past: a claimed mechanical engineering degree from the University of Illinois was repeatedly disputed by the university, which said he attended the school but never completed a degree.

A combat record and officer's rank was denied by the military, who said he never saw battle, was court-martialed and busted in rank for unauthorized use of a Jeep and left the service under circumstances Pentagon officials only described as "not dishonorable."

He also claimed a 14-year-old daughter was run off the road and killed in 1971 by drug-addled youths in Chicago who were later imprisoned. Police records, however, showed that she ran off the road on her own and there were no arrests.

The tragedy of a son, Tom, who was born retarded and has spent most of his life in institutions, led Mr. Irsay to activism in causes and charities related to retardation and youth.

He divorced Harriet Irsay, his wife of 38 years, in 1985. She said she was surprised to learn he had moved out of their home while she was away. He remarried in 1989.

Ted Marchibroda, who coached the Colts in both Baltimore and Indianapolis, theorized that some of Mr. Irsay's erratic behavior in Baltimore may have been due to the early success the owner found here. The team made the playoffs in 1975, 1976 and 1977 before slipping into a 10-year drought of post-season appearances.

"Sometimes you think it's easy when things happen too quick. Over that long stretch he learned what was necessary to win," Mr. Marchibroda said.

"In Indianapolis he gave me pretty much everything I needed to win. He spent money and gave the coach everything to win. I think it was easier for him in Indianapolis. I think his finances were a little better in Indianapolis," Mr. Marchibroda said.

Frick, now an executive with the Anthem Inc., an Indianapolis-based insurance and financial services company, said "I don't know what his relationship was in Baltimore. But he's been a good community citizen in Indiana."

Within the NFL fraternity, Mr. Irsay was known for his uninformed outbursts at owners meetings.

"I think he was a very colorful man and a very outspoken man. He had, on many subjects, very strong opinions which he stated very forcefully," said Thomas J. Guilfoil, secretary and general counsel for the Arizona Cardinals.

"He was always a man with the courage to speak his mind without being overly concerned by any need for diplomacy. He was not a gray flannel suit guy," Mr. Guilfoil said.

Mr. Irsay and his team calmed considerably after the move to Indianapolis and the concurrent rise of his son, Jimmy Irsay, who gradually took over the reins, attending owners meetings in his father's place and holding the title of general manager.

The team has even rediscovered some of its historic on-field success: it came within a play of the Super Bowl in 1995. This season the Colts finished 9-7 and lost a first-round playoff game.

Mr. Irsay's illness touched off a fight for control of his estate, pitting his son, Jimmy, against his new wife. He was declared unable to handle his own affairs and a board of trustees, including Jimmy, appointed in advance by the team owner, took over. His wife, however, was unhappy with the trustees and sued.

In November a judge appointed a neutral guardian to oversee the estate.

Mr. Irsay is survived by Jimmy, his widow and another son, Tom, 42. Services are to be held Saturday at St. Luke Catholic Church in Indianapolis.

There have been recent reports that the Colts would move, possibly to Cleveland. Jimmy Irsay, who is responsible for the team's operation, has denied those reports and said the team only wants a better lease with Indianapolis.

Football historian Robert Barnett predicted that Mr. Irsay will be remembered as the team owner who initiated the wholesale relocation of teams for greater riches. Raiders owner Al Davis is often credited with that, because of his legal fight that established the right of franchises to move over the objections of their leagues.

But Mr. Barnett, a historian at Marshall University in West Virginia, said Mr. Davis was a football man moving between cities that had other franchises. Mr. Irsay, striking in the turmoil after Mr. Davis' courtroom victory, took advantage of the new rules for personal gain.

"Irsay ushered in the era of the entrepreneurial owner who would not only make money but make a lot of money," Mr. Barnett said.

What they said

"In the condition he's been in the past few years, I'm sure he's better off where the Good Lord has put him today. We had discussed a number of times my being part of the Colt organization when he owned the team here, but you couldn't accept anything Mr. Irsay told you as being totally truthful."

John Unitas, Colts Hall of Fame quarterback

"He's dead now so I don't want to say bad things. I can't say I totally disliked him. He had a very strange complex, an inferiority complex, he always had to have something more, something better than the other guy. If you had a boat, he had to have a bigger boat. If you had a car, he had to have a bigger car."

William Donald Schaefer, Former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor

"My heartfelt sympathy goes to Bob Irsay's family. He suffered a great deal in recent months, and I know it was a difficult period not only for him, but for his family and friends. I'm sure he was pleased that his franchise was in the playoffs the last two years."

Art Modell, Ravens owner

"He was a guy you loved to go to lunch with, an enjoyable, entertaining, knowledgeable guy. He gave me two opportunities be an NFL head coach, and I will always be thankful to him for that."

Ted Marchibroda, Ravens coach and former Colts coach

"The NFL family has lost a loyal and devoted member with the death of Robert Irsay. Bob served his beloved Illinois and Indiana communities not only through the Colts and his other business interests but also through the many charitable activities in which and his family were involved."

Paul Tagliabue, Commissioner of the NFL.

"We all know Mr. Irsay had personal problems when he owned the Colts, but right now I prefer remembering only the good times we shared. For some reason, I was the only player whose name he could recall when he walked into the dressing room. There were a lot of guys named 'Tiger' on our team back in the 70s."

Bert Jones, Former Colts quarterback

Pub Date: 1/15/97

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