Two days before Thanksgiving, in the bar of Chicago's prestigious
Tavern Club, 63-year-old Robert Irsay is fighting yet another battle
with the truth. ''I've been a winner all my life,'' he says firmly,
fueled by half a dozen screwdrivers during the 2 1/2-hour lunchless
luncheon. His white hair is neatly groomed, his face a little
flushed, his eyes lightly glazed. ''When a man takes one dollar and
turns it into $50 million, he's a winner. I'd like to turn the Colts
into a Super Bowl winner in my lifetime. That's what I have left.
To win a ring.''
To come full circle. To undo what he has done, for under Irsay
the Colts have done little else but lose: 1-13 this year after
upsetting Atlanta 28-23 Sunday, 10-36 since moving to Indianapolis,
78-140-1 since Irsay took over the team in 1972, with 12 losing
seasons in 15 years. This from a franchise that, in the 15 years
prior to Irsay, had no losing seasons and won three NFL
championships, with an overall 138-59-5 record. One of the great
dynasties in professional sports, dismantled by one man. Destroyed,
not by luck or circumstance, but by what numerous people cite as
incompetence. He would like to change all that. To build a new
dynasty. ''The big thing I'm learning in the NFL is you have to have
patience and get the right personnel in the right place at the right
time,'' he says.
Fifteen years to learn all that. And the sad thing is, here we go
Here we go again. That was the murmuring heard around the NFL
last week when Irsay's Colts announced that head coach Rod Dowhower
had been fired and replaced by Ron Meyer, of all people, who becomes
the third coach in Indianapolis's three-year history--and Irsay's
ninth. ''The reaction in the league is, 'My god,' '' said one NFL
general manager, reflecting on the fact that Meyer was a
controversial figure as coach both of SMU, where he took the
football program down a path that led to NCAA probation, and of the
New England Patriots, where in 2 1/2 seasons he alienated his players
and management to an extent seldom seen in pro football. After he
was fired, Meyer was called ''the sorriest excuse for a football
coach I've ever seen'' by All-Pro guard John Hannah.
''Meyer was No. 1 on our list,'' says Colts G.M. Jim Irsay,
Robert's 27- year-old son. ''He's a winner and a motivator. The New
England thing was great experience for him.''
Sure it was. Just as the Baltimore thing was great experience for
Robert Irsay. So here we go again, Indianapolis. Sit tight for a
Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who was recently elected
governor of Maryland, once described Irsay as ''one of the most
interesting men I've ever met.'' That is a fine example of
euphemism. Schaefer had publicly been Irsay's defender until late on
the night of March 28, 1984, when he heard the news over the radio
that the Colts were packing up to leave. His spokesperson, Pat
Bernstein, was recently asked if Schaefer had gotten over the manner
in which Irsay had spirited the club out of town in the dead of night
without the courtesy of a phone call. ''I don't think you ever get
over betrayal like that,'' she said. ''The presumption was always
that the mayor was dealing with somebody who had some scruples. But
when (Irsay) told you one thing and turned around and did exactly the
opposite, you got the feeling that you weren't dealing with an equal
Irsay is a man whom an astonishing number of former associates do
not like to remember, but one they cannot forget. Dowhower did not
wish to be interviewed about Irsay, although his lawyer, Robert
Goldy, responded to a quote attributed to Irsay asserting that
Dowhower had ''violated his contract'' because he had not called
Irsay ''every Monday and Friday'' during the season. ''There is
nothing in his contract about calling Bob Irsay on Mondays or
Fridays,'' Goldy said. ''I know of no basis for that other than Bob
Dowhower has a year left on his contract, but Irsay said he will
not pay him because of the alleged breach. ''I've already talked to
the commissioner,'' Irsay said. Goldy responded: ''Mike Chernoff (the
Colts general counsel) and Bob Irsay told me . . . they would like
the separation to be on a fair, dignified and gentlemanly basis.
Their definition of those words is a puzzle to me. Maybe we don't
read the same dictionary.''
All of this would not surprise Howard Schnellenberger, the third
coach fired during the Irsay era. He chooses not to discuss his old
boss for the record, * although in February 1984, shortly after his
Miami Hurricanes won the national title, Schnellenberger told The
Indianapolis Star : ''The people of Indianapolis will rue the day
they ever made (Irsay) an offer to move his team to their city.''
Bert Jones, the man who quarterbacked the Colts to their three
winning seasons under Irsay, will only paraphrase a quote he
originally gave to The Sun in Baltimore when asked about Irsay: ''He
lied and he cheated and he was rude and he was crude and he was Bob
Irsay.'' Then Jones added, ''He doesn't have any morals. It's a sad
state for the NFL to be associated with him, but beyond that I've
removed him from my mind.''
Mike McCormack, who coached the Colts in the 1980 and '81 seasons,
says, ''Those were the two most unpleasant years of my life and I
really don't care to comment further on it.''
Irsay's mother, Elaine, is 84 years old and in failing health.
Reached by phone at her home in Rolling Meadows, Ill., Mrs. Irsay,
who still has a rich Hungarian accent, said, ''He's a devil on earth,
that one.'' Every few seconds she paused for breath, her voice
rising at the start of each thought, then quickly tiring. ''He stole
all our money and said goodbye. He don't care for me. I don't even
see him for 35 years. My husband, Charles, sent him to college. I
made his wedding. Five thousand dollars, it cost us. When my
husband got sick and got the heart attack, he (Bob) took advantage.
He was no good,'' she said. ''He was a bad boy. I don't want to
talk about him.''
It was Carroll Rosenbloom and Joe Thomas, both now deceased, who
brought Irsay into the league. Rosenbloom was the owner of the Colts
from 1953 to 1972, but he wanted out of Baltimore for a couple of the
reasons that Irsay ultimately did -- money and a running feud with
the Baltimore press. Thomas had recently been fired as the personnel
director of the Dolphins. Together, they cooked up a deal that would
get Rosenbloom out of Baltimore and into the lucrative L.A. market
and provide Thomas with a job as G.M. of the Colts. They needed to
find someone to buy the Rams for $19 million -- on the condition that
the individual would then trade the Rams, even up, for Rosenbloom's
Colts. That someone, an acquaintance of Thomas's from Florida, was a
Chicago heating and air-conditioning contractor named Robert Irsay.
Initially, Irsay was a breath of fresh air in Baltimore, something
of an engaging country bumpkin following the sophisticated and
egotistical ) Rosenbloom. He had the curious habit of calling
everyone ''Tiger,'' and he was quick with a warm, firm handshake.
Tom Matte, the popular halfback who was nearing the end of his
career, recalls the first time he met the new owner: ''It was in
Denver, where we had broken training camp. A team meeting was called
so we could meet Mr. Irsay, and he comes in an hour late, sloshed,
looks down at his shoes and starts rambling: 'I'm the new owner, and
I was in the Marines. I'm married to a nice Polack. . . .' I looked
over at (Johnny) Unitas and we both started laughing. How could this
guy have made $19 million if he can't even look you in the face?''
Irsay had, indeed, made a lot of money, although his origins were
not quite as humble as he liked to pass them off as being. In the
Colts media guides and in a number of early interviews, Irsay made
much of being raised in the ''Bucktown'' section of Chicago, the Near
Northwest Side, an ethnically diverse area with a large East European
population. ''Hunkies'' was a slang racial catchall for the
residents, and Irsay himself was of Hungarian blood. ''My father died
when I was very young, and we were poor,'' he told The Sun in a 1973
interview, going on to describe to the Baltimore paper how he could
run the 100 in 9.8 but never reached his potential as a football
player because he was carrying ''23 semester hours, washing dishes
to help support myself, working in a haberdashery on Saturdays, and I
had to find enough time to study.'' He liked to brag that he got his
start on $800 borrowed from his wife.
In the media guide he claimed, and still claims, to have graduated
from the University of Illinois (where he supposedly was an Illini
football teammate of former Colt Alex Agase) with a degree in
mechanical engineering. Of his war record Irsay told The Sun, ''I was
wounded once pretty badly in the leg, in New Guinea, hit by a
grenade'' and in 1975 he told the Chicago Sun- Times that he ''came
out as first lieutenant.''
He spoke of the tragic death of his only daughter, Roberta, who in
1971 at age 14 suffered fatal injuries in an auto accident on
Interstate 294 outside Chicago. He told The Sun: ''They caught the
kids who ran her car off the road. They were on drugs when it
happened. They got 10 to 20 years, but the way things are today
they'll probably be out in five.''
It was an astounding collection of half-truths and prevarications.
His daughter had, indeed, been killed in an accident, but according
to state police records, there was no evidence of another car
having run her vehicle off the road, no arrests were made, and the
car in which Roberta was a passenger had, in fact, gone over a
guardrail, slid down an embankment and struck a car on another
Irsay's father, Charles, was very much alive in 1973 -- he died in
February 1984 -- although he had not spoken to Bob since the son
walked out of his office in 1951 to start a competing sheet metal
firm -- the Robert Irsay Company. ''He wasn't my father,'' Robert
asserts. ''He was my stepfather. I never saw him again. We just
dropped it. They never called me and I never called them. I didn't
get a nickel from him. I just went out on my own and did it.''
When informed that both his mother and his brother say that
Charles Irsay was his father, Irsay reddens and a bead of sweat
appears on his brow. ''My father, my stepfather, whatever you want
to call him. The truth is, I don't know what was right. I was
raised by my grandfather, Alex Nyitroy. I made it the hard way,
that's the important thing. I had a very minimal family life.''
''We weren't poor by any stretch of the imagination,'' says Ronald
Irsay, Bob's brother, who, at 55, is eight years his junior. ''Why
would my grandfather raise him and my mom and dad raise me? We lived
in a very nice home in West Rogers Park. We weren't wealthy, but my
dad owned several buildings in Chicago and at one time was one of the
largest tin knockers (sheet metal contractors) in the city. I don't
know how else to say this, but my brother tried to run my father out
of business. Bob actually worked to try to destroy his own father.
Oh, he's a real sweetheart, all right.''
The family name, according to Mrs. Irsay and Ron, was originally
Israel, which was changed to Irsay in 1931, some eight years after
Robert was born on March 5, 1923. (A check of birth records in Cook
County from the 1920s uncovered neither a Robert Irsay nor a Robert
Israel, an omission that was described as not unusual by county
record keepers.) Both parents had emigrated to this country from
Hungary. Both were Jewish, and they raised their children as Jews.
Bob went to Lane Tech High School in Chicago and in the fall of 1940
enrolled at the University of Illinois.
Art Petacque, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Chicago
Sun-Times, happened to be Irsay's roommate that year. As freshmen
both joined Sigma Alpha Mu, a Jewish fraternity often referred to as
Sammy House. ''His father / used to lecture him on the value of
money,'' Petacque recalls. ''He had a European accent, and I
remember him telling Bob, 'Remember, son, money doesn't grow on
bushes.' But Bob was not poverty-stricken by any means.''
Harold Fry, a past president of the Illini Sammy House, recalls
that Bob ''never fit in with the fraternity. He played nothing in the
way of sports.'' (The Illini athletic department confirms this.)
Yet when you ask Irsay about the fraternity today, he denies
having been a member, denies having been a pledge, denies even
remembering Art Petacque. ''I never belonged to a fraternity,'' he
says. ''I had free room and board there because I worked washing
dishes and waiting on tables. You had to have money to belong to a
''He joined the house as a pledge, which is the first step toward
becoming a member,'' Petacque says. ''He definitely was a pledge,
and not an employee of the club. They didn't paddle employees, and
he got paddled plenty.''
Irsay even denies being raised as a Jew. ''If I'm Jewish, how come
I belong to all the gentile clubs?'' he asks, referring to various
golf and social clubs he belongs to in the Chicago area and in
Florida. ''I'm a Catholic. I was married by Father Dolan in the
Queen of All Saints Church in Chicago,'' he continues. ''You can
look it up.''
He is asked about the wedding that his mother gave him, the $5,000
affair that was performed in Rabbi Louis Binstock's study on July
12, 1947, at Temple Sholom, when Bob married the former Harriet
Pogorzelski. And afterward the posh reception at the Belmont Hotel.
''That's correct, also,'' Irsay says, barely missing a beat. ''I had
two weddings. That was for him,'' he adds, talking about his father,
or stepfather, as Irsay refers to him. ''Maybe my mother converted to
Jewish, I don't know. I've had more problems finding out who I am
and what I am. Everything's so confusing in my life.''
Nor did Irsay graduate, as his biography contends. According to
an Illinois spokesman, he attended the school for the fall semester
of 1940, the spring and fall semesters of 1941 and the summer session
of 1942, leaving without a degree. He enlisted in the Marines on Oct.
23, 1942, and was discharged on April 3, 1943 as a sergeant -- not a
lieutenant -- without having served overseas. No medals, no
decorations. A Marine spokesman could provide no further details.
Irsay couldn't either. ''I was in the Army and the Navy and the
Marines,'' he said recently. ''The Navy assigned me to the Seabees.
I saw minor action. I don't want to talk about it.''
In 1946, Irsay's father took him into the family business, the
Acord Ventilating Company. He worked there as a salesman, eventually
making bids on projects and assuming the title of secretary.
Irsay left his father's company on Dec. 31, 1951, amid all sorts
of unsavory accusations by his mother and brother, receiving as part
of his settlement a Caterpillar Tractor Company account that he had
landed for Acord, a building used in connection with that account,
two automobiles, a truck and a quantity of shop equipment that would
enable him to go right into business without assuming a large debt.
Irsay also lured away five of his father's employees, and he had his
own numerous contacts, which, by written agreement, he was free to
Young, ambitious, blessed with a superb knack for salesmanship,
Bob was off and running with the Robert Irsay Company. His father's
company went into immediate decline, and his brother Ron had to quit
college to try to help salvage it. Two and a half years later, Acord
Ventilating was out of business.
''Bob never acknowledged us,'' recalls Ron. ''The last time I had
any meaningful contact with him was -- I can tell you almost exactly
-- March or April of 1953. I was getting married in May, and he gave
me 10 bucks when he saw me, saying something like 'I hear you're
engaged.' I had to give it back to him. I told him he wasn't going
to be invited to the wedding because I didn't want a family squabble.
He said, 'Have it your way, kid. You've got to choose. You can come
in with me, or stay with them. You can't have it both ways.' I told
him, 'No choice, Bob. See ya 'round.' ''
Gene Bednarz, a vice-president of Linear Flow Systems, a
subsidiary of the Robert Irsay Company (Robert no longer has any
connection with it), was one of those who left Acord to follow Bob.
''After Bob left his father, he began trying to hide his
Jewishness,'' Bednarz says. ''I don't know what prompted him to do
that, unless it was out of spite for his father. I wasn't aware of
any discrimination in our business. He's tough to figure out
sometimes. I've seen him spend a thousand dollars entertaining a guy
one night, then the next day turn down a $5 raise to a guy making $95
''Bob was a helluva guy in those years. He had great charisma. By
1960 we were a force to be reckoned with. Bob was a gambler and very
innovative. He was the first guy to build a big new plant out in
the suburbs. We were the first company to bid on jobs on the basis of
rough outline specifications rather than finished plans, a practice
that today is commonplace. He hired a lot of young superintendents
and paid them over scale, and he had good rapport with his workers.
This, as I say, was in the early years, the formative years, before
he was rich. Before he realized that money gave him power.''
''He's a real dynamic guy,'' says a vice-president of the Robert
Irsay Company who first joined the firm back in the mid-'60s, and who
asked that his name not be used. ''You hear a lot of stories about
what a rat he is, but if you stay close to him, you'll probably come
out a winner.'' The man remembers the time there was a Teamsters
strike in the mid-'60s. ''Bob came by our offices and asked around
for volunteers to drive a truck to deliver some materials to a
site,'' he says. ''I told him, 'You're crazy, but I'll drive if
you'll drive.' He said, 'I'll meet you here at seven in the
morning.' Not only did he show up, but he gave me the subur- ban
delivery, and he made the delivery to the site in the city of
Chicago. It took a lot of guts to drive through a Teamsters picket
line in this city then. ''The construction business is
basically a b.s.-er's business,'' he continues. ''That was one of the
problems Bob had with the press. He'd always exaggerate. If
something cost a million dollars, to Bob it was a hundred million.
You're not going to operate in this business as a priest. You have to
be very creative. Like, sometimes word would get out that we had a
certain job when in fact we hadn't even put a bid in on it. So Bob
might capitalize on the situation by putting one of our trailers on
the site. The competition would figure the contract was ours, so why
waste time putting in a bid?''
Eventually, Irsay got a little too creative in his maneuverings,
though he saved himself from prosecution by turning state's evidence
in a 1978 bid-rigging case, United States v. Climatemp, Inc. Irsay,
who was represented by former U.S. Attorney Samuel K. Skinner, was
granted immunity from prosecution four days before the indictments
were handed out in exchange for testimony that consisted of ''mostly
a bunch of 'I don't remembers,' '' according to defense attorney
Robert Bailey. Irsay at first denied to SI that he had been granted
immunity and then changed his story. ''I was probably granted
immunity,'' he said.
The government had charged that certain members of the now defunct
Ventilating and Air Conditioning Contractors Association, between
1963 and 1976, routinely met and allocated at least 80 heating and
air-conditioning projects among themselves, adding between 5% and 8%
on top of the designated bid in order to eventually pay kickbacks to
friendly politicians, none of whom was charged. Irsay was a
vice-president of the association and a member of the executive board
until 1972, at which point, according to court documents, he withdrew
from the bid-rigging arrangement, having sold his business to Zurn
By 1970 the Robert Irsay Company was the largest sheet metal
business in Chicago, grossing nearly $13 million in sales and posting
after-tax profits of about $650,000. In 1971 Irsay sold the company
to Zurn in exchange for some $8.5 million in common stock, although
he recently claimed that he had sold to Zurn for ''$50 million.''
Irsay stayed on with the company until 1978 when, according to a Zurn
spokesman, Irsay resigned after ''it was suggested the Colts were
Ah, yes. The Colts. If the Colts were distracting Irsay, he was
repaying them with a regular dose of chaos, particularly after he
fired Joe Thomas in 1977. To be fair, though, Thomas was responsible
for getting Irsay off on the wrong foot.
Under Rosenbloom, the Colts had been like a family. ''There were
no individualists,'' recalls Matte. ''Carroll wouldn't allow it.''
It was part of the Colts' secret of success. Veterans like Matte,
Unitas, John Mackey and Raymond Berry actually had a say in who was
cut and who wasn't. The coaching staff would listen to them.
Curfews weren't enforced by the coaches; they were enforced by the
team leaders. And Friday nights were team nights, when the players
would go out and, instead of watching film, would do no more than
drink beer and joke and develop that special bonding that a lot of
the great teams have. ''Everybody lived here in town and made
appearances for free. We were part of the community,'' recalls
Matte. ''That was the tradition. It made us a team.''
Thomas didn't understand this. Or, if he did, he ignored it. He
wanted his own team, his own legacy. ''Joe's ego was the biggest
thing that ever was,'' says Mike Curtis, the Colts All-Pro
linebacker in the late 1960s and early '70s.
By the 1973 season Thomas had swung 13 deals, trading away such
aging -- but beloved -- stars as Unitas and Matte. He fired coach Don
McCafferty, who had won the 1971 Super Bowl, five games into the 1972
season. The Colts' era was over. Everyone who had stayed on from
the Rosenbloom regime knew it.
''Joe Thomas was a very strong man, and he ran that football
business,'' Irsay says. ''His one failure was that he got the city
of Baltimore mad at him, and I was caught in the middle of it. He
was the type of guy who tried to deal real rugged. It was always
'You're fired' or 'You're done.' He had no consideration for anyone
else. But I learned a lot from his teachings about football, some
good and some bad.''
Irsay's first great public explosion came in the third game of the
1974 season, in Philadelphia. Marty Domres was the Colts
quarterback, a player Irsay had once humiliated in front of his
teammates by shouting, ''Nice game, Marty, too bad most of the passes
you completed were to the wrong team.'' In the third quarter, Irsay,
prowling the sideline, tugged on Schnellenberger's arm and suggested
he replace Domres with Bert Jones. Schnellenberger declined, adding
-- and here history becomes a little fuzzy -- either that Irsay
should mind his own business or that Irsay should attempt an
anatomical impossibility while minding his own business. Whatever,
Irsay took offense. ''He just wanted to be part of the team, be the
type of owner who would have a beer with the guys and maybe arm
wrestle after the game,'' recalls Curtis. ''He really wanted us to
like him. That's why he was down on the field to begin with. And
Howard was no diplomat. It was just bad luck.''
Irsay, apparently inebriated, according to several team sources,
stormed into the dressing room after the game -- the team's third
straight defeat -- and announced to the players that Schnellenberger
was fired and that Thomas would be their new coach. The team almost
lynched him. In the coach's office, Schnellenberger asked Ernie
Accorsi, the Colts public relations director, what the ruckus was
about. ''I think he just fired you,'' Accorsi replied. Irsay charged
in and confirmed it. Then he left in his limo. Thomas, meanwhile,
couldn't get into the dressing room; he was held at bay by a security
guard who was under orders not to open the room to the press.
''There's a guy named Thomas demanding to get in,'' the guard told
Accorsi. Thomas was right behind him. ''What's going on in here?''
''Irsay just fired Howard.''
''That's not the worst news. He named you as head coach.''
in.You're no head coach, for god's sake,'' Mike Curtis said.
''You shut up.''
It was true, though. Thomas didn't even know the team's playbook.
And for the rest of the season -- the Colts ended at 2-12 -- Thomas
would ask startling things like ''Do we have a halfback option
pass?'' in third- or fourth-down situations. To which someone would
answer, ''Yes, Coach, we have three of them.''
Ted Marchibroda took over as coach the next year, and the team,
with Jones at quarterback, went from 2-12 to 10-4 and won the first
of three straight division titles. These were the Irsay glory years,
but they were nonetheless turbulent. Before the opening game of the
1976 season, for instance, Marchibroda resigned subsequent to an
Irsayian locker-room tantrum after an exhibition game loss in
Detroit. Irsay dressed down the team with such malice that
16-year-old Jimmy climbed on the team bus afterward to apologize.
Curiously, Marchibroda held Thomas responsible for the tirade, and he
told Irsay in a meeting aboard Irsay's yacht -- named, humbly, The
Mighty I -- that either Thomas had to go, or he would. Irsay sided
with Thomas. When the news of Marchibroda's resignation reached the
players, there was such a furor that Irsay told Thomas to ask
Marchibroda back. Marchibroda returned, the Colts won their division
again, and after the season it was Thomas who was fired.
''When Thomas left, suddenly there's no buffer between the team
and Irsay,'' recalls Bruce Laird, a safety who played 10 years with
the Colts. ''Suddenly everything has to go through the IrsayChernoff
chain. From then on, money became almost nonexistent, and everything
they touched turned to manure.'' Laird recalls coming in to
lift weights and soak in the Jacuzzi at the Colts training facility
in Owings Mills, Md. The Jacuzzi was turned off. Laird said to the
team's trainer: ''Let's get this thing going.'' Laird recalls the
trainer shaking his head and telling him, ''Upstairs says no. We're
spending too much on electricity.''
''After Thomas left, Bob started mismanaging the team,'' says
Harriet Irsay, his wife of 39 years, who last year filed suit for
divorce. As part of the $ settlement, she is seeking control of the
team. Irsay left her on June 12, 1985, three days after her 64th
birthday. She was in Florida at the time, visiting the couple's
oldest son, Tom, who has been mentally handicapped since birth.
Irsay neither phoned Harriet to tell her he was leaving nor wrote her
an explanation -- she said she learned from the family maid that he
had moved out of their Winnetka, Ill., home. But, then, exits have
never been Irsay's strong suit.
''Owning a football team really made him feel powerful,'' Harriet
says now. ''Between his power and his drinking, he just became
obnoxious. He was always belittling the players and coaches,
constantly in a fit of temper. He would burst into the locker room
and yell and scream so that things were constantly in a state of
turmoil. I used to tell him, 'Don't go down there, Bob. Wait till
Monday.' Instead of going up to Bert Jones and saying, 'How are you
feeling?' Bob would say, 'You're not going to make believe you're
sick again?' That's the way he talks. He says mean things, but he
only talks that way when he's been drinking.''
In 1979, after a loss, Irsay interrupted a live radio interview
with Jones, who was out with a shoulder injury, and said, ''Hey,
Bert, when are you going to start playing?'' Irsay also told a
reporter, ''I am not paying Bert Jones $275,000 to sit on his butt.''
This is an article from the Dec. 10, 1986 issue
In 1978 Irsay became so incensed at the officiating in a game
against Seattle that he tried to play the game under protest.
Accorsi, who was by then the Colts assistant G.M., tried to explain
that playing under protest was something they did in baseball, not
football, but Irsay insisted that Accorsi make the announcement on
the P.A. system in the press box. Former Seattle G.M. John Thompson
happened to see Accorsi coming, with Irsay close behind. ''Stop me,''
Accorsi whispered. Thompson made a great show of turning Accorsi
back, and, after some discussion, got Irsay to return to his box. He
then instructed two security guards to intercept Irsay if he tried to
get into the press box again. Later, Irsay called members of the
Seattle media, claiming that he had been locked in his box and that
he was going to sue John Thompson for $5 million and the Seahawks for
''He's got a drinking problem, but he won't admit it,'' says
Harriet. ''It started slowly, but in the last five years he really
started to go downhill. I don't know why he behaves the way he does.
Maybe he had a bad childhood.''
In 1980 the Colts trailed Miami by a touchdown at the half, 17-10,
when Irsay sent a member of the Colts front office down to the field
with a strongly worded message. He wanted McCormack to replace Jones
at quarterback with Greg Landry. McCormack refused. In the second
half Jones led the Colts back to a 30-17 win. But Irsay was livid
at McCormack's insubordination and dressed him down behind closed
McCormack was the coach when Irsay began calling the plays from
the coach's booth during a 38-13 loss to the Eagles on Nov. 15, 1981,
one of the low points in NFL history. ''(Irsay) couldn't have told
you how many players there were on the field, never mind what plays
we had,'' recalls Jones, who was shuffled in and out with Landry.
''All he was trying to do was embarrass the coaches and the players.
When he told me to run, I threw. When he told me to throw left, I
Irsay's behavior, while shocking to the football world, was
nothing new to his friends and acquaintances in Chicago. ''I will
not play cards with Bob Irsay in that I do not want to be associated
with him in a gentleman's game,'' says a Chicagoan who has known him
for nearly 20 years. ''At the same time I know that he pays his
bets, and I have seen him tear up a four-figure check from a man who
would have been hard-pressed to make it good. It isn't the money
with Bob. It's that he has to be better than you, and the only
credential he has for being better is the possession of money. He
doesn't fit in, and he knows it. He isn't dumb. He has the innate
intelligence of the peasant, but he is a churl. To borrow a phrase
from Oscar Wilde, 'He knows the price of everything, and the value of
nothing.' That's Bob Irsay.''
There is the story of the day that Irsay was admitted into one of
Chicago's finest downtown clubs, a prestigious and understated
organization with a diverse and high-powered membership. Two club
members remember that after his initiation, Irsay clapped his hands
and strutted down the hallway, pausing to thank the most venerated
member of the club, a past member of the board of governors, and to
stuff a $1,000 bill into the gentleman's breast pocket. The man
stiffened, but quickly recovered. ''Why, thank you, Bob, for your
generosity,'' he said, retrieving the bill and delivering it to the
club's assistant manager. ''I'm sure that the employees' Christmas
fund will appreciate your contribution.''
Irsay's unpredictability is legend in Crabcake City, where Colts
fans eventually began avoiding Memorial Stadium in droves. ''You
couldn't build up enthusiasm when there was always talk about moving
the team to Memphis or Phoenix or Jacksonville,'' recalls Bob
Leffler, the Colts sales and marketing director in their final years
in Baltimore. Irsay had talked about moving the Colts to
Phoenix as far back as 1976. Memorial Stadium had several drawbacks.
According to Richard Sammis, a Baltimore friend of Irsay's, one of
the things that bothered him most was that Memorial Stadium had no
luxury boxes. ''You've got to remember there are 28 owners with 28
giant egos,'' Sammis says. ''Irsay would go to these other stadiums
and have a private box with a bar and food, and then he'd have to
reciprocate here, where you couldn't even get a sandwich upstairs.''
That's an exaggeration, Accorsi says.
In 1979 Irsay began shopping the Colts around in earnest, talking
first to officials from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission,
then to Jacksonville and Memphis. ''He'd cock his head to one side,
give us that teddy bear smile, and tell us he was being sincere with
us,'' Jake Godbold, the mayor of Jacksonville, told The Sun in 1984.
''His name is mud here.''
John Malmo, a Memphis advertising executive, met with Irsay in the
Chicago O'Hare Hilton to extend his city's proposal -- an
exceptionally generous one that guaranteed the Colts a reported $65
million in ticket revenues for the first nine years. But not a
unique one. Harold Deutsch was vice-president and G.M. of WCBM, the
radio station that carried the Colts games in Baltimore. In 1983,
Deutsch and Accorsi hammered out the details of a new contract that
called for the station to pay the Colts $1 million over three years.
Irsay thought he could get another $50,000 out of Deutsch, so he told
Accorsi to ask him to come to a restaurant in Chicago so they could
close the deal. ''I had assumed it was going to be a private lunch,
but there were about 16 people there, and they were drinking and it
was noisy and so many rounds were ordered that I lost track of
them,'' Deutsch recalls. ''It was horrible. One by one people
started to leave, and finally Bob and I were alone. 'Should we go
over the contract now?' I asked. But he told me he wasn't going to
talk business just then and invited me back to his club. Asked me to
spend the night. I told him I really had to get back that evening.
Then he said, 'Just a minute,' and excused himself. Ten or 15
minutes later he still hadn't returned, and after 25 minutes I
became genuinely concerned for his health. So I called the captain
over and suggested we might have a medical problem, and suggested he
take a look in the men's room. There was a smile on his face.
'You're Mr. Deutsch, aren't you?'
'' 'Mr. Irsay had another appointment, but he'd be pleased if you
would stay as long as you like as his guest. Can I bring you a
drink?' I got my coat, grabbed a cab, and flew back to Baltimore.''
By 1980 the Maryland legislature was sufficiently concerned
about losing the Colts that it passed a $23 million bond issue for
stadium renovation that was contingent on Irsay signing a 15-year
lease. He refused on the grounds that Orioles owner Edward Bennett
Williams was not being asked to sign a lease of similar duration,
even though he, too, would benefit from the improvements. Before the
start of the 1981 season, the Colts signed a two-year lease with
Baltimore at extremely favorable terms, a lease that would be
Irsay's meddling in football matters, meanwhile, had extended to
the college draft -- the results of which have shown up in
Indianapolis's record the past three years. In 1982 Irsay told the
Colts front office not to draft Brigham Young quarterback Jim McMahon
because he couldn't stand McMahon's agent, Jerry Argovitz. Instead,
Irsay wanted to take Ohio State's Art Schlichter, who, according to
most scouting reports, did not have the arm to be an NFL passer.
The Colts were winless in the strike-shortened 1982 season, giving
them a shot at quarterback John Elway. Elway, of course, made a
public-relations error in announcing that he wouldn't play in
Baltimore, when what he really meant was that he wouldn't play for
Frank Kush, the Colts coach, and Irsay. Still, Accorsi wanted him.
Desperately. If another team wanted to draft him, it would have had
to fork over three first-round draft picks in exchange. That was
Accorsi's price. When no other team met it, the Colts drafted him.
Elway said the Colts had wasted a draft choice. He would play
''I covered minor league baseball when I was a sportswriter,''
recalls Accorsi, now G.M. of the Browns. ''Elway wasn't going to
give up a chance at the Hall of Fame to play in Greensboro, North
Carolina, which is exactly where he would have been sent. If we'd
been patient we could have signed him.''
Instead, Irsay traded him within a week, without consulting either
Accorsi % or Kush. Denver gave up its own No. 1 pick in 1983
(offensive lineman Chris Hinton), its first pick in the 1984 draft
and quarterback Mark Herrmann. As part of the deal, Denver also
agreed to schedule the Colts for preseason games in each of the next
two years. ''Denver preseason games are one of the richest games you
can get,'' Irsay recently admitted. ''$450,000 to $500,000 they paid
us.'' That gives you a pretty good idea of whether Irsay cared more
about winning or turning a profit.
That same year, when it came time to try to sign the Colts'
second-round draft pick, linebacker Vernon Maxwell, Irsay's crude
behavior temporarily ended the negotiations. Maxwell and his agent,
Bob Cohen, met Irsay and Chernoff in Los Angeles. Irsay was drinking
and became abusive, at one point offending Cohen, who is Jewish,
sufficiently that he and Maxwell got up and left. ''All I said was
'I don't want to be Jewed to death,' '' Irsay recalls. ''He got up,
and I apologized. Mr. Cohen made a big show of it, but I didn't mean
anything. It's a natural expression. Colloquial.''
It is impossible to chronicle how many times Irsay told people he
was not going to move the Colts. No one really believed him when he
said it. One of the last times was on the Friday before the 1984
Super Bowl, after word leaked out that Irsay had a meeting scheduled
with the governor of Arizona, Bruce Babbitt. Irsay, who was in Las
Vegas at the time, abruptly canceled the meeting with Babbitt and
flew to Baltimore. There he held an impromptu press conference with
Mayor Schaefer at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport,
ostensibly to assure the Baltimore press that the rumored
negotiations with Phoenix were false. Irsay was reported by the
Baltimore News-American to have ''smelled of alcohol'' and showed
''signs of drinking,'' and since the scene was captured on videotape
there was plenty of supporting visual evidence. It was a stormy
session in which Irsay repeatedly cursed reporters, rambled
nonsensically and asked, ''What are you all doing here? I don't know
what in the hell this is all about. I have no intention of moving the
In the meantime, Baltimore, Phoenix and Indianapolis all were
negotiating furiously to get, or retain, the crumbling franchise.
Irsay did not attend the league meetings in Hawaii on March 18,
sending in his place his son Jim. The league, having been burned in
its lawsuit against Al Davis and the Raiders, made it clear that it
would not try to stop Irsay from moving the - Colts. It asked only
that the league be notified by April 1, so that it could start making
up the 1984 schedule.
As it turned out, Baltimore probably ended up making Irsay the
most generous offer of the three: a reported $15 million loan at
6.5%, a guarantee of at least 43,000 tickets sold per game for six
years, and the purchase of the team's Owings Mills training facility
for $4 million. The Maryland legislature overplayed its hand,
however, when, on March 27, one of its chambers passed legislation
that would have enabled the state to seize the Colts in an
eminent-domain proceeding. Irsay read about it the morning of the
28th, and called Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut with the news that
the Colts were moving to Indy. ''They not only threw down the
gauntlet, but they put a gun to his head and cocked it and asked,
'Want to see if it's loaded?' '' says Chernoff of the eminent-domain
bill. ''They forced him to make a decision that day. People talk all
the time about how we moved under the cover of darkness, but tell me,
who was laying in the weeds?''
And presto-chango, Bob Irsay has a new start. A new lease that
runs until 2004 with two five-year options for renewal. A new city
that guaranteed him $7 million in ticket and preseason radio and TV
revenues for each of the first 12 years, plus the first $500,000 of
revenue from the luxury boxes. On top of that, the city has built
the Colts a new $4.4 million practice facility, which it has sold to
Irsay for one dollar. He has new fans who are good-natured and, thus
far, undemanding, preferring to be on the bottom of the barrel
looking up rather than on the outside looking in. Even that miserable
1-13 has an upside -- in the person of Vinny Testaverde. Rumors to
the contrary -- that the Rams would give up rookie quarterback Jim
Everett, running back Barry Redden and their first pick in the '87
draft for the rights to Testaverde -- Irsay says, ''I will give you
my word right here, we will take that first pick. I've already had
seven calls, and they won't get it. No, no, no.''
Irsay's supporters are quick to point out that he has opened the
Colts' bulging coffers this season to sign such talented free agents
as Dextor Clinkscale and All-Pro Dwight Hicks. And the salaries of
the coaches, Irsay will tell you, have increased some $650,000 in the
past year -- and this is before Ron Meyer was hired. Mind you, the
Indianapolis payroll is still among the bottom five of the league.
But no longer are the Colts 28th of 28, as ; they were in their final
years in Baltimore, where, annually, such stars as Laird, John
Dutton, Bert Jones, Lydell Mitchell and Curtis Dickey were cut,
traded or disgruntled because of salary disputes.
Of course, Irsay can afford to be generous. He admits that the
Colts were the ''second or third'' most profitable team in football
in 1984 and 1985, running ''close to $10 million'' in the black --
other estimates have put the profit margin for those two years at $20
million -- and even with the horrendous showing of the 1986 team, the
Colts will only drop back in the pack to no worse than eighth most
''Maybe some of the things he got burned on in Baltimore, he
learned from,'' says Indianapolis Mayor Hudnut, a Presbyterian
minister who apparently believes in miracles. ''He's trying to be a
good citizen here, and he's off to a good start.''
''I'm a fighter,'' Irsay says. ''I'll never quit until I win,
and I'm going to fight as long as I live.''
Oh, yes, we believe that all right. But just what is it that he's