A jam session with JIM IRSAY

Jan. 25, 2010
Jan. 25, 2010

Table of Contents
Jan. 25, 2010

  • When he inherited the Colts from his controversial father, Robert, 13 years ago, the Who-loving, Dylan-quoting Irsay set out to be a radically different sort of owner. The result is a perennially successful team that has become the envy of the NFL and turned Indiana into a football-mad state


A jam session with JIM IRSAY

When he inherited the Colts from his controversial father, Robert, 13 years ago, the Who-loving, Dylan-quoting Irsay set out to be a radically different sort of owner. The result is a perennially successful team that has become the envy of the NFL and turned Indiana into a football-mad state

You know what they say are the two things in the world worth living for?" asks Jim Irsay, owner of the Colts. The question is rhetorical; the answers should be obvious. Given Irsay's complex relationship with his late father, the tragedies that befell his two siblings and his deep devotion to his wife and three daughters, surely family is one answer. And given how often Irsay mentions various associates and running buddies, friends must be the other.

This is an article from the Jan. 25, 2010 issue

Then again, Irsay oversees a model NFL franchise. Under his stewardship Indianapolis hasn't just won; it has won with class, captivating an entire state. So maybe Irsay's answers will be facetious, something on the order of, "A healthy quarterback and a taxpayer-funded stadium."

Sitting behind his sprawling desk in his sprawling office at the Colts' sprawling headquarters, Irsay leans in. He smiles. His hazel eyes narrow. He reveals the answers: "Innocence and magic."

Um, come again?

"The only things worth living for are innocence and magic," he repeats, explaining that it's a line from the album White Ladder, by the British soft rocker David Gray. "He's saying, We're looking for magic, and it's greater than us. You know, it's the sixth sense, the spiritual thing. It comes in this life from the shared experience."

As Irsay continues his explanation, he steals another glance at a straw-colored Martin acoustic guitar propped against a swivel chair. The Lombardi Trophy, an emblem of the Colts' 2007 Super Bowl XLI victory, is the centerpiece of his office. But on this cold, brooding Monday, as Irsay meanders gently from innocence and magic to family psychodynamics to "Eminem as a life force"—and even occasionally to Indy's successful season and his unlikely status as one of the most respected owners in pro sports—he can't keep his eye off that signature edition six-string, a gift from his longtime friend Stephen Stills, of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Finally, Irsay can take it no more. He walks across the room and whips off his black Roots-brand sweatshirt. In a tight black T-shirt that barely covers the Colts' horseshoe logo tattooed on his right shoulder, Irsay, whose slicked-back hair is as much salt as it is pepper, cradles the guitar and starts fingerpicking Four and Twenty, written by Stills. Irsay says the song has been "resonating" with him lately.

He closes his eyes and sings in a firm voice that starts deep in his belly and falls somewhere between Springsteen and Tom Waits on the gravel continuum. You're tempted to picture one of Irsay's colleagues—say, Patriots owner Robert Kraft or the Cowboys' Jerry Jones or, for that matter, Irsay's blustery father, Robert—playing his ax and singing for a guest without inhibition or irony. You're tempted to dwell on the fact that Irsay gives the lie to the notion that NFL owners are either buttoned-up bean counters or image-conscious megalomaniacs. But Irsay is good—really good—with guitar chops that are matched by his voice. So you concentrate on the music instead.

The lyrics are dark, especially for a dude who's only 50 and on the Forbes 400 list. But Irsay sings with soft, mournful conviction, and his voice is trembling by the time he gets to the final verse: I embrace the many-colored beast/I grow weary of the torment/Can there be no peace?/And I find myself just wishing that my life would simply cease.

When Irsay finishes, he smiles sheepishly. "So, anyway," he says, "what were we talking about?"

This season the Colts celebrated their 25th anniversary in Indiana, and by now Jim Irsay has become a naturalized Hoosier. He knows the small towns and roadside diners. He counts John Mellencamp, the state's unofficial poet laureate, among his friends. He speaks with a throaty Midwestern inflection. Jim's middle daughter, Casey, his likely successor as owner, recently married the grandson of four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt.

But Irsay retains vivid memories of one of his first trips to the region. It was 1983, and the Colts were still in Baltimore. Robert Irsay was the team's owner. After a long, wet lunch, Robert called his son and told him, "Get to Indianapolis," a city to which he was considering relocating his franchise.

Jim, then in his mid-20s, did as he always did, obeying his dad without asking questions. He flew out and checked into a hotel under an alias. Then he called home. "O.K., I'm here, Dad," he said. "What do you want me to do?"

"You're where?" asked Robert Irsay, who had sobered up in the interim.

"In Indianapolis."

"Indianapolis! What the hell are you doing in Indianapolis? You can't be seen there!"

"But you said to...."

"Get back home!"

So it went with Robert Irsay, who'd bought the Colts in 1972 for $16 million. A heating and air-conditioning magnate, he was a savvy and opportunistic businessman, but he was also—how to put it?—a controversial figure. He didn't burn bridges so much as firebomb them. Jim Irsay describes his father as "smart but volatile, done in by drinking." Robert's mother was less charitable; in a withering 1986 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED profile, she characterized her older son as "a devil on earth."

Robert fired coaches on whims—even, once, on the sidelines during a game. He grabbed a headset and called plays. He berated players. Jim, just 13 when his father bought the team, was often torn between filial loyalty and his sense of fairness. "The players were like uncles to me," he says, "and my dad wasn't always so nice to them."

After a brutal loss to the Lions in 1973 Robert Irsay ripped his players in the locker room, even ordering one to stand in the corner like a shamed schoolboy. Jim boarded the team bus and tried to make amends on his father's behalf. His voice caught, his eyes misted. Says Stan White, the former Colts linebacker, "I remember Robert Irsay getting on the bus, seeing his son standing there, and saying, 'Jimmy, you're embarrassing me,' and the players thinking it was the other way around.... Jimmy was a great kid, totally humble, no entitlement just because his dad owned the team. But his dad just kept putting him in tough situations."

By the early '80s Robert Irsay and Maryland politicians were locked in combat. He demanded a new stadium; they threatened to seize the team through eminent domain. Irsay swore on his son's life that he had no intention of moving the franchise. Weeks after that proclamation, on the night of March 28, 1984, the Mayflower vans arrived at the team's complex. By morning the Colts were no longer Baltimore's, and Indianapolis had an NFL franchise. In Maryland the name Irsay might as well have been a curse word. If the T-shirts were to be believed, WILL ROGERS NEVER MET BOB IRSAY. Cars with bumper stickers imploring HONK IF YOU HATE IRSAY provoked angry symphonies. Threats from Baltimore fans were so violent that years after moving to Indy, Jim Irsay still kept a .357 Magnum loaded with hollow-point bullets in his upper-right desk drawer.

The honeymoon in Indianapolis was brief and awkward. The city felt like a guilty mistress. And the Colts, playing in the charmless Hoosier Dome, were inept. During its first three seasons in Indy, the team went 12--36. COLTS, the joke went, was an acronym for Count On Losing This Sunday. If you could distill those abysmal years to a single scene, it came late in a 1985 game against the Dolphins. The Colts' coach at the time became so excited about a possible game-winning drive that he appeared to suffer a heart attack. It turned out he'd simply slipped and fallen—and split his pants in the process. Indianapolis didn't score. The coach left the field with a towel around his waist.

Jim took it all in. He also began to see that not all team owners were viewed as Robert was. "In 1982 I was at the NFL's annual meeting," Jim recalls. "[Steelers owner] Art Rooney is in his 80s, and he comes in with a big unlit cigar. Heads turn and all of a sudden there's a standing ovation. I'm thinking, Wow, that's something to aspire to."

In November 1995, Robert Irsay suffered a stroke. He never recovered fully, and he died in January 1997. "I buried my dad," Jim says, "and then I looked around and said, O.K., it's my turn." There were classical echoes, of course, the son succeeding the father and trying to restore honor to the family name. Jim has a more contemporary reference, saying, "It's like those lines by Sting: I will turn your face to alabaster. Then you'll find your servant is your master."

Finally his rebellious instincts kicked in. As an owner Jim has essentially been the polar opposite of Robert. Where the father was tightfisted, the son has spent liberally—so much so that the Colts, despite playing in one of the NFL's smaller markets, have a competitive payroll and more employees than any other franchise. "[Jim] has always given his team the resources necessary to be successful," says quarterback Peyton Manning, who has made more than $14 million a year since 2004. "He is all you want in an owner."

Where the father was impetuous, the son has been steady: Since 1998 the Colts have had only three coaches, the last of whom, Jim Caldwell, is in his first year. Where the father was autocratic and meddling, the son has delegated power. One of his first moves was to hire Bill Polian, a wise, hard-boiled football lifer and nobody's lackey, as team president.

Unlike his father—in fact, unlike most NFL owners—Jim Irsay knows football. A linebacker long on heart and short on talent, he walked on at SMU in the early 1980s, when the Mustangs were a powerhouse. Before owning the Colts, he was a scout and then the team's general manager. Plus, he was once capable of squatting 750 pounds, an amount that would shame most players. "I'm telling you, he's a real football man," says the 67-year-old Polian. "You can accomplish things quickly in this organization because he understands without having it explained."

Yet Irsay has no interest in calling plays or second-guessing his minions. "Here's all you need to know about Jim," says Tony Dungy, who coached Indianapolis from 2002 through '08. "You would discuss something with him, he'd give his impressions and then say, 'You make the call and know I support you.'"

The result is a unique species, the beta owner among the alpha dogs of the NFL. It was Jerry Jones who once called Irsay "the Zen owner."

How's the Zen approach worked out? Over the past decade the Colts have won more games than any NFL team and are now within eight quarters of winning their second championship in four years. The value of the franchise, according to Forbes, exceeds $1 billion, and it has never been more profitable. Respect for Irsay among his 31 peers is so high that they voted to award Indianapolis the 2012 Super Bowl. Ask executives around the league about the Colts, and the default characterization is class organization.

Last fall, when conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh was involved in a bid to buy the Rams, it was Irsay who first voiced opposition. Citing the commentator's "inappropriate, incendiary and insensitive" remarks about African-Americans, Irsay said he would not support Limbaugh's entry to the league. Within days Limbaugh withdrew.

Maybe dearest to Irsay was a public-private partnership to build a new stadium—a gleaming edifice on the south side of downtown Indianapolis, flush with suites and a retractable roof—which he orchestrated two years ago. The Colts chipped in $100 million, taxpayers added $620 million, and California-based Lucas Oil agreed to pay $6 million a year in naming rights. (Try getting those deal terms today.) The erection of Lucas Oil Stadium means that the Colts won't be moving, at least not in Jim Irsay's lifetime. "You know how he felt the wrath of Baltimore when his dad left?" says Dungy, still a close friend of Irsay's. "He didn't want that for his kids, being stigmatized in the city where they grew up."

Reflecting on the franchise's success over the last decade, Irsay reflexively ladles out credit. To Polian. To Dungy. To Manning. To former wide receiver Marvin Harrison. To "our great fans." But mostly to luck. "What if Peyton comes out a year early, in 1997, and goes to the Jets?" Irsay muses. "What if we [win] that game [with] Minnesota, or what if Jake Plummer doesn't bring Arizona back in the last game of the ['97] season and we lose the pick? What if Bill Polian or Tony Dungy doesn't come here? Or we don't draft Dwight Freeney or Dallas Clark? Injuries...." He stops himself and veers in another direction. "People use words like brand and strategy. But to me it's more intuitive: What makes sense to do it right?"

Irsay has always been careful not to disparage his old man and the way he ran the team, but he allows himself to dust off a line he's been using for years: "They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, but what if the tree is on a hill?"

The House of Irsay knows pain. Robert and Harriet Irsay's first child, Tommy, was born severely retarded and spent most of his life in institutions before dying at age 45 in 1999. Jim was 11 when a state trooper knocked on the family's door and explained that his big sister, Roberta, 15, had died in an auto accident. "Not only can anything happen, but it does," Jim says. "That's why, if things aren't going well, I'm your man. In your mind, you can't think that if you lose, you're less of a person." Jim ran marathons and lifted weights competitively, but it wrecked his body. Recovering from wrist and elbow surgeries in the '90s, he developed an addiction to painkillers. It took a couple of stints in rehab, the most recent in 2002, for him to get clean. "Look at his life," says Bart Peterson, Indianapolis's mayor from 2000 to '08. "Jim is proof that you can be born into privilege and still have to overcome an awful lot in life."

Through it all, Irsay's therapy has been music. It was something that had nothing to do with his dad and nothing to do with the Colts. "Football took me to one place," he says, "and music took me somewhere totally different."

Irsay was still in Baltimore when he met Stills. Back then, Stills recalls, "we had 28-inch waists and nothing hurt. [Jim] was bashful, like me, but his interest was something else. I'd ask about Bert Jones, but he'd want to talk about songs or guitars."

The music led to an interest in poetry, which led to an interest in spirituality. On these and most other subjects, Irsay doesn't speak so much as he free-associates, seldom going more than a few sentences without referring to a rock lyric. He peppers his sentences with the phrase you know, but it's less a verbal tic than a reassurance that the listener is connecting with him. And if you thought Hamlet did soliloquies, well, just get Irsay going. Say, does art express itself in a football game?

"It really does. It's an incredible game. It mirrors life. It mirrors the journey you're on. Ultimately it mirrors the passion. Like the Greeks talked about all those things. And football, that element of so much adversity, so many things you have to overcome, so many aspects that can go wrong, some of your doing, some not of your doing. I kind of ... I find a lot of things artistic. To me finance is extremely artistic. Numbers are extremely artistic. When you actually look at music, when you're a songwriter, anyone will tell you it's numerical, you know. But I think there's an art form to everything we do. To me, we are all artists. You know, our canvas is our life, and everything we do ties into that art. Words are something that I love. I'm a huge Dylan Thomas fan. For me, following music and being passionate about Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and The Who, I didn't really realize you could ever get past John Bonham, Jimmy Page and Marshall amps to get that intensity until I really started reading Dylan Thomas. Looking at lines on a page was something that completely blew me away. You know that's the reason, that intensity, I mean it's like a line Bob Dylan has: You know the truth was obscured, too profound and too pure, to live it you have to explode. To me, you know, that's the aspect of being in these human bodies. Just that sometimes, no matter how you try, get to that full expression of what we search for. We're searchers. And it's really all a search for God, a search for the higher power, that we long for. But in the human form, we're left with our five senses, in a lonely manner, unless we go for our sixth sense. And that's the reason I've always loved the lines [from Teilhard de Chardin], We are not human beings having a spiritual existence. We are spiritual beings having a human existence. Being our essence. And that's the reason football—there's nothing else I'd rather be into on a Sunday."

If this recalls San Francisco in the '50s and '60s, it's for good reason. He is so taken by Jack Kerouac that in 2001 he paid $2.4 million for the famed scroll of On the Road, the novel/travelogue Kerouac allegedly wrote in a three-week marathon fueled by caffeine, nicotine and Benzedrine. Irsay believes the scroll is currently touring the world, perhaps somewhere in Europe—"Hopefully," he says, "people are enjoying it and having their eyes opened by it"—but it turns out that after years of touring, the manuscript is resting safely in an Indiana University rare-books library.

Irsay also had "a thing" for Hunter S. Thompson. They met in the late '90s through a mutual friend, the writer-director Cameron Crowe. Soon Irsay was calling Thompson at all hours of the night, after Jim's wife, Meg, went to sleep. "Sometimes he had John Depp on the other line, and I'd have to call back," says Irsay. What did he and Thompson talk about? "Just pearls of wisdom," Irsay says. "He was another shy, sweet guy, like John Belushi or Chris Farley, where the persona was one way and the real [person] was another. Just all the drugs and alcohol wore him out."

Irsay was distraught when Thompson committed suicide in February 2005. Instead of attending the funeral in Aspen, Colo.—"I knew it was going to be a lot of liquor and large explosives, and that wasn't the Hunter I knew," he says—he wrote a poem in tribute. The Frozen Lakes of the Confessor ends with this: They said you'd finally do it/but you pissed them off/'cause only you knew when/But now "when" is already yesterday/See ya on the "Other Side" my friend....

If there's a common theme to Irsay's disparate tastes, it's an affection for drifters and open roads and other Americana. Robert Irsay was a striver who exaggerated his credentials and wanted acceptance from the country-club set. Not so his son. Around Indianapolis, Jim—never, you'll notice, James—is famous for his dinner parties: He'll invite business leaders and well-connected lawyers and put them together with the grease monkey he recently met at the gas station.

"I embrace my peasant roots," he says more than once, proudly noting that his maternal grandmother was a poor Chicago housekeeper. When Colts executives tour Indiana spreading the gospel of football, Irsay lets others go to the moneyed suburbs. He ventures instead to the small-town Rotary Clubs and VFW halls, places, he says admiringly, where hors d'oeuvres means a bowl of gumballs on a folding table. "It's like the Queen of England versus the woman carrying water on her head in India," he says. "Spiritually, life is an equal theater. People need to understand that. There are no free passes, man."

Once, Irsay went to considerable lengths to separate what one friend calls "out-there Jim" from "football Jim," but no more. As he's gotten older, he's tried to integrate the two worlds. So it is that Stills shows up in Irsay's suite on game day, as he did at the Broncos game last month. (As the Colts set up their winning drive, Irsay eased the tension by turning and asking Stills if he'd ever met Elvis; he had not.) Likewise, Irsay exposes the Indianapolis players, coaches and fans to his aesthetic side, dropping music references into preseason pep talks, even composing the team's fight song.

Colts center Jeff Saturday laughs. "Jim's great, but he's definitely"—Saturday slows down to choose his words carefully, this being the boss and all—"more on the artistic side of it. I guess that's his thing. But don't misunderstand: When it's about winning, he's serious business. For all the artsy stuff, he wants to win football games."

A prominent player describes Irsay as "quirky" but then asks to take it back. "He's a little different," the player finally decides. "But when it comes down to it, who isn't?"

Towns throughout Indiana once came together on Friday nights to watch high school basketball games; now they come together on Friday nights to watch high school football games. If a sizable chunk of the state's population once owned Reggie Miller's number 31 Pacers jerseys, now an even greater proportion own replicas of Manning's number 18. "I never thought I'd say it," says Bill Benner, a longtime Indianapolis sportswriter, "but Indiana has gone from a basketball state to a football state."

Some of this cultural shift owes to circumstance. In November 2004, the Pacers were involved in a midgame brawl that rocked the franchise, which is now hanging on for dear life. Depending on your view, Bob Knight got what was coming to him or was unfairly run out of Bloomington; what's not debatable is that Indiana University hoops haven't been the same since Knight was fired in September 2000. The popular all-comers high school tournament, immortalized in Hoosiers, lost its significance after tone-deaf administrators replaced it with a class format in the 1997--98 season.

But the driving force behind the shift has been the Colts. The Super Bowl trophy and those 14-win seasons don't hurt. But more than anything, it's the values the team expresses. It's the stable roster. It's the absence of much off-field drama. (Bear in mind, the Bengals are barely 100 miles down the road.) It's the unheralded touches, such as the team's hiring of Josh Bleill, an Indiana native who lost his legs fighting in Iraq, to be a community liaison. "People here really respond to the quality of the organization," says Peterson, the former mayor. "Quality doesn't just mean wins and losses."

Straitlaced Indiana has even come to appreciate the owner's idiosyncrasies. When the Colts won Super Bowl XLI, Irsay wanted to reward fans for their loyalty. He seized on an idea. He had five additional rings made, then dressed up as a benevolent despot—"a combination of Willie Wonka and Elton John," Irsay says—and led an elaborate treasure hunt, the Quest for the Ring, around downtown Indianapolis. There's your innocence and magic. The fans ate it up. "I knew the reputation of the father, so I didn't necessarily think it would be this way. But I admire Jim and respect him, and I also like him," says Peterson, "and I think most people feel that way."

Even in Baltimore the scars have started to heal, at least in some precincts. "I think there's still resentment," says Stan White, now a Maryland lawyer and Ravens radio broadcaster. "We feel like our heritage was taken. Johnny Unitas listed under Indianapolis? Come on. But at the same time, we root for Jimmy to be successful. Jimmy didn't move the team. There's a lot of respect and love there."

If nothing else, Irsay no longer needs to keep that gun in his desk drawer. "But I do have these," he says. With that, the owner of the best team in the NFL reaches around the surface of his desk and gathers an array of candles. "They're very relaxing, you know."

Now on

For more on Colts owner Jim Irsay from L. Jon Wertheim, go to

They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree ...
Unlike his father, Irsay knows football. He was a scout and the Colts' general manager. Plus, he could squat 750 pounds.
"Jim is proof that you can be born into privilege and still have to overcome a lot in life," says Peterson.
If there's a common theme to Irsay's tastes, it's an affection for drifters and open roads and other Americana.
PHOTOPhotograph by PETER GREGOIREROCK GARDEN Irsay's office, where vintage guitars compete with football mementos, shows he's nothing like his father (opposite).PHOTOBILL SMITH/AP[See caption above]PHOTOMICHAEL CONROY/APINDY VISIBLE Irsay is as comfortable with star players Manning (18) and Reggie Wayne (87) as he is with fans, for whom he ordered five '07 Super Bowl rings.PHOTOMICHAEL CONROY/AP (WAYNE)[See caption above]PHOTOALAN PETERSIME/INDIANAPOLIS STAR/AP (RINGS)[See caption above]PHOTOCOURTESY OF JIM IRSAY (IRSAYS)THE GETAWAY Robert Irsay (below, with Jim in the early '70s) earned the eternal enmity of Baltimoreans in 1984 by stealing away to Indianapolis in the dark of a snowy night.PHOTOLLOYD PEARSON/THE BALTIMORE SUN/AP (TRUCK)[See caption above]PHOTOANN HEISENFELT/APON THE BEAT Irsay paid $2.4 million for the original manuscript of On the Road, a single scroll that, fully unrolled, stretches 40 yards.