Rozelle earned respect, made NFL a major league
Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Rozelle was NFL innovator
By Bob Carter
Special to ESPN.com
Jan. 26, 1960 - In a shocking switch that ended seven days of bitter fighting among the 12 NFL owners, Los Angeles Rams general manager Pete Rozelle was a compromise choice and elected the league's new commissioner on the 23rd ballot.
Until the announcement, the 33-year-old Rozelle's name had not even been mentioned among the candidates. Through most of the voting, the leaders had been Marshall Leahy, a San Francisco lawyer, and Austin Gunsel, a former FBI agent who had been acting commissioner since the death of Bert Bell 3½ months ago.
When it appeared there was no hope of breaking the stalemate between Leahy and Gunsel, Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom proposed Rozelle. The Californian received eight votes, Leahy got one and three teams abstained.
"I would be silly to consider myself anything but a compromise commissioner," said Rozelle, who received a three-year contract at an annual salary of $50,000.
Odds 'n' Ends
Duke Snider, who went on to become a Baseball Hall of Famer, was a teammate of Rozelle on the Compton Junior College basketball team. Rozelle, who was tall and lean, played forward.
Rozelle met Jane Coupe of Chicago while he was in the Navy. They married in 1949.
The couple had one child, Anne Marie, who was born at halftime of the Rams' season opener in 1958. Rozelle went to the game after the delivery.
Jane would eventually suffer from alcoholism and the Rozelle's divorced. Pete was awarded custody of Anne Marie.
In 1962, Rozelle was re-elected as NFL commissioner. That same year, a district judge in New York upheld the league's TV rule that called for blacking out home games within a 75-mile radius.
Rozelle relied on the advice of Pierre Salinger in deciding to allow NFL games to be played the weekend after President Kennedy's death. Salinger was JFK's press secretary and a Rozelle friend from his days at the University of San Francisco.
Sports Illustrated named Rozelle its Sportsman of the Year in 1963 - not because of the JFK decision but because of his decisiveness in handling the Paul Hornung and Alex Karras betting situation.
Rozelle reinstated the two players in 1964, one year after they were suspended for betting on NFL games. Hornung took the ban well, but Karras criticized him for years.
In 1966, Rozelle began working on a merger behind the scenes with longtime Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, considered the AFL's father figure. They, along with several other owners, put together a deal and kept Al Davis, the Raiders' executive and short-time AFL commissioner, out of it.
Though Rozelle had grown up as an NFL man, he thought the AFL Jets' win in Super Bowl III was the best thing for the league. He was concerned that fans would lose interest in the game if the NFL continued to dominate the AFL.
When the leagues re-shaped in 1970, Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh agreed to switch to the new 13-team American Football Conference.
That same year, the NFL finalized a four-your deal with the NFL Players Association that gave more than $4 million annually to player pension and insurance benefits.
The NFL approved several key rules changes for 1974. If regular-season games were tied, they went to one sudden-death overtime period. Kickoffs were moved from the 40-yard line to the 35, and goal posts were moved from the goal line to the back of the end zone.
In December 1975, a federal judge in Minnesota struck down the so-called "Rozelle Rule" as a violation of antitrust laws. The rule had allowed Rozelle to establish compensation when a team lost a free agent to another team.
In 1978, the NFL went to a 16-game regular season and added a second wild-card team to the playoffs. That made for a total of 10 playoff teams, five in each league.
Rozelle, upon losing the league's courtroom fight with the Raiders in 1982, predicted that several teams would look to shift locales. A few did - Baltimore, St. Louis and the Raiders (back to Oakland) among them.
Two rival leagues began play and folded during Rozelle's tenure. The World Football League began in 1974 and ceased operation in October 1975. The U.S. Football League lasted three seasons, 1983-85.
Rozelle was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
In 1974, Rozelle married Carrie Cooke, the former daughter-in-law of Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.
After Pete retired in 1989, the Rozelle's spent two years having their dream house built in Rancho Santa Fe, California.
Pete and Carrie underwent brain surgery within a year of each other.
Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories