Sunday, December 8, 1996
Rozelle put pro football in nation's fabric

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Pete Rozelle was so smooth, he made silk seem like burlap. You'd see him at the Super Bowl, during his annual State of the Game address, and you'd wonder if he hadn't aimed too low.

There was no question that could confound the commissioner of the National Football League, no pertinent fact beyond his fingertips. When Pete Rozelle spoke, you knew he had done his homework in exhaustive detail, and that he had polished his stagecraft to a Broadway sheen. He was better on his feet than any president between Kennedy and Clinton, and he was better still behind closed doors.

''He had a technique,'' Bengals President Mike Brown said Saturday. ''He would allow everyone to voice their views; and he would let them argue back and forth; and it would go on sometimes seemingly interminably. Then, when they had got it all off their chest, he would work them to a consensus and we would go forward.''

Forward. Always forward. Pete Rozelle ran the NFL for nearly 30 years, and his few fumbles are of little consequence beside his forward progress. He was a visionary who never lost sight of the goal line, and whose career consisted almost entirely of touchdowns.

More than any other man, Rozelle made pro football the most popular and profitable American sport, and his country a land of couch potatoes. When he died Friday evening, his survivors included the Super Bowl, Monday Night Football and the Sunday afternoon football widow.

It was Rozelle's great good fortune to rise to power in time to preside over the marriage of football and television, but it was his considerable skill that enabled the union to work. He persuaded the owners to pool their revenues for the common good at a time when television contracts were fragmented franchise-by-franchise.

It was, in retrospect, a masterstroke. By dividing its television loot equally among all member teams, the NFL became the most stable and competitive league in professional sports. In view of the market disparities that have plagued baseball, and the collapse of Communism, Pete Rozelle stands to be recognized as the most successful socialist of the century.

''Rozelle took us out of our old football phase, and made us what we are today,'' said Art Rooney, the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner. ''Which is big business.''

He moved the NFL headquarters from suburban Philadelphia to midtown Manhattan, and promptly began pitching his product to the networks. In 1964, Rozelle negotiated a two-year contract with CBS worth $28.2 million and pro football has known nothing but prosperity since.

Today, the NFL's network contracts are worth billions, and 30-second Super Bowl commercials cost more than $1 million. The league's logos are as familiar as Christmas carols, and more ubiquitous than McDonald's.

If Paul Brown professionalized pro football, Pete Rozelle was the guy to make it a global business. He understood diplomacy, and deal-making, and had to in order to succeed in an office where power is based on personality rather than rights.

''This job is a hybrid,'' he once said. ''It's in between being the chief executive of a large company and being the executive director of a trade association. I inherited a strong constitution and an office that held respect, but the whole thing - no matter what the constitution says - is getting the confidence of the owners.''

Rozelle gained that confidence because his ideas inevitably made money, and he wielded his influence so artfully that owners often mistook his ideas for their own. (The Raiders' Al Davis being the notable exception.) When Pete Rozelle twisted arms, it was with a velvet glove.

''He could handle people - difficult people - like a lion tamer, if you will,'' Mike Brown said. ''People in the league felt he had their interests at heart. He was always fair. He was the perfect leader for the NFL, and I think when you look at the job of commissioner, he gets my vote as the all-time greatest one.''