|Pete Rozelle (left) and George Halas (right) in the early 1980s.|
of the National Football League
January 1960 – November 1989
|Preceded by||Austin Gunsel|
|Succeeded by||Paul Tagliabue|
|Born||March 1, 1926|
South Gate, California
|Died||December 6, 1996 (aged 70)|
Rancho Santa Fe, California
|Alma mater||University of San Francisco|
|Honors||Sportsman of the Year (1963)|
Pro Football Hall of Fame (1985)
Alvin Ray "Pete" Rozelle (//; March 1, 1926 – December 6, 1996) was the commissioner of the National Football League (NFL) from January 1960 to November 1989, when he retired from office. Rozelle is credited with making the NFL into one of the most successful sports leagues in the world.
Rozelle was born in South Gate, California and grew up in neighboring Lynwood, California during the Great Depression. He graduated from Compton High School in 1944, with Duke Snider, lettering in baseball and basketball. He was drafted into the Navy in 1944 and served 18 months in the Pacific on an oil tanker. Rozelle began his career at the University of San Francisco, working as a student publicist for the school's football team. He had already worked in public relations for the Los Angeles Rams front office and while in the athletic office at USF he marketed the Dons' National Invitation Tournament championship basketball season of 1949 into a national media event. He graduated from USF in 1950.
He held a series of public relations jobs in Southern California, marketing the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia for a Los Angeles based company. He joined the Los Angeles Rams as its public relations specialist. By 1957, Rozelle was offered the GM job with the Rams. He turned a disorganized, unprofitable team, lost in the growing L.A. market, into a business success. One of his underlings with the Rams was Tex Maule, who went on to become the biased Pro Football columnist for Sports Illustrated. When his former boss became NFL commissioner, Maule was, for all intents and purposes, Rozelle's and the NFL's PR man on SI, where he lionized even mediocre NFL teams and players, while demeaning the American Football League.
After Bert Bell's death in 1959, Rozelle was the surprise choice for his replacement as NFL commissioner. According to Howard Cosell in his book I Never Played the Game, the owners took 23 ballots before settling on Rozelle as NFL Commissioner at a January 26, 1960 meeting. When he took office there were twelve teams in the NFL playing a twelve game schedule to frequently half-empty stadiums, and only a few teams had television contracts. The NFL in 1960 was following a business model that had evolved from the 1930s. NFL sources credit Rozelle with bringing concepts such as gate and television profit-sharing, policies already in place in the rival American Football League, to the NFL. The revenue-sharing was a major factor in stabilizing the AFL and guaranteeing the success of its small-market teams. Rozelle recognized the value of such an arrangement, and following the lead of the rival AFL, Rozelle negotiated large television contracts to broadcast every NFL game played each season. In doing so, he not only deftly played one television network against the other, but also persuaded NFL team owners — most notably Carroll Rosenbloom of the Baltimore Colts and George Preston Marshall of the Washington Redskins — to agree to share revenues between teams. His business model, which emulated that of the AFL, was essentially a cartel that benefited all teams equally, from revenue sharing to the player draft.
On November 24, 1963 the NFL played its full schedule of games (untelevised due to uninterrupted coverage of the assassination), only two days after President Kennedy's assassination, while the rival American Football League (AFL) postponed its games out of respect for the fallen president. Rozelle soon came to regret his decision to have the NFL play, and frequently stated publicly that it had been his worst mistake. However, Rozelle and then-White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger had been classmates at the University of San Francisco years before, and Rozelle had consulted with him. Salinger urged Rozelle to play the games. Rozelle felt that way, saying: "It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy. Football was Mr. Kennedy's game. He thrived on competition." After their win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Philadelphia, players on the Washington Redskins asked Coach Bill McPeak to send the game ball to the White House, thanking Rozelle for allowing the games to be played that weekend, saying that they were "playing...for President Kennedy and in his memory."
By 1965, the rival American Football League was firmly established, with a new NBC-TV contract, and a new superstar in Joe Namath. After an NFL team (the Giants) had signed an AFL player (the Buffalo Bills' Pete Gogolak) in early 1966, American Football League commissioner Al Davis had shaken the NFL. Davis had immediately started signing NFL stars such as Roman Gabriel, John Brodie and Mike Ditka to contracts with AFL teams. Fearful of their league's collapse, NFL owners, without the knowledge of Rozelle, approached AFL owners (without the knowledge of Davis) and requested merger talks. AFL and NFL executives including Lamar Hunt, founder of the AFL and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, completed a plan. Rozelle is erroneously credited with forging the merger. In October 1966, he did testify to Congress to convince them to allow the merger, promising that if they permitted it, "Professional football operations will be preserved in the 23 cities and 25 stadiums where such operations are presently being conducted."; and "Every franchise of both leagues will remain in its present location." The merger was allowed, but despite Rozelle's promises, numerous NFL teams have since moved, or used the threat of moving to have cities build or improve stadiums. Following the urging of American Football League commissioner Al Davis, Rozelle also agreed to the creation of the Super Bowl and later supported the concept of Monday Night Football. NFL sources have since aggrandized Rozelle's part in both the merger and Monday Night Football. Although Al Davis opposed the merger (and ultimately resigned over it), there can be no doubt that the NFL's seeking of a merger was a direct result of Davis' bold moves while he was Commissioner of the AFL. Ironically, Pete Rozelle is erroneously given credit for the merger, even though he consistently refused to have a game between NFL and AFL champions, and the fact that Rozelle was "out of the loop" when the AFL and NFL owners negotiated the merger.  Rozelle is also erroneously credited with introducing the concept of shared television revenues to Professional Football. He did advocate it for the merged NFL; however he was simply embracing the concept which had been implemented by Harry Wismer and the AFL ten years before the merger.
In any event, the terms of the merger stipulated that Rozelle would be retained as Commissioner of the post-merger National Football League, and following Davis' resignation Rozelle was recognized by the ownership of both leagues as the de facto chief executive of professional American football. As such, from 1966 until 1970 Rozelle was often referred to as the "football commissioner" in the media, even though (unlike the Commissioner of Baseball) the NFL commissioner was never formally invested with that sort of title.
The 1970s saw Rozelle at the peak of his powers as a sports league commissioner. He presided over a decade of league expansion. Monday Night Football became a staple of American television viewing, and the Super Bowl became the single most watched televised event of the year. During this decade, the upstart World Football League organized, pushing player salaries higher even as it ended up in bankruptcy. Towards the end of the decade, labor unrest and litigation over issues such as the NFL Players Association and team movement to new markets foreshadowed Rozelle's decline as commissioner.
The 1980s saw drug scandals and further struggle with powerful owners over team movement. Rozelle, again according to Monday Night Football commentator Howard Cosell, pushed the NFL into an internecine struggle with Al Davis concerning the movement of the Oakland Raiders franchise to Los Angeles. Other owners, such as Leonard Tose of the Philadelphia Eagles, sought to move their franchises elsewhere. Ultimately, the NFL lost its court case with Davis, and the Oakland franchise moved to Los Angeles. The sports world was very aware of the men's dislike for one another. In 1981, the Oakland Raiders won the Super Bowl. As commissioner, Rozelle handed the Super Bowl Trophy over to Al Davis. Additionally, the United States Football League formed, pushing player salaries higher, and ultimately embroiled the league in further legal troubles.
Personal life, retirement and death
Rozelle married his first wife, an artist named Jane Coupe, in 1949. The couple had one child, Anne, born in 1958: however, Jane's problems with alcohol meant that Rozelle (along with his lifelong secretary, Thelma Elkjer) was his daughter's primary caretaker, unheard of in that era. It was not uncommon to see Anne at owner's meetings (some joked that her love of Joe Namath was a reason behind the AFL-NFL merger) or for Rozelle to take off early to help her with schoolwork or to take her out on the town. Rozelle and Coupe divorced in 1967 (with Rozelle awarded full custody of Anne), and he remarried in 1974 to Carrie Cooke, daughter-in-law of sports impresario Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the Washington Redskins. This time, the two stayed together until his death on December 6, 1996 in Rancho Santa Fe, California.
Under Rozelle the NFL thrived and had become an American icon, despite two players' strikes and two different upstart leagues. He retired as commissioner on November 5, 1989. By the time of his resignation, the number of teams in the league had grown to 28, and team owners presided over sizable revenues from U.S. broadcasting networks.
Rozelle died of brain cancer at the age of 70 on December 6, 1996 in Rancho Santa Fe. The following month the NFL honored his legacy by wearing a decal on the back of the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots helmets during Super Bowl XXXI that had the NFL shield with Pete in cursive on it. Pete Rozelle is interred at El Camino Memorial Park in San Diego, California.
While still serving as commissioner, Rozelle was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. The institution's annual Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award was established in 1989. On January 27, 1991, at Super Bowl XXV, the league first awarded the Pete Rozelle Trophy to the Super Bowl MVP.
- Brady, Dave (November 24, 1963). "It's Tradition To Carry on, Rozelle Says". The Washington Post: p. C2.
- Walsh, Jack (November 25, 1963). "Game Ball Going to White House". The Washington Post: p. A16.
- Associated Press (November 25, 1963). "Redskins Send Game Ball to White House". The Chicago Tribune: p. C4.
- Sports Illustrated, 16 December 1963
- "Sports People: Pro Football; The Rozelle Trophy". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). October 10, 1990. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C0CE6DC103DF933A25753C1A966958260. Retrieved February 25, 2007.
- Rozelle: Czar of the NFL by Jeff Davis
- Commissioner: The Legacy of Pete Rozelle by John Fortunato
- The League: The Rise and Decline of the NFL by David Harris
- Pete Rozelle at the Pro Football Hall of Fame
- Pete Rozelle at Find a Grave
- What Pete Rozelle didn't do.