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 suburban Lynwood, California
during the Great Depression. He graduated from Compton High School
in 1944, 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 LA Rams front office and while in the athletic office at USF he marketed the Don's national championship basketball season of 1949 into a national media event. He graduated from USF that year.
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 LA market, into a business success.
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
meeting. When he took office there were ten teams in the NFL playing a twelve game schedule to frequently half-empty stadiums, and only several teams had television contracts. By the time of Rozelle's resignation, the number of teams had grown to 28, and team owners presided over sizable revenues from U.S. broadcasting networks. The NFL in 1960 was following a business model that had evolved from the 1930s. Following the lead of the rival American Football League
, Rozelle negotiated large television contracts to broadcast every NFL game played each season. In doing so, Rozelle 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, as the American Football League
(AFL) had done since its inception. 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 consulted with him. Salinger urged Rozelle to play the games. Rozelle felt that way, saying that "it has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy." He also said that football was Kennedy's game and the late president thrived on competition. (In contrast, Rozelle's successor, Paul Tagliabue, following the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, ordered all games cancelled the weekend afterward. However, he cited that the events were so deadly and legitimate security concerns.) Rozelle's "aptitude for conciliation" with the league's owners and his work in expanding the NFL however, led to his receiving Sports Illustrated magazine's 1963 "Sportsman of the Year" award.
With American Football League
commissioner Al Davis
and other AFL and NFL executives including Lamar Hunt
, founder of the AFL and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs
, Rozelle negotiated the merger
between the American Football League
and the NFL. In October 1966
, he testified 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 regardless of the 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
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. The commissioner, Pete Rozelle handed the Super Bowl Trophy over to Al Davis. People say he used both hands to give Davis the trophy so he wouldn't have to shake his enemy's hand. 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 Pete (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 Pete 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
. This time, the two stayed together until his death. Cooke died on November 2
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 and died of brain cancer at the age of 70 in 1996 in Rancho Santa Fe. 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.