Bert Bell died of a heart attack on Oct. 11, 1959, leaving the NFL without a commissioner. Competent and well-regarded, Bell nonetheless left behind a becalmed, underexposed league operating out of a four-person office in suburban Philadelphia and consisting of 12 teams with a dozen agendas. Attempts to replace him three months later were predictably strife-ridden. After 10 days of acrimony and 22 ballots at the Kenilworth Hotel in Miami, the owners finally agreed on a compromise candidate, the 33-year-old general manager of the Los Angeles Rams, Pete Rozelle.
As his destiny was being determined, Rozelle waited in a men's room off the hotel's lobby. "Pete told me that whenever someone came in, he'd walk to the sink and wash his hands," recalls former Cowboys president Tex Schramm.
The owners opted for this well-scrubbed wunderkind for one reason. "They all thought they'd be able to control him," says Schramm, who was one of Rozelle's closest friends. But Rozelle soon demonstrated that beneath his handsome tan and genial smile was a surprising amount of steel.
Halas learned as much early in Rozelle's tenure. In 1962 Halas broke a league rule and was summoned from Chicago by Rozelle to NFL offices in New York City (where, as one of his first orders of business, the young commish had relocated NFL headquarters). Halas suggested that Rozelle meet him at LaGuardia Airport. Came the stern reply, "I'll see you in my office at 10 o'clock, Monday morning." Papa Bear did as he was told; Rozelle fined him $1,000.
While it was important for the Boy Czar, as he became known, to establish his authority, that was merely a backdrop for what turned out to be his most important work: wedding his league to that great American pastime—television.
In the pre-Rozelle era clubs cut their own TV deals. The new commissioner's top priority was to persuade the owners of big-city teams to divide the television loot evenly among all owners. Even though that sounded an awful lot like socialism, they agreed. Next, Rozelle went to Congress and obtained an exemption to the Sherman Antitrust Act, enabling the league to sell all those TV rights collectively to a single network. Did Rozelle's business plan succeed? In 1962 teams received $330,000 apiece from television. By '64 the figure was $1 million. This year each team's TV cut will be $71 million.
In the summer of '66 Rozelle was back on Capitol Hill, lobbying legislators for another antitrust exemption. This one was necessary for the NFL to merge with a contentious rival. Competing with Lamar Hunt's upstart AFL was proving fiscally ruinous for owners on both sides. At Rozelle's urging, the leagues joined forces. Regarded at first as an anticlimactic oddity, the Super Bowl—it was known as the NFL-AFL Championship in its first two years, until 1969—evolved into a national holiday of sorts. Nine of the 10 top-rated shows of all time have been Super Bowls.
Permission to merge came at a cost: Congressmen from high-school-football-crazed regions spearheaded a law forbidding the NFL from playing on Fridays. "Thus, Monday Night Football was born," says Schramm, "because we had no place left to go." Although CBS and NBC turned up their noses at the concept of pro football on Monday night—"What? Preempt The Doris Day Show?" asked an incredulous Black Rock executive—ABC took a chance in 1970.
In the '60s Rozelle also greenlighted NFL Properties as well as NFL Films, perhaps the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America. But labor strife, franchise free agency and interminable lawsuits leeched much of the joy from the job for Rozelle, who retired in 1989.
When he died of brain cancer seven years later, Rozelle was eulogized as a visionary, the first modern sports commissioner. Says Schramm, "He was the right guy with the right temperament at the right time." Indeed, today's players owe their fortunes to those squabbling, old-school owners and the compromise candidate they so thoroughly misjudged. The man they thought they would lead by the nose instead led their game to unimaginable wealth and popularity.