Two days before Thanksgiving, in the bar of Chicago's prestigious Tavern Club, 63-year-old Robert Irsay is fighting yet another battle with the truth. "I've been a winner all my life," he says firmly, fueled by half a dozen screwdrivers during the 2½-hour lunchless luncheon. His white hair is neatly groomed, his face a little flushed, his eyes lightly glazed. "When a man takes one dollar and turns it into $50 million, he's a winner. I'd like to turn the Colts into a Super Bowl winner in my lifetime. That's what I have left. To win a ring."
To come full circle. To undo what he has done, for under Irsay the Colts have done little else but lose: 1-13 this year after upsetting Atlanta 28-23 Sunday, 10-36 since moving to Indianapolis, 78-140-1 since Irsay took over the team in 1972, with 12 losing seasons in 15 years. This from a franchise that, in the 15 years prior to Irsay, had no losing seasons and won three NFL championships, with an overall 138-59-5 record. One of the great dynasties in professional sports, dismantled by one man. Destroyed, not by luck or circumstance, but by what numerous people cite as incompetence. He would like to change all that. To build a new dynasty. "The big thing I'm learning in the NFL is you have to have patience and get the right personnel in the right place at the right time," he says.
Fifteen years to learn all that. And the sad thing is, here we go again.
Here we go again. That was the murmuring heard around the NFL last week when Irsay's Colts announced that head coach Rod Dowhower had been fired and replaced by Ron Meyer, of all people, who becomes the third coach in Indianapolis's three-year history-and Irsay's ninth. "The reaction in the league is, 'My god,' " said one NFL general manager, reflecting on the fact that Meyer was a controversial figure as coach both of SMU, where he took the football program down a path that led to NCAA probation, and of the New England Patriots, where in 2½ seasons he alienated his players and management to an extent seldom seen in pro football. After he was fired, Meyer was called "the sorriest excuse for a football coach I've ever seen" by All-Pro guard John Hannah.
"Meyer was No. 1 on our list," says Colts G.M. Jim Irsay, Robert's 27-year-old son. "He's a winner and a motivator. The New England thing was great experience for him."
Sure it was. Just as the Baltimore thing was great experience for Robert Irsay. So here we go again, Indianapolis. Sit tight for a wonderful ride.
Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who was recently elected governor of Maryland, once described Irsay as "one of the most interesting men I've ever met." That is a fine example of euphemism. Schaefer had publicly been Irsay's defender until late on the night of March 28, 1984, when he heard the news over the radio that the Colts were packing up to leave. His spokesperson, Pat Bernstein, was recently asked if Schaefer had gotten over the manner in which Irsay had spirited the club out of town in the dead of night without the courtesy of a phone call. "I don't think you ever get over betrayal like that," she said. "The presumption was always that the mayor was dealing with somebody who had some scruples. But when [Irsay] told you one thing and turned around and did exactly the opposite, you got the feeling that you weren't dealing with an equal partner."
Irsay is a man whom an astonishing number of former associates do not like to remember, but one they cannot forget. Dowhower did not wish to be interviewed about Irsay, although his lawyer, Robert Goldy, responded to a quote attributed to Irsay asserting that Dowhower had "violated his contract" because he had not called Irsay "every Monday and Friday" during the season. "There is nothing in his contract about calling Bob Irsay on Mondays or Fridays," Goldy said. "I know of no basis for that other than Bob Irsay's statements."
Dowhower has a year left on his contract, but Irsay said he will not pay him because of the alleged breach. "I've already talked to the commissioner," Irsay said. Goldy responded: "Mike Chernoff [the Colts general counsel] and Bob Irsay told me...they would like the separation to be on a fair, dignified and gentlemanly basis. Their definition of those words is a puzzle to me. Maybe we don't read the same dictionary."
All of this would not surprise Howard Schnellenberger, the third coach fired during the Irsay era. He chooses not to discuss his old boss for the record, although in February 1984, shortly after his Miami Hurricanes won the national title, Schnellenberger told The Indianapolis Star: "The people of Indianapolis will rue the day they ever made [Irsay] an offer to move his team to their city."