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NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON'T
E.M. Swift
December 15, 1986
Getting a fix on Indianapolis Colts owner Bob Irsay's background isn't easy, but this is certain—he has turned one of the NFL's best franchises into a laughingstock
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December 15, 1986

Now You See Him, Now You Don't

Getting a fix on Indianapolis Colts owner Bob Irsay's background isn't easy, but this is certain—he has turned one of the NFL's best franchises into a laughingstock

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"The construction business is basically a b.s.-er's business," he continues. "That was one of the problems Bob had with the press. He'd always exaggerate. If something cost a million dollars, to Bob it was a hundred million. You're not going to operate in this business as a priest. You have to be very creative. Like, sometimes word would get out that we had a certain job when in fact we hadn't even put a bid in on it. So Bob might capitalize on the situation by putting one of our trailers on the site. The competition would figure the contract was ours, so why waste time putting in a bid?"

Eventually, Irsay got a little too creative in his maneuverings, though he saved himself from prosecution by turning state's evidence in a 1978 bid-rigging case, United States v. Climatemp, Inc. Irsay, who was represented by former U.S. Attorney Samuel K. Skinner, was granted immunity from prosecution four days before the indictments were handed out in exchange for testimony that consisted of "mostly a bunch of 'I don't remembers,' " according to defense attorney Robert Bailey. Irsay at first denied to SI that he had been granted immunity and then changed his story. "I was probably granted immunity," he said.

The government had charged that certain members of the now defunct Ventilating and Air Conditioning Contractors Association, between 1963 and 1976, routinely met and allocated at least 80 heating and air-conditioning projects among themselves, adding between 5% and 8% on top of the designated bid in order to eventually pay kickbacks to friendly politicians, none of whom was charged. Irsay was a vice-president of the association and a member of the executive board until 1972, at which point, according to court documents, he withdrew from the bid-rigging arrangement, having sold his business to Zurn Industries.

By 1970 the Robert Irsay Company was the largest sheet metal business in Chicago, grossing nearly $13 million in sales and posting after-tax profits of about $650,000. In 1971 Irsay sold the company to Zurn in exchange for some $8.5 million in common stock, although he recently claimed that he had sold to Zurn for "$50 million." Irsay stayed on with the company until 1978 when, according to a Zurn spokesman, Irsay resigned after "it was suggested the Colts were distracting him."

Ah, yes. The Colts. If the Colts were distracting Irsay, he was repaying them with a regular dose of chaos, particularly after he fired Joe Thomas in 1977. To be fair, though, Thomas was responsible for getting Irsay off on the wrong foot.

Under Rosenbloom, the Colts had been like a family. "There were no individualists," recalls Matte. "Carroll wouldn't allow it." It was part of the Colts' secret of success. Veterans like Matte, Unitas, John Mackey and Raymond Berry actually had a say in who was cut and who wasn't. The coaching staff would listen to them. Curfews weren't enforced by the coaches; they were enforced by the team leaders. And Friday nights were team nights, when the players would go out and, instead of watching film, would do no more than drink beer and joke and develop that special bonding that a lot of the great teams have. "Everybody lived here in town and made appearances for free. We were part of the community," recalls Matte. "That was the tradition. It made us a team."

Thomas didn't understand this. Or, if he did, he ignored it. He wanted his own team, his own legacy. "Joe's ego was the biggest thing that ever was," says Mike Curtis, the Colts All-Pro linebacker in the late 1960s and early '70s.

By the 1973 season Thomas had swung 13 deals, trading away such aging—but beloved—stars as Unitas and Matte. He fired coach Don McCafferty, who had won the 1971 Super Bowl, five games into the 1972 season. The Colts' era was over. Everyone who had stayed on from the Rosenbloom regime knew it.

"Joe Thomas was a very strong man, and he ran that football business," Irsay says. "His one failure was that he got the city of Baltimore mad at him, and I was caught in the middle of it. He was the type of guy who tried to deal real rugged. It was always 'You're fired' or 'You're done.' He had no consideration for anyone else. But I learned a lot from his teachings about football, some good and some bad."

Irsay's first great public explosion came in the third game of the 1974 season, in Philadelphia. Marty Domres was the Colts quarterback, a player Irsay had once humiliated in front of his teammates by shouting, "Nice game, Marty, too bad most of the passes you completed were to the wrong team." In the third quarter, Irsay, prowling the sideline, tugged on Schnellenberger's arm and suggested he replace Domres with Bert Jones. Schnellenberger declined, adding—and here history becomes a little fuzzy—either that Irsay should mind his own business or that Irsay should attempt an anatomical impossibility while minding his own business. Whatever, Irsay took offense. "He just wanted to be part of the team, be the type of owner who would have a beer with the guys and maybe arm wrestle after the game," recalls Curtis. "He really wanted us to like him. That's why he was down on the field to begin with. And Howard was no diplomat. It was just bad luck."

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