SI Vault
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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"When Thomas left, suddenly there's no buffer between the team and Irsay," recalls Bruce Laird, a safety who played 10 years with the Colts. "Suddenly everything has to go through the Irsay-Chernoff chain. From then on, money became almost nonexistent, and everything they touched turned to manure."

Laird recalls coming in to lift weights and soak in the Jacuzzi at the Colts training facility in Owings Mills, Md. The Jacuzzi was turned off. Laird said to the team's trainer: "Let's get this thing going." Laird recalls the trainer shaking his head and telling him, "Upstairs says no. We're spending too much on electricity."

"After Thomas left, Bob started mismanaging the team," says Harriet Irsay, his wife of 39 years, who last year filed suit for divorce. As part of the settlement, she is seeking control of the team. Irsay left her on June 12, 1985, three days after her 64th birthday. She was in Florida at the time, visiting the couple's oldest son, Tom, who has been mentally handicapped since birth. Irsay neither phoned Harriet to tell her he was leaving nor wrote her an explanation—she said she learned from the family maid that he had moved out of their Winnetka, Ill., home. But, then, exits have never been Irsay's strong suit.

"Owning a football team really made him feel powerful," Harriet says now. "Between his power and his drinking, he just became obnoxious. He was always belittling the players and coaches, constantly in a fit of temper. He would burst into the locker room and yell and scream so that things were constantly in a state of turmoil. I used to tell him, 'Don't go down there, Bob. Wait till Monday.' Instead of going up to Bert Jones and saying, 'How are you feeling?' Bob would say, 'You're not going to make believe you're sick again?,' That's the way he talks. He says mean things, but he only talks that way when he's been drinking."

In 1979, after a loss, Irsay interrupted a live radio interview with Jones, who was out with a shoulder injury, and said, "Hey, Bert, when are you going to start playing?" Irsay also told a reporter, "I am not paying Bert Jones $275,000 to sit on his butt."

In 1978 Irsay became so incensed at the officiating in a game against Seattle that he tried to play the game under protest. Accorsi, who was by then the Colts assistant G.M., tried to explain that playing under protest was something they did in baseball, not football, but Irsay insisted that Accorsi make the announcement on the P.A. system in the press box. Former Seattle G.M. John Thompson happened to see Accorsi coming, with Irsay close behind. "Stop me," Accorsi whispered. Thompson made a great show of turning Accorsi back, and, after some discussion, got Irsay to return to his box. He then instructed two security guards to intercept Irsay if he tried to get into the press box again. Later, Irsay called members of the Seattle media, claiming that he had been locked in his box and that he was going to sue John Thompson for $5 million and the Seahawks for $25 million.

"He's got a drinking problem, but he won't admit it," says Harriet. "It started slowly, but in the last-five years he really started to go downhill. I don't know why he behaves the way he does. Maybe he had a bad childhood."

In 1980 the Colts trailed Miami by a touchdown at the half, 17-10, when Irsay sent a member of the Colts front office down to the field with a strongly worded message. He wanted McCormack to replace Jones at quarterback with Greg Landry. McCormack refused. In the second half Jones led the Colts back to a 30-17 win. But Irsay was livid at McCormack's insubordination and dressed him down behind closed doors.

McCormack was the coach when Irsay began calling the plays from the coach's booth during a 38-13 loss to the Eagles on Nov. 15, 1981, one of the low points in NFL history. "[Irsay] couldn't have told you how many players there were on the field, never mind what plays we had," recalls Jones, who was shuffled in and out with Landry. "All he was trying to do was embarrass the coaches and the players. When he told me to run, I threw. When he told me to throw left, I ran right."

Irsay's behavior, while shocking to the football world, was nothing new to his friends and acquaintances in Chicago. "I will not play cards with Bob Irsay in that I do not want to be associated with him in a gentleman's game," says a Chicago-an who has known him for nearly 20 years. "At the same time I know that he pays his bets, and I have seen him tear up a four-figure check from a man who would have been hard-pressed to make it good. It isn't the money with Bob. It's that he has to be better than you, and the only credential he has for being better is the possession of money. He doesn't fit in, and he knows it. He isn't dumb. He has the innate intelligence of the peasant, but he is a churl. To borrow a phrase from Oscar Wilde, 'He knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.' That's Bob Irsay."

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