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After a brutal loss to the Lions in 1973 Robert Irsay ripped his players in the locker room, even ordering one to stand in the corner like a shamed schoolboy. Jim boarded the team bus and tried to make amends on his father's behalf. His voice caught, his eyes misted. Says Stan White, the former Colts linebacker, "I remember Robert Irsay getting on the bus, seeing his son standing there, and saying, 'Jimmy, you're embarrassing me,' and the players thinking it was the other way around.... Jimmy was a great kid, totally humble, no entitlement just because his dad owned the team. But his dad just kept putting him in tough situations."
By the early '80s Robert Irsay and Maryland politicians were locked in combat. He demanded a new stadium; they threatened to seize the team through eminent domain. Irsay swore on his son's life that he had no intention of moving the franchise. Weeks after that proclamation, on the night of March 28, 1984, the Mayflower vans arrived at the team's complex. By morning the Colts were no longer Baltimore's, and Indianapolis had an NFL franchise. In Maryland the name Irsay might as well have been a curse word. If the T-shirts were to be believed, WILL ROGERS NEVER MET BOB IRSAY. Cars with bumper stickers imploring HONK IF YOU HATE IRSAY provoked angry symphonies. Threats from Baltimore fans were so violent that years after moving to Indy, Jim Irsay still kept a .357 Magnum loaded with hollow-point bullets in his upper-right desk drawer.
The honeymoon in Indianapolis was brief and awkward. The city felt like a guilty mistress. And the Colts, playing in the charmless Hoosier Dome, were inept. During its first three seasons in Indy, the team went 12--36. COLTS, the joke went, was an acronym for Count On Losing This Sunday. If you could distill those abysmal years to a single scene, it came late in a 1985 game against the Dolphins. The Colts' coach at the time became so excited about a possible game-winning drive that he appeared to suffer a heart attack. It turned out he'd simply slipped and fallen—and split his pants in the process. Indianapolis didn't score. The coach left the field with a towel around his waist.
Jim took it all in. He also began to see that not all team owners were viewed as Robert was. "In 1982 I was at the NFL's annual meeting," Jim recalls. "[Steelers owner] Art Rooney is in his 80s, and he comes in with a big unlit cigar. Heads turn and all of a sudden there's a standing ovation. I'm thinking, Wow, that's something to aspire to."
In November 1995, Robert Irsay suffered a stroke. He never recovered fully, and he died in January 1997. "I buried my dad," Jim says, "and then I looked around and said, O.K., it's my turn." There were classical echoes, of course, the son succeeding the father and trying to restore honor to the family name. Jim has a more contemporary reference, saying, "It's like those lines by Sting: I will turn your face to alabaster. Then you'll find your servant is your master."
Finally his rebellious instincts kicked in. As an owner Jim has essentially been the polar opposite of Robert. Where the father was tightfisted, the son has spent liberally—so much so that the Colts, despite playing in one of the NFL's smaller markets, have a competitive payroll and more employees than any other franchise. "[Jim] has always given his team the resources necessary to be successful," says quarterback Peyton Manning, who has made more than $14 million a year since 2004. "He is all you want in an owner."
Where the father was impetuous, the son has been steady: Since 1998 the Colts have had only three coaches, the last of whom, Jim Caldwell, is in his first year. Where the father was autocratic and meddling, the son has delegated power. One of his first moves was to hire Bill Polian, a wise, hard-boiled football lifer and nobody's lackey, as team president.
Unlike his father—in fact, unlike most NFL owners—Jim Irsay knows football. A linebacker long on heart and short on talent, he walked on at SMU in the early 1980s, when the Mustangs were a powerhouse. Before owning the Colts, he was a scout and then the team's general manager. Plus, he was once capable of squatting 750 pounds, an amount that would shame most players. "I'm telling you, he's a real football man," says the 67-year-old Polian. "You can accomplish things quickly in this organization because he understands without having it explained."
Yet Irsay has no interest in calling plays or second-guessing his minions. "Here's all you need to know about Jim," says Tony Dungy, who coached Indianapolis from 2002 through '08. "You would discuss something with him, he'd give his impressions and then say, 'You make the call and know I support you.'"
The result is a unique species, the beta owner among the alpha dogs of the NFL. It was Jerry Jones who once called Irsay "the Zen owner."