Rozelle (left) and George Halas
in the early 1980s.
of the National Football League
January 1960 – November 1989
|Preceded by||Austin Gunsel (interim)|
|Succeeded by||Paul Tagliabue|
March 1, 1926|
South Gate, California
|Died||December 6, 1996
Rancho Santa Fe, California
|Alma mater||University of San Francisco|
Alvin Ray "Pete" Rozelle (//; March 1, 1926 – December 6, 1996) was the commissioner of the National Football League for nearly thirty years, from January 1960 to November 1989, when he retired from office. He is credited with making the NFL into one of the most successful sports leagues in the world.
Born in South Gate, California, Rozelle grew up in neighboring Lynwood during the Great Depression. He graduated from Compton High School in 1944, with Duke Snider, lettering in baseball and basketball. He was drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1944 and served 18 months in the Pacific on an oil tanker.
Rozelle entered Compton Community College in 1946. While there he worked as the student athletic news director and also worked part-time for the Los Angeles Rams as a public relations assistant. Pete Newell, head coach for the University of San Francisco Dons basketball team, came to Compton in 1948 for a recruiting visit. Impressed by Rozelle, Newell helped arrange for him to get a full scholarship to work in a similar capacity at USF.
Rozelle enrolled at USF that year and worked as a student publicist for the USF Dons athletic department. In addition to promoting the school's football team he was able to draw national attention to the Dons' 1949 National Invitation Tournament (NIT) championship basketball team. After graduating from USF in 1950 he was hired by the school as the full-time athletic news director.
In 1952, he re-joined the Rams as a PR specialist. Leaving after three years, he held a series of public relations jobs in southern California, including marketing the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia for a Los Angeles based company. In 1957, he returned to Rams, a disorganized, unprofitable team, lost in the growing L.A. market, as their general manager. In spite of continued struggles on the field, including a league-worst 2–10 record in 1959, he turned them into a business success in just three years.
After Bert Bell's death in October 1959, the 33-year-old Rozelle was the surprise choice for his replacement as NFL commissioner. According to Howard Cosell in his book I Never Played the Game, the owners took 23 ballots before settling on Rozelle as NFL Commissioner at a January 26, 1960 meeting.
When he took office following the 1959 season, there were twelve teams in the NFL playing a twelve-game schedule to frequently half-empty stadiums, and only a few teams had television contracts. The NFL in 1960 was following a business model that had evolved from the 1930s. One of Rozelle's early accomplishments was helping the league adopt profit-sharing of gate and television revenues. The revenue-sharing was a major factor in stabilizing the NFL and guaranteeing the success of its small-market teams. Another important contribution was Rozelle's success in negotiating large television contracts to broadcast every NFL game played each season. In doing so he deftly played one television network against the other. In 1962, Rozelle was re-elected to a five-year contract to remain as commissioner.
When President Kennedy was assassinated on Friday, November 22, 1963, Rozelle wrestled with the decision of whether or not to cancel that Sunday's games. Rozelle and White House press secretary Pierre Salinger had been classmates at the University of San Francisco, so Rozelle consulted with him. Salinger urged Rozelle to play the games, so he agreed for the schedule to proceed. Rozelle felt that way, saying: "It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy. Football was Mr. Kennedy's game. He thrived on competition." After their win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Philadelphia, players on the Washington Redskins asked Coach Bill McPeak to send the game ball to the White House, thanking Rozelle for allowing the games to be played that weekend, saying that they were "playing...for President Kennedy and in his memory." Many people disagreed with the decision, and Rozelle subsequently thought it might have been wiser to cancel those games.
By 1965, the rival American Football League obtained a new NBC-TV contract and had signed a new superstar in Joe Namath. As the leagues battled to sign top talent, bonuses and salaries grew dramatically. Rozelle led negotiations with AFL and NFL executives to merge the two leagues. In October 1966, he testified to Congress and convinced them to allow the merger. Rozelle played an important role in making the Super Bowl the most watched sporting event in the United States and proposed the concept of Monday Night Football that had a significant impact on the popularity of the sport.
In the 1980s the NFL was challenged by the desire of Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders franchise, to relocate the team to Los Angeles. Rozelle represented the NFL, testifying in court to block the Raiders' move. Ultimately, the NFL lost its court case with Davis, and the Oakland franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1982. The tension between Rozelle and Davis, who had wanted to be NFL commissioner, was apparent throughout the case. Ironically, in January 1981, just after the case was settled, the Oakland Raiders won Super Bowl XV and Rozelle as commissioner was tasked with handing the Super Bowl Trophy to Davis.
Under Rozelle the NFL thrived and become an American institution, despite two players' strikes and two different competing leagues. He retired as commissioner on November 5, 1989. By the time of his resignation, the number of teams in the league had grown to 28, and team owners presided over sizable revenues from U.S. broadcasting networks.
Rozelle's legacy of equalisation has been felt not only in the NFL, but also in the Australian Football League, the major Australian-rules football competition. In 1986, The AFL Commission adopted a policy of equalisation based on the method pioneered by Rozelle in the NFL. It is because of this decision that expansion clubs have been able to survive, as well as older clubs with a smaller supporter base. An example of this is the 1996 AFL Grand Final between North Melbourne and the Sydney Swans, two teams with a small supporter base.
Rozelle was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985 while still its reigning commissioner. The NFL's annual Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award was established in 1989. The league instituted the Pete Rozelle Trophy to honor the Super Bowl MVP, first awarded in the 1990 season at Super Bowl XXV on January 27, 1991. A month after Rozelle's December 1996 passing the NFL honored his legacy with a decal on the back of the helmets of the teams competing in Super Bowl XXXI.
Rozelle married Jane Coupe, an artist, in 1949. The couple had one child, Anne Marie, born in 1958. Rozelle was awarded full custody of Anne Marie after his divorce. Anne Marie was often seen at owner's meetings and had a very special relationship with many of the owners' wives. Rozelle remarried in December 1973 to Carrie Cooke, a former daughter-in-law of Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Washington Redskins.
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- AFL Football Record, April 18–20, 1997
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