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It’s about time Broncos owner Pat Bowlen got the Hall (finalist) call

 August 26, 2018


Terry Frei 


Broncos principal owner Pat Bowlen, a triathlon competitor, rode his bike to training camp.

From Denver to Greeley.

It was just one of the ways Bowlen operated uniquely as an NFL owner, both in the 18 summers the Broncos trained at the University of Northern Colorado after he acquired a majority share of the franchise in 1984 and beyond.

At long last, Bowlen is a rubber-stamp vote away from selection for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That will come on the Saturday morning before the Super Bowl in Atlanta, when the 48 voters will meet and, as part of the flawed process of making the other selections for induction in the Class of 2019, endorse the choice of Bowlen by a five-person selection subcommittee last week.


Pat Bowlen on the sideline. (Associated Press)

If all selectors are present at the meeting in Atlanta, Bowlen would need at least 39 votes. That’s a lock.

In the wake of the news, we’ve heard and read the recitation of his “qualifications” mostly as if this is solely an exercise in analytics, accounting and merit points for serving on 15 league ownership committees during the league’s phenomenal economic growth .

The Broncos have had more Super Bowl appearances (7) than losing seasons (6) under his ownership.

As an influential member of the league’s television committee, he was instrumental in pushing for Sunday Night Football, a revenue and ratings jackpot since 2000; and also in bringing the Fox network into the broadcasting mix in 1994, which pressured the rights fees additionally into the stratosphere.

All of that undoubtedly came into play in the talking-point consideration of contributor candidates in the meeting room at Canton.

This is what has been underplayed.

Most important, Bowlen did it right.

From the top of the organization, he oversaw a mostly first-class operation for 30 years until he officially stepped aside from an active role in acknowledgment of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Not all has been perfect.

Before John Elway returned to the organization as the head of the football operation, there was toxic and counterproductive infighting within the front office involving, among others, Ted Sundquist, Mike Lombardi, the father and son tandem of Jim and Jeff Goodman, and Brian Xanders. Sundquist was the general manager from 2002-08, when Mike Shanahan was coach and the de facto head of the football operation. Jim Goodman was promoted to serve as GM from 2008-09 (with his son as his assistant), and Xanders from 2009-12. Lombardi briefly was a consultant working out of the Broncos office late in Sundquist’s GM tenure, and their relationship was poisonous.

At times, because of all the maneuvering, the organization was dysfunctional and Bowlen’s trust in the chain of command could be misplaced, until he stepped in and said, “Enough…” That could be in emotional times between friends, as when he and Wade Phillips and Shanahan parted ways, or when he was embarrassed and angered by Josh McDaniels’ graceless incompetence and immaturity and signed off on firing him during the 2010 season.


Pat Bowlen making a point. (Associated Press).

The Broncos recovered under Elway, who returned in 2011 as VP of football operations and added the GM title the next year. Since Bowlen relinquished control to the Pat Bowlen Trust, president and CEO Joe Ellis has served as de facto owner, and the possible passing of the controlling ownership torch to one of Bowlen’s daughters, Beth or Brittany, remains a puzzlingly intricate soap opera.

In his active years as owner, Bowlen was not warm and fuzzy. But neither was he, as often has been tossed out there, especially in his early days in Denver, shy or aloof.

He picked his spots.

With those he trusted or respected.

Even in dealings with the media, he was far more accessible than sometimes has been portrayed. Plus, he was thoughtful, offering insight and information only he could have delivered. But you had to pay attention, had to get past the somewhat soft-spoken, matter-of-fact tone to realize just how unfiltered he was being. He answered all but the most unreasonable or brainless questions, rarely hiding behind the no-comment cloak. The recent attempts to bill him as the supreme optimist are understandable, given the temptation to idealize his tenure, but inaccurate. He wanted to win, and he hated it when the Broncos didn’t. That especially was true when he felt his trust was misplaced.

During the early years of Bowlen’s ownership, affable GM John Beake could be his bad cop, in dealings both in the building and outside. But there was a sort of winking understanding that what Beake said could be coming from Bowlen. They weren’t fooling anyone.

To me, the most interesting aspect of his influence in league and broadcasting circles is that it underscores his selectivity. Nobody tuned out Bowlen because of relentless, ego-driven bombast. When he talked, yeah, you darned well better listen. He not only knew what to say, he knew when to say it – and whom to say it to. He was a facilitator, but he also would call bluffs.

In the era of increased player movement, the “family” feel within an organization is harder to nurture. Yet when Bowlen was operating as the owner, that feel could permeate the organization even if the family, as many families do, has traumatic moments.

He is “Mr. B.”


Pat Bowlen, right, with President Bill Clinton and the Lombardi Trophy at the White House. (Associated Press).

He was not a meddler, as is the Redskins’ Daniel Snyder.

He was not a former football player and astute businessman who operated as his own general manager and loved the spotlight, as does the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones.

He was the owner, working out at the Broncos’ facility in the early mornings as the players arrived, and greeting players by name as they joined the organization. He was not one of the “guys” so much — he wasn’t a regular at the Smiling Moose or the State Armory in Greeley during training camp — as he was the man in charge who didn’t expect pandering.

Perhaps even uncomfortably, he successfully campaigned for six-county voter support for an indispensable new stadium, with more than two-thirds of the funding coming from the public. That was 1998, shortly before voter rebellion and recognition of revenue possibilities made predominantly privately funded stadiums more feasible.

He has been a class act.

In that sense, he has been a Hall of Famer long before he became a “finalist.”