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Pat Bowlen’s huge influence on the NFL should earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame

Bowlen left his fingerprints all over the NFL while working in the shadows.

Pat Bowlen

The story of the NFL pulls you in and doesn’t let go.

No matter how hard you try to put it down, you can’t. It’s an addiction that becomes a part of you and you have to know where it takes you next. Like all great stories, this one adapts and evolves. It contributes the emotion and human element that brings you to life. It’s tragic. It’s heroic. It’s poetic. It’s football.

You cannot tell the story of the NFL without Pat Bowlen.

His contributions to the Denver Broncos and the NFL are unmatched in the history of the league. Whether it’s the success on the field, the difference in the community or the evolution and growth of the NFL to the behemoth it is today, few people have left their fingerprints on as much in the NFL as Bowlen.

Over the course of the next week, Mile High Report will state the case for Mr. B to get his rightful place in the Hall of Fame. We did the same for Terrell Davis earlier this year to great success. Davis finally got his induction on Saturday in Canton. Now we turn our attention to Bowlen.

The first story in our series features exclusive interviews with the people who know Bowlen the best, and can state the case better than just about anyone as to why he needs to be the next member of the Broncos to get a bust in the Hall of Fame. This year. I talked with Joe Ellis, president and CEO of the organization. I talked with Jim Saccomano, the head of public relations at the organization for 36 years and now a consultant/historian. I talked with safety Steve Atwater, who also needs to get in the Hall of Fame.

The biggest contributions Bowlen made to the NFL came from his time as the chairman of the TV Committee and Labor Committee. It was Bowlen’s decision to bring on Fox as a partner in the 1994 season that changed the TV landscape for the NFL. As both Ellis and Saccomano told me, Bowlen is also considered the father of “Sunday Night Football.” It’s because of Bowlen that “Sunday Night Football” has become one of the most watched TV shows and eclipsed “Monday Night Football” in primetime importance. As others have highlighted, what’s amazing to consider is when Bowlen took control of the TV committee in the early 1990s, the previous chair, Art Modell, claimed the NFL was losing money.

Bowlen was the chair of the labor committee when the NFL and NFL Players Association avoided any labor disputes. Ellis and Saccomano also highlighted how vital Mr. B was to the international growth of the NFL. The Broncos played in seven American Bowl Games, from Tokyo and Mexico City to London and Australia. Today, the NFL has regular games in London and Mexico City with thoughts to expand to China.

All of that ties back to Bowlen. The reason the NFL is where it is today is because of him.

“No matter where you look, his fingerprint was on everything there was,” Saccomano told me on Saturday before practice. “That alone, I think makes him a hall of famer. But by the same token, as the owner of a team who, say what you want, there are all kinds of examples, good and bad in sports, the owner sets the tone. He’s the first owner to have his team win 300 games in his first 30 years of ownership.

“That’s remarkable. And you could say, ‘well, that could be equaled.’ Absolutely … except it’s going to take somebody 30 years. And it’s not like you can say, ‘what if we eliminate my first two years and then count.’ No, it’s 30. That’s what it is. It’s the first 30. You get one shot. Astonishing. I hope he goes in. That’s all I can say. I really hope he does. He deserves to.”

As Ellis said, most people don’t know how significant Bowlen was to the growth of the NFL internationally. They may know of his impact on TV, and maybe even labor, but what he did to grow the NFL overseas gets left out because Bowlen never talked about it. As is the case with all of his contributions, he never wanted the focus on himself. It was always about the Broncos and the NFL.

“I think today if he were here speaking to you, he would tell you that we’re going to have a team overseas,” Ellis told me as the team scrimmaged in front of him. “And I think a lot of people were reluctant to that, but Pat was very bullish on that. I think that helped push the agenda for the league, other owners and the commissioners he worked with. The other thing I’ll add is the relationship he had with the commissioners. He knew how to put his team first, but he also put the league first on an equal basis with that. In so many different instances when he knew that was the right thing to do.

“And I think, in some ways, that sets him apart from so many people because not everyone is willing to do that. A lot of owners face resistance from their fan base, or from people within their organization to do things a certain way because it would benefit the organization perhaps more greatly if it was done a different way. Pat never succumbed to that. He always kept his mind open to not only what’s best for the Denver Broncos but what’s best for the National Football League.”

Added Saccomano: “The international growth has just been a spectacular thing. You had to be there for some of those international games, and most people aren’t aware how big the NFL is in other countries. It’s just incredible in Mexico. Japan, we played there twice. He had a strong role in all of these things.”

The commitment from Bowlen to take the NFL where few imagined is seen in the respect from his fellow owners and the two commissioners he worked with.

“Besides his role on committees, I can’t tell you the number of times that Paul Taligbue or Roger Goodell ... it really seemed like he was on the phone with them daily,” Saccomano said. “But also with Jerry Jones. He was very close to Jerry Jones. I’d say he is, but he’s in a different place right now. He would be if he could be. It seems like anytime something was going to happen, they said, ‘Pat, what do you think of this?’ That’s a big thing. Mostly, they don’t ask us those kinds of things that often.”

To hammer this point home, few in the league even know about the significant contributions Mr. B made to the NFL, mainly because of how modest and humble he was.

“Paul Taligibue knows, Roger Goodell knows because he worked directly with them,” Ellis said. “But not a lot of other people really know Pat’s impact on the league because it was never broadcast, it was never publicized. He kept it to himself. That’s the way he was on all of those matters. When TV deals were done, Pat wasn’t standing up trumpeting. He wasn’t coming to you or other people in the media saying, ‘look at what we’ve accomplished. And, by the way, I’m responsible.’ That’s not his style.”

When you see the fingerprint Bowlen has left on the NFL, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact he’s one of the most successful owners in the history of professional sports, let alone the NFL. Only one team over the last 30 years has a higher winning percentage than the Broncos’ .612 – the San Antonio Spurs. But that’s only the start.

Since the relatively unknown Wisconsin-born, Canadian-raised businessman bought the organization from Edgar Kaiser for $78 million in March 1984, the results speak for themselves. They had to since Mr. B would never talk about them.

  • 300 wins in his first 30 years, the only owner in NFL history to pull such a feat.
  • 18 playoff appearances
  • 13 division titles
  • Seven Super Bowl appearances
  • Seven AFC titles
  • Five losing seasons
  • Four different head coaches to lead his team to the Super Bowl. The only owner in NFL history to pull such a feat.
  • Three Lombardi Trophies

Those are a few of the many reasons people were so infuriated Bowlen wasn’t included as one of the two nominees to come out of the contributor subcommittee last year. That needs to change when the subcommittee meets in the next few weeks. Bowlen should move ahead to the 48-person selection committee, where he then becomes a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2018. It really is that simple.

“Not only the success of the organization, which I think is second to none,” Atwater told me before the start of practice. “The number of winning seasons we’ve had versus losing seasons. The number of ballgames that we’ve won. The number of playoff appearances. The Super Bowls over the last 20 years or so. I think that speaks for itself. But in terms of all the high salaries and the TV contracts, he played an integral role in making that happen. So I don’t see how really anybody can say that he’s not (a hall of famer). What more can he do? He’s great for the state of Colorado. He does charitable events all across the state. He’s great for the city of Denver. And we love him.”

What made Bowlen so rare as an owner is the genuine and sincere relationship he had with his players. Anytime you see or hear any of them talk about him, you can feel how much he means to them.

“He’s a wonderful man and the way that he ran the organization, the culture that he created here was one that everyone respected everyone else,” Atwater said. “All of our coaches treated us with respect and coached us in a way that made us really want to go out and play our hardest. You didn’t want to leave anything on the line because they not only were our coaches but they actually cared about us as people. And I got that all the way from the top from Mr. Bowlen. And I think that continues to this day.

“The culture he created is one where people care about each other, and I think when you care about each other you tend to go a little bit further than you would for someone who you really don’t care about or you feel like they don’t care about you. He always does things in a first-class manner. That’s another thing that he instilled in the organization, ‘hey, if we’re going to do something, we need to be the best at it.’ That was apparent throughout his ownership, so I have the utmost respect for him, and most people I know feel the exact same way.”

Simply put: Bowlen wanted to be the best at everything he did, and more often than not, he made it happen. That speaks to his character, commitment and conviction.

“We were just sitting in his office once and I said, ‘I’m knocking off the media guide, anything special you want in your bio?’” Saccomano said. “He goes, ‘It’s fine, just fine.’ And then we were just talking, ‘I want to be No. 1 in everything.’ Well, obviously, I put that at the top of his bio, and I made sure when I wrote the script for his Ring of Fame Plaza statue that it’s listed there. It sort of expresses everything. ‘I want us to be No. 1 in everything.’ And he felt that way about the NFL too.”

The story of the NFL pulls you in and doesn’t let go. No matter how hard you try, you can’t put it down.

You cannot tell that story without Pat Bowlen.

“And in this case, I think clearly you can’t because you’d have to leave out the first owner who won 300 games in 30 years,” Saccomano said. “That’s a big thing to leave out. He’s been a big part of it for 35 years and the NFL has not yet celebrated its 100th year. It’s 100th year comes in 2019. That’s enormous.”

Added Atwater: “I don’t want to get too emotional, but thinking about how much he’s done for me personally and the thousands of other lives he’s touched, it gets emotional for me because he’s still alive, but I wish he could take all of this in and really bask in the wonderful organization that he created. He’d be really proud of what he’s done.”