Pat Bowlen - who will finally be recognized for his contributions to the NFL with his induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this August - was undoubtedly the greatest owner in sports.
This is evident, of course, by his long and accomplished resumé, but perhaps more by his famous quote, “I want to be No. 1 in everything.”
As the first NFL owner in history with 300 wins over his first 30 years, Bowlen frequently said the word “rebuilding” was not in his vocabulary. He had an annual training camp tradition of predicting a 19-0 record and Super Bowl victory for the Broncos.
“One thing that’s important to me is that we put a team on the field that can contend,” Bowlen once said. “I like to think that [the Broncos] are going to win the Super Bowl every year. I get a thrill out of that, and I know how much that means to Colorado and to Denver.”
Broncos as contenders under Bowlen
In his tenure, Bowlen’s Broncos were almost always contenders.
The team posted as many Super Bowl appearances (7) as losing seasons under Bowlen, including the franchise’s back-to-back World Championships following the 1997 and 1998 seasons along with its victory in Super Bowl 50 after the 2015 season.
The Broncos averaged more than 10 wins per year during Pat Bowlen’s 35 seasons and finishing with a 354-240-1 all-time record, as well as posting a league-high 199 regular-season home wins. Under Bowlen, the club’s .596 overall winning percentage was second only to the New England Patriots. And among the 123 major North American professional sports franchises (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB), only the Patriots, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers had a better overall winning percentage.
No NFL owner during the last 35 seasons had more winning seasons (21) and playoff berths (18) than Bowlen, who helped Denver become the only team with 90+ wins over each of his first three decades of ownership. Denver posted a league-low seven losing seasons under Bowlen while being the only team to rank among the top five in wins during both the pre-free agency and post-free agency eras of his ownership. Between 1984 and 1992, the Broncos tied for fourth with 96 wins, and between 1993 and 2018, the Broncos were fourth with 258 wins.
A big part of Bowlen’s success was his approach - spare no expense to help players and coaches be the best they can be. He always made it clear that his priority was winning and he’d do all he could in the front office to help the franchise make that happen on the field. Only one owner in NFL history has more Super Bowl appearances than Pat Bowlen’s magical seven.
“As far as the business of football, winning is everything,” Bowlen once said. “It doesn’t matter what it is worth. If you are worried about what it is worth, get into some other business.”
Bowlen was definitely in the right business - and he knew his role. He put the money in the team and hired good people. Then he stood back to watch.
“This business is unique. You have to have people you trust pick the talent and coach the talent and get out of the way,” he once said. “I know the bottom line is winning. I also know when and what to contribute from a leadership standpoint.”
In honor of Mr. B today, remembering again why he's the greatest owner in sports. https://t.co/6qAtJ3EQtP— Doctor of Words (and tights and positive thinking) (@docllv) June 14, 2019
All about the players and fans
And he also understood the role of fans, which is why he finished first in a 2000 ESPN poll that asked fans, “Which NFL owner would be the best to play for?”
“This is their team,” Bowlen once said when referring to the fans. “It’s not my team. I think if you manage your club well, the fans appreciate that. They have a stake in it, too.”
That mentality is partly why no NFL team had more home game sellouts — all 300 possible regular season and playoff games — than the Broncos during his ownership. The Broncos also played in nearly 350 nationally televised games, including an AFC-best 132 prime-time games, with local TV ratings consistently ranking among the highest in the league.
The Broncos’ popularity with fans under Pat Bowlen was confirmed in 2014 when the team earned the distinction of being named “America’s Team” in a national Harris Poll.
Entering the facility most days through a back entrance near the loading dock, Bowlen would first stop in the training room to visit with players and staff before heading up to his office.
“I would much rather operate behind the curtain and let the athletes and coaches be the entertainment,” Bowlen once said. “I think that’s the way that it should be.”
Contributing to the community
As a self-made millionaire in the oil business, it was important to Bowlen to give back to the community that supported their team.
As chairman of the board of Denver Broncos Charities, Bowlen donated more than $35 million to charitable organizations in the Denver area since the inception of that fund in 1993. His status and reputation as an owner were recognized locally in 2013 when he received the Mizel Institute Community Enrichment Award, the region’s most prestigious philanthropic accolade, for his community leadership and commitment to the city of Denver and state of Colorado.
The longest-tenured owner in Colorado sports history, Pat Bowlen was the only owner in professional sports whose team fully funded its own branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Opening its doors in 2003, the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club recently celebrated its 15th season impacting youth.
“It’s important to me that this organization lives up to the high reputation and that people connect the Denver Broncos with Colorado,” he once said.
Bowlen helped the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club expand in 2008 with the addition of the Darrent Williams Memorial Teen Center, which is named in honor of the late Broncos cornerback who died in 2007. His long-standing commitment to the Boys & Girls Club was recognized in 2017 when a youth development park in Commerce City, Colo., was dedicated as “Pat Bowlen Field.”
Bowlen was a strong supporter of his players serving as positive role models and giving back to the community as well.
“The league is a big influence on young people’s lives, and we’ve got to set an example,” Bowlen once said. “The players are where it starts. Nobody cares about Pat Bowlen — I don’t even register on the meter. These young football players are looked up to by lots of younger people, and they have to make sure they’re sending the right message. And we’ll do everything we can to help them understand that.”
Taking great pride in calling Denver his home, Bowlen was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, the VISIT Denver Tourism Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Colorado Business Hall of Fame in 2015 for his unwavering commitment toward the region.
Although Mr. Bowlen had a reduced role with the Broncos in recent seasons as he focused on his battle with Alzheimer’s disease, he continued to have a positive impact on the community. The public announcement of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in July 2014 has helped raise awareness and funds for a disease that currently affects more than 5.8 million Americans.
The Broncos have joined with the Bowlen family in taking an active role in the Alzheimer’s community following Mr. Bowlen’s diagnosis, including the team adding the Alzheimer’s Association Colorado Chapter as a flagship community partner. Led by Bowlen’s wife, Annabel, the Bowlen family and the Broncos, “Team Super Bowlen” has raised nearly $500,000 during the last five “Walk to End Alzheimer’s” events in Denver.
Pat Bowlen is arguably the most important figure in Colorado sports history.— Ryan Koenigsberg (@RyanKoenigsberg) June 14, 2019
The entire state is better off because he bought the Broncos.
His legacy will live on forever.
Oh, and he was an absolute boss. pic.twitter.com/4TqQFhKAnk
‘No. 1 in everything’
Bowlen, who played defensive back for the Edmonton Huskies of the Canadian Junior Football League in 1962 and was part of the club’s first national championship, began a law practice in Edmonton after graduating college. After successful careers in oil, gas and real estate in Canada, he purchased the Denver Broncos in 1984.
Most Broncos fans will remember Bowlen standing on the sidelines before games in his fur coat, sunglasses and cowboy boots, chatting with coaches and players.
Bowlen’s iconic “This one’s for John!” when he hoisted the franchise’s first Lombardi in honor of then-quarterback John Elway’s superb performance in Super Bowl XXXII will forever be remembered and revered.
Elway was able to repay the favor almost 20 years later when he lifted the Lombardi and belted out, “This one’s for Pat” in honor of the man who helped the franchise do exactly what he always dreamed of - to be No. 1.
In a statement Thursday, Elway noted exactly how much influence Bowlen had on his career and his life:
“Pat gave me so much and he was someone that I always looked up to. He gave this team everything we needed to be the best and compete for championships, and the focus was always on football. That’s all you can ask for in an owner—yet he did more. He was a tremendous mentor to me and a tremendous friend. Pat was a great listener, always asking what was going on, and I learned so much from watching him. He was a terrific leader. Whether things were going right or things weren’t going right, he would always let you know what we needed to get better. He did a great job of applying pressure at the right times but always trusted his football people to make the right decisions. Other than his family, nothing meant more to Pat than making sure the Denver Broncos were successful. What he did for this team, this city and the entire NFL will never be matched. His shoes will never be filled. I will miss Pat greatly and will always treasure the times we had together. We’ll continue to take care of his team as if he were here today. My deepest sympathies are with Annabel and the entire Bowlen family.”
Bowlen would not have liked so much attention on him today, but he deserves it. He has pushed the Broncos to the forefront of the NFL. And whether he likes the attention or not, he’s earned it.
“Nobody is going to care whether the team is worth a billion dollars or whatever,” Bowlen once said. “That doesn’t matter. It’s more about how successful you were as an organization and as a team on the field and in the community.”
Rest in peace, Mr. B.