Rozelle, Alvin Roy (“Pete”)

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Rozelle, Alvin Roy (“Pete”)

(b. 1 March 1926 in South Gate, California; d. 6 December 1996 in Rancho Santa Fe, California), commissioner of the National Football League who turned professional football into the most popular sport in the United States.

Alvin Rozelle, given the nickname “Pete” at age five by an uncle, was the only child of Raymond Rozelle, a grocer who later became a purchasing agent for Alcoa Aluminum, and Hazel Healey, a housewife. He was raised in Lynwood, like South Gate, a section of Los Angeles. The tall, thin youngster played tennis and basketball in high school but was too slight to participate in the sport over which he would later have so much influence.

Rozelle served three years in the Navy during World War II before enrolling at Compton Junior College in 1946. During his junior college days, he served as director of athletic news, but more importantly, he was a sports “stringer” (a writer/reporter) for local Los Angeles newspapers.

After two years at Compton, Rozelle completed his education at the University of San Francisco (USF) in 1950. He worked as sports information director during his time at USF and stayed on in the post for two years after graduation. Meanwhile, he married June Marilyn Coupe in 1949. They had one daughter.

Rozelle joined the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League (NFL) as public relations director in 1952. In 1955 he left the Rams, fully intending not to return to football. He joined a public-relations firm whose major account was the 1956 Olympics, which were being staged in Melbourne, Australia. However, the Rams, by offering Rozelle the title and position of general manager, lured him back in 1957. For three years he was a solid front-office man but gave no real indication of the vision and greatness to come.

When NFL Commissioner Bert Bell died in November 1959, a new commissioner was needed. The choices were Austin Gunsel, league treasurer and then acting president, and Marshall Leahy, league legal counsel. Each had supporters among the league owners, though neither had enough votes to be elected. Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves proposed Rozelle as a compromise, a conciliatory deal that was eventually accepted. Meanwhile, to stay out of sight of the media, Rozelle waited in the men’s room of Miami’s Kenilworth Hotel, site of the marathon (twenty-three ballots) meetings, while the negotiations were in progress. Each time the door to the rest room opened, Rozelle went to the sink and washed his hands. When he was announced as the new czar of football, the thirty-three-year-old Rozelle quipped, “At least I come to the job with clean hands.”

Rozelle soon moved the NFL headquarters from a small office in Bala-Cynwyd, a suburb of Philadelphia, to Park Avenue in New York City, home to all the major television networks. Rozelle was immediately confronted with a rival league, the American Football League (AFL).

Commissioner Bell had blacked out home games in local markets and had taken the championship game to a national audience via television. However, Rozelle had even greater vision. When he took over, the league’s twelve teams each negotiated their own separate television deals. Rozelle quickly negotiated a league-wide agreement. Rozelle espoused “League Think,” a concept whereby all teams did what was best for the league as a whole. This concept became his mantra. In 1962 he forced rival networks to bid for television rights, driving the price higher than ever imagined. To further enhance the stability of the league, Rozelle dictated that all teams would share the sizable television market equally. Thus, for example, the New York Giants, Chicago Bears, and Los Angeles Rams would receive the same television coverage as the Green Bay Packers, despite the vast discrepancy between their markets, consisting of millions of viewers in the larger cities compared to Green Bay’s thousands. Vince Lombardi, the Packers’ dynastic championship coach of the 1960s, was so appreciative of Rozelle’s efforts that he said, “What Pete Rozelle did with television receipts probably saved football in Green Bay.”

As commissioner, Rozelle was quickly tested by fire. In the spring of 1963 he had to suspend two of the NFL’s biggest stars, Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, for admitted gambling. Later, after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of that year, Rozelle elected to have NFL teams play, while the AFL canceled its games. Rozelle was roundly criticized, and he later called the action “the most regrettable decision I ever made.”

Rozelle’s public-relations background served him well. He continually worked at polishing the NFL’s image and had the league’s teams do likewise. Through entities such as NFL Films and NFL Properties, the league was marketed and merchandised like no other sports organization.

ABC’s Monday Night Football, another of Rozelle’s innovations, attracted millions to NFL football who would not normally have been interested, and it changed both the viewing habits of a nation and the programming of other networks. The league became an international attraction, and NFL teams played in such far-flung venues as England, Japan, Mexico, and Canada. A tie-in was established between the NFL and the United Way, and NFL Charities was created to distribute revenue from sales of NFL merchandise to charitable causes; monetary contributions ultimately totaled in the many millions. Perhaps Rozelle’s most significant accomplishment was the creation of the Super Bowl, after he helped effect a merger in 1966 between the NFL and AFL. The world championship game came to be regarded as sports’ greatest one-day event.

While the NFL was running smoothly on the field, not all was peaceful off the field. In 1982 maverick owner Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders sought to move his team to Los Angeles. Rozelle preached “League Think.” But Davis was not converted and took his team to Los Angeles and the league to court. A jury sided with Davis and the Raiders moved, becoming the first team in more than two decades to do so. Others followed in subsequent years.

The league continued to prosper, but Rozelle tired of constant bickering among a new breed of owners, labor strife, and litigation. Somewhat surprisingly, he resigned in March 1989. Meanwhile, having divorced his first wife in 1972, he married Carrie Cook. They spent their retirement years in Rancho Santa Fe. Rozelle, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, had an office in Southern California and continued to work as a consultant with the NFL. He suffered from brain cancer the last several years of his life and succumbed to the disease on 6 December 1996. Memorial services were held in January 1997 in New York City and Los Angeles.

Rozelle’s impact on American sports is undeniable. The growth of the NFL from twelve teams in 1960, barely worth a million dollars each, to twenty-eight teams in his time, each worth several hundred million, is a credit to his leadership. In 1999 the Sporting News named him “the most powerful person in sports for the 20th Century.” Wellington Mara, owner of the New York Giants, said, “He moved the NFL from the back page to the front page, from daytime to primetime.” Rozelle, when asked to sum up his thirty-year tenure, simply said, “I did my best.” Few would argue.

Extensive mentions of Rozelle’s life and career can be found in the following books: Hamilton “Tex” Maule, The Game (1963); Jim Byrne, The $1 League (1986); David Harris, The League (1986); Bob St. John, Tex (1988); and Dan E. Modea, Interference (1989). An obituary is in the New York Times (7 Dec. 1996).

Jim Campbell

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Rozelle, Alvin Roy (“Pete”)

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