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Editor's Note: After the following profile appeared in the January 2012 issue of IM—when the Colts had just completed arguably the worst season in franchise history—a confident Irsay and the Colts drafted Andrew Luck; the quarterback led the team to two straight NFL playoff appearances. On March 16, 2014, Irsay was stopped by a Carmel police officer and detained on suspicion of driving while intoxicated and possession of a controlled substance.
“Okay, so the answer is Wagon Queen Family Truckster, right?” says Jim Irsay’s executive assistant, Cathy Catellier, standing at the door of his office on 56th Street. “Does it have to say Wagon Queen, or can it just say Family Truckster?”
For this particular Twitter riddle, the Colts owner insists on all of it. To win tickets to the next Colts home game, one of his 83,000-plus followers is going to have to come up with the full name of the station wagon driven by Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation. Although Irsay is known as one the NFL’s most mercurial owners, he can be particular about details. He isn’t exactly a technology enthusiast—you rarely see him preoccupied with a smartphone, he doesn’t have a computer in his office, and Catellier often tweets for him. But as silly as his tweets might seem, it’s clear that there is some- thing strategic behind them. While his posts stray as far from team news as rock ’n’ roll lyrics and non sequitur trivia, today, on the half- dozen televisions near his desk, several sports channels are reporting on one from earlier that week: “I didn’t say Peyton out4season ... Chance of return n December possible.” Twitter, he’ll tell you, is just another way to market an organization through a recession.
Irsay still carries the enfant terrible reputation he earned in the 1990s, but in recent years, the owner has matured into a skilled executive. He sits on the league’s powerful finance committee and chairs the legislative group. He runs a football team that has been the envy of the league for a decade. His father, Robert, whom he describes as “a riverboat gambler,” invested the team’s money in risky assets like speculative real estate. Jim, on the other hand, prides himself on careful investments like mutual funds. And the man can negotiate—the team pays just $250,000 a year in rent for a mostly taxpayer-funded $720 million stadium.
All of which may explain how the Colts have managed to be among the highest-paid teams in one of the smallest markets in the league for years. When Forbes recently ranked Irsay No. 3 on its list of Best NFL Owners, the magazine considered the change in franchise value (the Colts doubled in value over the past 10 years to $1.1 billion) and win percentage (almost 70 percent in the same period) in making the pick. “The fact that he enjoys poetry and music doesn’t mean much,” says Colts vice chairman Bill Polian. “Those are his avocations. His vocation is being a football executive. And he’s as smart as any owner I’ve ever known. Some of it is intuition, but some of it is that he’s just so knowledgeable about the business.”
No owner in the NFL has had a more complicated season this year than Irsay. Between 2001 and 2010, the Colts racked up nine straight playoff appearances, complete with seven straight 12-win seasons and a Super Bowl victory in 2007. Then, last September, just days before Game 1, four-time MVP quarterback Peyton Manning shocked the sports world with news that he had undergone his third neck surgery and would be out for months. You know the rest. Among one-season reversals in the history of professional football, only the Colts’ own rise to glory—from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3 in 1999—compares.
And in some ways, the timing couldn’t be worse. Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium approaches. At a time when Irsay should be focusing on the particulars of his hosting duties, or at least basking in the glory of yet another successful season, he has instead fielded a barrage of questions about the future of Manning and the team. What irascible Bill Polian calls “the noise outside” has become deafening.
In the midst of that chaos, however, Irsay has remained calm. This isn’t the first time he has faced adversity—on the field or off it. As a kid, he served as a frequent apologist for his father, Robert, and his alcohol-fueled rants. When the younger Irsay became general manager of the team, it ranked among the worst in the league, inspiring the jest that “Colts” stood for “Count On Losing This Sunday.” Turning it around took years. And Jim Irsay fell into some bad habits of his own in the late ’90s. His addiction to prescription painkillers made him an unpredictable presence in interviews before he publicly admitted and beat the disease.
“If things aren’t going well,” he has said, “I’m your man.” And for Irsay’s Colts, challenges loom once again. Some analysts consider the moves he’ll need to make this offseason the most fascinating personnel decisions in the history of the league. But Irsay doesn’t seem worried. In fact, he has been training for this all his life.
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