Don’t Worry. Jim Irsay Has a Plan.
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.
“Okay, so the answer is Wagon QueenFamily 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 something 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 hada 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.
When Robert Irsay bought the Baltimore Colts in 1972, he famously put his son to work in the locker room picking up jock straps. Jim’s sister, Roberta, had died in a car accident the year before, a tragedy that only exacerbated Robert’s budding alcohol- ism. And Jim’s brother, Tom, was born severely mentally handicapped and died young. So despite being born into privilege, Jim suffered through a tougher childhood than most. Even as a teenager, though, he saw the big picture—he knew that one day he would lead this team. At Loyola Academy, a high school in suburban Chicago, he showed some promise as a bulky linebacker. But when it came time to choose a college in 1978, he opted for former football powerhouse Southern Methodist University instead of a smaller school where he might have played more. The idea, he says, was to learn how big programs deal with agents and the league.
When he graduated and filled the team’s general manager position, the Colts were one of the worst teams in football. Between 1972 and 1986, they posted a dismal 78-140 record. Just three years after Robert Irsay moved the team to Indy in the middle of the night, however, Jim engineered one of the most complex trades in league history—one that would put the team on a path to better things. The Colts selected linebacker Cornelius Bennett in the first round of the 1987 draft, but Robert didn’t want to pay his price. So Jim put together a deal that would improve what he saw as another critical shortcoming of the team, the running game. In a trade involving three teams and four players, the Colts ultimately sent Bennett to the Buffalo Bills and brought future Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson to Indy. That year, Dickerson ran for more than 1,000 yards and the Colts made the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
All the while, the elder Irsay threw public tantrums after losses, fired a parade of coaches, and was generally despised by the city. Jim still hesitates to judge the man, but in an interview with Sports Illustrated last year, he hinted that he wanted more for his team. “In 1982, I was at the NFL’s annual meeting,” Jim said. “[Steelers owner] Art Rooney is in his 80s, and he comes in with a big unlit cigar. Heads turn and all of a sudden there’s a standing ovation. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that’s something to aspire to.’” Robert died of complications from a stroke in 1997, leaving the team to his only son.
Jim had already proven a capable manager. And in his inaugural year as CEO, he made some historically good decisions. His first move was to hire Bill Polian, a cantankerous but brilliant general manager who had led the Bills to four Super Bowls and brought the Carolina Panthers to the NFC Championship game in the second year of the team’s existence. The rest is now legend. With the first pick in the 1998 draft, the Colts chose Peyton Manning over the arguably more celebrated quarterback Ryan Leaf. Indianapolis became a football town almost overnight.
To look at Irsay, you’d swear one of the most successful eras in the history of football wasn’t coming to an end. Manning must be down on the field warming up for tonight’s Game 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Colts must be on their way to yet another division championship. Because descending in a private elevator to the tunnels below Lucas Oil Stadium before this evening’s nationally televised game, the Colts owner wears a huge smile along with his immaculately tailored navy pinstripe suit.
But the collapse has already begun. Without Manning, the Colts lost the first few games of the season in embarrassing fashion. Just a few weeks into the season, NFL analysts consider the team an early contender for the coveted No. 1 draft pick in April.
Walking through the corridors below the stadium, though, Irsay projects only confidence. A bright light appears at the end of the tunnel. The 52-year-old walks onto the field, and cameramen swarm around him, beaming his image up to the giant screens throughout the stadium. The crowd of 63,000 stands and roars. “Mr. Riviera!” exclaims veteran broadcaster Al Michaels as he walks over to the fashionable Irsay and throws his arm around him. Colts vice chairman Bill Polian quickly joins them for a sideline comparison of their golf swings. After a few minutes, Polian—who stepped down from the general-manager role in 2009 but continues to have Irsay’s ear—pulls him aside for a private pre-game briefing. Handlers tell everyone else to stand back.
NBC’s sideline reporter Michele Tafoya waits in the wings with 20 fans attending tonight’s game courtesy of Irsay’s Twitter contests. Irsay joins her for a brief interview. With the trivia winners cheering in the background, Tafoya asks him if he has a favorite post. “I’m holding my best tweet for ‘Peyton is 100 percent and he’s ready to play,’” he replies. “That will be my best tweet, but it hasn’t come yet.”
After the interview, Irsay hurries back to the tunnels, sharing a little wisdom about the Colts’ current crisis along the way. “The great psychologist Carl Jung talked about how there has to be light and darkness,” he says, shuffling past his black Mercedes parked against a wall. “Remember how this whole thing started? Us having the worst record in football. Drafting Peyton Manning. Things not working out in Carolina for Bill Polian. Tony Dungy getting fired in Tampa. All those things conspired to greatness.”
For Irsay, that kind of insight and balance was hard won. An avid guitarist and ’60s pop-culture aficionado, Irsay always stood out among NFL executives. But his strangeness seemed to grow in a troubling direction during his early years as owner. A competitive weightlifter, he injured his wrists and elbows several times in the late ’90s, leading to surgery. During that period, the owner developed an addiction to prescription painkillers that became apparent in rambling, nonsensical interviews he would give. “The first time I met him in his office, he was geeked out of his mind on God knows what,” says Bob Kravitz, sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. “He must have gone to the bathroom five or six times in the span of two hours. He showed me the gun he had in his desk drawer. He was crazy. Kind of a good crazy. But worrisome.” When local television stations aired pieces on Irsay’s addiction, he knew it was time to come clean. In a textbook example of crisis management, he acknowledged the problem and sought help at a rehabilitation facility.
His marriage with Meg Coyle Irsay—his high-school sweetheart turned “conscious movement” instructor and New Age poet—has not been without trouble either. The two, who wed in 1980, have separated on at least two occasions, filing to do so legally in 2002. Despite the fact that Meg doesn’t appear much with her husband today, their daughters Carlie, Casey, and Kalen say they have mended the fences and enjoy a warm relationship.
When you consider all that Irsay has overcome, it’s easy to see why Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones calls him “the Zen owner.” For the Colts executive, life has been as rocky as football. But Irsay has always found a way to win in bad situations, and his team never needed a win as badly as they do right now.
The Colts’ swan dive this season has only distracted slightly from the anticipation of Super Bowl XLVI, and Jim Irsay, more than anyone, brought it here. Though much occurred behind the scenes, it seems clear in retrospect that the building of the new football stadium provides a case study in negotiation. In 2004, the charmless RCA Dome was the smallest venue in the league—but thanks to Manning’s weekly highlights, the team had attracted national attention. If ever there were a moment to pressure Mayor Bart Peterson for the $650 million in public funds it would take, that was it. Despite polls showing 71 percent of Marion County residents against the idea, Irsay pushed for an agreement without ever explicitly threatening to move the team to another city. But both the mayor and the city could read between the lines. On Dec. 26, 2004, at the Baltimore Ravens game, Irsay and Peterson held up their arms and announced “We have a deal!”
For Irsay, though, negotiating what would become Lucas Oil Stadium was only half the battle. The next hurdle was convincing the league to deliver on its unspoken promise to reward markets that built stadiums with the Super Bowl. After all, the weather in Indianapolis hardly compares with that of frequent hosts Miami and Glendale, Arizona. As Indy’s Super Bowl bid committee prepared its 2008 pitch, Irsay acted as the strategic advisor. Typically, cities bidding for the Super Bowl task a few executives with handing out the daunting four-inch-thick binders that outline their proposals. The Colts owner saw that as poor salesmanship. He encouraged Allison Melangton, now president of the Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee, and her team to strive for a different approach. “Jim is one of the guys who sits in that room and votes every year,” Melangton says. “So that got us thinking. We decided to enlist eighth-graders who would be seniors in 2012 to deliver our bid.”
Another key component was a proposed $14 million Legacy Project at Tech High School on the east side. The NFL always chips in $1 million for youth service in the Super Bowl city, but those funds typically go to enhance some existing facility or organization. When the bid committee presented Irsay with a plan for a capital campaign to fund something much more ambitious—an indoor athletics facility for kids that would rival the Colts complex—he told them that was the cornerstone of their pitch. It’s easy to picture him happily penciling “Indianapolis, Feb. 5, 2012” in his calendar before the vote ever took place.
When the day finally arrives next month, Irsay hopes to actually sit and watch some of the game. But as host, he won’t have the luxury of isolating himself in his suite as he often does for regular season games. He’ll need to show fellow owners around, hobnob with the sponsors. The league plans much of the main event, so Irsay’s most visible role may be hosting the ritzy NFL Commissioner’s Ball on Feb. 3, where players, coaches, star agents, and celebrities from other sports will gather. Who among them could deny that, even in a down year, Irsay has managed his biggest victory yet?
“A century from now, people will look back in the Super Bowl history books and see a photo of Indianapolis,” he says. “That’s what excites me. We’re in the greatest country in the world, and we play the greatest sport in the country. This is going to be the cherry on top of all we’ve accomplished in the last 13 years.”
As Irsay’s daughters Carlie, Casey, and Kalen chat in the family suite at halftime of the Steelers game, the owner and a serious-looking businessman approach, breaking into smiles at the last second. “The last time I saw you, you were about to pop!” says NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to Carlie, who recently had a baby. Goodell has known these young women since infancy. They hug him and eagerly catch up as if he were a favorite uncle. “I remember Jimmy complaining because we would have the league meeting on Halloween, and the girls were all trick-or-treating,” Goodell says. “Look how they’ve grown up.”
All three women have worked for the Colts over the years, but today Carlie, 30, lives in Chicago where she is finishing a Ph.D in psychology. Casey, who is 28 and recently married IndyCar driver A.J. Foyt IV, finds most of her time occupied by her new NFL-themed yogurt franchise, Huddles. Only 24-year-old Kalen, who manages some of the team’s sponsorships, remains in the office day-to-day. Each of the women still carries the title of Colts vice president, but their varied involvement does beg the question of a succession plan. Irsay has never left much to chance, and it’s hard to imagine him doing so with his girls. In 2006, he seemed to be grooming Casey for the job, taking her to league meetings and telling WRTV and other media outlets that “when Peyton retires, it’s her team.” But he now says he wasn’t serious. “What I said about stepping aside was more or a tip of the hat to Peyton and his talent,” Irsay says. “For an NFL owner, I’m still very young. I see myself doing this as long as I’m upright.”
Even so, the prospect of a female trio someday representing the Colts at the old boys’ club of the NFL owners meetings has to delight the unconventional Irsay. It would also be the third generation of his family to own the team outright, a feat that only the Rooneys, who own the Steelers, can match. “We all grew up with it the way he did—although not picking up jock straps, thankfully,” Kalen says. “Once babies aren’t in the picture, I can imagine the three of us in the owner’s suite. But I always tell my dad: Please don’t go anywhere soon. I’m definitely not ready to handle this yet.”
An iconic black-and-white image of John F. Kennedy hangs on a wall in Irsay’s office. Photographed from behind as he leans on his desk, Kennedy looks like a man in crisis—the Bay of Pigs invasion approaches, uncertainty clouds the future, and the weight of it all falls on his shoulders. Irsay doesn’t exactly face nuclear annihilation, but one could easily draw a few parallels. The burden of saving the franchise ultimately rests with him. And he’s very conscious of history. Irsay has seen what happens to teams in the wake of losing a great quarterback. The Denver Broncos went 6-10 the year after John Elway retired. The San Francisco 49ers stumbled to the same record the year after Steve Young turned in his jersey. The Miami Dolphins never really did recover after Dan Marino.
Can you blame Irsay if he’s been watching a little Stanford football this season? Andrew Luck, the school’s Heisman Trophy candidate, has been called the best college quarterback prospect since Manning or Elway. He has generated more than 10,000 yards of total offense in just three years. In an Oct. 10 interview with Yahoo! Sports, Irsay hinted that he might be interested in the prospect if the team earns the No. 1 pick. “Guys like that come along so rarely,” he said. “Even if that means that guy sits for three or four years, you’d certainly think about taking him.” Which fueled an already raging firestorm of speculation about the future of the team.
“The nature of existence is uncertainty,” Irsay says, sitting at his truck-sized desk in the Colts Complex. “The number of years Peyton has left is unknown. To say that the Manning era is over in Indianapolis is premature—I wouldn’t bet on it. But the hard part is determining when one era has ended and a new one needs to begin. The goal is to make a seamless transition. If you can have greatness at the end of one era, you might sacrifice a year of difficult growth transitioning into the new one.”
If you have any doubt that he enjoys the rampant speculation about what he and his staff will do on draft day in April, consider the steady stream of reporters filing in and out of his office throughout the season. Irsay doesn’t allow that when he doesn’t want to communicate something. As friendly as he usually is, the former broadcast major skillfully manages the media. In a late-season tweet, amid calls for coach Jim Caldwell’s dismissal, Irsay made the kind of mystical pronouncement that has kept the press in suspense all season: “If changes r needed, they’ll be made, if continuity is needed, patience will b shown.”
Ancient eastern wisdom for a digital age? Or just shrewd corporate communications? Irsay inherited a calamity and turned it into a model franchise. He made himself and a lot of other people rich in the process. Hippie goofballs don’t accomplish that sort of thing. Businessmen do. Sure, the owner brings his own playful approach to the job—that’s part of the team’s appeal. But rest assured, when the big decisions get made this winter, about Manning and Caldwell, the draft, and which Bob Dylan lyrics to tweet in the middle of the night, the guy at the top has a weird talent for being right.
“You have to seek opportunity in adversity,” Irsay muses. “We certainly weren’t hoping to have a Top 3 draft pick. But that’s the exciting thing about where we’re at right now. The fans are asking themselves: Will Peyton Manning ever be back? What would the Colts do with a No. 1 draft pick? Would they take a quarterback? Would they trade it? That’s where the fun is. I don’t mind the uncertainty. I don’t have any choice! Sometimes you have to dismount from your horse and fight on foot. It’s like our old coach Ted Marchibroda used to say to me on game day: ‘Isn’t it exciting, Jimmy? You never know what’s going to happen. If you already knew, what fun would it be?’”
Cover photo by Taylor Castle; cover illustration by Oliver Hilbert
This article appeared in the January 2012 issue.