Flashback: The Colts Come to Indy—30 Years Later
Editor’s Note: April 2, 2014, marks the 30th anniversary of the Colts’ official introduction to the city of Indianapolis, in a jubilant ceremony at the since-demolished Hoosier Dome. Reprinted here for the first time online is IM‘s May 1984 feature, “Colt Fever: At long last, football,” written by then–associate editor Steve Bell, which chronicled the celebration and the fortuitous series of events that landed Indy an NFL franchise.
It was gray and windy and cold. And it was Monday. But not in the minds of some 20,000 persons who were walking down crowded sidewalks, past hotdog vendors and under the watchful eyes of the WIBC helicopter, into the Hoosier Dome for a welcome-to-Indianapolis rally for the National Football League’s Colts.
It was April 2, three days after a dozen Mayflower moving vans had transported the worldly possessions of the former Baltimore Colts from their suburban Baltimore training facility to Indianapolis.
A military band played. The crowd buzzed. And when city officials, Colt top brass, and other VIPs paraded across the playing surface in the Hoosier Dome, the crowd rose and roared.
“It’s a great day for Indianapolis,” shouted David Frick, a local lawyer who had negotiated the deal that brought the Colts to Indianapolis.
If a maze of lawsuits that seek to return the Colts to Baltimore do not spoil the party, it’ll be more than a great day. It’ll be a great couple of decades.
On the bottom line for Indianapolis is a yearly economic impact of $21 to $25 million. That much money would enter the local economy as the players, managers, coaches, vendors, and ticket takers spend their salaries. Fans, both from Indianapolis and out of town, would spend considerable sums on such items as hotel rooms, food, and gas.
The city itself could earn some $1.4 million per year from stadium rent and a share of ticket sales. Not bad.
Not bad for the Colts, either. By striking a deal with Indianapolis, the franchise will be guaranteed $7 million a year for 12 years. The team will operate out of a new $3 to $4 million training facility built by the Capital Improvement Board (which the team can later purchase for $4 million). And they will benefit from an 8 percent, $12 million loan from Merchants National Bank.
Those are just a few highlights from a voluminous agreement between the city and the Colts that makes Indianapolis a major-league football city.
But perhaps best of all, the arrival of the Colts has brought to an end the all-too-familiar question, “Where’s the beef?” In its place is the all-important question, “Where are the tickets?” Despite frantic maneuvering that ensued after the Colts’ move, tickets simply weren’t available. And they won’t be until the front-office staff can get all the boxes unpacked and organize the offices. 1984 ticket prices will range from $15.50 to $25.
Indianapolis’s emergence as an NFL city is the product of being in the right place at the right time with the right offer. Not the best offer, mind you. The right offer.
The story of how this all came about began two decades ago in the mind of one Robert V. Welch, a local businessman who has worked diligently for the last 20 years to bring an NFL franchise to Indianapolis. His efforts to promote the city to the NFL—indeed, to own a franchise—himself were largely responsible for establishing Indianapolis as a viable locale for professional football.
Welch won’t be involved with the Colts. He turned down a 49 percent share of the Colts because he wanted to control a franchise. Still, his efforts have not gone unnoticed by principals in the Colts’ deal such as Mayor William H. Hudnut (pictured, left). “We are grateful to Bob Welch for what he did to nurture the dream of making Indianapolis an NFL city and to help that dream come true by building good relationships with the owners of the various NFL franchises,” says Hudnut. “I am sorry that he has been hurt by this. However, I don’t know what my option was as mayor of the city, given the fact that there was not going to be an expansion franchise and that we had this possibility of relocating an existing franchise.”
During the years Indianapolis was building up itself as an NFL city, the relations between Robert Irsay (pictured, right), the 12-year owner of the Baltimore Colts, and his team’s city were breaking down. His team was playing before tiny crowds, and he came under increasing criticism by Baltimore fans and reporters. In fact, during the April 2 ceremony, Irsay admitted that money was not his major concern in leaving Baltimore. “The press hounded my family for two years,” he told the 20,000 in attendance. “I wasn’t about to take any more of [their] hounding.”
The combination of a dissatisfied owner and a city-in-waiting proved to be the perfect combination. The final chapter began on Super Sunday 1984, according to Hudnut, when local businessman Tom Shine and Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon, who were attending the Super Bowl, overheard a number of NFL owners discussing the possibility of a Colts move. Shine and Simon dropped the name of Indianapolis.
Apparently, Irsay and the Colts took the hint. On February 23 a group from the Colts organization visited Indianapolis, and an intense several weeks of negotiations ensued, with Frick heading up the Indianapolis cause.
The negotiation process, veiled in secrecy, was a roller-coaster ride for the local citizenry. The story of the Colts’ potential move drew more front-page headlines and broadcast lead-offs than the Unser-Andretti feud and the sale of the Pacers combined. Unfortunately, a lot of the news was based on speculation, rumor, and anonymous sources, says Frick.
“I found myself in a very difficult situation,” says Frick, a former deputy mayor in the Hudnut administration. “I’ve been in public life and very accessible to the media, and suddenly, I was in a situation where I couldn’t comment for two reasons. One was simply that early in the process we agreed that neither side would comment on what was going on. Also, we were in a competitive situation and I didn’t want our competitors to know what we were doing. So we just didn’t comment. It was difficult because I knew where we were in the negotiation process, and sometimes the public perception brought about by the news media indicated we were someplace else. I always wanted to stand up and say, ‘Hey, you guys don‘t know what’s going on. Don’t speculate and make rumors.’ But unfortunately, that happened.”
The media speculation was indeed a confusing affair. First the Colt s were coming to Indianapolis. Then they were staying in Baltimore. Then they were going to Phoenix or Memphis. Nope, to Indy. Nope, to Baltimore.
From Frick’s point of view, the process was not nearly so fickle. “From the early stages of negotiation,” he says, “the people involved told us that they were going to be talking to Phoenix and that they had received overtures from every city in the country that ever aspired to have an NFL team. We went into the negotiations with an open mind, hoping we were going to succeed, but always doing it in such a way that if we were unsuccessful, we would not lose our dignity or integrity.”
Mayor Hudnut (pictured, left), who has indicated that he was not always directly involved in the negotiations, even fell prey to rumor and speculation. “I had my ups and downs,” he says. “I was concerned when time went by and we didn’t hear. I tried to keep my concerns to myself because I didn’t want people on an emotional roller coaster. And I never said the chances were better than 50-50 . We were working hard. We hoped it would work out. If it did, that would have been a great plus, and if it didn’t work out, we would learn a lot, gain a lot of national exposure—all of which would benefit our city in the future.”
But it did work out, largely because of circumstances beyond Indianapolis’s control. On March 28, a group of Phoenix businessmen who had tendered an offer to the Colts withdrew their offer. The next day, the Maryland legislature passed a law that would have made it possible for the city of Baltimore to take over the club under eminent domain. The legislative action was taken “under extraordinary measures,” says Frick. They waived normal procedures and hurried the bill through the legislature, he says.
Threatened by the takeover of his business, Irsav decided that he had to move the Colts, and the moving vans were loaded. “He had no alternative unless he wanted his assets impounded and his business entity declared worthless,” says Hudnut.
Irsay himself was a bit more forceful. “I woke up one day and the governor [of Maryland] had put a bill through the legislature to take my team a way,” he told the crowd at the April 2 rally. “That’s against everything the United States stands for.”
The eminent domain legislation is not something that Irsay is likely to face in Indiana, says Hudnut. Hudnut was asked if he might have taken similar action last year, when the Indiana Pacers franchise appeared ready to depart the city. “That’s hard to say,” says Hudnut. “If contracts had been broken, a specific lease reneged upon, I’m sure there would have been litigation. That was a possibility here with regard to the Pacers because their owners had some long-term leases running with regard to Market Square Arena. As to the eminent domain, the answer is probably, from my point of view, no. We’re involved in an economic competition for a business asset. Cities do this all time. You win some and you lose some. I don’t think there were lawsuits filed when Baltimore succeeded in getting the Colts from the Dallas Texans in the early ’50s. Or the St. Louis Browns, who became the Baltimore Orioles.”
Hudnut, Frick, and others cite a number of reasons that the Colts chose Indianapolis over Baltimore and the other cities who were in the “economic competition” for the franchise.
“There were three things,” says Hudnut. “The facility; the geographic location, which is closer to [Irsay’s home, Chicago] and is in the Eastern Time Zone like the rest of the division. Thirdly, he had good feelings about Indianapolis as a result of the bridge of understanding and mutual respect that was forged during the negotiations.”
On the final point, Frick concurs. “I secured my impression after spending weeks with these people,” says Frick. “Most of my time was spent with [Colts’ lawyer] Michael Chernoff. He’s a bright person. He treated us very fairly during the negotiation process. As a lawyer, my specialty is putting together complicated transactions for my clients, and you run into all different sorts of people when you sit across the table from them. [Chernoff] is the type of guy that I’d like to get to know better and become good friends with. Most of the time in the negotiating process, you don’t finish up feeling that way about the guy sitting across from you.”
As for the negative image of Irsay and the Colts organization painted by many members of the East Coast media, both Hudnut and Frick urge local reporters and fans to develop their own opinion.
“That’s in the past,” says Hudnut, “and I think we’d better forget about it. It’s obvious that the situation there had deteriorated for whatever reason. Let’s hope it’s a solid, healthy relationship here.”
“As a community, we don’t let other people dictate to us the judgments we want to make,” adds Frick. “That’s not how we perceive our community. We don’t let outsiders tell us what we should think about something. [We’ve got to] give the guy an opportunity to enter the community with a clean slate. I think that’s all that we as a community are required to do.”
The Colts, by most estimations, are a good, young franchise with a promising future. Last year under Coach Frank Kush, the team finished 7-9, infinitely better than the 0-8-1 record of the 1982 season. Behind running backs Curtis Dickey and Randy McMillen, the Colts finished no. 2 in rushing in the NFL last year. Carmel High School and Purdue University’s Mark Herrmann (pictured, left), though not a sure bet to be starting quarterback for the team, is likely to add to Indianapolis’s enthusiasm for its new team.
In short, the future for the Colts in Indianapolis has a good chance to be a rosy one, even with the spectre of the Baltimore lawsuits. As Frick puts it, “We’re going to be reading about the lawsuits for three or four years now. My interest now is on the team and what they do on the field.”
On with the show.
Photos by Jim Schweiker and Steve Oberreich
This article appeared in the May 1984 issue