Irsay's leadership alters image of Colts, city

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Irsay's leadership alters image of Colts, city

By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Jim Irsay still treasures the memories from
his early, carefree days in the NFL.

Like other ball boys, he mingled with the Colts’ stars, listened
to their stories and complaints, and got a firsthand glimpse
into the rough and tumble world of pro football.

For Irsay, this was not just some easy summer job, it was a
full-fledged apprenticeship that came with myriad lessons – some
of which he continues to rely on more than three decades later
as the Colts owner.

“Basically, the thing that you really get to learn is how
important everyone is in the organization,” he said. “When I see
our ball boys and the guys who work in equipment, I can totally
relate to everything they have to do and those responsibilities.
You really, really learn what it’s about with players, and all
of those intimate moments you share are just invaluable.”

Perhaps that’s the reason Irsay stands where he is today, with
his team ready to play for its second Super Bowl title in four
years. A win over New Orleans next week would allow the Colts
(16-2) to stake their claim as the decade’s best team, and
create even more fervor for the NFL club in a city and state
historically dominated by basketball.

The Colts of 2009-10 bear no resemblance to the team Irsay
inherited in 1997 after the death of his father, Robert.

Back then the Colts were engaged in a seemingly endless quest to
be as good as the Bills or the Dolphins or the Broncos or some
other AFC power. Occasionally, Indy got near the top, never to
it.

So the younger Irsay wasted no time in making changes.

Following a 3-13 season in 1997, Irsay brought in a football
man, Bill Polian, architect of Buffalo’s Super Bowl teams, to
run his organization. He hired a disciplinarian, Jim Mora, to be
the coach. He took Peyton Manning with the first pick in the
1998 draft, and he met with financial advisers to make sure he
had enough outside income to keep the Colts competitive in one
of the league’s smallest markets.

The combination worked wonders.

“Having the ability to grow assets outside the team allowed me
to use personal resources to infuse the team with capital,”
Irsay said this week. “That’s something that’s critically
important because as an owner you have to have the ability
financially to do what you need to be able to do.”

Irsay’s master plan, which he started putting together in 1995,
turned Indianapolis into a model franchise, in stark contrast to
his father’s days.

The Colts of the 1980s and most of the ’90s were best known for
changing coaches, missing on draft picks, and, of course, the
midnight move from Baltimore.

Jim Irsay preferred stability.

Polian is now in his 12th season as team president, and the only
coach Irsay fired was Mora, after the 2001 season. Manning has
just won his league-record fourth MVP award and the coaching
staff has remained relatively unchanged since Tony Dungy arrived
in Indy in 2002.

On the field, nobody can quibble with the results.

Indy now holds NFL records for longest regular-season winning
streak (23), most wins in a decade (115) and most consecutive
12-win seasons (seven). That consistent success has created a
city full of blue-and-white jerseys, where the citizens now wear
their Colts clothing with as much pride as they once did Pacers,
Hoosiers and Boilermakers attire.

“This town really was a basketball city when we first got here,”
said defensive tackle Raheem Brock, who joined the Colts in
2002. “Even when we got into the playoffs, people wasn’t really
into it. We’ve really turned this city around and everyone’s
accepting of how good we’re playing. The guys coming in,
sometimes, weren’t big draft picks, but they know how to play
Colts football.”

How did Irsay make such a stark change?

By combining the business sense of his successful father and the
hands-on lessons he learned growing up in the NFL.

Irsay cherry-picked ideas from all of his experiences – from
tossing balls to John Unitas and Bert Jones to being involved in
the owners’ discussions about the 1982 strike and the rival U.S.
Football League.

“I was blessed to be able to really be an owner-in-training and
at the only school, the only university that offers the course,”
he said. “That is being in the league, being in NFL meetings,
being around the franchise.”

But the classic rock ‘n’ roll fan with a degree broadcast
journalism from SMU still found himself getting advice from an
unlikely contingent – old-guard leaders such as Wellington Mara
of the Giants, Lamar Hunt of the Chiefs and Dan Rooney of the
Steelers – when he joined the Colts’ front office in 1982.

Like them, Irsay understood the importance of history and
integrity of the game.

Like them, he had a personal investment in the game.

And like those three, Irsay’s players respect him.

“He’s everything you could ask for in an owner,” Manning said.
“He’s committed to winning. He’ll do whatever he feels necessary
to help our team win, providing us with the resources. You like
playing for that kind of owner, in that kind of environment.
He’s competitive and knows the game of football. Yet he doesn’t
meddle, doesn’t come to practice, doesn’t come down to the
sidelines during the games.”

Now, the 50-year-old Irsay is guiding his children down a
similar path.

Carlie Irsay Gordon, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in
clinical psychology at Argosy University in Dallas, was named
one of the team’s vice presidents in 2008.

Casey Irsay Foyt, who married race-car driver A.J. Foyt IV last
summer, also holds a vice president’s title. She’s been
attending NFL owner’s meetings to get more accustomed to the
league’s inner-workings, just like her father did more than
three decades ago.

They are described in the team’s media guide as the next
generation of ownership for the Colts, and Dad wants his
daughters to approach the task the same way he did – by getting
involved from the ground up.

“They’re going to be owners and you plan on giving them that
macro-financial lesson that they need no matter what,” Jim Irsay
said. "You want them to get an understanding of what’s going on
and the history of the game.

“It was a big advantage to have all that exposure and literally
work every position in the organization from ball boy up. Having
worked in the ticket office and answered the phone and having
scouted and been on the road and staying at motels and carrying
your own projector around in those days, it was just invaluable.
It’s the only university that exists like it.”

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