Pat Bowlen, one of the most iconic owners in NFL history who helped guide the Broncos to six Super Bowl appearances and two world championships in his 30 years as owner, is relinquishing control of the team as he acknowledges he is dealing with Alzheimer’s disease.
Team president Joe Ellis will assume control of the Broncos as Bowlen focuses on his health.
“It’s a really, really sad day,” Ellis said. “It’s sad for his family, his wife and his seven children. It’s sad for everyone in the organization. And it’s sad for all the Bronco fans who know what Pat Bowlen meant to them as an owner. It’s a day nobody wanted to see happen.”
Bowlen, 70, has placed his Broncos’ ownership in the Pat Bowlen Trust that is controlled by non-family members. Final-say authority with the team is held by Ellis.
Bowlen’s long-term goal is for one of his seven children to run the team when they’re ready. To be clear, the Broncos will not be put up for sale.
A statement by the Broncos to The Denver Post said the trust was set up by Bowlen more than a decade ago as part of his long-stated desire to keep team ownership in his family.
Bowlen had first revealed to The Denver Post in May 2009 that he was experiencing short-term memory loss. Bowlen, his family and the team on Tuesday acknowledged for the first time that his condition had developed into Alzheimer’s, a brain condition that worsens as it progresses and currently has no cure.
“As many in the Denver community and around the National Football League have speculated, my husband, Pat, has very bravely and quietly battled Alzheimer’s disease for the last few years,” Annabel Bowlen said in a statement. “He has elected to keep his condition private because he has strongly believed, and often said, ‘It’s not about me.’
“Pat has always wanted the focus to be solely on the Denver Broncos and the great fans who have supported this team with such passion during his 30 years as owner. My family is deeply saddened that Pat’s health no longer allows him to oversee the Broncos, which has led to this public acknowledgment of such a personal health condition.”
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans are living with the disease and it is the sixth-leading cause of death. Bowlen lost his mother, Arvella, after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s, in 2006.
Pat Bowlen (John Leyba, Denver Post file)
Mr. B’s leadership“This is a sad day for the NFL,” commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement to The Denver Post. “Pat Bowlen’s leadership has been critical to the success of the Broncos and the entire NFL. From building a championship team that is a pillar of the community to his important work for the league on television and labor matters, Pat’s love of the game drove him and we have all benefited from his passion and wisdom. But the time has come for Pat to focus on his health and we fully support him. Joe Ellis has been a trusted executive for Pat for many years after working with us at the league office. Joe’s deep experience ensures that the Broncos will continue to have strong leadership.”
Although the revelation of Bowlen’s condition is an emotional blow to the Broncos’ franchise, business in many respects will continue as usual. Bowlen already had removed himself from the team’s day-to-day operations in 2011 after he promoted Ellis, his longtime right-hand man, to president.
One of Bowlen’s most significant decisions before stepping back was working alongside Ellis in reshaping the Broncos’ football operations department in 2011. Together, Bowlen and Ellis hired legendary quarterback John Elway to run the football operations department. Elway then hired John Fox to succeed Josh McDaniels as coach.
With Ellis overseeing the club’s day-to-day operations and Elway running the football department, the Broncos have won three AFC West Division titles and reached no less than the Elite Eight of the NFL playoffs in each of their three seasons.
After signing free-agent Peyton Manning in 2012 to become their quarterback, the Broncos have gone 13-3 in each of their past two seasons and last season won two AFC home playoff games at Sports Authority Field at Mile High to reach their seventh Super Bowl, sixth under Bowlen.
To be sure, the past three seasons have been a remarkable rebound from the low point in the Bowlen era, which was a 4-12 season in 2010.
“No one fills Pat Bowlen’s shoes,” Ellis said. “Everybody in this organization — John Elway, John Fox, the players, all the Broncos’ employees, we understand what Mr. Bowlen’s goals and objectives are and it’s our obligation to fulfill them.
“Not only is he firm in his commitment to winning, he also wants to make sure people in his organization do things the right way, and sometimes that’s not always the case. But when he saw mistakes, even if they were his own, he recognized them and corrected them quickly. That’s the standard he set. It was clearly defined. It’s easy to see and it’s so easy for all of us to follow. That’s what we’re going to do in the future.”
For the better part of three decades at Broncos’ headquarters, Bowlen was affectionately known by his players, executives and employees as “Mr. B.” He was the type of owner who struck that delicate balance between being in the office every day and making the tough decisions when he had to, but also letting the people he hired do their jobs.
By any measure, Bowlen has been one of the most successful owners in all of sports.
Bowlen was 40 in 1984 when he and his siblings bought the Broncos from Edgar Kaiser for $78 million. Forbes recently listed the Broncos’ value at $1.16 billion, although that might now be a low estimate considering the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers were recently tentatively sold for $2 billion.
Last year, Bowlen became the first NFL owner to reach 300 career victories by his 30th season. The Broncos won the AFC championship in the 1986, ’87 and ’89 seasons with Dan Reeves as coach, 1997 and ’98 seasons under Mike Shanahan, and the 2013 season with Fox as coach.
They won back-to-back Super Bowls with Elway at quarterback in 1997 and 1998.
Perhaps the most astonishing feat during the Bowlen era is that the Broncos had only five losing seasons during his 30 years. Compare that to the Detroit Lions, who have posted losing records in 12 of their past 13 seasons, or the Oakland Raiders, who have nine losing seasons and two 8-8 records in their past 11.
“The reason Mr. B has been so successful is he put all his resources, his passion, his energy into winning,” Ellis said. “He’s a modest, kind, humble guy but you will not meet a more competitive man.”
Although he was born in Wisconsin and attended college at the University of Oklahoma, Bowlen had roots in Canada, and it took a while for the Denver region to warm up to the outsider. Shy by nature, Bowlen was initially perceived as aloof by the Denver region and his image wasn’t helped when he was seen wearing a fur coat on the sidelines early in his ownership tenure.
But Bowlen put away the fur coat after “The Drive” game in Cleveland in January 1987 and in time became one of the NFL’s most respected and beloved owners. And productive.
Besides his work with the Broncos, Bowlen was co-chairman of the NFL’s labor committee for 10 years and also chaired the broadcasting and NFL Network committees. In the NFL fiscal year from April 1, 2013, to March 31, 2014, the 32 NFL teams split $6 billion in national revenue largely built on network TV contracts.
His work largely done, Bowlen had not been active on the league committees in recent years and it was Ellis who represented the Broncos at the 2014 owners meetings in March.
Ellis, 56, worked three years with the Broncos from 1983-85, spent nine years in the NFL office, where he worked alongside Roger Goodell, now commissioner, among others, then returned to Denver, where he has spent the past 17 years with the Broncos.
Going forward, Ellis will add Broncos CEO — which had been Bowlen’s role since he purchased the team in March 1984 – to his title as team president.
Ellis and Elway will continue to head the franchise in 2014, but Bowlen told The Denver Post in his last wide-ranging public interview, in August: “If something were to happen to me, I’ve already made this clear, this team is going to stay in the Bowlen family no matter what. It’s a great asset. And it’s a lot of fun if you do it right.”
Bowlen has five children with his wife Annabel — Patrick, John, Brittany, Annabel and Christianna. Patrick and John are Broncos employees, and Brittany works in the league office.
Bowlen also has two children — Beth, who also works for the team, and Amie — from a previous marriage.
“Now is not the time to talk about the kids individually or collectively,” Ellis said. “This is really hard for them. It’s a very difficult time for Annabel and the children. They’ve been given an overview of the future, but their focus is on their father’s health and care. They have great sadness that he won’t be around to do what he did so well for 30 years. Out of respect for those kids and Annabel, now is not the time to speculate what the future holds.”
Challenging as the Broncos’ ownership situation might appear, it is not unprecedented. San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos announced in 2008 that he was suffering from a severe form of dementia. The team has long been run by his son Dean, who serves as Chargers’ president and CEO.
Bowlen long ago got his affairs in order so the Broncos could carry on.
“The future is in good shape,” Ellis said. “We have great people working in the football area. We have great people working in the business area. They’re committed to our fans, the mission that Pat Bowlen has put in front of us. We want to carry that out on his behalf and on behalf of the fans and the family.”