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Pete Rozelle’s humor set the tone

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

In 1960, few expected National Football League owners to pick 33-year-old Pete Rozelle as their new commissioner. At the time, Rozelle was the low-profile general manager of the Los Angeles Rams.

After several rounds of balloting, the owners decided Rozelle possessed the right mix of qualities to lead the league. Before the final vote, the owners asked him to leave the room.

He learned of his new job while in the bathroom. Returning to the conference room, he began by telling the owners, “I come to you with clean hands.”

Known for his humor and good nature, Rozelle (1926-1996) realized that his agreeable personality helped propel his success. He later concluded that he got the job because he was “the only one who hadn’t alienated most of the people at the meeting.”

With a background in public relations, Rozelle appreciated the role of symbolism. One of his first acts as NFL commissioner was moving its headquarters from Philadelphia to New York City.

“It’s the media capital of the world,” he said. “And we need the media.”

He convinced the owners of big-market teams to agree to a single league television contract—and to split the revenue equally with teams in smaller markets.

His long-term vision proved correct. As NFL games became more exciting, fan interest soared. That led to increasingly large TV contracts.

The Super Bowl itself was Rozelle’s idea. He figured that a heavily marketed championship game—with two weeks of buildup after the conference finals—would prove a big hit.

To get his staff ready for the first Super Bowl in January 1967, Rozelle wrote a 22-page memo listing to-do items. He liked to overprepare for important events.

— Adapted from “Pete Rozelle Commissioned A New NFL Business Model,” Michael Mink,

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