Pat Bowlen, owner of the Denver Broncos, is a giant leap closer to claiming his rightful place in Canton, Ohio and the Professional Football Hall of Fame, following his nomination as a finalist by the contributors subcommittee.
For 35 years, Bowlen exemplified greatness in everything he did, and his franchise followed.
When it came to winning, he did it best; the Broncos’ 300 victories during his first 30 years of ownership is an NFL record. And it wasn’t just that the orange and blue were winning regular season games, but playoff games as well, attending seven Super Bowls, more than the six losing seasons under his leadership.
Rewind to 1984, when Bowlen bought the Broncos, and they resembled more of a joke than the historic franchise they’ve grown up and become with him in charge.
Denver’s football roots begin in the American Football League, an afterthought to the NFL at the time, and the Broncos were awful in those AFL days. In fact, the team didn’t experience their first winning season until their 14th year, and fourth in the National Football League following the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. In 1977, the Broncos won their first AFC Championship over the rival Oakland Raiders, but lost Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys.
From 1960-1983, the years before Bowlen, Denver enjoyed a mere eight winning seasons during that span. Since Bowlen took over, the Broncos have the second-highest winning percentage of any team (.603 / 327-215-1); Bowlen was undoubtedly the catalyst of all that winning.
“I want us to be number one in everything,” Bowlen regularly said to everyone in the Broncos organization. Anyone can say it, but that’s exactly what they were, many times over, winning three Super Bowls under his ownership.
He always pushed for the absolute best, whether that be on the football field, or how he treated his staff members. Bowlen regularly invited a long list of staff members to his team’s Super Bowls, whether they were secretaries or the equipment manager, all the way up to the executives. He not only knew every person who worked under him, he cared about them, too.
Quickly after Bowlen purchased the team, he put the leadership in place in terms of coaching to help the Broncos reach three Super Bowls in the 1980s. And, though they came up short every time during that decade, his persistence in pushing for a championship finally paid off in 1997 and 1998, when Denver won back-to-back World Championships.
Bowlen’s ownership nearly coincided with John Elway’s career perfectly; he bought the team in Elway’s second year, and the two went through those Super Bowl losses together. And when his team finally won their first Vince Lombardi Trophy, Bowlen’s proud declaration, “This one’s for John!” again proved his love for his players.
“It was probably the most humbling, thrilled feeling I’ve ever had in my life, when we were finally able to win that championship, and Pat handed me that trophy,” Elway said to Lindsay H. Jones in 2014. “There will never be a more special time in my career than when he said that.”
Which is likely why Elway, the General Manager responsible for pushing the Broncos back to the mountain top, celebrated the Super Bowl 50 win by announcing proudly, “This one’s for Pat!”
While it’s easy to measure an NFL owner on the wins his team accumulated over the years, what may be missed are all the successes he enjoyed behind the scenes. Bowlen was a member of 15 committees during his time as Broncos owner and he was instrumental in getting the league’s games shown on a broader national television audience, too.
Due to his work as the chair of the NFL Broadcasting Committee, Bowlen is often regarded as the “father of Sunday Night Football” which has overtaken the popularity of Monday Night Football in recent years. He was also responsible for getting the game of football to be played in international destinations, like Tokyo, Japan — where Terrell Davis burst onto the scene in a preseason game — in Mexico City and in Germany.
Bowlen was a key member in negotiating labor disputes as co-chair of the NFL Management Council Executive Committee, while being part of a whole host of other committees as well.
When it came to investing in the organization, Bowlen pushed for the construction of “New” Mile High Stadium and listened to the fans when he tried to mimic the ancient, previous home of the Broncos. He also invested to upgrade the stadium in 2013 and reimagined the training facility at Dove Valley to bring the Broncos’ homes up to the new standards in the ever-evolving NFL. Part of the upgrade at the new stadium was the “Ring of Fame Walk” in which fans can take in the greatest players in the history of the Broncos, complete with bronze busts similar to those in Canton. The Ring of Fame itself was Bowlen’s idea; a way to celebrate the best players and contributors in Broncos history.
Without a doubt, Bowlen is one of the greatest owners in the history of the NFL, and his long-awaited enshrinement into the Hall of Fame finally seems likely when the 2019 inductees are announced on Super Bowl weekend in February.