Several years ago, as I was reporting a profile on the Denver Broncos’ legendary quarterback and executive John Elway, a member of the team’s front office explained to me the franchise’s role in the community: “We’re the most important business in this time zone,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm. He didn’t mean the zip code or the area code. In the entire Rocky Mountain region, the Broncos truly believed nothing stood above them.
It was, and remains, an audacious proclamation. Yet with the news that Pat Bowlen died last night after a years-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, it’s impossible to argue that the outsized Broncos owner wasn’t among the most important executives this region has ever seen. Mr. B, as his employees called him, will eternally be recognized for his focus on winning—though it wasn’t with the iron-fisted tyranny that is oftentimes attributed to other successful NFL teams. Not only did the Broncos win nearly 60 percent of its games since Bowlen took control in 1984, which ESPN reported is in the top five among every United States-based sports league, he managed to accomplish this with what now seems to be a bygone notion of loyalty and friendship—of running a multi-billion-dollar business without losing your humanity.
The stories are myriad: How, when the Broncos won their first Super Bowl in 1998 (a crowning achievement for any owner) Bowlen sidestepped his own brilliance leading the franchise and instead dedicated the Lombardi Trophy to Elway, his aging quarterback who’d come up short in three previous Super Bowls. Then there was the time he fired longtime head coach and friend Mike Shanahan in 2008. The two appeared together at a news conference where Bowlen cried and Shanahan declared the pair would “be best friends forever.”
Most certainly, stories about Bowlen will mention his roles on 15 NFL committees. He is considered the “father of Sunday Night Football”; he was instrumental in the league’s support for international games, and he played a major role in the billions of dollars the NFL now rakes in every year. Bowlen’s stewardship remains a standard to this day, which is why he will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame later this year.
It’d be hard to find any professional team’s owner who exemplified their franchise’s success more than Bowlen, a former oil executive, attorney, and real estate developer whose leadership with the Broncos made his employees think there was no more important work than what their football team was doing in Denver.
That idea only solidified in the past years, as Bowlen’s health declined simultaneously with that of his team’s on-field fortunes. After winning Super Bowl 50, the past three seasons have been marred by a sub-.500 record and familial infighting as to the future of the Broncos’ ownership. Bowlen’s absence—as well as his steady hand and leadership—has been sorely missed in the years since he stepped away from public life.
It’s a complicated set of circumstances. Five years ago, as he fought Alzheimer’s, Bowlen handed day-to-day operations to team president and chief executive Joe Ellis and placed the Broncos in a trust. As part of its job, the three-member trust has been tasked with deciding whether any of Bowlen’s seven children could eventually assume control over the franchise. So far, it appears the favorite is Bowlen’s 29-year-old daughter, Brittany Bowlen, who publicly expressed interest to succeed her father in October 2018. Meanwhile, Beth Bowlen Wallace—one of Pat Bowlen’s daughters from his first marriage—has also stated that she wants to fill her father’s role and got support last year from her uncle, Bill Bowlen, who filed a lawsuit that seeks to remove the trust’s members, including Ellis. Since then, Pat Bowlen’s wife and Brittany’s mother, Annabel Bowlen, filed a motion seeking to be heard in the case. She announced last year that she has also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Will Pat Bowlen’s death refocus his family on the twin concepts of leadership and loyalty, of the idea that the business is bigger than a single person? Will his Hall-of-Fame enshrinement be a step toward uniting his children? Most important for football fans in the Rocky Mountain West: Can this team once again be a champion—not just for a family’s name, but for an entire region?
This week, Bowlen’s legacy will rightly be celebrated. In the coming years, we’ll know what’s survived.