Broncos' Pat Bowlen bred success through family atmosphere

In the moments after the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50, with the Lombardi Trophy having just been placed in his hands, John Elway reached back across decades to tie the franchise's past and present together.

"This one's for Pat!" Elway exulted.

It was not just an echo of the Broncos' first Super Bowl celebration from 18 years earlier. It was a reminder that the man who authored that original iconic moment -- Broncos' owner Pat Bowlen, after the team had finally won a Super Bowl following four previous losses, proclaimed, "This one's for John!" -- was absent only in body, but not in spirit or influence.

Bowlen, who bought the Broncos with his siblings in 1984 and became one of the winningest owners in NFL history, died Thursday at age 75 after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease. By any standard, Bowlen was an extraordinarily successful owner, saving the Broncos from possible bankruptcy and making them a pillar of the Denver community and a regular participant in the postseason.

"I've said many times before that success is measured by Ws, not dollar signs," Bowlen told the Denver Post in 2005.

Bowlen was already too sick to attend Super Bowl 50 and he had given up control of the Broncos in July of 2014, when he acknowledged that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. But he had left the team in the hands of Elway, the quarterback with whom his franchise had won its first two Super Bowls and whom he had coaxed back in 2011 to run the Broncos' football operations.

That was two years after Bowlen first revealed to the Denver Post that he was suffering from short-term memory loss. Poignantly, he told the Post that his memories of the Super Bowl championships were fading then. With Elway and longtime executive Joe Ellis, who ran the business side of the franchise, in place, Bowlen had assured the Broncos of stability, with the hope that one of his children would eventually run the team. It seems fitting that hiring Elway as the team's general manager was likely the last significant football decision Bowlen was involved in and that the feelings throughout the organization for Mr. B, as he was known by everyone who worked there, were such that the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl 50 were dominated by the hope that Elway could give Bowlen another title to celebrate as his health waned.

"I want to be No. 1 in everything," Bowlen once said.

He often was, as the Broncos emerged as one of the NFL's premier franchises under his guidance. In recent years, Bowlen had receded completely from view, although Elway brought the Lombardi Trophy to Bowlen a few days after the Broncos won their third Super Bowl in Santa Clara. That was the seventh Super Bowl the Broncos had played in since Bowlen bought the team -- the losses, he had said, were some of the toughest moments of his life -- and his teams were so successful that he was the first owner to win 300 games by his 30th season, a staggering average of 10 victories each season. In his 35 years at the helm, there were just six losing seasons. A few days before Super Bowl 50, Elway explained to reporters what Bowlen -- who had been an everyday visitor to practice before his illness and who consistently spent money on facilities and free agents -- meant to the Broncos.

"He's set the standard for us," Elway said at the time. "He's given us the ability to go out and compete and be the best. He's a great owner to play for and work for because, bottom line, he wants to win and he's a great competitor. When you have that culture around your building, it allows you to be able to compete for championships. It allows us to be able to get back here. When players come to Denver, they understand what we're about and the expectations when they come here."

Bowlen was born in Wisconsin and he went to the University of Oklahoma, where he earned business and law degrees. He was a lawyer in Canada and an oil and gas executive and real estate developer. The Bowlens bought the Broncos in 1984 -- fortuitously inheriting Elway -- and from then to the end of the 2018 season, Denver has established the third-highest winning percentage of any franchise in the NFL, at 59.7 percent, trailing only the Pittsburgh Steelers (60.3) and New England Patriots (61.7).

For most of that time, Bowlen was ubiquitous around the team, watching practice every day and often working out among his players and coaches -- an avid triathlete, he was known to challenge them in the weight room and on the elliptical machine -- at the training facility he built that was named for his father. He was deeply influenced by his father, who knew many of his workers in the oil business by their first names and who, Bowlen said, might not have been universally liked, but he was trusted.

So Bowlen sought to get to know the people in his franchise. He participated in practical jokes. While his shyness led outsiders to believe he was aloof when he first bought the Broncos -- when fans didn't like the fur coat he wore on the sideline in his early days as owner, he stopped wearing it -- those who worked for the Broncos were struck by how familiar he became with the staff.

Said former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan: "You got a chance to know him as a person -- most owners, you don't, because they are not around. As much as he worked out ... You wouldn't say he was one of the guys, but in a way, he was. You knew how important it was for him to win. His life's dream was to win the Super Bowl."

In 1988, Bowlen told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he liked to get to know his players and their families, to find out what was good and bad beyond football.

"I think that gives people more of a feeling of belonging," Bowlen said in that interview. "If there's one thing I want to accomplish with my team, it's for everyone here to be happy, and for people on the outside looking in to say, 'Boy, I wish I could play in Denver. That's a great organization.' That's a large part of the success in football: having people on the outside saying they'd like to be there."

While fiercely competitive, he was also reserved -- known to say, "It's not about me" -- and Bowlen struck a delicate balance between being involved and allowing his lieutenants to do their jobs. When Shanahan wanted to give Terrell Davis a contract extension after the Broncos won their first Super Bowl following the 1997 campaign, Bowlen did not even glance at the deal Shanahan had drawn up.

And in 2009, in the same interview with the Denver Post in which he first revealed memory loss, Bowlen said he, like fans, wasn't sure why his football people at the time -- head coach Josh McDaniels and GM Brian Xanders -- hadn't drafted more defensive players.

"I hired them to do their jobs," he told the Post. "I believe in them. It's not my role to evaluate players and make those draft decisions. I'm not qualified to do it."

The decision to hire McDaniels after firing Shanahan following the 2008 season represented the nadir of Bowlen's ownership. For five seasons -- spanning the end of the otherwise-successful Shanahan era and the nearly two years that McDaniels was coach -- the Broncos missed the playoffs, the longest fallow stretch since Bowlen bought the team, and a staredown between McDaniels and quarterback Jay Cutler led to the quarterback's trade, reportedly after he failed to return multiple phone messages from Bowlen seeking to work things out.

But that misstep led to the renaissance that Bowlen engineered before he stepped away. He fired McDaniels and then brought Elway -- whom he often regarded as like a son -- back to the team. Elway and Ellis hired John Fox and, a year later, Elway wooed Peyton Manning to Denver. The Broncos quickly returned to their prominent place in the NFL landscape, with another Super Bowl trip following the 2013 season and then the third championship under Gary Kubiak after the 2015 season.

"The way I looked at it was we had competition -- we had a baseball team, we had a basketball team, we had a hockey team and we had the Denver Broncos," Bowlen told the team's website in 2013. "So we weren't the only people in town. But what I wanted to do was to establish that we were the No. 1 team in this city. I think we were able to do that. They own the town. Not Pat Bowlen. The Denver Broncos own the town."

The Broncos' fortunes sunk after Manning retired following the championship. Kubiak stepped away and Vance Joseph was hired, but Denver has missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. Most strikingly, a team that has enjoyed two of the most storied quarterbacks in NFL history is still searching for its next franchise signal-caller.

Bowlen never suffered such a setback among other owners. He enjoyed the collegiality of being among his peers -- he used to detail how he would call late Steelers owner Dan Rooney and playfully tease him when Pittsburgh lost. As part of the newer guard (which included Jerry Jones) who backed Paul Tagliabue for commissioner in 1989 -- and prevailed -- Bowlen became one of the NFL's most powerful owners. He chaired the league's labor committee and was an early advocate for the franchise tag. And he chaired the league's broadcasting committee during the time of exploding rights fees. He was involved in the creation of "Sunday Night Football." Those lucrative television contracts, coupled with years of labor peace, were the bedrocks of the league's financial success and exploding popularity. Bowlen was an advocate of international games and, long before the Rams would be approved to return to Los Angeles, believed that a team belonged there.

"I couldn't tell you I thought it was going to become what it is," Bowlen told the Denver Post in 2013. "When you get into this business, at an age when you're a lot younger than I am now, you don't really know what you're doing. It takes you a while to adjust. To me, it was a real challenge. It was a fun deal. You have your disappointments. You have your losses and your wins. When you come in and buy a football team, you don't really understand the picture until you're there for a while."

Bowlen had always known what he wanted the picture to look like, though. After hiring Elway, he told the Associated Press that he expected his former quarterback to return the Broncos to a high level of competitiveness and to win more Super Bowls. And by the time he had left his team to his hand-picked successors, there had been many more wins than losses for Bowlen and the Broncos.