by David Hoppe
He's known to be a mad tweeter, a man prone to sending micro-messages of epic proportions. A photographer once got him to pose bare-chested with a guitar for a not-so-complimentary profile in the Chicago Tribune. Then there was that time he got his name in the papers because an appetite for prescription drugs got the better of him.
His name is Jim Irsay. He's the owner of the Indianapolis Colts. I think it's time we gave him some love.
I realize there's a moving van-full of reasons to take exception to the guy — especially in a town where jaywalking is enough to brand you a renegade. At first blush, Jim's the quintessential plutocrat. One of Indiana's richest individuals, he came by his fortune through his father, Bob, a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed cuss who made his money in Chicago. After promising the people in Baltimore he wasn't going to move their team, Bob loaded up a convoy of Mayflower trucks and moved the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984.
Two years later, Sports Illustrated had this to say about Bob Irsay: "Getting a fix on [the] Indianapolis Colts owner É isn't easy, but this is certain — he has turned one of the NFL's best franchises into a laughingstock."
Bob Irsay died in 1997. The Colts was Jim's inheritance. He made his first moves within weeks, hiring Bill Polian to head the Colts' front office, then giving Polian the go-ahead to select Peyton Manning in the 1998 draft. The rest is football history. Manning led the Colts to a Super Bowl victory, winning multiple Most Valuable Player awards in what will be a Hall of Fame career.
Just as important, the Colts went from laughingstock to being one of the NFL's most respected teams. Not only did they win, they were good citizens — smart and classy.
Jim Irsay didn't stop there. He made sure his team wove itself into the fabric of life in central Indiana. He was smart enough to realize that fans here were fickle. They weren't drawn to sports or teams so much as to winning itself. As the Colts won, their following increased to the point where, today, Indianapolis is a football town, with a tax-supported stadium and a roundly-praised stint as Super Bowl host under its belt.
Getting that stadium, of course, was sticky. It required posturing and tough talk. There were, if not threats, then broad hints that if the Colts couldn't play in a new megastadium, well, maybe they'd have to go elsewhere, to a larger market. Irsay the younger tried hard not to sound like his dad, but comparisons were inevitable.
Finally landing Super Bowl 46 forgave all that. The corporate orgy that doubles as America's Big Game put Indianapolis on the national stage. It was the culmination of 30 years' worth of downtown rehabilitation that started before the Irsays came to town but, oddly enough, might never have been so fully realized without that crazy contest to serve as focus and ultimate prize.
As this history has unfolded, Jim Irsay has followed his idiosyncratic star: hanging out with aging rock legends, collecting their guitars, spending a small fortune for the scroll on which Jack Kerouac typed his novel, On the Road. In these pursuits, though, he has revealed little more about himself than that he is a pop culture fan of a certain age, albeit one with a commodious checkbook.
It took a crisis to show us who Jim Irsay really is. First was last year's lost football season, as St. Peyton languished on the sideline after a series of surgeries to his neck. The team lost all but two games, meaning they would have first dibs on the nation's top college player, a quarterback improbably named Andrew Luck.
After a calamitous season, it's easy to talk about backing up the truck. In fact, few owners actually have the nerve to dismantle everything they've built. It's a gamble, and if it doesn't work you'll be called a fool, or worse.
But, in a rapid sequence of tectonic decisions, Jim Irsay not only backed up the truck, he stuffed it. He cleared away his front office staff and jettisoned most of his veteran players. He bade a tearful farewell to St. Peyton, a move that, it turns out, was brilliantly accommodating for both men.
Incredibly, everything Jim Irsay did worked. What the Colts have accomplished so far this year is the stuff of sports fairy tales. Things could have gone wrong in so many ways. Who could have foreseen the new head coach, Chuck Pagano, coming down with leukemia? And if all Luck's wins were losses, how do you think we'd be feeling about Manning's success in Denver?
Jim has been bold in ways that put most sports moguls to shame. Even better, in a town that likes to order its changes in petite sizes, he's put on a clinic about the good things smart risk-taking can bring. Last winter a lot of people probably thought Jim's radical moves were nuts — that he was Jim being Jim again and, well, Jim's a nut. But he is our nut and, when it comes to football, he's really pretty cool.