ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Pat Bowlen, owner of the Denver Broncos since 1984, member of the 2019 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a towering figure in the National Football League, died late Thursday night at the age of 75 of complications of the Alzheimer's disease from which he suffered in recent years.
Mr. Bowlen is survived by his wife, Annabel, children Beth, Amie, John, Patrick, Brittany, Annabel and Christianna, brothers Bill and John and sister Mary Beth.
Born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, on Feb. 18, 1944, Mr. Bowlen earned degrees in business and law from the University of Oklahoma before embarking on a successful career that included work in law, real estate, energy and construction.
Based out of the booming oil mecca of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Mr. Bowlen's diverse portfolio flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, helping provide the capital for the endeavor that would define his professional life: ownership of the Broncos.
Mr. Bowlen bought the Broncos in 1984 and immediately helped chart the club to sustained success it had never achieved before: 354 regular-season and postseason wins over the last 35 seasons, seven AFC championships, three world championships and as many Super Bowl appearances as losing seasons. The myriad accomplishments of the Broncos under his watch led to the moment that capped his stewardship of the team: the Feb. 2 announcement of his place as one of eight members of the 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame class.
The sport’s ultimate honor stands alongside his 2015 induction into the Broncos Ring of Fame and 2007 induction into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame as accomplishments that reflect his prominent place in the history of the NFL, the Broncos and Colorado sports.
In recent years, Mr. Bowlen battled Alzheimer's disease, which forced him to step away from daily management of the team in 2014. He ceded responsibility for daily administration of the team to longtime executive Joe Ellis, with ownership of the team placed in the Pat Bowlen Trust. This arrangement will continue, with the goal of keeping the Broncos in the Bowlen family.
Remember the life of Broncos Owner Pat Bowlen through this collection of photos from moments both big and small throughout his career leading the Broncos.
Establishing the Trust in the last decade is just one of Mr. Bowlen's numerous contributions to making the Broncos one of the league's elite organizations in the last three decades — and ensuring its viability and foundation for continued success in the future.
"He had a firm plan for keeping the team in the family, and it's his hope that it will remain there, and one of his children will come along and earn the right to sit in his chair," Ellis said in 2015. "He was unwavering in that, and he set out some guidelines and everything else as to what he'd like to see.
"But he planned ahead, and he had a very strict vision, if you will, as to what needed to happen."
It was Mr. Bowlen’s final gift to an organization he guided with the utmost strength, vision and commitment beginning on March 23, 1984, when he was announced as the Broncos' new owner.
Mr. Bowlen's interest in professional sports ownership grew after his construction business was involved in the building of Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, which would become the longtime home of the NHL's Edmonton Oilers after its opening in 1974. He loaned money to the then-owner of the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, and investigated buying that club, but declined.
Another potential ownership opportunity came in the form of the upstart United States Football League, which began its challenge to the NFL with a spring schedule in 1983. But Mr. Bowlen held out for an NFL opportunity, later telling the Montreal Gazette, "It [the USFL] is perhaps the worst investment you could ever make in professional sport."
Mr. Bowlen's perspective proved prescient, as it would time and again over the decades that would follow. In 1984, Mr. Bowlen and other family members paid $78 million for the Broncos. Last year, Forbes Magazine estimated the club's value at $2.7 billion.
Upon assuming the Broncos’ reins, Mr. Bowlen did not make sweeping changes to the Broncos' organization, opting to observe and learn about the intricacies of his new business venture. Personnel executive John Beake, who had been with the organization since 1979, soon became the general manager, with Dan Reeves maintaining his position as head coach. Mr. Bowlen inherited a good thing, and set out to support his staff and players, allowing them to transform “good” into greatness.
"He didn't mandate anything," recalled Ellis, who worked on the business side of the organization. "He made it clear that he was coming in to learn and he was going to listen to Dan Reeves and John Beake on the football side. They were running the whole program at that time, and he deferred to them."
By taking a hands-off approach, Mr. Bowlen allowed his executives and coaches to function properly, and focused on taking care of his players, many of whom recall seeing him placing frozen turkeys in each player's locker prior to Thanksgiving.
"Everybody in the organization was treated like a human being," said Ring of Fame offensive lineman Gary Zimmerman, who was presented by Mr. Bowlen for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008. "It kind of felt like a family. I wanted to win ballgames for him. He took a chance on me. I was damaged goods. Nobody wanted me for a while. He took a chance with me."
Mr. Bowlen took care of his players. He didn't interfere, but he treated them as people, not as interchangeable parts.
"Pat's a special guy,” Ring of Fame linebacker Karl Mecklenburg said in recent years. “He came in and bought the team from Edgar Kaiser. [For] Edgar Kaiser, it was an investment, right? 'I'm going to buy this team and I'm going to turn it over.' For Pat, it was a passion. He was there all the time. Any time you came in the weight room or the training room, [he'd be there]. He'd be on the sidelines. He'd be all over the place.
“Not only that, but he was involved with his players. He knew you. He knew what your position was on the team as far as leadership, as far as value to the team. He knew your family. I mean, I remember a story Tom Jackson used to tell me about Mr. [Gerald] Phipps. Mr. Phipps was the owner before Edgar Kaiser. Mr. Phipps would come in the locker room and pat you on the back and say, 'Have a good game,' and then he'd look at the back of your jersey so he could see your name and say, 'Have a good game — Jackson.' That's how most NFL owners are. Mr. Bowlen was unbelievable. Pat was so involved and wanted to be part of the game-day activity and everyday activity. He was a special guy that way.”
When the free-agency era dawned in 1993, the Broncos capitalized on the new landscape for team-building, using free agency to supplement the team’s draft-and-develop efforts. Ten of the Broncos’ 22 starters in Super Bowl XXXII joined the team as unrestricted free agents.
One of the most important acquisitions was defensive end Neil Smith. Denver signed him following a stint with the archrival Kansas City Chiefs. Smith frequently wreaked havoc on the Broncos, averaging over one sack per game against them in the previous seven years. Mr. Bowlen had seen Smith’s best, and he expected it to push the Broncos over the top – a point he made clear when they talked in Bowlen’s office after Smith signed his contract.
“I'll tell you what solidified Mr. B, and I think he put a lot of pressure on me as an athlete, and he asked me in the beginning, 'Neil, do you know why you're here?' And I said, 'Yes, Mr. B. I know why I'm here. I'm here to win,’” Smith recalled in recent years. “He said, 'No, you're not here to win. You're here to win it all.'”
Ten months later, Smith, Mr. Bowlen and the Broncos did win it all, defeating Green Bay 31-24 to win Super Bowl XXXII. As Smith celebrated the accomplished mission, Mr. Bowlen’s words echoed through his mind.
“They hand me the trophy, and I stand up with the trophy on a podium, and I'm standing up with it in the press-conference room, and one of Mr. B's guys came to me … and said, 'Mr. B said he would like the trophy now,’” Smith remembered. “I said, 'Give me one second. I will bring it to him.'
“And that moment right there solidified my whole career, because I didn't know if I was going to go any farther, whether I was going to be called back, but I brought this trophy to [him]. I said, 'Mr. B, do you know why I'm here? Here's why I'm here.'”
Smith was one of many Broncos who epitomized exactly what Mr. Bowlen wanted most: people who not only wanted to win, but were willing to sacrifice and do everything necessary to make it happen. Together, Mr. Bowlen and these players became more like family than co-workers.
“Mr. Bowlen was by far the best owner I ever worked for,” said Brian Habib, a guard with the Broncos from 1993-97 who also played in Minnesota and Seattle.
“I think it was that feeling of almost like family,” Habib said last year. “Mr. Bowlen was very hands-on there. He made you feel right at home when you got there. He would personally come and meet you. I remember meeting him when I first came on a visit when free agency happened in 1993. He came down and met me and we spoke for about five minutes, and he just welcomed you with open arms.”
Mr. Bowlen desire to create connections beyond the norm between players and the organization didn't start with the team he inherited, but extended to the past, as creating the Ring of Fame was one of his first initiatives upon purchasing the Broncos.
Denver Broncos Charities — which has poured more than $30 million into local charitable efforts — Broncos Field at Mile High, Ring of Fame Plaza and even the cheerleading squad are just some of the countless contributions that tied to Mr. Bowlen's desire "be No. 1 in everything." This also involved creating the best possible fan experience for Broncos supporters, whose unwavering support makes the entire operation possible.
Mr. Bowlen's contributions to the league were legion, as well. He served on the league's labor, finance and stadium committees and was a key contributor to the NFL's Broadcast Committee, helping spur the creation of the NFL Network and NBC's Sunday Night Football package, which enters its 14th season in 2019 and has been the highest-rated program in U.S. broadcast television four times in the last eight years.
But first and foremost, Mr. Bowlen knew that the creating a winning on-field product was Job No. 1. Super Bowls are the standard for success, and on Jan. 25, 1998, the Broncos finally achieved that with their win over the Packers.
Mr. Bowlen knew that moment was not about himself, but the team. In perhaps the most memorable moment in the history of Super Bowl trophy presentations, he held aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy and said, "This one's for John!" before handing the trophy to John Elway, who had started almost every game of Mr. Bowlen's stewardship to that point.
A year later, the Broncos repeated the feat, defeating the Atlanta Falcons 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII. Mr. Bowlen held the trophy aloft, turned to the fans in the stands at what was then known as Pro Player Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida and proclaimed, "This one's for you!"
In both cases Mr. Bowlen was not thinking about himself or his legacy. He only considered the people who made it possible.
Years later, when Mr. Bowlen learned of his induction into the Ring of Fame, he smiled and replied, "Well, why would you guys do that?"
"That kind of sums up what Pat's all about: his modesty and his humility,” said Ellis, who told Bowlen the news of his 2015 Ring of Fame induction. “I think Shannon Sharpe said it best when he said, 'Pat never wanted to take any of the credit; he wanted everybody else to get the credit.’”
Mr. Bowlen's day-to-day stewardship of the Broncos ended July 23, 2014, when he stepped away because of his struggle with Alzheimer's disease. His wife, Annabel, acknowledged that he had been struggling with the condition for "a few years," but he had maintained an active presence at team headquarters.
The final significant project approved under his watch was the massive redevelopment of the team facility, which was initially constructed in 1990, six years into his ownership. The signature addition to the complex — now known as UCHealth Training Center — was the indoor practice facility, constructed as part of a $38 million renovation of team headquarters. On Oct. 31, 2015, the facility was rechristened the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse in his honor.
Mr. Bowlen's final game as President and CEO before he stepped away was Super Bowl XLVIII. Of course, that day did not end as the Broncos dreamed, with the chance to hold aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy and proclaim, "This one's for Pat!" But the Broncos were back in the league's elite, and were only one step away from being back at the NFL’s summit.
The Broncos took that step two years later, when they capped their franchise-record fourth consecutive season of 12 or more wins with their third world championship, sealed in a 24-10 win over the Carolina Panthers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. After Annabel Bowlen accepted the Vince Lombardi Trophy, Elway spoke and proclaimed, “This one’s for Pat!”
Those four words were etched on every Super Bowl ring given to players and staff to commemorate the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 win. That triumph was for Mr. Bowlen, who made the win possible.
The moves on which Mr. Bowlen signed off in the last decade — particularly hiring John Elway to run the team’s football operations and approving a five-year contract for quarterback Peyton Manning — helped restore the Broncos to the place Mr. Bowlen always wanted them to be: in contention for championships.
“I think that’s what he was about. That’s what he wanted," Elway said in 2015. "To be able to get his team back on top is what we’ve all been working for. I think that’s how Pat was built.
"The money was secondary and the resources — he was going to give everything he could to give us a chance to put the best football team on the field. To be able to do that, I think that he’d be more than thrilled."
"I think he was proud of that," Ellis said in 2015. "But that was also — and always will be — his expectation: that we're going to put the right people in place and we're going to turn it around, and if we make a mistake, then we're going to fix it again.
"He didn't consider it rocket science. He's had — and has always had — a good feel for when it's time to make these moves, and when the right time is. But he doesn't take much satisfaction [in it]. He's too modest to take personal satisfaction in having those situations corrected. He's more concerned with, 'Are we ready to win the Super Bowl each and every year?' I think that's his focus."
The Broncos' success has spanned players, coaches, administrations and generations. When it lasts for that long, it all comes back to Mr. Bowlen, the person atop the organizational chart. His legacy will forever linger with the franchise he owned, nurtured, cherished and guided to the pinnacle of its sport.