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Sacco Sez: Looking back on the Broncos' general manager history

Just about every citizen of Broncos Country is excited about the new era we are embarking upon with the hiring of George Paton as General Manager.

Exciting times lie before us.

And everyone is quite familiar with the decade that John Elway just concluded as the team's GM, one in which we went to the Super Bowl twice and won Super Bowl 50. It is easy to focus on recent disappointments, but it is very wrong to ignore the fabulous successes or the respect and love of Pat Bowlen and Denver that Elway showed in taking the job 10 years ago.

But Paton and Elway are just the most recent leaders of the team and its 60-plus-year history of general managers.

The Broncos' first GM, from 1960-61, was Dean Griffing.

He did the best he could with his budget, which would have had to be stretched to be called limited. He bought the first uniforms, the fabled mustard-and-brown unis, used from a defunct Arizona bowl game, the Copper Bowl.

And at one game in 1960, in an effort to save money, Griffing dashed into the stands to wrestle an extra point football away from a fan. That is absolutely true. I'm not sure what Dean was thinking — perhaps a cost-saving measure — but at the next game he made amends. According to the fan, Griffing reached out two weeks later and gave him tickets to another Broncos game; at halftime of that game, they brought him onto the field and Griffing returned the ball, now autographed.

That story, folks, is hard to top.

From 1962 until the first few games of 1965, Jack Faulkner was the GM. He was a legitimate hire, had a bonfire at the end of training camp to burn the mustard and brown uniforms, and ushered in the era of orange and blue for the Denver Broncos. If for nothing else, he should be fondly remembered for determining the color scheme with which the Broncos have since been identified.

Faulkner was also head coach and was named American Football League Coach of the Year in 1962, and he gave the Broncos our first playbook. Yes, that is correct, Denver had none in its first two seasons.

When Faulkner was released in 1965, veteran personnel man Fred Gehrke was GM for the balance of the year. Gehrke served two stints as GM and I will hold most comments until we get to his second time in the role.

In 1966, the Broncos ownership, still operating on a shoestring, actually designated the Denver Bears (Triple-A baseball team) general manager Jim Burris to serve in dual roles.

This is a factoid so little known that Burris is not even listed by Google as a former Broncos GM. The best that can be said is that Jim did his best juggling the paperwork for that season and actually presided over one of the biggest trades in the early AFL years. Burris traded 1963 AFL Rookie of the Year Billy Joe to the Buffalo Bills for Cookie Gilchrist, recently voted (by me and others on the "AFL Call to the Hall" panel) as the first alternate on the collection of 10 greatest AFL players not yet in the Hall of Fame.

Time constraints prevent me from further Burris-Gilchrist tales, but Cookie was a character.

After that ill-fated and losing 1966 season, team owner Gerry Phipps had had enough and made a significant move, hiring Lou Saban to a 10-year contract as head coach and general manager. This was and remains a milestone event in Broncos GM history. Saban's contract is the longest any Bronco GM has ever had, and is the only pact longer that George Paton's.

It was Lou Saban who moved the Broncos into new headquarters at 5700 Logan, and out of the quonset hut that had been the team's first headquarters.

As a side note, it is almost impossible to visualize that quonset hut, but it still stands. It is surrounded by modern condos now.

Saban stayed here for five seasons before frustration (and the lure of returning to the Buffalo Bills) got the best of him, but he truly was the first team leader to bring the Broncos into parity as a franchise, in operation if not on the field.

The stories about "Cool Lou" could fill a book, which this is not.

In 1972, the Broncos were searching again, and this time they brought in the man who had twice won the Rose Bowl. John Ralston came into the same dual head coach-GM role and was a Dale Carnegie disciple who constantly preached the power of positive thinking.

"Our goal is to go to and win the Super Bowl," Ralston said at his initial press conference. He meant every word and taped notes to that effect on his bathroom mirror so he would see it every morning while shaving, and on the driver's side visor of his car, so that goal was in front of him every minute.

"J.R." did not personally get to the Super Bowl, but his drafts built the Broncos into the powerhouse team that followed him. He parted ways with the Broncos following a successful 9-5 1976 team and his former assistant Fred Gehrke again became GM.

It was Fred who hired me, and he is a beloved figure to me.

The first Bronco honored with recognition in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as its first Pioneer Award winner in 1972, Fred majored in art at Utah State and was the first person to design and paint a logo on an NFL helmet (the Los Angeles Rams helmet while he was starting halfback for the Rams).

He also designed the first widely used face mask and designed the kickers' practice net still in use today. Those designs are still in the Gehrke home, along with a treasure trove of other early memorabilia.

He also designed the coaches' building at the 5700 Logan address. Today it is a pawn shop and you can see it while driving past on I-25. To say I have a lot of stories from inside that building is an understatement.

Fred's biggest move was to trade quarterback Steve Ramsey and a fifth-round draft choice to the New York Giants for Craig Morton. Before the acquisition of John Elway, that was the single trade that put the Broncos in the stratosphere of the National Football League.

Fred presided over winning teams, playoff teams and ultimately was replaced by new owner Edgar Kaiser in 1981. Kaiser wanted his own people in place after purchasing the team.

Kaiser's first GM was Grady Alderman, the great former Vikings guard, but Alderman was quite inexperienced with no previous NFL executive role, and in 1983 Kaiser appointed top business aide Hein Poulus to the position.

Hein was brilliant, and it was he and top personnel man John Beake who handled the contract details after Kaiser executed the greatest trade in Broncos history and one of the biggest in pro football history, bringing John Elway to the Denver Broncos.

I had a front row seat for that move, and it was more fantastic than it even now seems. It was one of the two "wow" moments in player-acquisition history for the Broncos, the other being when John Elway was GM and we signed Peyton Manning.

Wow, and wow again.

In 1984, Pat Bowlen purchased the team and named Beake as general manager. Beake held the position from 1984-1998 and all we did was go to the Super Bowl in 1986, 1987 and 1989 — becoming the only AFC team to go to three Super Bowls in the decade of the 1980s — before winning Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII at the end of his tenure.

We are close friends, and John knows how I feel. He was hard as nails and had a heart of gold, very fitting for a man tied together with Pat Bowlen by personality, performance, and truly, by love.

When Beake left to go to the NFL office, where he ran some major initiatives for the commissioner, Mike Shanahan named former San Francisco assistant Neal Dahlen to the GM position from 1999-2001, and then Ted Sundquist from 2002-07.

Jim Goodman was Vice President of Football Operations and Player Personnel in 2008 and Brian Xanders held the GM role from 2009 until the return of John Elway to the Broncos' front office in 2011.

Dahlen, Sundquist, Goodman and Xanders all were classy guys who worked hard diligently, but certainly Mike was the primary decision-maker in football operations through that period.

And as is often the case, the great stories and moments had happened by then, in the first three or so decades of team history.

The foundation was built in those first decades, and then we enjoyed the enormous success of eight trips to the Super Bowl and three world championships, presided over by maybe the only NFL team owner ever of whom it can be said that he had 300 wins in his first 30 years of ownership.

Time moves on, and George Paton is the Broncos' new general manager.

Arguably, in the last 10 years no one in this role has been as widely praised or as hotly pursued as George Paton, who eagerly embraces his role with the goal of adding his own pages to that great Broncos history.

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