Robert Irsay
Personal information
Born:(1923-03-05)March 5, 1923
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Died:January 14, 1997(1997-01-14) (aged 73)
Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.
Career history
As an executive:
Career highlights and awards

Robert Irsay (March 5, 1923 – January 14, 1997) was an American professional football team owner. He owned the National Football League (NFL)'s Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts franchise from 1972 until his death in 1997. He was the father of current Colts owner Jim Irsay.


Early life and education

Robert Irsay was born Robert Israel on March 5, 1923, in Chicago, the son of Charles Israel and the former Elaine Nyitrai, Jewish immigrants from Hungary.[1] The family name was changed to Irsay in 1931, when Bob was eight years old.[1] He attended Lane Tech High School in Chicago.[1] According to his estranged younger brother, Ronald, the family wasn't wealthy, "but my dad owned several buildings in Chicago and at one time was one of the largest tin knockers [sheet metal contractors] in the city.[1]

The Irsay children were raised as Jews.[1] In 1940, Irsay enrolled at the University of Illinois, joining Sigma Alpha Mu, a Jewish fraternity.[1]

Years later, Irsay later denied his Jewish heritage, asserting without evidence and contrary to his mother's testimony that his father was actually his step-father and that he was, and always had been, Catholic.[2]

Irsay left the University of Illinois after attending just three semesters, plus the summer session of 1942.[2] The United States was by then embroiled in World War II and on October 23, 1942, he joined the United States Marine Corps.[2] Irsay was discharged just 5-1/2 months later, on April 3, 1943, without having served overseas, holding the rank of sergeant.[2] Irsay obfuscated about his military service, improbably stating, "I was in the Army and the Navy and the Marines. The Navy assigned me to the Seabees. I saw minor action. I don't want to talk about it."[2]

Commercial activity

In 1946, he was hired by his father's heating and ventilation business, the Acord Ventilating Company, where he worked as a salesman and bid on projects.[2] He left employment there on the last day of 1951, the instigator of a bitter family feud.[2] As part of his severance package, Irsay was allowed to take a lucrative contract with the Caterpillar Tractor Company and several smaller contracts that he had negotiated, a building used in connection with that account, and several vehicles and sundry shop equipment that allowed him to establish a new rival firm, the Robert Irsay Company, without the need to incur substantial bank debt.[2] Irsay also poached five employees from Acord at the time of his departure.[2]

His brother Ron minced no words when queried about the company split three decades later: "I don't know how else to say this, but my brother tried to run my father out of business. Bob actually worked to try to destroy his own father. Oh, he's a real sweetheart, all right."[1] His mother, then in her 80s, was even more outspoken about her eldest son: "He's a devil on earth, that one. He stole all our money and he said goodbye. He don't care for me. I don't even see him for 35 years.... When my husband got sick and got the heart attack, he took advantage. He was no good. He was a bad boy. I don't want to talk about him."[3]

Despite Ron dropping out of college to attempt to save the family business, Acord Ventilation went into rapid decline immediately after the charismatic salesman Bob's departure, terminating operations less than three years later.[2]

NFL ownership

Irsay assumed ownership of the Baltimore Colts on July 13, 1972, after acquiring the Los Angeles Rams from the estate of Dan Reeves and swapping franchises with Carroll Rosenbloom, all made official on the same day.[4] His last-minute US $19 million bid for the Rams was $2 million more than that of future Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse.[5] Irsay's majority share in the Colts was initially 51%, with Willard Keland of Racine, Wisconsin, owning the rest. He additionally announced the appointment of Joe Thomas as Baltimore's new general manager, succeeding Don Klosterman who accompanied Rosenbloom to Los Angeles.[4]

Irsay's first controversial act with the Colts was his changing of head coaches from Howard Schnellenberger to general manager Thomas after a 30–10 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles at Veterans Stadium on September 29, 1974, which extended the team's season-opening losing streak to three.[6] While stalking the Colts sideline during the second half, he voiced his preference for Bert Jones as the starting quarterback over Marty Domres by asking Schnellenberger about when he was going to make such a change. Schnellenberger's sarcastic reply resulted in his postgame dismissal. Irsay had first gone to the press box to inform Thomas that he was the new head coach and then to the locker room to announce his actions to the Colts players before breaking the news to Schnellenberger in a heated discussion in the coaches office. Middle linebacker Mike Curtis voiced the players' displeasure by saying, "This just tears me up. In defense of Irsay, he's a nice guy, an emotional guy. He doesn't know a lot about football but sometimes you lose control in an emotional situation."[7][8]

Irsay's verbal abuse of his players after a loss in a final preseason match to the Detroit Lions at the Pontiac Silverdome on September 2, 1976, led to head coach Ted Marchibroda's resignation three days later on September 5. Marchibroda was also at odds with Thomas over player personnel decisions. He was rehired two days later on September 7 after offensive and defensive coordinators Whitey Dovell and Maxie Baughan threatened to quit and the players considered boycotting practice, all in support of Marchibroda.[9][10]

Irsay's dysfunctional relationships with certain players in contract disputes and coaches accelerated the Colts' on-field decline in the ensuing years. He was accused of bad faith bargaining and racial discrimination by running back Lydell Mitchell who was eventually sent to the San Diego Chargers on August 23, 1978.[11] Defensive end John Dutton contended that Irsay had spread "too many lies" about him and sat out the early part of the 1979 campaign while demanding a trade. He added, "I don't think he cares about the team, it's just a toy to him."[12] Dutton was dealt to the Dallas Cowboys on October 9, 1979.[13] Irsay also continually second-guessed Marchibroda.[14]

Moving the Colts

Main article: Baltimore Colts relocation to Indianapolis

"I have not any intentions of moving the goddamn team. If I did, I will tell you about it, but I'm staying here."

—Robert Irsay, January 20, 1984[15]

In January 1984 Irsay appeared before the Baltimore media and exclaimed, "This is my team!" He reiterated that, despite problems, the rumors that he was moving the team were untrue.[16] With negotiations over improvements to Memorial Stadium at an impasse, one of the chambers of the Maryland state legislature passed a law on March 27, 1984, allowing the city of Baltimore to seize the Colts under eminent domain, which city and county officials had threatened to do. Irsay claimed the city promised him a new football stadium, something they later denied, citing the team's poor attendance. The next day, fearing a dawn raid on the team's Owings Mills headquarters, Irsay accepted a deal offered by the city of Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Mayor, William H. Hudnut III, contacted John Burnside Smith, then CEO of the Mayflower Transit Company, who arranged for fifteen trucks to pack the team's property hurriedly and transport it to Indianapolis in the early hours of the morning of March 29. An ecstatic crowd in Indianapolis greeted the arrival of its new NFL team, and the team received 143,000 season ticket requests in just two weeks.

Baltimore was without a National Football League team until another controversial move in 1996, when Art Modell brought the personnel of the Cleveland Browns there to become the Baltimore Ravens.

Personal life

He married the former Harriet Pogorzelski on July 12, 1947, at Temple Sholom in Chicago, with Rabbi Louis Binstock officiating.[2] According to Irsay, who is not a reliable narrator for details of his own biography, he had a second Catholic wedding to Pogorzelski, the daughter of Polish immigrants.[2] They raised their children Roman Catholic.[17][18]

Bob and Harriet Irsay had three children – Thomas, Roberta, and Jim. Roberta was killed at age 14 in a 1971 automobile accident on I-294 outside Chicago.[1] Thomas, who suffered from a severe mental disability, lived in a Florida facility until his death in 1999 at the age of 45.

Irsay, who had divorced from Harriet, married Nancy Clifford on June 17, 1989, at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis; Hudnut officiated the ceremony. Nancy Irsay died November 7, 2015, at the age of 65.[19]

Death and legacy

Irsay suffered a stroke in November 1995 and was in intensive care at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital for several months.[20] After his release he developed pneumonia, heart and kidney problems, for which he was transferred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He died in Indianapolis on January 14, 1997.[21] He is interred at Crown Hill Cemetery.

After Irsay's death in Indianapolis on January 14, 1997, the Colts were inherited by his son, Jim. Bill Polian handled the day-to-day operations of the team as vice-chairman until his dismissal after the 2011 season. Polian was succeeded as vice chair by Jim Irsay's three daughters — Carlie Irsay-Gordon, Casey Foyt, and Kalen Jackson — who are each part owners and vice-chairs of the team.[22]

Irsay is was the first person inducted into the Indianapolis Colts Ring of Honor, being so memorialized on September 23, 1996.[23]


  1. ^ While Irsay died on January 14, 1997, this was still during the 1996 season which is why 1996 is shown here instead of 1997


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "Now You See Him, Now you Don't," Sports Illustrated, vol. 65, no. 26 (Dec. 15, 1986), p. 88.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Swift, "Now You See Him, Now You Don't," p. 90.
  3. ^ Swift, "Now You See Him, Now You Don't," p. 87.
  4. ^ a b Beard, Gordon. "Heating Firm Owner Gets Baltimore Colts While Carroll Rosenbloom Secures Rams In A Big $16,000,000 Transcontinental Deal," The Associated Press, Friday, July 14, 1972. Retrieved January 31, 2014
  5. ^ Crawford, Denis M. Hugh Culverhouse and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: How a Skinflint Genius with a Losing Team Made the Modern NFL. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011. Retrieved January 31, 2014
  6. ^ "Colts Oust Coach," United Press International (UPI), Sunday, September 29, 1974. Retrieved November 23, 2020
  7. ^ "Colt Owner Plays Executioner's Role," The New York Times, Tuesday, October 1, 1974. Retrieved November 23, 2020
  8. ^ "Colts Fire Schnellenberger; Thomas New Coach," The Associated Press (AP), Monday, September 30, 1974. Retrieved November 23, 2020
  9. ^ "Marchibroda Quits Colts In Dispute With Owner," The Associated Press, Sunday, September 5, 1976. Retrieved November 23, 2020
  10. ^ Wallace, William N. "Marchibroda Returns, Placated, to the Colts," The New York Times, Wednesday, September 8, 1976. Retrieved November 23, 2020
  11. ^ "Colts to trade Mitchell," The Associated Press (AP), Thursday, August 24, 1978. Retrieved November 23, 2020
  12. ^ Anderson, Dave. "Pro Football's John Dutton Case," The New York Times, Sunday, July 15, 1979. Retrieved November 23, 2020
  13. ^ "Cowboys Get Dutton for 2 Top Draft Picks," The Associated Press (AP), Tuesday, October 9, 1979. Retrieved November 23, 2020
  14. ^ DuPree, David. "Colts Find Cellar on 21–14 Loss," The Washington Post, Monday, December 18, 1978. Retrieved November 23, 2020
  15. ^ Morgan, Jon (15 January 1997). "Robert Irsay, Colts owner, dies at 73 Controversial figure broke fans' hearts, moving team to Ind". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 12 August 2016.
  16. ^ "In the end, Irsay rests quietly". Archived from the original on 23 January 2007.
  17. ^ Bogen, Amir (20 June 1995). "The Colts' Jewish roots – Israel Culture, Ynetnews". Ynetnews. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
  18. ^ "Mother of Colts owner dies at age 87". Usatoday.Com. 12 July 2008. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
  19. ^ Nancy Irsay, widow of Bob Irsay, dies at 65 Archived November 14, 2015, at the Wayback Machine WTHR Channel 13 November 13, 2015
  20. ^ "Colts' Irsay Rushed to the Hospital". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. 30 November 1995. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  21. ^ "Colt Owner Robert Irsay Dies at 73". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. 15 January 1997. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  22. ^ "Vice Chairs/Owners," Scout, vol. 16, no. 9 (Dec. 31, 2023), p. 11.
  23. ^ "Colts Ring of Honor," Scout, vol. 16, no. 9 (Dec. 31, 2023), p. 85.