Pat Bowlen, in his prime, was a complex leader of the Denver Broncos, Colorado’s secular religion. He was shy. A little awkward. Distant.
But our state came to love him, largely because residents could see his ridiculous and desperate need for Broncos victories matched their own ridiculous and desperate need. They could tell his Sunday afternoons were ruined by a Broncos defeat. He was the owner, a man who wore fur coats and drove cars that cost more than a house in Pueblo, but he grew, against the odds, into a beloved figurehead.
Many in the state were enraged and disappointed when Bowlen failed to make the cut to be considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018.
Count Air Force coach Troy Calhoun among the disappointed. Calhoun worked for Bowlen as a Broncos assistant from 2003-2005.
Standing in the fading sunshine after Monday’s practice, Calhoun talked with rare fervor about Bowlen. He said Bowlen is a “slam dunk” HOF candidate.
“You look at the number of teams that have played in Super Bowls since he’s been the owner,” Calhoun said. “You look at how much he considers the fans, the city and the region in everything he does as a leader. He set that blueprint in place for the entire organization.
“He was a guy who absolutely made sure that you did it right. He wanted to run the best organization in the National Football League.”
Bowlen, Calhoun said, reached his lofty goals.
“But he was never a guy who was going to boast that it was because he was the owner, but undoubtedly it was because he was the owner.”
Steve Russ, Air Force’s defensive coordinator, strongly agrees with Calhoun. Russ, a linebacker, was a member of the Broncos' 1997 and 1998 Super Bowl champion teams.
"Oh, I think that’s really unfortunate,” Russ said of Bowlen’s failure to make the HOF cut. “I don’t know of anybody who is more deserving than Mr. Bowlen. I don’t know what else they would have to wait for. You can’t think of very many teams when Bronco fans could say, ‘This team was terrible.’”
Russ emphasized that Bowlen’s string of excellence came during an era of parity in the NFL. In baseball, an owner can attempt to buy a championship. This is the method perfected, and later polluted, by George Steinbrenner.
Money, Russ said, can’t buy a title in an NFL governed by a strict salary cap.
Calhoun and Russ make strong points, but Bowlen, his family and his supporters face a formidable, if not impossible, road to in Canton. I’ve visited the Hall of Fame and walked among the hundreds of plaques. There are 318 in all.
Only 14 of the plaques honor NFL owners.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame emphasizes, as it should, those who made tackles and survived tackles over those who sat in the comfort of leather office chairs while pondering decisions.
Bowlen did superb work as owner. He never became a meddler. He hired good people and left them alone, although there was always a bold message hovering over his employees:
Win, or be gone.
He placed winning above all else. He fired Mike Shanahan, his close friend. He fired Josh McDaniels, his gravest mistake. He persuaded John Elway to return to a faltering organization. He became a comrade to millions of Broncos fans.
But his accomplishments might not be enough to earn a plaque. In many ways, a hall of fame is defined by those who fail to gain entry. Randy Gradishar and Steve Atwater and Louis Wright performed magnificent and violent feats for the Broncos, but not quite magnificent enough to earn a place in Canton.
Bowlen seems destined to join this group of Bronco almosts.