Pat Bowlen, the owner of the most successful sports franchise in Colorado history, died Thursday after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 75.

The Broncos announced at 12:28 a.m. Friday that Bowlen died at his Denver area home.

In a statement, the Bowlen family said: “Pat Bowlen had a competitive spirit with a great sense of humor. As fun-loving as he was, he always wanted us to understand the big picture. We will forever remember his kindness and humility. More important than being an incredible owner, Pat Bowlen was an incredible human being.”

Bowlen’s passing comes less than two months before he will be inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Aug. 3).

After purchasing the Broncos in 1984, Bowlen’s zest for winning defined the franchise, turning the club into an AFC contender for the better part of three decades. Under Bowlen’s stewardship, the Broncos reached the Super Bowl seven times (winning in 1997, ’98 and 2015), won 13 AFC West titles, posted 21 winning seasons and reached the playoffs 18 times.

“Pat was driven by the will to succeed and his competitive spirit made him a great leader,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “Our league is better because of Pat’s extraordinary contributions. … Pat personified all that’s right about the NFL and is extremely deserving of this summer’s recognition as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”

In a Twitter message, former Broncos quarterback and current general manager John Elway wrote: “I will miss Pat greatly and will always treasure the times we had together. He was a tremendous mentor and a tremendous friend. My heart goes out to Annabel and the entire Bowlen family.”

Bowlen established a culture of winning without meddling in coaching or personnel decisions. His leadership style was equal parts understated and demanding — he stayed in the background and reveled in others receiving the public credit. But he always wanted to be kept abreast of the Broncos’ plans, on and off the field.

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“He never really issued directives, but he damn well wanted to know what was going on and he never wanted to be surprised,” said team president Joe Ellis, who was the director of marketing when Bowlen bought the team. “If he liked an idea, he was enthusiastic — ‘Let’s get it done.’ If he was hesitant, he would start asking questions and make you think and come back with a different solution or idea.”

During Bowlen’s tenure, the Broncos won 333 regular season games, third in the league behind New England (346) and Pittsburgh (334) and recorded a .598 winning percentage, fifth-best in American pro sports.

The Broncos’ on-field success propelled their popularity to an unmatched level in the region. They sold out all 300 home games during Bowlen’s ownership and the franchise he and his family purchased for approximately $78 million is now valued at $2.6 billion, according to Forbes.

In the fall of 2013, Bowlen filed with the league to relinquish day-to-day control of the team because of the progression of Alzheimer’s; he stepped away from the team in July 2014.

The Broncos were placed in a family trust that was established years prior to eventually transfer ownership to Bowlen’s seven children.  Ellis assumed control of the daily operations of the team and as one of the three trustees is tasked with appointing the team’s next controlling owner.

Bowlen is survived by his wife, Annabel (who announced her Alzheimer’s diagnosis in June 2018) and their five children, Patrick Dennis III, John Michael, Brittany Alexandra, Christianna Elizabeth, and Annabel Victoria; his first wife, Sally Parker, and their two children, Amie Klemmer and Beth Bowlen Wallace; his brothers Bill Bowlen and John Bowlen; and sister Mary Beth Jagger.

Two of Bowlen’s daughters have expressed interest in succeeding him as controlling owner. Wallace, 48, announced her intention in May 2018, a request that was rebuffed by the trustees. Five months later, Brittany, 29, said it was her goal to succeed her father. In March, Ellis announced that Brittany Bowlen would be rejoining the franchise “within the year” in a “senior management position,” potentially starting a path to succeed her father.

DESIRE TO BE NO. 1

The pinnacle of Bowlen’s ownership came with three Super Bowl titles, victories against Green Bay in 1997 (as an 11-point underdog to the defending champion Packers), Atlanta in 1998 (over Bowlen’s first Broncos coach, Dan Reeves) and Carolina in 2015 (Pat did not attend the game).

The Broncos’ first championship, in their fifth appearance, was the ultimate break-through led by coach Mike Shanahan, quarterback John Elway and running back Terrell Davis. At San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, Bowlen stood atop a midfield podium, raised the Lombardi Trophy and saluted Elway.

“There’s one thing I want to say here tonight and it’s only four words,” he exclaimed. “This one’s for John!”

Elway, now the team’s general manager, recalled the scene years later and said: “That was Pat. He was never a guy who wanted to be out front. He gave you the opportunity and wasn’t the guy out there with the ego the size of New York. He was almost shy and would step back and give the glory to everybody else.”

Following the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 victory, Elway returned the favor.

“Well, I’m going to say this and he would not want me to say this. But this one’s for Pat!” Elway said.

Once the Broncos returned home, coach Gary Kubiak took the trophy to Bowlen’s home.

“That was a special day I’ll always remember,” Kubiak said. “We were just happy to bring the trophy home for him and his family.”

A desire to win championships and build a premier franchise drove Bowlen. The plaque next to his statue outside Broncos Stadium at Mile High reads, “Be Number One In Everything.”

Steps outside the Broncos’ locker room at their training facility is a picture of Bowlen underneath his quote saying, “I Want Us To Be Number One In Everything.”

Bowlen loved the players and the feeling was mutual. He walked the hallways of the Broncos’ headquarters like any other employee, regularly attended practice and his first stop most mornings was the training room to ask the staff about the health of the players.

“The man cared about people and his players,” said Broncos director of sports medicine Steve Antonopulos, who worked for the team for the entirety of Bowlen’s tenure. “He parked his car every day and came right in and said, ‘How are we doing?’ He cared so much about his players, it was unbelievable.”

Davis, the 1998 NFL MVP, recalled the days following his torn ACL the following season.

“He was the first one to call,” Davis said. “That little gesture, it meant the world to me. I’d run through a brick wall for that man.”

Why did Bowlen and the players click?

“Because he was honest, sincere, forthright and he really wanted to win,” said Jim Saccomano, the Broncos’ former vice president of corporate communications who drove Bowlen to his introductory news conference.

Bowlen’s commitment to winning via financial resources and loyalty created an climate of accountability.

“If we didn’t succeed on the football field, it was because we didn’t get it done,” Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe said. “We knew we had the best of everything and it was up to us to go out there and perform.”

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Said Jim Schafer, Bowlen’s former longtime assistant: “What he really took pride in was the players. He loved what the players would become. He just loved having that personal contact with players and former players. It really meant a lot to him.”

ALWAYS A COMPETITOR

Born on Feb. 18, 1944, in Prairie du Chien, Wis., a small town along the Mississippi River, Patrick Dennis Bowlen played football as a receiver for the Campion High School Knights, a former Jesuit boarding school for boys. His father, Paul, was Canadian and earned his millions as an oil wildcatter in Alberta. Pat’s mother, Arvella, grew up in Prairie du Chien.

Bowlen also competed in hockey and track before graduating in 1962. He ended his football career after his freshman year at the University of Oklahoma to focus on his studies. He earned a business degree in 1965 and, three years later, a law degree. He served as an executive in his father’s company, an oil-and-gas firm called Regent Resources, and later opened a law practice in Edmonton, Alberta. But made his name and his fortune in real estate development.

But no matter the activity or the stakes, Bowlen’s interests were rooted in competition.

In 1984, shortly before purchasing majority ownership in the Broncos, Bowlen competed in the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, where he had a home on Oahu. Among 1,100 entrants, he finished 135th.

“We used to do a lot of jogging; I never jogged anywhere with Pat where it didn’t end up being a race,” said Fred Hemmings, a former Broncos board member, and professional surfer.

That was the case with his management of the Broncos — he loved the race and wanted to win the race. He was the first owner in pro football history to reach 300 overall wins in his first 30 years and he’s the only owner in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl with four different head coaches (Reeves, Shanahan, John Fox and Kubiak).

Before Bowlen, the Broncos had reached only one Super Bowl in 24 years and had only eight winning seasons and four playoff appearances.

“Pat elevated the team to a level of perennial championship contention,” Saccomano said.

When Bowlen bought the team, the Broncos already boasted a loyal fan base that revered the Orange Crush defense of the late 1970s. Led by coach Red Miller, the Broncos earned their first playoff berth and Super Bowl appearance in 1977, losing to the Dallas Cowboys.

Acquired in a trade with the Baltimore Colts, Elway joined the Broncos in 1983, creating a new level of excitement a year before Bowlen bought the team from Edgar Kaiser.

“The opportunity that the Bowlens have provided me as a football player and now as a general manager is beyond belief,” Elway said. “I’m very blessed to be able to be in Colorado.”

Elway’s penchant for fourth-quarter comebacks turned Denver into one of the league’s toughest places to win for opponents. That trend extended beyond his retirement. During Bowlen’s tenure, the Broncos were 214-86 in regular season/playoff games for the NFL’s best winning percentage at home (.713).

But Bowlen’s era was not entirely smooth.

Bowlen inherited Reeves as coach and kept him for nine more seasons, through three Super Bowl losses and a 5-11 record in 1990. After an 8-8 finish in 1992, Bowlen fired Reeves.

In 1995, after a short run with Wade Phillips as coach, Bowlen brought Shanahan back to Denver (he served two stints as a Broncos assistant) to begin a 14-year journey. Shanahan’s teams won the franchise’s first two Super Bowls, but with the Broncos mired in mediocrity, Bowlen surprised many by firing Shanahan after the 2008 season.

“This is as tough as it gets,” Bowlen said that day with tears in his eyes.

To replace Shanahan, the Broncos hired Josh McDaniels, then the youngest head coach in the league (age 32) and no head-coaching experience.

The experiment was a disaster.

Following a falling-out with quarterback Jay Cutler, who was traded to Chicago, McDaniels led the Broncos to a 6-0 start in 2009, but then a 5-17 fall that included being caught illegally taping a 49ers practice in London. After only 22 months on the job, McDaniels was fired.

Throughout McDaniels’ tenuous run, Bowlen remained cognizant of his customers. Amid the Cutler fiasco, Bowlen penned a letter because he felt “compelled to give our community and our fans an explanation,” and to assure them his goal will always be to win championships.

“There were, more often than not, times where he felt he had to set the tone or say something to put fans, season-ticket holders, sponsors, all our constituents, all our stakeholders, the entire community, kind of at ease and let them know that we’re going to continue to do things to get better all the time,” Ellis said.

Soon after firing McDaniels, Bowlen stopped making many public appearances as his Alzheimer’s was in its early stages.

In 2011, Bowlen made the play that had eluded him for more than a decade: He brought Elway back into the fold. Bowlen appointed Elway, his beloved Hall of Fame quarterback, as executive vice president of football operations.

With Elway in charge of the football operations, the Broncos have reached two Super Bowls (one win), made one of the biggest free-agent additions in league history by signing quarterback Peyton Manning, constructed first one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses and then one of the league’s best defenses and hired his longtime friend Kubiak (a Bowlen favorite) as coach.

When Kubiak stepped down in 2017, his address began with, who else? Bowlen.

“Mr. B is the greatest owner in sports,” Kubiak said that day.

“CONSENSUS BUILDER”

On a parallel track to Bowlen’s desire to do anything to make the Broncos a sustainable winner was his effort to grow the sport as a whole.

Bowlen served a combined 91 years on 15 different committees and was a key player in the league’s television deals and labor negotiations.

“He was in our New York league office more often than most owners because he volunteered to serve countless hours on league committees, including labor relations and television,” said Joe Browne, a retired NFL executive. “Over the years, he became someone whom the commissioners relied heavily on for advice and counsel.”

Bowlen worked closely with commissioner Pete Rozelle and his two successors, Paul Tagliabue and Goodell.

“I worked with over 100 owners,” said Tagliabue, who was commissioner from 1989-2006. “I would put Pat in the top five.”

Leading Bowlen’s league-level achievements was chairing the broadcast committee. In 1993, he and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones negotiated a record television deal that put the NFL on track to be the most lucrative sports product in American television. On the cusp of an agreement, Bowlen and Jones played hardball with the networks to double their rights offer to $400 million.

“It forever changed the economic picture of the league, as it probably should have, because the NFL is the principle No. 1 entertainment form in our country,” said Dick Ebersol, the former head of NBC Sports. “It’s bigger than any movie and television show or anything else. The NFL for six months dominates our entertainment landscape unlike anything else in all of the American entertainment field. And those two guys (Bowlen and Jones) really figured it out.”

In 1998, Bowlen secured an $18 billion television contract for the NFL that was the most expensive single-sport contract in broadcast history.

Bowlen’s greatest television achievement, and maybe his greatest league-level accomplishment, was working with Ebersol on an NBC/Sunday night package that included a schedule superior to Monday night and introduced flexible scheduling, allowing the network to swap out its regularly-scheduled game for a higher-profile matchup late in the season.

The Sunday night football broadcast has been America’s top-rated program for eight consecutive years.

“Pat saw and understood and listened to what I thought I could pull off in organizing that whole thing initially,” Ebersol said. “You can say he was the father of ‘Sunday Night Football.’”

Bowlen once recalled of the NFL’s ratings success: “It became so popular that it was sort of easy. I don’t mean that in a braggadocio way and I say this sparingly: Football is king. As long as we don’t step on our (toes), we’re fine.”

Asked if the Sunday night deal was Bowlen’s greatest non-Broncos accomplishment, Ellis said: “I think so. He was a big advocate, proponent, and cheerleader for it when some people were quite skeptical. Pat was in Dick’s corner on the notion that was going to work and it would be good for our game and good for the NFL. Pat and Dick were right.”

In the area of labor, Bowlen represented an even-keel voice that the players’ side respected. And internationally, Bowlen pushed to expand the NFL’s reach. The Broncos played eight international preseason games in six countries in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Back in Denver, Bowlen quietly invested millions in the community. As chairman of the board of Denver Broncos Charities, he donated nearly $30 million to local organizations since the fund was created in 1993. In 2013, he was given the Mizel Institute Community Enrichment Award for his contributions, which included funding of the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club.

“He recognized the Broncos were a huge community asset and if they were going to be seen as that, they had an obligation to give back and he picked up on that very quickly in the early stages of his ownership and never wavered,” Ellis said.

LOOKING BACK, AHEAD

In 1981, Bowlen loaned money to his friend, Nelson Skalbania, the Montreal Alouettes owner. But Bowlen was  not interested in running a Canadian Football League team and passed on a chance to buy into the United States Football League.

Bowlen’s purchase of the Broncos began when he was introduced to Kaiser through mutual friends. Along with his brother John and sister Mary Beth, Bowlen bought 60.8 percent of the Broncos from Kaiser, who paid $30 million for the team three years earlier. In 1985, the Bowlens bought the remaining 39.2 percent from John Adams and his attorney, Timothy Borden.

Bowlen consistently reinvested money into the franchise and contributed more than $150 million for the team’s stadium construction plus an additional $30 million for improvements. In November 1998, voters agreed to fund 75 percent of what became a $400 million stadium, which opened on Sept. 10, 2001 – the night before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In 1990, Bowlen moved the team’s headquarters to Dove Valley, which underwent a $38 million improvement project in 2014 that included the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse.

“I couldn’t tell you I thought it was going to become what it is,” Bowlen said in August 2013. “To me, it was a real challenge. It takes you a while to adjust. It was a fun deal. You have your disappointments. You have your losses and your wins. When you come in and buy a football team, you don’t really understand the picture until you’re there for a while.”

Bowlen proved to be a quick study once he bought the Broncos.

“He took his time to look at everything and evaluate things,” Ellis said. “We had a bunch of sensational wins (in 1984) and he was off and running as an owner.”

Helping Bowlen’s transition, of course, was having Elway at quarterback. Bowlen’s admiration for Elway continued after No. 7 retired. Elway was offered an option to buy 10 percent of principal stock in the team for $15 million and an additional option to buy another 10 percent by forgoing $12 million in deferred salary that Bowlen owed him. Elway later told The Denver Post he wanted to take the deal.

“I went to court so that was a battle with Edgar Kaiser and Mr. Bowlen,” Elway said in 2016. “So there are circumstances there that didn’t make it work out, let’s put it that way. It wasn’t because I didn’t want it to.”

The circumstance: A condition of Kaiser’s sale to Bowlen, which would later be disputed in court for nearly a decade, was that Kaiser would have right of first refusal if Bowlen tried to sell a portion of majority interest. When Bowlen tried to make Elway a partner, Kaiser sued. The courts ruled in Kaiser’s favor in 2004, but Bowlen won on appeal four years later.

Six years into his Broncos front office career (2017), Elway was promoted to president of football operations after signing a five-year contract.

The future of the franchise is essentially in the hands of Ellis, who is controlling owner delegee, team counsel Rich Slivka and Denver attorney Mary Kelly. They will select Bowlen’s successor.

It is believed Bowlen’s seven children will receive an equal stake in the franchise, but only one can be appointed controlling owner. The trustees could also decide it is in the best interest of the team and the family to sell the franchise (which they have the authority to do), but all indications are that they feel Brittany Bowlen is their preferred choice. It is Pat Bowlen’s wish to transfer ownership to one of his children.

Brittany Bowlen currently works for the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company in its Denver office and previously earned an MBA from Duke and has experience working for the Broncos and the NFL office. Beth Bowlen Wallace also has experience working for the Broncos and she earned a law degree from the University of Denver.

In October 2018, Bill Bowlen filed a lawsuit asking a judge to remove the trustees from power “due to their failure to uphold Pat Bowlen’s wishes and act in the best interest of Pat Bowlen, his family and the Broncos.” A month later, the trustees filed a stay in court and asked the NFL to serve as arbitrator between them and Bowlen Wallace and Klemmer. League commissioner Roger Goodell granted the arbitration request early this year and appointed former NFL front office executive Carmen Policy to lead the process.

The next owner faces an enormous challenge attempting to meet the standard created by Pat Bowlen. He was the Broncos’ best owner. He was the best owner in Denver sports history. And the Broncos became one of the best franchises in America’s most popular sport.

“You know that’s the reason the organization is where it is, because of him,” Shanahan said. “He gave you every chance to win and was just a very unselfish guy.

“His legacy will go on.”

Full statement from the Bowlen family:

“We are saddened to inform everyone that our beloved husband and father, Pat Bowlen, passed on to the next chapter of his life late Thursday night peacefully at home surrounded by family. His soul will live on through the Broncos, the city of Denver and all of our fans.

“Our family wishes to express its sincere gratitude for the outpouring of support we have received in recent years. Heaven got a little bit more orange and blue tonight.

“Pat Bowlen had a competitive spirit with a great sense of humor. As fun-loving as he was, he always wanted us to understand the big picture. We will forever remember his kindness and humility.

“More important than being an incredible owner, Pat Bowlen was an incredible human being.”

Former Denver Post staff writer Nicki Jhabvala contributed to this story.

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