(Mar. 5, 1923-Jan. 14, 1997). Born in Chicago, Robert (Bob) Irsay attended the University of Illinois before he joined his father’s heating and ventilation business in 1946. Irsay left his father’s company to start a sheet-metal business, which grew to become the biggest company of its kind in Chicago. This success paired with numerous others in the heating and cooling industry enabled Irsay to amass a sizeable fortune.

Leveraging this financial success, Irsay entered the National Football League (NFL) in 1972 by acquiring the Los Angeles Rams. On the same day that he assumed ownership of the Rams, he swapped teams with Caroll Rosenbloom, owner of the Baltimore Colts franchise. In Baltimore, Irsay gained a reputation as a vocal, hands-on NFL team owner, both on and off the field. Even so, he developed a well-loved team that built upon its winning history that already included three NFL championships.

By the early 1980s, Irsay’s team faced significant challenges. Constructed in 1921, the aging Baltimore Memorial Stadium needed substantial renovations for the Colts franchise to remain competitive in the league. Irsay’s bargaining power with the city to get these renovations faded, however, in light of five consecutive losing seasons, the loss of first draft-pick John Elway to the Denver Broncos, and diminishing attendance.

Unable to sway the city of Baltimore to finance the stadium renovations, Irsay sought a new home for the Colts in 1984. After a deal to move the team to Phoenix did not materialize and an evaluation of the Jacksonville, Florida market did not appear lucrative, Irsay looked elsewhere.

Irsay accepted the invitation of Indianapolis mayor William Hudnut III to tour the newly built 60,127-seat Hoosier Dome in February 1984. Hudnut sold Irsay on the idea that a move to Indianapolis would provide the Colts with a domed venue as well as a rabid fan base. Satisfied, Irsay decided to relocate the Colts to Indianapolis.

To legally bind the Colts to Baltimore, the Maryland state legislature passed a provision of eminent domain on March 27, 1984. Before the governor signed the provision, Irsay heard of the plan and phoned Indianapolis-based Mayflower Transit Company at noon the next day. Fifteen moving vans arrived by 9 P.M., packed the franchise’s belongings, and spirited out of Baltimore just past midnight. The mayor of Baltimore and the city-county council sued Irsay’s team but lost the case in court.

Well over 140,000 season ticket requests came within two weeks of the Colts’ arrival at Indianapolis. Irsay maintained heavy involvement with the team, assisting with major business dealings such as the trade for running back Eric Dickerson in 1987, the draft of running back Marshall Faulk in 1994, and the acquisition of quarterback Jim Harbaugh the same year (See Indianapolis Colts ).

Amid numerous health complications, Irsay turned over most of the Colts’ operations and management to his son, Jim, who eventually inherited team ownership upon Robert Irsay’s death. In honor of his service to the team, Robert Irsay was inducted into the Colts’ Ring of Honor in 1996, shortly before his death in January 1997.

Revised March 2021

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