When the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony ended on Aug. 6, it brought to 303 the number of busts displayed in the ever-burgeoning hallowed halls of Canton, Ohio.
Most notably, and perhaps surprisingly, the enshrinement of former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. made it just 22 contributors to be so honored, of which 12 are owners.
Those numbers are sure to increase in the coming years, thanks to the Contributors Committee, which was begun in 2014 because it was becoming increasingly difficult to enshrine contributors since they usually would be taking the spot of a player.
Now, like those nominated by the Seniors Committee, they are voted on separately, and must garner at least 80 percent of the full committee’s vote, which will be 39 of the full 48-person committee. The committee is being increased to 48 this year with the addition of two former players, quarterback Dan Fouts and wide receiver James Lofton, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame.
Last year, the Hall’s board of directors approved the addition to the committee of those enshrined as long as they are working members of the media.
Of the 12 owners enshrined, six were the founders of their teams, and three – George Halas of the Bears, Tim Mara of the Giants and George Preston Marshall of the Redskins – were part of the first class in 1963, when 17 were selected. All three were club founders.
By 1972, there were seven owners honored, but since then, prior to the decision to separate contributors, there were only four: Al Davis of the Raiders in 1972, Wellington Mara of the Giants in 1997, Dan Rooney of the Steelers in 2000 and Ralph Wilson Jr. of the Bills in 2009.
The nomination of the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones for the class of 2017, as well as Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen reaching the final three, illustrates how Canton’s doors are opening wider for those who did not play or coach. If Jones is elected in Houston on Feb. 4, the day before Super Bowl 51, it would be the first time since 1963-64 that owners would be enshrined in two consecutive years.
What makes the task of the committee, of which I am a member, so intriguing is the divergent roles owners play with their teams and how that is judged by those casting the all-important votes.
The Aug. 16 meeting in Canton exemplified that.
Jones is an owner who ushered the NFL into a new era with an aggressive business approach that brought his compatriots along kicking and screaming at times, but also helped immeasurably to increase their bank accounts.
However, Jones also has “general manager” attached to his job title, and following some initial success on the field after he purchased the Cowboys in 1989, the results in that area in recent years have been average at best.
By contrast, Bowlen has run his team the way most do, by hiring the best football people he can and getting out of the way to let them do their jobs. The Broncos’ achievements in his 32 years of ownership, with seven Super Bowl appearances and only five losing seasons, overwhelms those of the Cowboys.
Bowlen was also part of instrumental league committees, even more than DeBartolo, whose lieutenant, Carmen Policy, did most of the heavy lifting involving NFL matters. But DeBartolo, like Bowlen, certainly had the knack for winning.
There is no right or wrong when assessing the merits of individual owners. For players, while there will often be debates about those deserving or not, the evaluation is stripped to the bare essential: how they produced on the field.
For owners, the criteria could be described as elusive, with beauty being in the eye of the beholder. And now, in this case, the committee made its choice going forward to February when the selection group will render its verdict for Jones and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Owners in the Pro Football Hall of Fame
1963: George Halas, Bears and NFL founder, 1920-1983; head coach 40 seasons
1963: Tim Mara, Giants founder, 1925-1959
1963: George Preston Marshall, Redskins founder, 1932-1969
1964: Art Rooney, Steelers founder, 1933-1988
1967: Charles Bidwill, Cardinals, 1933-1946
1972: Lamar Hunt, Chiefs founder/co-founder AFL, 1960-2006
1992: Al Davis, Raiders, 1966-2011; GM/coach 1963-65; AFL commissioner 1966
1997: Wellington Mara, Giants, 1937-2003
2000: Dan Rooney, Steelers, 1955-Present
2009: Ralph Wilson Jr., Bills founder, 1960-2014
2016: Edward DeBartolo Jr., 49ers, 1977-2000
Fun Fact: The 12 owners totaled 497 years working in the NFL, an average of 41.4.