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Pat Bowlen wanted the Broncos to be No. 1 in everything

(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

On Thursday night, news broke that Broncos owner Pat Bowlen passed away at the age of 75. Almost immediately, tributes poured in from everywhere – former players, league officials, fellow owners, television executives, fans and more all shared their thoughts on “Mr. B.”

Most of those stories of gratitude focused on Bowlen’s contributions to the Broncos, the city of Denver and the National Football League. And for good reason, as his impact in those areas was immense and will last for generations.

Under Bowlen’s stewardship, the Broncos became one of the premier franchises in the NFL; since he bought the team in 1984, they played in seven Super Bowls and won three championships. In that same time, a state-of-the-art stadium that would go on to host football games (pro, college and high school), lacrosse and soccer matches, concerts, the Democratic National Convention and more was built thanks in large part to his vision. And during his tenure as an owner, the NFL grew to become the premier sports league in the country, with Bowlen serving as a driving force behind a lot of the changes and decisions that helped propel it to that level.

Those accomplishments are enormous, clear for everyone to see. But Bowlen’s impact went well beyond those big and bold achievements. He helped thousands and thousands of people during his 35 years in the Mile High City.

Thankfully, I had the honor and privilege of experiencing this firsthand. For three seasons, from 2002-04, I had the opportunity to work for the Broncos, serving as the publications coordinator in the marketing department.

For a kid who grew up bleeding orange, the job was a dream come true. Every day, there was a “pinch me” element that came along with going to work.

During that time, I learned one of the most-valuable lessons of my life. It stemmed from the fact that the organization was about more than profits and platitudes; they stood for something bigger than dollars and sound bites.

When I started with the Broncos prior to the 2002 season, one thing was repeatedly said to me by people from various departments.

“Mr. Bowlen wants to be No. 1 in everything we do,” they would say. “That’s the standard around here.”

That sounded good, but I didn’t quite believe it. I knew that the Broncos owner wanted to win on the field, that had become clear during his nearly two decades at the helm of the franchise. But extending that mindset to other areas, like my realm as the publications coordinator, was something I doubted.

Mr. Bowlen cared about winning football games and growing the league; that was clear. But did he really care one way or another about the game program, the team’s yearbook, the quarterly season-ticket-holder magazine or any of the other projects that consumed my days? I highly doubted it.

Slowly but surely, however, that thought was proven incorrect. With each passing day, I learned that Mr. Bowlen wasn’t just paying lip service to the notion that the organization needed to be great at everything they did.

The game program was a prime example. That publication turned a profit based on the ads that were placed between the covers, all of which we sold before the season started. It didn’t matter if we sold out on Sunday or nobody bought a single copy; the magazine was going to turn a profit. So there wasn’t much motivation to spend more money producing it on a weekly basis, as that would just make the P&L a little thinner.

Nonetheless, every improvement that was proposed was approved. Custom photos shoots for covers, feature-length articles that changed out from game to game, the highest-quality print specifications, all of these things were implemented even though they wouldn’t immediately provide a return on investment. They helped make the Broncos edition of Gameday among the best in the league. They made players clamor for a spot on the cover. They presented the team in a first-class manner. Those were the reasons why dollars were spent on things that many teams would’ve considered a luxury.

But it was one specific issue of the game program that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the “be No. 1 in everything we do” standard was truly the mindset of the organization.

Late in the production process for a game in the middle of the season, I made a change to the copy on the cover of the publication. But in the rush to hit the deadline, I didn’t have a chance to see a proof of the revised page; it was all conveyed via phone and done on the fly.

Much to my dismay when the magazines were delivered to the stadium, the new text included a misspelling. Right there on the cover, for everyone to see, a word was incorrect.

With much trepidation, I presented the problem to my boss, ready to endure the wrath that was deserved for such a careless mistake. Instead, I was shocked by what transpired.

“Is there anything we can do to fix it?” I was asked.

Yes, we can reprint the entire issue. To fix one word, we can redo thousands of copies of a 144-page magazine, paying full price for another print run.

“Do it,” I was told.

It didn’t matter that it would cost thousands of dollars to get a new batch in time for the game. Nobody considered the fact that the vast majority of people probably would never notice the small error. It was about getting it right; it was about doing things at the highest possible level.

So everyone sprung into action, new magazines rolled off the presses and boxes were delivered to the stadium in time for the game. On Sunday, the perfect version was distributed to fans as they came through the gates.

Most amazingly, I never heard another word about the incident. It never came up in a review. It didn’t result in multiple meetings where I was raked over the coals. I wasn’t stripped of responsibility moving forward.

Instead, I was trusted to do my job. Up until that point, things had gone well, with my little department growing on an annual basis. So the organization wasn’t going to let one mistake, albeit a costly one, derail things.

That approach doesn’t happen by accident; it’s direction that comes from the top. Mr. Bowlen probably never knew about my mistake, but he empowered the people who were aware of the incident to handle things in the manner he would’ve wanted, without fear or repercussions.

I’ve never forgotten that response. It provided a lesson that I’ve applied to running my own business, raising kids, coaching teams and in all sorts of other areas of life.

That moment changed me. At 29 years old, it shaped how I would deal with people and problems moving forward.

It also reinforced that the Broncos practiced what they preached. A lot of organizations claim to pursue excellence, but few actually walk the walk; they cut corners here and there, letting little things slide.

Under Pat Bowlen’s leadership, that never happened with the Broncos. He wanted his team to be the best in everything they did; otherwise, he didn’t want them to undertake the project.

That approach made for a great 35-year run for fans, coaches, players and everyone else who came in contact with the team. And it provided a lesson for everyone, demonstrating that doing things the right way, in every way imaginable, is the key to success.