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Q & A WITH : Making Colts Thoroughbreds : 28-Year-Old General Manager Builds a Winner at Indianapolis

December 01, 1987|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — James S. (Big Jim) Irsay, the 28-year-old general manager of the Indianapolis Colts, is spending the 1980s rebuilding the team in his image.

The youngest general manager in the National Football League, Irsay is a weightlifter from Southern Methodist University.

The coach he brought in last year, Ron Meyer, and the club's most prominent new acquisition, Eric Dickerson, are also from SMU.

Meyer is 9-5 in Indianapolis. This year the Colts are tied for first in the NFC East with a 6-5 record. And at running back, Dickerson has exceeded 100 yards every week since he came over from the Rams.

As for the club's other veteran players, most have joined Irsay at the weight machines for hours at a time in recent years.

Some get bonuses of $10,000 to $50,000 annually just to live here and work out year-round in the Colts' weight room, where they have gained the strength to revive a team that had been one of the NFL's weakest.

The revival has surprised the league, which had grown used to a loser in Indianapolis as operated by Irsay's father, Robert, who promoted Jim from the personnel department to general manager in 1984.

Since then, the progress of the team has been steady but clouded by injuries. Against Houston Sunday a high was reached when the Colts became the first team in the NFL to score 50 points in one game this year.

Irsay, one of the league's numerous second-generation leaders, has thus been more successful than some, and his is a story that's all the more remarkable when set against the heavy-handed image of his father.

Has Big Jim just been lucky? Or did he instigate the revival of the Colts? The evidence suggests that he has played a large part in their comeback.

Jim Irsay has intimately involved himself in the family business since the July day in 1972 that the Colts came into his father's hands.

It could be said that after a 15-year association with the club--interrupted only by class work at SMU--Irsay is one of the NFL's more experienced general managers.

Amiable, bright and industrious--with streaks of gray already in his black beard--the young executive is a 6-foot 1-inch, 220-pound native of Illinois who at stadiums and airports commands the same kind of attention his players get.

"I think it's an advantage for (an owner) to be in the players' generation," Irsay said in a recent interview in which he discussed his family, his personal philosophy, the years he has spent in football, and the future of his team.

Question: Is it realistic for the Colts to think about the Super Bowl in the near future?

Answer: Our ultimate goal is to be the first to win three consecutive Super Bowls. But before then, there are a lot of steps to take--one at a time.

Q: Can you identify them?

A: Well, there are no miracles in this game, no shortcuts. I've been around the Colts since I was 12, 13 years old. It isn't too difficult to see what you have to do if you've spent your life in football. It's mostly just hard work.

Q: What can a teen-ager learn about the NFL?

A: It depends on your degree of interest. At training camp in the early days, I had dinner most nights with the general manager. He may have felt that he had to go with the owner's son, but I think he grew to like me. I asked him question after question night after night for months.

Q: Who was the general manager?

A: (The late) Joe Thomas, the main builder of our last winning team. Joe also built champions at Miami and in other cities. He was the smartest personnel man I've known, and he had all kinds of other good ideas about football.

Q: What was Thomas' basic approach?

A: He told me, "When you know what you want or need, go get it. You can't operate out of fear. You have to be willing to take a chance."

Q: You have to go after, say, an Eric Dickerson?

A: Yes. Or, say, a new sound system for the weight room. When you grow up in football, you know what's on the minds of football players. When you're in their own generation, you know how important their music is to them.

Q: Does music make lifting more palatable?

A: The right sound does. We have a ($10,000) digital disc system that would blow the walls off the Hoosier Dome. People say Dad won't pay to get a winning team, but that isn't true. Explain the benefits, and he'll pay.

Q: People say many other things about Robert Irsay, few of them laudatory. How much does that bother you?

A: Not much. Dad is like me in that he grew up in his father's business--heating and air-conditioning--and got to know it very well. The difference is that football isn't a quick-fix business. It's hard for successful business men to substitute the patience you need in football for the kind of go-getting that's gotten them good results all their lives.

Q: Were you an only child?

A: No, I have an older brother, Tom, and I had an older sister, Roberta. Our family has had its share of tragedy. When my sister was 15, she was killed in a car accident with two of her friends. That was in 1972.

Q: The year your father purchased the Colts.

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