In the 1980 season, coming off three straight playoff berths, the Broncos went 8-8 and finished 4th in the West. The Orange Crush was done, the defense was mostly mediocre. The offense wasn’t great either. Red Miller, after the team’s 1979 wild card loss to the Oilers, said: “We must analyze and do something about our offense next year. That’s my first concern at this time.” The team, seeing Craig Morton’s age and how bad the offense had become of late, traded for Jets QB Matt Robinson in an effort to give a boost to that side of the ball. Robinson, unknowingly to most contemporary Bronco fans, is the worst QB in team history. Or at least among the worst! The Broncos were stagnated and clear they had an era of transition and rebuilding before them.
However, nobody expected as much as change as would occur following the 1980 season.
In 1961, in order to collect on his debt for expanding Bears Stadium, Gerald Phipps received ownership of the Denver Broncos and would run the team with his brother Allen. This was back during the infancy of the AFL, the league was cheap and things were very new and uncertain. There was tremendous risk and tremendous potential. They saw the Broncos through the merger and gained clout in the league. Gerald Phipps was involved in the NFL finance committee and helped build the Broncos into a regional sensation. But as the 60s became the 70s, as players got paid more, and as the league became a bigger financial deal the Phipps Brothers were out of luck. They just couldn’t afford to be in the NFL anymore. It had gotten too big for them. They sold the team to Edgar Kaiser, a former White House advisor and financier who viewed the NFL as a worthwhile investment to get into. Kaiser had no prior experience in football or sport.
When Kaiser took over, like any new owner, he met with the team’s football management: HC Red Miller and GM Fred Gehrke. Now, since I don’t really have another opportunity to talk about this, I want to have a brief discussion about Gehrke.
Fred Gehrke played for a variety of NFL teams from 1940-1950, with the exception of 1941-1945 when he was serving in the military. Gehrke, however, spent the back half of the war in California working stateside. At night, he joined a variety of football leagues that were staffed with former NFL players having to meet military commitments. The PCPFL was the most famous of these—which benefit from the NFL having no major western presence at this time. After the war, Gehrke rejoined the NFL. As a member of the LA Rams, Gehrke is credited with painting the first helmet logo in league history—painting the signature Ram horns on their helmets. He made a prototype and presented it to Rams owner Dan Reeves (I kid you not, that’s his name) who got league approval to wear it. Gehrke also invented the face mask due to frequently breaking his nose. Such an important figure in the aesthetic of modern football is linked to the Broncos.
Now, after his career had been done for well over a decade, Broncos HC Mac Speedie—a former college teammate of Gehrke’s—tried to recruit him to take a starting job with the AFL Broncos. Gehrke refused, seeing the AFL as far too risky for him to give up his job as an executive in the aircraft industry. Speedie refused to take no for an answer and eventually, after offering him $12,000 and the title of Director of Player Personnel, Gehrke accepted.
When he returned to Denver, Gehrke's first request to Speedie was,"Let's see the offices!" Those offices were next to the stadium. The new director of player personnel was pleasantly surprised to see a brick faced front on his offices. Unfortunately it was a facade disguising a metal military quonset hut ( a half - cylindrical type shelter with downward curved ceilings.) Ducking his head, he sat behind the desk anxious to get to work. A knock on the door, preceded the appearance of Gerald Phipps, the owner of the Broncos whom Fred had never met. When Phipps entered, Gehrke stood to greet him and promptly bumped his head on the ceiling
Gehrke thought, "How could it get any worse?" That question was answered upon inspection of the stadium and practice field. Bears Stadium, ( later renamed Mile High Stadium ), was an old baseball park with a capacity of only 37,000. It was necessary to set up bleachers on the east side of the stadium so it would resemble a football stadium. The dressing room was under leaky plumbing ; only two working shower heads were available to players. Players sat at little booths separated by chicken wire. The practice field, a downhill slope, measured only about 80 yards. It was impossible to run an out pattern to one side of the practice field because a fence was close to the sideline. Gehrke had seen better conditions in the semi-pro leagues.
However, owner Phipps was prophetic, and, indeed ,conditions did get better soon. Gehrke rose from personnel director to general manager to vice-president. He said of the experience " I went from the outhouse to the penthouse to the Superbowl."
The Broncos were among the poorest and cheapest teams in the NFL under Phipps, but they made things work. Gehrke, who eventually rose to the top, lead the Broncos to their greatest season in team history—1977—and built one of the best defenses the league has ever known. Despite the conditions of Mile High and the facilities, the Broncos figured out a way to win. The combination of Gehrke and Miller looked to have the makings of a really solid team.
But then, as alluded to earlier, Edgar Kaiser had other plans. Kaiser, who had his own personnel he wanted to bring in, fired both Gehrke and Miller in March. He hired young Cowboys offensive guru Dan Reeves to replace both men—likely as a cost-saving measure for the fiscally-minded Kaiser. A man whose career was linked to a Dan Reeves was fired and replaced with a Dan Reeves. Crazy.
The Broncos under Kaiser kept winning, including a playoff berth in 1983. He did manage to trade for John Elway—which makes his tenure as owner successful for that alone. But Kaiser would only own the team for three years, as he sought to only have an asset to sell and grow. It was clear, however, his interest wasn’t football.
In 1983 thirteen rookies made the Denver Broncos final roster. I’d like to think we earned it, but I’m afraid that financier Edgar Kaiser Jr was getting his books ready to sell the team by lowering the payroll. Mr Kaiser’s purpose for owning the Broncos, his cornerstone, was turning a profit. That’s what financiers do. He brought in a new general manager in 1983 named Hein Polus to do the dirty work. Hein was a London trained Canadian Lawyer, who had little NFL knowledge, and no football background. I remember Randy Gradishar telling me that Polus called him into his office and tried to redo his contract asking Randy, “Why would we pay you $50,000 to play half the plays,” referring to a standard incentive in player contracts at the time, “when we’re paying you $300,000 to play all the plays”. Kaiser wasn’t in the weight room, locker room, or training room. I don’t think he spent much time at the Bronco’s facility at all. I’d be very surprised if he could have named half the players on his team, and I’m sure he couldn’t have named any of their family members. When the Broncos pulled off the trade for John Elway Mr Kaiser saw his opportunity, not to win championships, but to make a profit.
There was someone who Kaiser knew who was crazy about football and sports. A fitness junky who went to Kaiser’s church in Canada—as Kaiser didn’t live in Denver—who tried to buy CFL teams and was involved in building the arena for the Edmonton Oilers. A guy who made it big working for his father’s oil company who wanted to get out of that industry and into professional sports. A guy who told him every week in church if he ever thought of selling the Broncos to let him know.