Bert Bell – the father of the NFL

Cover of the Steelers vs Cardinals program December 13 1959

As the NFL celebrates 100 years of football its success can be shared by many, but one individual stands out. When the league was struggling, and it needed someone to take it forward, Bert Bell became its guardian angel.

Bell became the NFL commissioner in 1946 after a long association with college and professional football.  Following a career at Penn State, Bell briefly dabbled in pro football in 1920 with the Philadelphia All-Collegians. He began coaching collegiate football as an assistant at the University of Pennsylvania before moving on to Temple 1930-33.

While Bell was involved with college football, the professional side of the game was beginning to organise itself. Pro teams still appeared and disappeared as they struggled to overcome the more popular college version.

In an environment that wasn’t yet conducive to financial success, 1933 saw Pennsylvania repeal the Blue laws that banned spectator sport from being played on Sunday. This meant pro teams could now move their games from Saturdays when they had to compete with the more popular college football.

While this opportunity saw Art Rooney purchase the franchise for Pittsburgh, it also saw Bell co-found the Philadelphia Eagles. As an owner, Bell was instrumental in the introduction of the draft system in 1936 that was his idea to attempt to level the playing field to ensure the top teams were not have always able to sign the best collegiate players.

During the Second World War, the shortage of players saw teams merge and some fold as they struggled to maintain their schedule. With the arrival of peace, the owners could have expected the good times to roll. Instead, the launch of the rival All-American Football Conference created concern amongst the owners about the rival league.

The lack of confidence in their commissioner Elmer Layden saw the owners turn to Bell to promote the NFL and boost its exposure in the media that was still governed by the college game. Most of the teams were losing money while players averaged $5,000.

While installing unity among the owners, Bells major contribution was his belief that the teams had to be competitive, that no team should dominate because the fans would lose interest. Sharing revenue was another of his innovative ideas to prevent any one team overshadowing the others.

His stewardship steered the league through the rough waters of competition and uncertainty. Under his guidance, attendances increased by 100% with the players wages following suit.

Art Rooney with Bert Bell courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers

On Any Given Sunday

He could often be heard saying, “On any given Sunday, any team in our league can beat any other team.” That philosophy saw the league blossom and become the multi-billion entertainment business it now is.

True to a story about someone devoted to football, Bell passed away watching a contest between the Eagles and the Steelers on October 11, 1959. At the time of his death, he was still the commissioner having overseen the tremendous growth that put pro football at the top of the sports industry.

Art Rooney acknowledged, “I don’t know what we’re going to do about our loss. Bell was more than a commissioner. Players and owners alike agree they lost a very close friend.”

Of his successor, Redskins owner George Marshall conceded, “No matter who we’ll pick, we’ll never find a commissioner as good as Bell.”

Steelers coach Buddy Parker said, “He was a real commissioner. He was for the players and that’s what a commissioner is for.”