PALM DESERT, Calif. -- Pete Rozelle, who guided the NFL from an uncertain enterprise to a multibillion-dollar industry, Wednesday resigned as commissioner after holding the job 30 years.
In a startling and tearful announcement at the NFL owners' meeting, Rozelle said he will remain commissioner until the league finds a successor. A league committee will immediately try to find a replacement for the man often considered the most powerful official in American sports.
AFC President Lamar Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs and NFC President Wellington Mara of the New York Giants will head the search.
Rozelle, 63, said he made the decision last October, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. After notifying the owners, Los Angeles Raiders chief executive Al Davis, a longtime adversary, embraced Rozelle. The commissioner then went public with his announcement.
'Now I'd like to have some fun for the rest of my life,' said Rozelle, who will retire to the San Diego area. 'I don't want to be a lameduck commissioner.I feel so lucky. I've seen great changes in growth.'
Rozelle became commissioner in 1960, shortly before the NFL entered its golden age of television that culminated with a $1.4 billion contract with the networks.
Under Rozelle, the NFL merged with the American Football League in 1967 and expanded from 12 teams to its current 28. The move represented the biggest sports merger and brought football into contention with baseball as the country's most popular sport.
However, the NFL's financial success has been tempered by the spate of drug violations across the league, civil suits with Davis and the Raiders and the U.S. Football League, and labor struggles between management and the players' union. During Rozelle's tenure the players waged two strikes, the last two seasons ago.
'It just seemed like they were never going to end,' Rozelle said of the three trials involving Davis and the USFL. 'The '80s have not been a pleasant time for the owners, myself and the people of football.'
Rozelle, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has two years remaining on his contract and a retirement settlement will be worked out by the league.
Rozelle served as public relations director and general manager of the Los Angeles Rams before being named commissioner after the death of Bert Bell.
'I am shocked that Pete is retiring as commissioner of the NFL,' said Arthur Watson, president of NBC Sports. 'He is a man of the times who in the past 30 years has done more that any single individual in changing the face of sports. During Pete's tenure, no sport has enjoyed the success that the NFL has enjoyed under his direction. He'll be sorely missed.'