Jim Saccomano reflects on the highs and lows of a legendary Denver Broncos career.
By Pat Rooney
Publish Date: June 24, 2014
|Saccomano standing on Invesco Field at Mile Hi. Photo: Chris Schneider|
By his own admission, Jim Saccomano seems to be doing a poor job of retiring.
His most recent title of vice president of corporate communications was just one of countless hats Saccomano wore during his 36 years with the Denver Broncos. Since his announcement that the 2013 football season would be his last, Saccomano has been feted with the sort of respect—even reverence—rarely seen in sports for someone who never actually donned a uniform.
The Broncos christened the press box at Sports Authority Field at Mile High the “Jim Saccomano Press Box.” In May he received the prestigious South Metro Denver Chamber Lifetime Achievement Award. Saccomano will continue to keep a not-so-low profile in his so-called retirement with his “Broncos Sideline Stories” television series, and he will continue to consult with the Broncos.
That said, the career arc of the Denver native has risen, not coincidentally, alongside the Broncos’ evolution as the premier professional sports team in Colorado and the entire Rocky Mountain region. Recently the 1970 graduate of MSU Denver (B.A. speech communication) sat down to talk about his unforgettable decades.
Q: How did you land with the Broncos?
A: I liked sports. And I liked to write and talk. There were more radio stations than newspapers, so that was my goal. At that time, I can tell you that 95% of the stations were more like “WKRP in Cincinnati” than KOA. I got an internship—the first in the history of Metro State, regardless of department. Then I got drafted. It was 1970. I’d just gotten married. Married, graduated, drafted. I did my military service stateside at Fort Lewis, Wash., then Fort Ord in California and then finally Fitzsimmons. I was supposed to go to a base in Korea and President Nixon ended the draft and all the draftees were going to get out. I didn’t have enough time left in the military to make it worthwhile for them to send me to Korea. So I got to go back to the radio station.
Looking back I can’t believe some of the things I did. My wife said the only time I had normal hours was in the Army. I didn’t think anything of it but because I was the sports guy; if the Nuggets were playing I had to go. If the Colorado Rockies hockey team was playing, I had to go. It’s almost laughable. One thing you realize when you’re older is that people are impressed by that. Because I’m a big baseball guy and I was in the press box all the time for the Denver Bears, I became friends with the public relations guy, Greg Knipping. Then he had a chance to go to Purdue as assistant sports information director. Greg talked to Jim Burris, the general manager, about what to do to replace him. Greg said “There’s a guy. He’s actually a radio guy, but he has a degree and he’s not like Johnny Fever. This is the best guy and he really knows the game.” The station goes out of business and I immediately get hired by the Bears. That’s how I got into baseball and sports.
Q: Did you always believe you were in for the long haul with the Broncos?
A: You start off your career and you never think it’s a career. It’s a job. In retrospect, you’re able to go “Wow, I’m really fortunate to have a career of this length at this level.” I can be really, really humble, except I know absolutely what I’ve done and what I did to be able to do it. I know how hard I had to work and how I had to think around corners. And then to be able to do it in the city you grew up in, with the aunts the uncles, the nieces and nephews. This is such a wonderful place. Sometimes in the NFL it’s hard to pass on things. Several times I’ve passed up opportunities to go somewhere else. I was fortunate enough to work for great owners. Some guys are working just as hard but the team is 1-15. It’s been an incredible run. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve worked under enlightened ownership. Winning coaches. Sold-out stadiums and a crazed populace. You still have to work like heck, but there were a lot of things there that would set you up for success, potentially.
(Executive Director of Media Relations) Patrick Smyth figured out that that in 39 years, including three with the Denver Bears, I did 74 years of 40-hour weeks in the office. But then, because it’s PR and you have to take calls at home, I took about 55,000 calls at home. So 74 years of 40-hour weeks in 39 years, and 55,000 calls at home. Otherwise I just kind of cruised along.
Q: What are the highlights of your tenure with the Broncos?
A: I’ve been fortunate, I think, to have been there for the four greatest moments in Broncos history. The four greatest moments, and there can be little debate with me, are winning the two championships, because they’re the world championships, and the acquisition of John Elway, and the acquisition of Peyton Manning. So much was triggered by the acquisitions of Elway and Manning to an astonishing level. The Hall of Fame stuff is great but the acquisitions of Elway and Manning were surreal.
Q: Your work ethic is legendary. What were the origins of your approach?
A: There’s only one question in any endeavor, from relationships to religion or whatever: Are you in or are you out? And if you’re in 87%, you aren’t in because that 13% is going to get someone killed.
I’m very obsessive. I don’t know why. I was very close to my dad, who’s long deceased. A sportswriter, Rick Morrissey, told me at my dad’s funeral, “And you wonder why you are the way you are.” Because someone had told him about how my dad washed his car. By hand, of course, but he also jacked up each of the tires individually to wash the insides of the tires. Call me the new version of the old-timer.
Q: Was there ever an opportunity that made you seriously consider leaving the Broncos?
A: Some I didn’t consider very strongly at all. When the United States Football League started I got a bunch of calls from the league office. That was an easy one to say no to. Over the years there have been a couple of feelers from universities. The biggest possibility was when another professional team called offering me any title, anything. I said I’d be delighted to talk to you but Pat Bowlen is great and someone has to tell Pat Bowlen that I’m talking to you. Either I’m telling him or you’re telling him. And they said, “Ah, we were hoping to make a private, behind-the-bench deal with you and then we’d go to Pat.” I said that’s not how it’s going to work. And that’s the last time I heard from them. I never went to Pat and used it as leverage for anything. I didn’t even tell him for like 10 years.
Q: Clearly you’ve leaned on “old school” principles, yet you always had a forward-thinking approach to new, game-changing aspects of the job, such as the birth of the Internet and the advent of social media. Where did that balance come from?
A: As I went along and got older, I didn’t want to be the old guy who still insists on typing on his Royal Underwood. I could see the changes. I could remember saying, “One day we won’t do press releases on paper.” People said I was insane. I said that whenever the next thing comes, we’re going to be the first team to do that. One time I said there’s a thing we have to do—we have to blog. One guy said he knew what a blog was. Now we have to tweet, tweet, tweet. Reporters like to get it and say, “The Denver Post has learned this.” The Post learned because we told them. So how about we also tell our fans? We’ll also tell the Post, but then we control the message. We can’t control what the press writes but there are things we can control.
We were in a PR meeting once full of NFL marketing and PR people. There was an expert firm talking about social media. This woman says, “Is there a guy named Jim Saccomano in this room?” I’m one of the oldest guys in the room and I say “Yeah.” They say, “That’s a heck of a blog.” Here was someone who said they read it. So I felt like we were doing something right. What I knew was that you have to be at the cutting edge of it. You have to adapt.
Q: How did the ball get rolling on your retirement?
A: We’ve got two grandchildren, and my daughter and her husband live with them in Glenwood Springs. The grandkids are now 6 and 5. During the season the hours are so dominating. I told (my wife) JoAnn that I didn’t want to do this again, where from July to January I don’t get to see the grandkids unless they come to Denver. We can’t just drive there for a day or two or four. (Broncos President) Joe Ellis is a terrific person and a great leader. His style is like a guy driving a stick shift, and you can never tell when he hits the clutch. Smooth. He’s in my office one day and I had my legal pad with pros and cons. He stood up, closed my door and literally in about 30 seconds he said, “Whatever you do want to do or don’t want to do, it’s approved.”
Finally, a year and a few months ago, I told him I was retiring at the end of the year. He said no problem, and that I could do consulting work. And he said “Jim, frankly we’re never taking your office away as long as you want it.” Seemingly I have the possibility of being a paid consultant for as long as I’d like. And since the Broncos have been such a big part of my life, I’m interested in it at this point, good health permitting.