Ralph Routon

Literally throughout the state — from Sterling to Cortez, Lamar to Craig, Grand Junction to Burlington — the sprawling spectrum of Coloradans who identify as Denver Broncos fans have been cautiously digesting the reveal of the franchise’s new ownership.

The basic questions are legitimate:

• Should everyone simply embrace billionaires Rob Walton and the husband-wife duo of Greg Penner and Carrie Walton Penner from the Walmart family tree?

• Do they deserve the benefit of the doubt with their unlimited resources, despite total inexperience in the crazy world of pro sports?

• Will the new owners care more about the bottom line than winning championships?

• Or will they shock the world by building a $10 billion WaltonDome, a mega-stadium with retractable roof and state-of-the-art capability to handle any event?

• Finally, why would Team Walton spend a reported $4.65 billion just to buy the Broncos?

We obviously don’t know any answers yet. But the early vibes are positive.

Many followed the soap opera within the family of longtime owner Pat Bowlen, who died in 2019 of a pulmonary embolism after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease that took him away from public life in 2014.

Bowlen wanted the Broncos to remain in the family, but without specific instructions, his seven children couldn’t resolve their differences. That’s just as well, because none of them could have lived up to their father’s example.

Team Walton has a jump-start by already having Colorado ties, realizing how the state feels about its team, and knowing the importance of the franchise’s long relationship with its fans — here and across much of the Mountain time zone.

It’s also refreshing to know Team Walton doesn’t pretend to have football expertise. That’s why the new owners have reached out to Peyton Manning and surely others, probably seeking the right person who can run the football side. If Manning accepts that role, it likely would include an ownership share.

But as enticing as that might be, Manning isn’t an essential piece. Fortunately, the Broncos are in a good place with general manager George Paton, new head coach Nathaniel Hackett, just-acquired superstar quarterback Russell Wilson and a roster filled with proven (and promising) contributors.

What they need is quiet stability, exactly what Team Walton can provide.

Actually, instead of comparisons with Pat Bowlen, loyal fans should look further into the past. 

From this view, Team Walton would be smart to study Gerald Phipps, who owned the Broncos with his brother Allan from 1961 to 1981. Phipps initially bought 42 percent of the team from original owner Bob Howsam for, believe it or not, less than $1 million. Then in 1965, when outside vultures sought to buy the Broncos and move them to Atlanta or elsewhere, Phipps purchased the remaining 58 percent for about $1.5 million.

At that point, the Broncos had won 18 games in five years, playing in the old American Football League. But after the AFL merged into the NFL, Denver slowly became a bigger player. Phipps, who also owned GH Phipps Construction Co. (still thriving nearly 30 years after his death), ran a low-key, humble football operation.

He never made himself the story. He patiently put people in charge and made changes when necessary. Over the years, he also bankrolled the evolution of Mile High Stadium, which reached iconic status as the Broncos finally enjoyed their first run of glory years starting in 1977, led by head coach Red Miller, quarterback Craig Morton and that Orange Crush defense.

Gerry Phipps wasn’t a football guy, but he was a smart football owner with money and instincts to nurture Denver’s most cherished asset. Today, Team Walton has the wherewithal to emulate Phipps and take that blueprint to new heights.

It’ll be fascinating to watch the next chapter unfold.