Grace and savvy marked Rozelle's tenure, character

On the NFL

December 08, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

It was fitting that when Pete Rozelle died, it would be late on a Friday night.

The consummate public relations man, Rozelle liked to wait until Fridays to announce bad news because the Saturday papers are often the week's smallest.

Rozelle would have wanted the news of his death to be obscured. For all his success as NFL commissioner, he was not a man who sought the limelight.

He liked working behind he scenes and never let his ego get the best of him.

He was one of the few successful men who could publicly admit when he made a mistake.

When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Rozelle decided to let the league play its regular schedule two days later. He later said that was his biggest mistake. It takes a man of stature to admit a mistake.

Rozelle was a man of his word. As one colleague said, "He never said anything he didn't believe."

Rozelle also had a feel for the tradition of the game. That was important to him. With all his flair for marketing and television, the game was still the thing to him.

I got a firsthand look at that after Baltimore lost its team in 1984. That December, the league went to court to stop the Eagles from leaving Philadelphia after saying six months earlier it couldn't stop the Colts from leaving Baltimore.

The difference was that Philadelphia was a much bigger market that the league couldn't afford to lose, but I was quick to point out the inconsistency of the league's two stands.

A few days later, I got an unsolicited phone call from Rozelle. He said it was an off-the-record conversation. The gist of it was that he understood that what happened to Baltimore was wrong and that the league was going to fix it once the city got a stadium.

After that, I never doubted Baltimore would get an expansion team. You could take Rozelle's word to the bank.

Unfortunately for Baltimore, Rozelle resigned in 1989 -- before the league expanded.

The labor fights and the legal battles had obviously taken their toll on him. He was spending more time in the courtroom than at the games.

Once he left, everything about the NFL changed -- mostly for the worse. The traditions of the sport, including what Baltimore had once meant to the NFL, no longer mattered to the new regime.

The best example was how Baltimore was bypassed in the expansion derby despite having such a good deal on the table. It never would have happened if Rozelle had been commissioner.

To understand what Rozelle meant to the game, it is only necessary to look at how much poorer the sport is without his deft hands at the controls.

As a tribute to Rozelle, meanwhile, a moment of silence will be observed before the national anthem at the 14 NFL games today and tomorrow.

Bickering Bills?

Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and several other veterans complained that Buffalo was too conservative in its 13-10, overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts last week, but it didn't cause a problem.

That's because offensive coordinator Tom Bresnahan and quarterbacks coach Jim Shofner agreed with them.

"I didn't do a very good job," Shofner said.

Bresnahan said: "We certainly were too conservative. If I had to do it all over again, I'd certainly like to do it differently."

Darick Holmes, who started for the ailing Thomas, carried 30 times. Todd Collins, playing for Kelly, threw only 17 passes.

Thomas said: "We're not trying to bring back the 'Bickering Bills.' It was just something where we were just frustrated, especially me and Jim because we couldn't play."

Bresnahan said: "From my standpoint, I love every one of them. I've been to four Super Bowls because of these guys."

The Bills figure to open it up again today against the Seattle Seahawks because Kelly should be back in the lineup.

Legal file

Lawyers are taking depositions from various NFL owners these days to prepare for the St. Louis relocation-fee lawsuit that is likely to come to trial next summer. St. Louis contends that since Oakland didn't pay a fee for the Raiders, it shouldn't have to pay.

One owner taking a surprising stand is Art Modell of the Ravens, who's testifying for the league against St. Louis, even though he won't have to pay a relocation fee if St. Louis wins its suit. Modell said he's backing the league because he believes a deal is a deal.

Modell acknowledges that the Ravens will be in what he calls a "financial squeeze" until they move into the new stadium at Camden Yards in 1998, but said they'll have enough money to go after free agents in the off-season. He said he also would like to pick up more draft picks.

Modell says his financial projections are on schedule, though he'll get a better idea Dec. 18, the deadline for season-ticket holders to send in 40 percent of their PSL fee if they want to retain their tickets.

Incidentally, Modell's moving expenses could rise now that a Cleveland judge has allowed 15,000 Browns season-ticket holders to file a class-action suit against him for selling tickets for what turned out to be a lame-duck 1995 season. They want in excess of $1 million in damages.

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