Tagliabue to retire as NFL's chief in July

He made Baltimore wait for a new team

March 21, 2006|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN REPORTER

Under Paul Tagliabue, the National Football League experienced unparalleled growth and unimagined popularity. The commissioner with the dour expression and legal background built stadiums as well as labor peace over the past 16 seasons.

But in Baltimore, he will be remembered as the Washington lawyer who rejected this city's expansion application in the early 1990s, smugly inviting it to build a museum instead of a football stadium.

Tagliabue, 65, announced yesterday that he will step down in July as commissioner of the nation's most popular sport. Having scored a lucrative new television contract - worth about $4 billion a year - and wrangled a collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association in the past year, he will retire to an advisory role that carries through May 2008.

The announcement was met with broad praise for Tagliabue in a flurry of statements from around the league.

"Paul will be remembered as one of the greatest commissioners in the history of professional sports," said New York Giants President John Mara.

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank called Tagliabue "the gold standard of a modern-day sports commissioner."

Replacing Tagliabue, who was masterful at drawing a consensus from the divergent group of owners, could prove problematic. When Pete Rozelle retired as commissioner in 1989, it took the owners seven contentious months to reach agreement on Tagliabue, who had been an attorney at the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling and a lobbyist for the league.

The search for Tagliabue's successor will begin at next week's owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., when the league draws up a short list of candidates.

Houston Texans owner Robert McNair expressed a note of regret at a news conference yesterday.

"I'm disappointed that he's retiring," McNair said. "I think we've accomplished a lot in the new [collective bargaining agreement] and the new TV contract, but we still have a lot of work that remains to be done, and so it will be a challenge for whoever we bring in to succeed him."

McNair said the league might have to hire two people to fill Tagliabue's shoes - "one who is basically the commissioner and runs the football side, and the other would be like the CEO who runs the business side."

While early speculation focused on Roger Goodell, the league's chief operating officer, or Falcons general manager Rich McKay, at least one potential candidate seemed to rule himself out.

"I don't know how or why my name is being mentioned," said Ravens President Dick Cass, who helped break the logjam in the recent labor negotiations. "No one has approached me, and I have the job I really want. This is where I will be staying."

As far as former Gov. William Donald Schaefer is concerned, Tagliabue didn't leave soon enough. Schaefer, now state comptroller, and Herbert J. Belgrad, then the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, waged an unsuccessful campaign in the early 1990s for one of two NFL expansion franchises. Those franchises went to Charlotte, N.C., in October 1993, and Jacksonville, Fla., a month later, leaving feelings of distrust in the wake of the expansion process.

Tagliabue "was never a friend of Baltimore," Schaefer said yesterday. "He was very bad to us."

Schaefer said Tagliabue was rude to Baltimore's expansion committee. He recalled going to New York to meet the commissioner, who made him wait in the lobby of the league offices, only to leave without speaking to him.

"I never had any respect for him and I never liked him," Schaefer said. "But other than that, he's a fine man."

Belgrad, also an attorney, was less blunt in his assessment.

"Our perception was that the cards were stacked against us," he said. "Each time they set up a new standard, imposed a new requirement or procedure and we complied with it, it was something else" that had to be done.

"The only conclusion we could come to was that the commissioner had made up his mind that he wanted to place franchises other than in the congested East Coast area. When Jacksonville dropped out, the NFL rolled over in every direction to get them back in. And why? Particularly when we had a proposal on the table that has proven over time to be the best proposal and was the proposal that brought the Browns to Baltimore."

Nevertheless, Tagliabue led the NFL to a new level. He took the league from 28 teams to 32, realigned divisions, crafted a new scheduling formula, instituted a stadium subsidy program, campaigned for minority hiring and expanded its media content by launching the NFL Network on cable and satellite television.

During his tenure, the league saw 26 stadiums built or renovated. In the wake of bitter player strikes in 1982 and 1987, Tagliabue fostered a partnership with the players association. Less than two weeks ago, he completed negotiations that will extend labor peace through 2011.

"Building a strong relationship with the NFL Players Association would be the thing I'm most proud of," he said during a conference call. "I think everyone in the NFL in the '80s saw [labor conflicts] as a growing negative."

Art Modell, former owner of the Ravens and Cleveland Browns, said Tagliabue has left a distinct imprint.

"His legacy probably will end up peace with the players," Modell said from Boca Raton, Fla. "His legacy is to be enduring."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Jill Rosen and Jamison Hensley, and the Associated Press, contributed to this article.

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