In NFL, stability starts at the top

With 3 commissioners in 60 years, league feels weight of next choice

August 08, 2006|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

Six popes and 11 U.S. presidents have trod history's stage in the same time, more than 60 years, that the NFL has had just three commissioners.

And one could add that it also has been a whole lot easier to pick popes and presidents than the person who heads the most successful sports enterprise in America.

Only Bert Bell, Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue have been elected to pro football's highest office since 1946. Bell took command after a league coup that deposed Notre Dame "horseman" Elmer Layden. Rozelle's selection in 1960 took 23 ballots. And Tagliabue's appointment in 1989 took 12 ballots over four months.

Perhaps then, it's no wonder that the league would like to avoid the process as much as possible.

"There's something about the culture of the NFL in which the guys who are picked stay there for a long time," said NFL historian Michael MacCambridge who wrote America's Game, a definitive chronicle of the league. "You've got that kind of stability, and it's been part of the puzzle because in those last three elections, there has been a great deal of trauma."

With Tagliabue's announced retirement imminent, NFL owners are meeting in Chicago on the cusp of picking someone to lead the league into an era of technology-driven marketing opportunities and greater international exposure. Beginning yesterday and possibly continuing today, each of the final five candidates - including Mayo A. Shattuck III of Baltimore, chief executive officer of Constellation Energy - is making a presentation to the league's 32 owners, probably answering questions and meeting with smaller groups of owners. A vote is expected today or tomorrow, and current league executive vice president and chief operating officer Roger Goodell is the front-runner.

The field was narrowed to five in a process that has moved along quietly but crisply since it began in early April with Tagliabue's appointment of an eight-member owners committee to oversee the search.

Just a few weeks later, the search committee hired Korn/Ferry International, a Los Angeles-based recruiting firm, to do the legwork on collecting information about the universe of candidates, which grew to 185. Among high-profile names that momentarily popped up during the hush-hush search were former President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The process for selecting a new commissioner began with Korn/Ferry discussing the job with each of the league's owners and seeking their input on job specifications and potential candidates. The information-gathering net was cast wide enough to even include the league's broadcast partners and major sponsors, sources familiar with the process said.

From the beginning, this commissioner search was designed to head off the very problems that tore the league apart in 1989, when the owners had to replace Rozelle. Back then, another committee made up mainly of the NFL's so-called old-guard owners, including the Cleveland Browns' Art Modell and the New York Giants' Wellington Mara, decided then-New Orleans general manager Jim Finks was the obvious choice. And, at a league meeting in Chicago in July 1989, they offered only Finks as a candidate.

"I was very, very supportive of Jim Finks' candidacy," Modell said. "He was so well-known, so talented and so competent."

But a faction of newer owners, such as the Denver Broncos' Pat Bowlen and the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones, rebelled and became what was called the "Chicago 11," a voting bloc that stymied Finks' quick election, which required a two-thirds majority, then 19 of 28 franchises.

For three months, the bitter feud festered until the new-owner minority swung enough votes to become a majority and elect Tagliabue.

"There was a clear difference of opinion, and they went with Tagliabue," Modell said. "As it turned out, it was the correct decision, because Paul has done a great job."

This time, the process has been painstakingly inclusive. Armed with ideas and suggestions from the league's owners, Korn/Ferry contacted candidates, researched resumes and consulted with the search committee. When league owners met in Detroit in late July , the field had been narrowed to 11, but names weren't made public. When the general meeting broke up, the committee stayed behind to interview the candidates.

"They've had an executive search firm, a long list, a short list," MacCambridge said. And unlike in the Tagliabue-Finks election, there have been meetings leading up to the current election where owners have been given a chance to voice their opinions.

"This way, they let everyone filibuster before they have to pick a commissioner."

On July 30, the five finalists were announced: Shattuck; Goodell, a Tagliabue top lieutenant; Gregg H. Levy, a Washington attorney from Tagliabue's old law firm; Frederick R. Nance, a Cleveland lawyer; and Robert L. Reynolds, chief operating officer of Fidelity Investments.

A vote of two-thirds, 22 of 32 franchises, is required to pick the new commissioner.

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