Tagliabue leaving NFL in great shape

In his 16-plus-year reign as commissioner, Paul Tagliabue has earned NFL owners a ton of money and a likely spot in the Hall of Fame.

Updated: March 20, 2006, 6:26 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Timing is everything in life, and if Paul Tagliabue never possessed much rhythm in his mostly flat attempts at knee-slappers, give the NFL commissioner credit for demonstrating on an otherwise slow-news Monday that he knew precisely when it was time to exit the stage.

As most media types who have ever attended one of his dry news conferences will attest, Tagliabue never left his audience laughing. No matter, since he was paid to be a commissioner and not a comedian, a man more concerned with extending the bottom line than with tossing out witty one-liners. Because of that, he leaves the NFL in terrific shape, with burgeoning coffers and a labor peace that should extend well beyond his 17-season tenure.

Both of those accomplishments -- his ability to expand revenue streams, at a time many owners feared they had dried up, and to keep the league out of the kind of labor strife that essentially forced predecessor Pete Rozelle to retire -- will be Tagliabue's hallmark. And those two things should be a reminder that, in many ways, he was a commissioner for this time.

It was Rozelle who ushered the NFL into the television age, who shepherded the league through the bitter war with the AFL and then the eventual merger, who fought off the USFL, and who really grew the game into America's pastime. For all those things, Rozelle is deservedly recalled as arguably the greatest sports czar in history.

But because Tagliabue has lacked the public ease of his predecessor, and been described (and justifiably so) as dismissive on many occasions, it's become fashionable to dismiss his achievements.

And that is neither a viable nor an accurate read on what he has meant to the league.

Rozelle built relationships, forged friendships and chain-smoked his way through cocktail parties and social gatherings with glibness and grace. Tagliabue, on the other hand, built stadiums. More than a glad-hander, he was a commissioner who handed his constituents a blueprint for taking the game into a new millennium, with an understanding of what lies ahead in terms of the business of sport. Rozelle sold the game. Tagliabue sold T-shirts and licensing rights.

If he was not as easy to embrace as Rozelle was, owners never much hesitated to wrap their arms around the riches that Tagliabue funneled into their profit statements by always raising the television ante, even when the odds suggested otherwise. In short, Tagliabue has been a businessman commissioner at a time when the league needed precisely that.

He has been handsomely rewarded -- Sports Business Journal reported on Monday that Tagliabue earned $9.58 million in total compensation in the past year -- but there aren't many league owners who would quibble about that remuneration given the money he has earned for them.

Not to be overlooked was that Tagliabue also enhanced the social conscience of the league and brought more minorities into prominent positions.

One has to wonder what might have transpired had the late Jim Finks, the man who was supposed to have succeeded Rozelle, been elected commissioner. A media darling, Finks might have returned every phone call from every newspaper reporter from Anaheim to Zanzibar. But what the NFL actually needed in moving forward from Rozelle, and in advancing beyond the mentality of a mom-and-pop operation, was someone to not only mind the store but also expand it.

In that regard, Tagliabue, it seems, was the right man at the right time. It's part of any sport that people cling to the old ways and eschew progress because we prefer lore. Tagliabue brought progress while remaining a man who championed the history of the game. If he wasn't always a lovable figure, there was never any doubting his love for or devotion to the game.

If he was a commissioner for the New Age of Sport, a time when the figures in the profit-and-loss ledgers meant as much as the numbers on the scoreboard, Tagliabue always maintained some link to the past.

Funny thing, but the commissioner recently had surgery to correct his vision, a procedure that means he no longer requires glasses. But in considering the legacy of Tagliabue, years from now historians likely will conclude that this commissioner was a man of vision long before laser surgery.

And if he lacked the public-relations acumen that was such an innate element of Rozelle's makeup, well, please note that Tagliabue, an old Georgetown center who was known to have pretty sharp elbows as a rebounder, waited for an off day from the NCAA Tournament to announce his exit. There will be plenty of time to speculate on possible successors, a quasi-parlor game among NFL reporters that's been played for years and that was fueled when ESPN colleague Chris Mortensen reported a week ago that Tagliabue was considering his end-game strategy.

What is key is that there is a strategy, and one that should permit the NFL to function without the kind of inertia that existed in 1989, when a group of dissident owners blocked Finks' election. Much like Lou Gerstner did at IBM in 2003, when he set in motion a succession plan by staying on even as Samuel Palmisano assumed the CEO reins, Tagliabue will remain as a senior consultant. Whatever transition is in order, Tagliabue wants it to be, well, in order.

Given the grind of the recent labor talks, during which Tagliabue appeared drawn and weary, he has earned a rest. And he has probably earned a place in the Hall of Fame, an honor for which he has been nominated in the past but for which Tagliabue has never been a finalist.

A close friend on the Hall of Fame selection committee told me last week that he didn't feel that any person should be enshrined in Canton until he retired. On Monday afternoon, Tagliabue left that selector, and doubtless some others as well, with no more excuses.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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