Search for new commissioner could take time

There are other issues to discuss, but the search for a new commissioner will dominate this week's annual NFL meetings.

Updated: March 28, 2006, 12:42 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- In the spring of 1989, as a group of NFL officials huddled at a hotel near O'Hare Airport in Chicago, poised to convene a meeting that was to pave the way for the election of a new commissioner, the combination of stormy weather and an air traffic controllers' problem conspired to delay the arrival of several key owners.

As some owners cooled their heels for several hours, waiting for fraternity brothers to escape the holding pattern in the gray skies above them, sentiments at the hotel grew increasingly heated and a split in the NFL brotherhood became more pronounced.

The delay allowed some owners who felt disenfranchised by a process that was to elevate Jim Finks into the retiring Pete Rozelle's spot, a new breed of owner who believed their Old Guard brethren had turned an election into the equivalent of a coronation, to vent their grievances. Sitting in the hotel restaurant, with the anger mounting faster than the bar tab, the disenchantment of owners such as Jerry Jones of Dallas, Denver's Pat Bowlen and Jim Irsay of Indianapolis grew quickly into dissent.

Perhaps emboldened a bit by the hours of imbibing, maybe buoyed by their collective resolve, the group of dissidents was determined to derail Finks' candidacy.

Thus was born the so-called "Chicago 11," the cabal of owners who felt they didn't have sufficient voice in what they viewed as a flawed, rubber-stamp process, and who eventually blocked the ascension of Finks to Rozelle's coveted throne. Their alliance, a classic power play by a group that had been mainstream league supporters but who also recognized an opportunity to enhance its clout at a critical time of transition, set into motion a debilitating impasse. The Finks' fast track to the commissioner's office became a quagmire and then, eventually, a dead-end.

It took nearly seven more months, and a stretch of inertia during which the league essentially focused on just one divisive issue, before the owners chose Paul Tagliabue, and not Finks, as Rozelle's successor.

The good news, as the league convened the opening session of its annual meeting here Monday morning, is that the weather was cool but clear. Nearly all the flights into the Orlando airport were on time. And most of the league's owners, with either Sunday committee sessions or a weekend round of golf on their personal agendas, already had arrived a day or two early.

But when it comes to electing a commissioner in the NFL, at least the last two times, history seems to have a way of repeating itself. And while no one expects the kind of seven-month standoff that preceded the '89 election of Tagliabue, these two items are notable: It took 12 ballots to promote Tagliabue from the NFL's top league counsel to its top man, period. The election of Rozelle, the consummate compromise candidate, required 22 ballots.

"No matter how clean the process," acknowledged New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, "this thing could still take a while. It's going to take time, it's going to take patience, and I'm sure it's probably going to take of a lot [of discussion]. We don't do this very often, right?"

Right, indeed. Which is why, no matter what else occurs here this week, it all will be overshadowed by the search for Tagliabue's successor.

By now, most people know the names of the alleged front-runners, men such as NFL chief operating officer Roger Goodell, team presidents Rich McKay of Atlanta and Dick Cass of Baltimore, and league counsel Jeff Pash. Those names certainly will be prominent when the discussions begin. But there remains some sense that the league's new commissioner might not be such a familiar name.

Surveyed for some dark-horse candidates, owners on Sunday evening offered up several interesting names. Notable was the range of backgrounds included in the speculative group. Given the challenges that lie ahead for a league attempting to create new revenue streams in the digital age, it will not be surprising if the next commissioner comes from the electronic sector.

"You're going to hear a lot [of names]," said New Orleans owner Tom Benson. "There's probably going to be a laundry list, because there are a lot of people that [owners] consider qualified. That's what this is all about. And, sure, whether it's discussed in sessions or just informally in the hallways, it's the one thing that is going to dominate the week."

One idea that doesn't seem to carry much weight is that the job could be split into two parts (a business side and a football side).

What else might transpire? Well, there are the usual rules-change recommendations from the influential competition committee, none of which figures to dramatically alter the game. The Kansas City Chiefs have proposed, once again, expanding the playoff pool by two more qualifiers, a move that has generated little support. The league will award compensatory draft picks and likely will announce the matchups for its prime time opening-week games. Seven rookie head coaches will make their debuts in front of the national media over the next few days.

All of it will pale, though, to the discussions over the next commissioner. And those discussions, at least the formal ones, are off to a slow start.

It was anticipated that Tagliabue would appoint a search committee Monday afternoon, but that was not the case. The composition of the committee might not be determined by the end of this week's sessions here, and could carry over into next week. Tagliabue said that a corporate search firm likely will be part of the search as well, and that the firm might interview all 32 owners, seeking input into what the see as the major qualifications for the job.

Tagliabue was adamant that he will not make a recommendation to the committee on his successor. "That's not my function," he said.

For his part, Tagliabue, who looked wan and worn just a few weeks ago, when the enduring labor peace he was attempting to forge seeemed doomed, appeared reinvigorated on Monday morning. That's good, since he has promised to remain beyond his July retirement date if a successor isn't chosen by then. And since choosing the next commissioner might take a bit longer than four months.

A former Georgetown center, and a guy who was once the Hoyas' career-leading rebounder, Tagliabue has towered over meetings. These meetings will be marked by the specter of his pending departure.

Unlike a papal election, there will be no puff of smoke this week emanating from the meeting rooms of the resort hotel at which the owners have bivouacked. What will be interesting, though, is to discern just how much fire the process will create.

"Oh, it's going to be a civil and orderly process," said Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, now the senior owner in the league, the man to whom Tagliabue first broke the news of his pending retirement and, as a moderate, a potential search committee member. "I don't think it will be too [contentious]."

Maybe not. But there were signs on Sunday afternoon and evening and early Monday morning, as owners wandered the corridors here, that some battle lines could be developing. In 1989, the split was between the Old Guard owners and the Young Turks. This time around, the differences between the high-revenue and low-revenue franchises -- a split that was a major component of the recent labor negotiations -- could serve as the demarcation line.

The successful conclusion to the labor talks, the fat coffers created by the national television contracts, the sense that the game's preeminence in America is intact, and the fact Tagliabue is leaving the league in great shape has promulgated a kind of feel-good aura.

But as one owner noted Sunday night, as he sipped on a cool drink and mused about how he hopes the commissioner search might be just as refreshing: "The truth is, everyone has an agenda in this deal. Whoever we pick, he'll be just the third person to have the job since 1960. So everyone understands it's got to be the right person. But, in their minds, everyone is thinking, 'Yeah, but it's got to be the right person for me.' So, in that regard, there's going to be some heat."

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

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