Rooney has best rep among coaches, but it's a close call
Who are the best owners in the NFL? According to a survey of coaches, the Rooney family is No. 1 , followed closely by Jerry Jones and Pat Bowlen.
Jones is not only the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, he is the general manager. He is always at the forefront of what the Cowboys do. Almost nothing happens with the Cowboys without Jones being an integral part.
Bowlen, however, is almost always in the shadows. Even though Bowlen works every day at the Broncos' facility, it's no sure thing that he attends practice.
While the chatty, high-spirited Jones is omnipresent, the shy, reserved Bowlen is more comfortable in the background. Yet both styles clearly work, as each man is nearing the end of his third decade as a multiple Super Bowl-winning owner in the NFL.
NFL Coaches Survey
ESPN.com surveyed NFL head coaches for their take on a range of issues, including the league's smartest offensive player (non-QB), smartest defensive player, dirtiest player, best owner and best referees. Thirty-one of the 32 coaches participated on some level. Each head coach received anonymity for his candor.• Smartest offensive: Hines Ward
• Smartest defensive: Zach Thomas
• Dirtiest player: Rodney Harrison
• Best owner: Dan Rooney
• Best refs: Mike Carey, Ed Hochuli
• More: Can teams ostracize refs?
• Watch: NFL Live on 'dirtiest'
• Watch: NFL Live on 'smartest'
Bowlen received 4.5 votes and Jones received four votes, trailing only the five votes received by the Dan Rooney family, which founded the Steelers. Dan Rooney, the chairman of the team, declined to comment for this story. Rooney was at the top of a very crowded list, which lends credence to the notion that the NFL is enjoying a zenith of quality ownership. Eleven of the 32 owners in the league received votes.
"It's a nice compliment to hear your peers feel that way," Jones said. "I think I've been a guy who always had had my share of criticism along with compliments, but I have always tried to make my organization work. That is the key. You always have to strive for success."
Quality ownership also means you have to be the type of person for whom people want to work. Coaches said the primary prerequisite of good ownership is simple: support. Coaches want owners who are willing to use resources to make their team competitive, but also owners who are aware of what is going on.
After one season as a head coach in the NFL, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin clearly relishes working for the Rooney family. Tomlin said there is a reason why his ownership received the most votes.
"Everything permeates from the top down," Tomlin said. "I don't care what you talk about, whether it's a football team or a business. Our owners' reputation is well-deserved. They're awesome people. They're football people. It's one of the things that's better than you even anticipate."
Gary Kubiak, going into his third season as the head coach in Houston, said he has been lucky to work with good ownership. He was the offensive coordinator in Denver under Bowlen for a decade and now works for Texans owner Bob McNair, who received a vote for best owner. Kubiak said he feels fortunate to have worked under such quality ownership. He said his job would be much more difficult if he didn't work for quality people.
"It's the only chance you have as a football coach, I can tell you that," Kubiak said. "You have to work for a good man who is willing to do whatever it takes to give your team a chance to be competitive. There is nothing better than that support system they give you. Bob McNair is just tremendous. I was fortunate enough to be around Pat as an assistant coach."
Mike Shanahan has worked for Bowlen since 1995 as head coach and previously had a stint under Bowlen as an assistant coach. The only other owner Shanahan has worked under as a head coach is Raiders owner Al Davis, who didn't receive a vote in this survey. Shanahan worked for Davis for 20 games in 1988-89 and his distaste for Davis is well-known. Shanahan said he credits Bowlen's leadership for his success in Denver.
"You can't get better than Pat Bowlen," Shanahan said. "He gives you everything you need as a coach. People around the league recognize how good he is as an owner. He's steady, he's calm. He gives total support."
Like Rooney, Bowlen stays in the background. Still, Bowlen said it is imperative for him to work at the Broncos' facility. Some owners have offices and other businesses elsewhere. The Broncos are Bowlen's business.
"The Broncos are my job and I love my job," Bowlen said. "It's very easy to go to work."
But don't expect Bowlen ever to make football decisions. He fully trusts Shanahan.
"In my 24 years as an owner, I always thought it was my job to find the right people," Bowlen said. "Once you find the right people, you trust the team with those people. If I ever thought I don't have the right people, I'd make a change."
Jones' approach is surely different, but the goal is the same.
"I am hands-on, but I think I treat my people as equals," Jones said. "I put myself in their shoes and I have the same goals. Sure, I make a lot of decisions, but I trust and respect my people as if they were my equal because they are my equal."
Both Bowlen and Jones said the fact that 11 different owners were nominated by the coaches speaks to how well the league is currently being run."This is the most informed group of owners that I've ever been involved with," Jones said. "We're really in good shape. Information is king and our owners are all very aware of what's going on. This isn't an easy business to be involved in, but we have a good, united group."
Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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