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Tagliabue: All Power, No Glory

Pro football: Unassuming commissioner has kept things running smoothly in the post-Rozelle era.

January 24, 1998|J.A. ADANDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — In the coming months and years, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue will have plenty of opportunities to embellish the story, if he so desires.

For now, barely more than a week after Tagliabue secured a staggering $17.6 billion in television revenue for his league, he sticks to a truthful account of his celebration: dumplings, split with ABC President Robert Iger and ESPN/ABC Sports President Steve Bornstein, at a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan.

"Everyone had drunk so much coffee the prior four days, they couldn't think of anything more than sharing one order of Chinese dumplings," Tagliabue said.

No Dom Perignon, no handcrafted cigars for the man who had completed the richest television contract in sports history. Dumplings.

Not very exotic, but then, he's not a very exotic person. If you want flamboyance, look elsewhere. If you simply want to get the job done, look to Tagliabue.

"He's not the most public relations-oriented guy, but he is a guy who is willing to go out and take a task on and deal with it," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL players' union.

"I've learned one thing through the years that he's been commissioner: If he's not involved in it, it's not going to get solved. It's just that simple."

Some would say that anyone could do this job, the TV money a result of increased competition thanks to a fourth network player, Fox, and a robust economy. And Tagliabue will always have to contend with the perception that he's sitting in the captain's chair with the plane on autopilot after Pete Rozelle handled the takeoff.

Tagliabue is the first to credit the late Rozelle, his predecessor and the man largely responsible for the NFL's relationship with television and its policy that distributes the money generated by TV and other sources equally among the teams.

But there's something to be said for taking over a good thing and not messing it up. If that were so easy, Barry Switzer still would be coaching the Dallas Cowboys.

If that's all there is to this job, "I think that sells Paul short," said David Cornwell, former NFL assistant counsel.

"When he came in, we were in the throes of a labor dispute. I've worked with [NBA Commissioner David] Stern and [NHL Commissioner Gary] Bettman. With all due respect to them, I still think Paul's the guy.

"In '87, when I joined the NFL, there was a wide gulf between players and team owners. . . . He got a messed-up labor environment, and he fixed it."

Two years after the 1987 strike, Tagliabue, who had served as an NFL legal representative for 20 years, took over for Rozelle.

"I think Paul was the right candidate because he spent so much time with Rozelle," Pittsburgh Steeler owner Dan Rooney said. "He was ready and able to come in and bring his own style."

He didn't recoil from the prospect of following Rozelle, considered the commissioner in sports.

"I got a lot of comfort on that from Pete Rozelle himself," Tagliabue said. "He was the one who kept on telling me during the selection process, 'If it is you, you're ready for the job.' I didn't have any trepidation, just because of those personal conversations, which rang true because I had been involved since 1969.

"I knew and felt that I could work with everybody."

That has been the primary reason for his success. "I don't think you could run this league as the commissioner trying to have 30 owners follow you," Denver Bronco owner Pat Bowlen said. "They're not going to do that."

Tagliabue makes a point of integrating the league's established and new owners. He's big on committees.

"I think one of Paul's best qualities is he knows how to work with people and he gets the right people around him--especially people that are involved in the league as owners and general managers, things like that," Bowlen said. "He has a lot of people that never were involved before involved in the operation of the league. I think that really helps him, because then he has seven or eight owners involved in most issues, most questions. Usually when they come out of a committee, they're usually unanimous for the rest of the membership. And that's important. You see very few divided committees."

Cornwell described Tagliabue's method of operation as "a lot of common sense and maybe a little bit of tactics."

Tagliabue has tried to become more involved with players, but there's no doubt his most important relationship has been with Upshaw.

It took three years of Tagliabue's term and a court decision by U.S. District Court Judge David Doty, but Tagliabue and Upshaw worked out an agreement that granted the players free agency, instituted a salary cap and brought the league labor stability through the end of the decade.

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