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Volume 21 No. 2
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Tagliabue Tales

Tagliabue's friends, colleagues and protégés share some favorite moments

“ After the 9/11 attacks, he understood the symbolism of the relaunch of the NFL season and its ability to inspire the country while also helping us get back to normal. We had already canceled a week of games, and Paul wanted the NFL to honor our heroes by coming back strong and united.

“One of the many things we did was have Jon Bon Jovi perform ‘God Bless America’ from a firehouse in Manhattan right before the one o’clock games — live on the broadcasts and in all the stadiums. The firehouse was Engine 8, Ladder 2, Battalion 8 on 51st Street in Midtown. They had lost 10 firefighters, including the captain, on 9/11.

“Before the event, Roger [Goodell] and I looked to the back of the firehouse by the lockers and saw Paul there, sitting with the firefighters’ families and their kids. Tears were running down his face; he was hugging people. That was a side of him not many people got the chance to see.

“Paul embraced the impact the NFL had on American society, and he began to embrace his role not just as a corporate CEO, but the corporate CEO of an iconic brand.”

JOHN COLLINS, who worked at the NFL in two stints from 1989 to 2004 and was president of the Cleveland Browns from 2004-06.

“My first introduction to Paul came when I was serving on the bargaining committee for the players. He was a young attorney representing the NFL, and we were on the opposite side. He was also a Redskins season-ticket holder, so we would talk about that. We established a friendship, and when I look back over my career, he’s taught me so much and has been a real mentor to me. He always took an interest in my career, and I’ll never forget that. Even when I was an athletic director at Colgate, he put me on a couple of NFL committees and he kept me connected to the NFL. I’m sure I’d never be in my position in the NFL today without Paul.”

MARK MURPHY, Green Bay Packers president and CEO, whose relationship with Tagliabue dates back 30 years to when Murphy was a player and a member of the NFLPA bargaining committee.

“The one memory that will always stay with me about Paul actually occurred before he become commissioner. All the owners were in a room, and this was when the USFL had filed a suit against the league and it was close to going to trial [in 1986]. The case had been painted by the league’s outside counsel as Armageddon: This was going to be very, very disastrous if we lost this case.

“Someone in the room asked the league counsel, ‘If you were sitting in our chair, would you try this case or would you settle this?’ He shot back, ‘Without question, I would settle.’ There was so much at stake; the room filled with a hush. Then Tagliabue got up, and he was our outside general counsel from Covington, and he said matter-of-factly, ‘I wouldn’t settle. It’s winnable, and I think settling would send the wrong message, and the price of settling will compromise the integrity of the NFL brand.’ I sat there and was amazed — by a number of facts. First, his ability to analyze the case. Two, seeing the guts he had after the lead counsel’s comments to the owners, and third, his sense of dedication and leadership to the league. I knew at that time he would be a great commissioner.”

CARMEN POLICY, who was president and CEO of the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns.

“Paul always projected that the league was under control, that there was leadership with honesty and no gimmicks in the process. He was very accessible to league business partners to discuss any issues.

“The toughest thing he or any commissioner has to do is lead a [board of directors] where they are almost all billionaires. You have to have a velvet hammer to contend with that, particularly in the case of the NFL, where the ownership has so much personal wealth involved. He was obviously a brilliant lawyer, but he also had a broad range of knowledge that served him well. He understood the arts and politics, and that balance was essential. He understood that he wasn’t the story; it was the teams, the players and what happened on the field.”

TONY PONTURO, who ran Anheuser-Busch’s sports marketing during Tagliabue’s commissioner tenure.

“He really understood the need for the NFL to become more global. He was very supportive of the initial business plan. He used to love traveling abroad on trips representing the NFL. He’d ask for meetings with local leaders in Asia, Europe and Mexico, and he would hold court, leading thoughtful discussions on wide topics — not just the NFL and sport, but local politics. He thought that was important for him to understand so the NFL was properly engaged in markets around the world.”

DON GARBER, who spent 16 years with the NFL before becoming MLS commissioner in 1999, concluding his tenure with the league as senior vice president and managing director of NFL International.

“Paul was a great commissioner, a better friend and an even better family man.”

JERRY RICHARDSON, Carolina Panthers owner, who in 1993 was awarded the league’s 29th team under Tagliabue.

“I remember his first league meeting as commissioner in 1990 on the Big Island of Hawaii. The state of Arizona was to vote again on a law to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday. The NFL was quickly thrust into the political battle, as the 1993 Super Bowl was to be hosted in Phoenix. Paul had to immediately address the issue, and in a decisive move [would relocate] the game from Arizona if the law did not pass. I distinctly remember working through the steps and for the first time ever removing a Super Bowl from a site, which occurred with the failed vote in November. Within six months, we had replaced it with Pasadena. That showed instantly how decisive he was. It was a very difficult issue; everyone wanted to put the NFL in the middle of the story of the decision. The state ended up approving the holiday in 1992, and the NFL almost three years to the date (March 1993) ultimately voted to place the 1996 Super Bowl in Arizona.

“In addition, in the summer before the 1993 Super Bowl in Pasadena, the riots took place in south central Los Angeles. Paul decided early on that the NFL needed to establish a legacy project to help rebuild L.A., and he made a commitment of $1 million to develop a program that would benefit the city of L.A., and that became the Youth Education Town, a program that still flourishes today in each Super Bowl city. It was ironic that the first YET Center ended up in the boyhood town of his predecessor, Pete Rozelle.

“Both of those were strong reflections on his feelings toward the African-American community, and he showed that type of leadership and concern from the very, very beginning. He understood the power that the NFL had to effect cultural change.”

JIM STEEG, who for 26 years was in charge of the Super Bowl and special events for the NFL.