Big shoes to fill, again

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:24 AM ET

The shoes are now on the other feet and good luck filling them for a second time.

When NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue ascended to the throne previously occupied by Pete Rozelle, the strong sentiment was that the newcomer was doomed to fail.

The man who had built the NFL into the most successful sports league in North America had shoes far too big to fill by any mere mortal, much less a corporate lawyer.

Millions of fans, hundreds of prosperous players and 32 rich team owners can emphatically argue otherwise today.

The NFL announced yesterday that Tagliabue has decided to retire this July, ending a brilliant 16-year reign that helped revolutionize the world of pro sports as we know it.

From ensuring labour peace, to engineering billion-dollar television contracts, Tagliabue made his contemporaries in other pro sports look like rubes by comparison.

"The job Paul has done in his years as commissioner is unprecedented," Denver Broncos president Pat Bowlen said yesterday in an (under) statement.

Tagliabue arguably saved his best work for last, helping ram through the recently completed labour agreement amid growing tensions on both sides.

It took three deadline extensions and some unique consensus building by a handful of owners he trusted most, but Tagliabue did what he always does and got the deal done.

"Building a strong relationship with the (NFLPA) is the thing I'm most proud of," Tagliabue said yesterday on a media conference call. "Everyone involved in the NFL in the '80s saw that as a negative."

Old-time owners were convinced that players, and especially their agents, were to be seen and not heard. Tagliabue, though, was astute enough to sense that because of the NFL's popularity, if properly managed, everyone in the game could prosper.

So in 1992, the commissioner convinced owners and the players' union to buy into the then- controversial concept of a salary cap, now accepted as the only way to go in pro sports.

To ensure his owners (the ones who paid his salary, after all) still made money, Tagliabue encouraged them to build new stadiums with luxury boxes.

He made sure every U.S. network with a significant audience would bid for TV rights.

And, ultimately, he made sure they would still make millions.

Given the bumbling labour relations in baseball and hockey in recent years, it is remarkable that Tagliabue will end his run without a work stoppage.

As a result, the NFL is the envy of other leagues both for its popularity, prosperity and unmatched labour landscape.

Though Tagliabue's best work was done behind closed doors, his delivery and a tendency to lapse into legalese created a public persona that was less than gripping.

Fascinating for his smooth intelligence, Tagliabue's annual state of the union address on the Friday before the Super Bowl had a cool, presidential feel to it.

He wasn't always that way, though. During a visit to Toronto a few years back, Tagliabue showed his personal side during an informal meeting with a handful of reporters in which we was amiable and relaxed.

Unlike Rozelle, whose style was carved from his public relations background, Tagliabue wasn't a backslapper but was instead a dealmaker. And one of the best at that.

So it was somewhat curious when Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson had a long face after the recent labour deal was announced, expressing his concern that small markets were getting the shaft.

In fact, the opposite could be argued as most other pro leagues wouldn't touch such downscale burgs as Buffalo, Green Bay or Jacksonville, much less add to their riches.

For that, they can thank the guy filling those big shoes.


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