Jack Wilkinson: Blank turns to friends to help in rebuilding Falcons - Sports Illustrated

With a little help from his friends

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ATLANTA -- He'd seemingly become the billionaire owner who now couldn't even buy a break.

When Lawrence Tynes' redemptive field goal split the Lambeau Field uprights Sunday night, when the New York Football Giants upset Green Bay to advance to the unlikeliest of Super Bowls, one of the first people I thought of was ... Arthur Blank? Yes. In a year and a world in which anything that could go wrong for Blank and his Atlanta Falcons franchise did go wrong, Tynes' boot was yet another kick in the rump.

The Falcons dearly wanted to talk to Giants' defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo about their head coaching vacancy. But they were denied permission by the Giants to interview Spagnuolo three weeks ago. And with the Giants still in the playoffs, Atlanta, according to NFL rules, would have to wait until after the Super Bowl to do so.

No, it wasn't a size-XLII headache. Nothing like Michael Vick and dogfighting and doing time in Leavenworth. Nothing like Bobby Petrino's deceit and premature evacuation. Besides, it was still just January; and weren't the Redskins still searching for a coach, too? Yet it was another glitch, another notion gone temporarily awry for a well-intentioned, hands-on owner who initially could do no wrong. But on Wednesday, Blank's luck may have turned as the team hired Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith as its new coach.

For months now, we Atlantans had turned on the TV or radio, gone on-line or picked up the paper to check for the latest Falcon calamity:

Vick's suspension, then guilty plea and finally prison sentence. The slapstick three-QB shuffle. The misadventures of MeAngelo, as Atlanta columnist Mark Bradley called the self-absorbed cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Petrino's pomposity and non-communication, which infuriated veteran players. His "You have a coach" lie to Blank shortly before another "Monday Night Football" embarrassment in the Georgia Dome, and just hours after Vick was sentenced to 23 months. Petrino's next-day bolt to Arkansas and his bye-bye letter to the players (safety Lawyer Milloy scribbled "COWARD!" on his copy before posting it on his locker).

And then? Let the simultaneous, meandering general manager (can you say "Tuna"?) and coaching searches begin. And me? I keep picturing all this in a Home Depot context, the retail giant which Blank helped found and where he made his fortune. I keep hearing the P.A. system in a Home Depot store: "Mister Blank, clean-up on aisle 4-12."

That's the Falcons' 2007 record. That's hardly the bottom line.

In '02, when Blank bought the hapless franchise -- it's never had back-to-back winning seasons -- he was viewed as a civic sporting savior: Smart, savvy, personable and wildly successful. Blank now owned an NFL team in the flagship city of the deep-fried football-frenzied South. How could he fail?

Blank was determined to bring Atlanta a winner, and for awhile, he did. In '03, he fired coach Dan Reeves, who'd miraculously led the Falcons to Super Bowl XXXIII. Yet Reeves left behind an uncut diamond: Vick, the raw Virginia Tech quarterback and nonpareil athlete whom Reeves took with the No. 1 pick in the '01 draft.

On the day Vick was drafted, I went on an Atlanta radio station and predicted, "Michael Vick could revolutionize the quarterback position." He revolutionized it, all right.

At first, Blank shrewdly cut ticket prices, particularly in the cheap seats. Fans responded, especially once Vick took over and took off on his breathtaking, improvisational scrambles that once prompted then-radio play-by-play man Jeff Hullinger to shriek, "The in-COMPARABLE Mike Vick!" He was incomparable, all right.

In '04, under new coach Jim Mora, Atlanta reached the NFC Championship Game in frigid Philadelphia. What happens if Lincoln Financial Field isn't Lambeau East that day? To this day, I still think the Falcons would've won in better weather and played the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

In December '04Blank and then-general manager Rich McKay lavished a 10-year, $130 million contract extension on Vick. By then, Vick had already bought the Virginia house where his dogfighting ring was in operation. And by then, Blank's habit of appearing on Atlanta's sideline in the waning minutes of each game was a given.

The owner saw it as a means of relating to his team, either congratulating or consoling his players. Others saw a schmoozer, grabbing the TV spotlight. Jerry Jones with a moustache and without the facelift. Anyone ever see Art Rooney or Wellington Mara down on the sideline?

Blank's most famous on-field cameo, of course, came before a '03 preseason game. He wheeled out Vick in a wheelchair, the quarterback's ankle in a cast after a season-ending injury and surgery the previous week. But then, that's Blank. The compassionate corporate guy.

Far less compassionate on Jan. 1, '07, however, when Blank fired Mora. This, after the Falcons missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. This, two weeks after Mora went on a Seattle sports radio show and was, in essence, pining to return someday to his alma mater as the head coach at the University of Washington.

Enter the disingenuous job-hopper Petrino. Cue trouble. Big, big trouble. Especially once Vick was found to have lied about his dogfighting involvement, not only to Blank but also to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and federal authorities.

"A Pollyanna -- with battle scars:Blank's weakness? He trusts people,and says being fooled by Vick andPetrino won't change that."

That was the front-page headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday, Dec. 16. Blank comes by his trust in people and their inherent goodness honestly: from his late father, Max, who died at 44 when Arthur was 15. Searching for the perfect epitaph for Max, his widow had his headstone inscribed: "Always Found the Best in Others."

It's a trait Blank carries, a belief he embraces. It's often an asset, but not always.

"Arthur is the type of person who looks at people through rose-colored glasses," Blank's wife, Stephanie, told Steve Hummer of the Journal-Constitution. "He always expects the best of people, until he's faced with something like this. I think that's one of his best qualities. But it sometimes will bite you in the heinie."

As with Petrino, by whom Blank said he'd felt "betrayed" and "abused." As with Vick, whom Blank had still believed in despite earlier warning signs: The "Ron Mexico" fiasco. The missing watch and, especially, the water bottle incident at airport security. The frequent trips back home to Virginia.

If Blank is too trusting, he's much like Home Depot's clientele: A do-it-yourselfer, which is fine for finishing one's basement but not running an NFL franchise. Blank has a reputation as a macro micromanager, someone who can put the meddle to the pedal.

Russ Campbell, Petrino's agent, told the Birmingham News that his client couldn't handle Blank's meddling. That the owner once complained to Petrino about the coaching's wording of a pre-game prayer.

As SI.com's Don Banks reported last week, Blank had some GM and coaching candidates meet with as many as 11 people. They included the head of Blank's charitable foundation and some corporate types.

Surely Bill Parcells wasn't subjected to all that. Blank thought he'd reached an agreement in principle on Dec. 18 with Parcells to take over Atlanta's football operations. The Tuna was playing the owner, however. Parcells assumed total control in Miami. Blank had been had.

While conducting a search-and-employ mission for both a head coach and general manager to replace the deposed McKay, Blank wisely enlisted Ernie Accorsi to help. The now-retired but still greatly-admired former NFL general manager helped point Blank toward his new GM: Thomas Dimitroff, a relative unknown outside the Patriots family and the Dimitroff family, but highly regarded by NFL insiders.

It was Dimitroff -- whom Blank never met before hiring, but interviewed via Webcam -- who essentially selected Smith. With, of course, Blank's blessing. Now the owner, the GM and their new coach can start going about the business of rebuilding a team and franchise. First step? Assemble a coaching staff, then find a quarterback.

As he did after buying the team, Blank has again lowered ticket prices. He had to, after all those empty seats last season. If he's smart -- and Max Blank's billionaire son surely is --, the owner will also step back a bit. He'll let his new GM manage things and his new coach coach.

And maybe Arthur Blank will obsess less.

A footnote: On Jan. 17, a Journal-Constitution writer awoke to find a nice e-mail from Blank, complimenting him on a story that morning profiling Dimitroff. It was the day after Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett had interviewed here for the head coaching job. Garrett turned it down to stay in Dallas with a nice raise in pay: a $3 million salary. Time of e-mail? 2:30 a.m.

Arthur? Turn off the light and get some sleep.