The Stoic Faced with a nightmarish post-Super Bowl week, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue munched his English muffin and stayed the course

February 16, 2004

Ten hours after the Patriots' thrilling 32-29 Super Bowl win,
commissioner Paul Tagliabue ran into New England coach Bill
Belichick in the lobby of a Houston Hilton. "Have you ever been
in a game that taxed the heart more than this one?" Tagliabue
asked. Never, Belichick said.

That was the last time the commissioner got to savor what may
have been the best Super Bowl ever. From the moment on Monday
when Tagliabue boarded the private jet that returned him to his
office in New York, he faced perhaps the most problem-packed week
of his 14-year tenure. The country he was flying over was both
appalled by and obsessed with the Janet Jackson Halftime
Incident, and many held the NFL responsible. On Wednesday,
Tagliabue's league was back in the news, after ESPN canceled its
controversial Playmakers series, succumbing to pressure from the
NFL. (Tagliabue had called Michael Eisner, the ultimate boss of
ESPN, to complain that the series was one-dimensional and
distorted life in the league.) Then on Thursday a U.S. district
court ruled that the league's draft eligibility rules violated
antitrust laws, making it possible for Ohio State's Maurice
Clarett, and anyone else, to enter the NFL draft, a decision the
league will appeal.

Anyone remember that terrific Super Bowl?

And yet at the center of the storm all was calm--and maybe a bit
dull, even. Those close to Tagliabue say it was hard to tell
whether the buttoned-down 63-year-old career lawyer, who cut his
NFL teeth as outside counsel to then commissioner Pete Rozelle,
was feeling any stress. To the league's owners and players
Tagliabue--who grew up in blue-collar Jersey City, the son of a
building contractor--is a flatliner, a man who rarely shows
emotion to even his closest associates. Which could be the secret
of his success. "Just as Pete was the best commissioner for his
time, I think Paul is perfect for these times," says Steelers
president Dan Rooney, a Tagliabue confidant. "I don't know anyone
who handles himself under duress any better."

Last Thursday, around nine, Tagliabue was in his Park Avenue
office having his morning coffee and English muffin when his
chief in-house counsel, Jeff Pash, walked in and told him they'd
lost the Clarett case. They both knew the league would appeal, so
Tagliabue looked up and said to Pash, "You're at the end of the
first quarter, and you'd better get ready for the second quarter.
And you'd better win." Next Tagliabue called Atlanta G.M. Rich
McKay, co-chair of the league's Competition Committee, and broke
the news. Then he e-mailed Management Council chairman Harold
Henderson at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. "Aloha," Tagliabue wrote.
"Clarett ruling in. Negative. Call your office."

Such terseness and steadiness is the gospel according to Paul.
"It's been a weird five days, but when you've been around him you
know eventually this week will be a blip on the radar," said
McKay. "I was uneasy when he told me we'd lost the case. But his
whole theme was, 'Let's not overreact.'"

Tagliabue was concerned but not visibly agitated in December,
when aides informed him they were battling with MTV about the
Super Bowl halftime; the show, even on paper, looked too coarse.
Tagliabue told SI last Friday that he called CBS president Les
Moonves (CBS and MTV are both Viacom brands) several weeks before
the big game and said he was "on the verge of terminating MTV as
the halftime producer." Moonves assured him that the show would
be up to NFL standards. But as Tagliabue said last Friday, "it's
perfectly obvious CBS couldn't control MTV."

In trusting CBS, a mistake he probably won't make again,
Tagliabue violated the credo he inherited from his mentor,
Rozelle. "Pete always used to say.... 'You have to do it right
your own way and with your own set of standards,'" Tagliabue
said. "Don't worry about how someone else is doing it."

The words have echoed through Tagliabue's reign as he has
punished players for on-field celebrations and abusing
quarterbacks. It's also what defines him as he looks to the
future. Playmakers is dead, MTV has been forever banished, and as
for Clarett, "Eventually we will win." If the commish is
sweating, he's not letting us see it. --Peter King

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER

"At the NBA's All-Star weekend most players will arrive with a
pistol-packing bodyguard." --RISKY BUSINESS, PAGE 16

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