SOME 25 YEARS ago, on a typically splendid autumn Sunday in New England, the Patriots were playing typically mediocre football at Schaefer Stadium. At halftime two ticked-off season-ticket holders, Robert Kraft and Jeffrey Lurie, met for the first time and together bemoaned the home team's shortcomings as well as the culture of losing that engulfed the franchise. Says Kraft, "Both of us spent a lot of frustrating afternoons sitting on those benches and wishing we had a chance to run things."
When Kraft and Lurie next meet at an NFL game, it will be at Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium on Sunday, each man running a Super Bowl team. Kraft, now the Patriots' owner, and Lurie, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, head the league's most successful teams of the 21st century. New England has won two of the last three Super Bowls, while Philly has more victories over the last five regular seasons (59) than any other team. Each man transformed a second-rate organization into a model of professional sports excellence.
Considering that Kraft hails from Brookline, Mass., while Lurie grew up just a couple of miles away, in Newton, one has to ask, What in the name of Paul Revere is going on here? Is it the chowder? Nah, say both men, if anything it was the lousy football.
"We were common sufferers, at many different stadia, and I think that influenced us," says Lurie, 53. "We've made so many similar decisions [since becoming owners], it's uncanny. Above all, we have treated our teams as jewels, with an eye toward sustaining our success."
Kraft, 63, presides over an astonishingly happy Patriots universe. Quarterback Tom Brady calls him "a very engaging, genuine, forward-thinking person. He goes out of his way to recognize everybody in the organization, be it the starting middle linebacker or the first-year scout. More than anything else, he loves to win. The coaches know it, the players know it and the fans know it."
When James Orthwein put the Patriots on the block in July 1993, Kraft and Lurie submitted bids. Kraft, who'd made his fortune in the paper and packaging industries and who already had the lease on the stadium, won with an offer of $172 million--at the time, the largest amount paid for an NFL franchise.
So Lurie, a former Boston University professor (he has a Ph.D. in social policy) who had become a Hollywood producer in 1985, turned his attention to the Eagles and pried them away from Norman Braman in May 1994 for a then record $185 million.
Kraft and Lurie were stuck in dilapidated stadiums (Schaefer had been renamed Sullivan, then Foxboro, and the Eagles played in Veterans Stadium) and had coaches (Bill Parcells in New England, Rich Kotite in Philadelphia) with whom they would grow uncomfortable. Later Kraft and Lurie hired coaches, Pete Carroll and Ray Rhodes, respectively, who got to the playoffs in their first two seasons but did not satisfy the organizations' models for long-term success.
Finally the owners scored with personnel-savvy coaches--the Pats' Bill Belichick and the Eagles' Andy Reid--though they were considered by many to be dubious picks at the time.
"We both ended up making very unpopular choices," says Lurie. "He traded a No. 1 pick [to the New York Jets] for Belichick. I hired a guy [Reid] who hadn't even been a coordinator. Ray [Rhodes] did a good job the first few years, but he coached more on emotion and short-term analysis. Unless your goal is to have a one-shot deal, you have to build a team [whose success] is sustainable."
Ultimately, what both owners learned was how to manage the salary cap. Guided by Jonathan Kraft, the eldest of Robert's four sons and a Harvard MBA, the Patriots put together a model based on gauging the value of each position and the value of each player relative to others in the league. Similarly, Lurie turned to boyhood friend Joe Banner, now the Eagles' president, to develop a successful formula for staying under the cap.
Both franchises rely heavily on the coach's personnel acumen and prefer to re-sign players--often with time remaining on their contracts, before they reach peak market value--rather than bring in high-priced free agents. Though the Eagles deviated from that philosophy following their third consecutive NFC Championship Game loss in January 2004, bringing in wideout Terrell Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse, Lurie says the club is still "in great shape" capwise. Ditto the Patriots, who a source says are likely to announce several contract extensions in the weeks following the Super Bowl.
The similarities between the two organizations extend to their sparkling new stadiums. The Krafts, after an aborted relocation arrangement with Hartford, used Jonathan's creative financing plan to build Gillette Stadium for $325 million (it opened in 2002) without using public funds or resorting to personal seat licenses. Among other things, he locked in historically low interest rates and worked out a deal with Salomon Smith Barney to roll over 28-day loans repeatedly for 25 years. One year later the Eagles moved into Lincoln Financial Field, which cost Lurie $340 million and taxpayers $180 million.
"We're both high-revenue clubs because we've taken such big risks," Lurie says of sinking a great amount of personal capital into the teams in an effort to generate long-term success. "I think the key for Robert and me was that we looked at the franchises we were buying and said, 'Why couldn't these teams be like the 49ers of the '80s and '90s?'"
Rest assured, there are probably plenty of ticked-off season-ticket holders in San Francisco wondering why the 49ers can't be more like the Patriots and the Eagles. --Michael Silver
"We were COMMON SUFFERERS, at many different stadia," Lurie says of following the old, woeful Pats. "I think that influenced us."
Says Brady, "[Kraft] goes out of his way to RECOGNIZE EVERYBODY in the organization, be it the starting linebacker or the first-year scout."