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A Giant legacy

Mara was role model for owners, coaches and players

Posted: Monday October 31, 2005 8:20AM; Updated: Monday October 31, 2005 10:35AM
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Wellington Mara passed away last Tuesday at the age of 89. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
Wellington Mara passed away last Tuesday at the age of 89. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
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HOUSTON -- I was at The Expansion Bowl between Houston and Cleveland on Sunday, but my heart was in New York and New Jersey.

I know the rest of America thinks there's far too much emphasis on New York by the media and the sporting public, and I am sensitive to that. And I know the death of New York Giants co-owner Wellington Mara happened a week ago, and we move quickly in this sports world, but there are still a few yarns that need to be spun. As I wrote the other day, I think Mara is one of the two most influential figures in modern football, along with Pete Rozelle. I explained my reasons in that column, so I won't repeat them now, other than to say no owner championed revenue-sharing more than Mara, no owner wanted equal distribution of the TV pie more than the man who owned the franchise in the biggest city in the world, and no owner other than Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney was as diplomatically inclined as Mara.

That's where I'll begin, with Rooney and Mara.

A League Man

When the NFL was figuring out the mechanics of the 1970 merger with the AFL, three teams had to shift conferences to make them even. The AFL had 10 teams, the NFL 16. The idea was to make two 13-team conferences. The Steelers, Browns and Colts were the three teams set to make the switch, but Pittsburgh wasn't happy about it. Owner Art Rooney was angry about one NFL plan that would have put the Steelers in the AFC Central, the Colts in the AFC East and the Browns in the AFC West. He wanted at least the rival Browns to be in his division. At an NFL meeting set to decide the makeup of the divisions, Dan Rooney was afraid his dad was going to rebel and not go to a division if Cleveland or Baltimore wasn't a part of it. Mara said to Dan Rooney: "Don't get agitated. Wait and see what happens. It'll be all right.''

The resulting Cincinnati-Cleveland-Pittsburgh grouping in the AFC Central was good for Pittsburgh, and the Steelers had a terrific rivalry with the fourth team in the division, Houston, in the '70s. When the league shook up the divisions again after going to 32 teams, divisional nirvana arrived: Cincinnati, Cleveland and Baltimore were Pittsburgh's neighbors.

"Of course, Wellington was right,'' Dan Rooney told me the other day. "He always thought of the league.''

Green Bay president Bob Harlan told me on Saturday night: "When our stadium initiative was passed, it happened on Sept. 12, 2000. On Sept. 13, Wellington wrote me a handwritten letter, telling me how proud he was of Green Bay, how proud he was of me, for getting this done. Always, always, always he was a league man. That's what we're going to miss.''