For all of the flowery tributes thrown Carmen Policy's way after his sudden departure from the San Francisco 49ers last week—master of the salary cap, architect of a dynasty, the Jerry Rice of the front office—in reality the outgoing team president's most praiseworthy quality was a deftness at dealing with people. Even Policy's enemies marvel at his ability to charm the press, the public and, most important, his peers around the league. Yet on the night of July 19, Policy delivered a sales pitch to a friend and confidant, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, that fell flatter than Vince Lombardi's haircut.
As they dined at Nicola's, a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Policy told Tagliabue of a risky decision mat several days later would rock the football world: Assuming a meeting with billionaire credit-card magnate Al Lerner went well the next day, Policy planned to walk away from running the NFL's winningest organization of the '80s and '90s and become part of a Lerner-financed group bidding for the new Cleveland Browns franchise, which will begin play in 1999. Policy, the NFL's executive of the year in 1994, figured Tagliabue would be sensitive to his shaky status in San Francisco (the result of a feud with his longtime boss, friend and mentor, exiled 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo) and to his desire to enter a bidding war for the Browns that could be decided by the end of August.
Instead, the normally stoic commissioner was clearly upset. In the wake of well-documented tension between DeBartolo and his sister, acting 49ers chairwoman Denise DeBartolo York, and given a possible delay in the construction of San Francisco's voter-approved stadium and retail complex, Tagliabue fretted over the further instability that Policy's departure might create within the Niners' organization. "You've got a great track record in San Francisco," Tagliabue told him, "and you're giving all that up on a speculative basis. There's no guarantee you'll get the team in Cleveland."
Feeling that he was guaranteed to be fired if he stayed in San Francisco, Policy joined forces with Lerner two days later, evoking similar sentiments of displeasure from some of the wealthiest men in Ohio, from his former bosses in San Francisco and from many NFL owners. Not since Robin Hood had one man ticked off so many rich people. In contending that Policy had been laying the groundwork for his move to a competitor while serving as the Niners' president and chief decision-maker, 49ers CEO Larry Thrailkill, second to York in the Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation's command structure, said, "It's not the way you would like things to happen, but people do what they do, and you adjust."
Other owners and team honchos were bothered less by Policy's unexpected exit from San Francisco than by his lavish landing in Cleveland, where last Thursday he showed up at a jam-packed press conference wearing a brown sport coat and orange tie and pronounced Lerner's group a front-runner in the battle for the Browns. One high ranking AFC executive who has spoken with several owners viewed the spectacle, which included in-person endorsements from Cleveland mayor Michael White and beloved former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar, as "a shameless attempt to scare away other bidders. A lot of people are pissed about it, because we'd like to get a competitive situation that will drive the price up, and these guys are trying to shill the value. Al Lerner's a very shrewd guy, and he's probably been plotting this with Carmen for a long time, but this is business, and he's going to have no inside track with the NFL. Our first reaction to that press conference was, 'Give me a break.' Our second was, 'Great. What's your bid?' "
Policy came under fire in particular for declaring at the press conference that his group has at least a 50-50 chance of getting the Browns. In an interview the next day, Tagliabue referred to that assessment as "overly optimistic," a view shared by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "He may have a 100-percent chance if he knows their bid will beat all comers," Jones said. "But anyone who would jump up and say he has the inside track is misinformed. There are some other people out there who I know will not flinch at those scare tactics, and there are some very wealthy potential buyers who will come out of the woodwork before this is all over."
In the meantime, blindsided Browns bidders and their partners—like former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, comedian Bill Cosby and Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown—will surely join jilted Niners fans and conspiracy theorists in wondering why Policy, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, the home of the DeBartolo empire, felt compelled to give up his annual salary of $1.5 million for a possible return to his home state.
This SAGA begins with the dissolution of the 30-year friendship of DeBartolo and Policy, who have been increasingly distrustful of each other since 1995 and have not spoken since late January. DeBartolo has been under investigation for more than a year as part of a gambling fraud case in Louisiana, a situation that led him to voluntarily recuse himself from involvement in the day-to-day operation of the team while the probe continues. But there have been indications that DeBartolo may be close to resuming his role as an active owner and possibly buying out his sister's share of the 49ers. Such a development would have been ruinous to Policy, and according to two league sources familiar with Browns-related developments, he began looking into Cleveland as an option in March (although in April, Policy denied that he had mounted any such effort). When Lerner, a minority owner of the former Browns franchise who sat with principal owner Art Modell in 1995 at the press conference announcing the club's move to Baltimore, offered last week to make Policy the Cleveland president and a 10% owner if Lerner is awarded the team, Policy said yes.
The rift between DeBartolo and Policy has become entangled with tension that has developed in recent months between DeBartolo and his sister. Policy declined to discuss specifics of the feud, York did not wish to be interviewed, and DeBartolo has not made any public comments since word of his possible indictment in Louisiana surfaced last December. But interviews with sources close to DeBartolo and Policy reveal the following reasons for their falling out:
•A personality clash between Policy and DeBartolo Entertainment president Ed Muransky, who has displaced Policy as DeBartolo's closest confidant. It was efforts by DeBartolo Entertainment, a company founded by DeBartolo in 1995, to land a riverboat-casino license in Bossier City, La., that led federal authorities to include DeBartolo in a probe of former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards, whose attorneys have said that DeBartolo paid him $400,000 in cash to act as a lobbyist.