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 league.) 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 ma 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. Play-makers 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.