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."