Super Bowl XLVI - Three Football Families, Linked by Philosophies - Ingles

Before he became one of the N.F.L.’s most powerful and successful owners, Robert K. Kraft was a student at Columbia, and a Giants fan, watching Y. A. Tittle and Andy Robustelli on a DuMont television.
When Kraft moved home to Boston for graduate school, the nascent Patriots were blacked out. So he and his wife, Myra, pregnant with their first child, Jonathan, settled in for a long, happy marriage and more Giants games, watching great teams and unsightly ones. But by the time Kraft, having changed his allegiance and become a Patriots season-ticket holder, was ready to buy the foundering franchise more than three decades later, he studied two teams: the San Francisco 49ers, who dominated the 1980s and early 1990s, and the Giants.

Bob Tisch, a Kraft family friend who bought 50 percent of the Giants in 1991 to join with the Mara family as equal partners, advised Kraft not to take on limited partners if he could avoid it. Kraft listened, but he was also intrigued by the way the Giants had created an intense fan loyalty and a deep base of season-ticket holders.

On Sunday, 50 years after the Giants first entertained a young Kraft, the Giants and the Patriots — their entanglement stretching through generations and championships, shared philosophy and similar results — will be together again, facing off in the Super Bowl. The winner will take home the fourth Lombardi Trophy in its franchise’s history. On the field, the game is a rematch of the 2008 Super Bowl, with the potential for revenge for the Giants’ stunning upset of the undefeated Patriots. But off the field, it is a demonstration of how three families — the Krafts in New England, the Maras and the Tisches in New York — close enough to share celebrations and sorrows, have shown again that the most successful way to run a team is by providing continuity.

“We’re all trying to emulate the Patriots,” said John Mara, the president of the Giants, during a 40-minute conversation Thursday with Steve Tisch, the Giants’ chairman, and Robert and Jonathan Kraft. “They have solid ownership and a solid organization underneath that owner. The franchises that impulsively make changes year after year don’t succeed in the long run. You have to hire the right people and give them a chance to do their jobs and stay with them. And ride the ups and downs. They haven’t had many downs. We’ve had a few.”

“We had one pretty big down,” Kraft interrupted, alluding to the Super Bowl loss.

“18-1 is not so bad,” Mara replied.

“I would have taken 17-3,” Kraft said, sighing, his questionable math not masking that he would have traded a few regular-season defeats for a Super Bowl victory.

The N.F.L. is designed to promote family ownership. Its rules prohibit corporations from purchasing teams and encourage the passage of franchises from one generation to the next. Robert Kraft bought his team in 1994, and Jonathan has been a Patriots executive since. The Maras have owned the Giants since 1925, when Tim Mara paid — according to legend — $500 for a team in the budding N.F.L.

In 1991, Preston Robert Tisch, a hotel magnate and former United States postmaster general, bought 50 percent of the team, forming a rare partnership with his friend Wellington Mara. They died within weeks of each other in 2005, and when Tisch’s son Steve began attending owners’ meetings, Kraft told him: “I love your dad. I love your family. I’m going to be your guy here.”

The relationship between John Mara and Steve Tisch and his brother, Jonathan, like that between their fathers, has been so free of conflict that Mara said he never once had to refer to the operating agreement that was hammered out in 1991.

“That’s great,” Kraft said.

Of Steve Tisch, Mara said: “The only conflict we had was when he came in, he promised me a part in one of his movies. He has not delivered on that yet.”

“But we offered it to Tom Hanks,” replied Tisch, who won an Academy Award as the producer of “Forrest Gump.”

Family ownership has been so successful because as Commissioner Roger Goodell said: “It represents the total commitment of the family in that business — and in many cases, the single purpose: football. I think that has been terrific for the league over the years, and you see that kind of continuity and that kind of partnership in this game. The Kraft family, the Mara family, the Tisch family — they’re competitors on the field and partners off the field.”

Continuity does not necessarily ensure success. A failing philosophy stretched over many years is still a failure. But when Kraft took control of the Patriots, Wellington and John Mara put him in touch with George Young, their general manager at the time. Young had built the teams that won the Giants’ first two Super Bowls, and Kraft spoke to him about personnel, hiring the right people and setting boundaries within the franchise.

Not surprisingly, Kraft and Mara use almost identical language, even in separate interviews, to explain their management philosophy — autonomy, but with boundaries— even as they go about it much differently. Mara, whose family business has long been football, talks several times a day with the Giants’ personnel executives, and he makes them defend their positions. If they disagree, Mara said, he lets them follow their convictions because they have a track record.

Kraft, who runs a mammoth paper and packaging business out of his Gillette Stadium office, has given Coach Bill Belichick more autonomy over the years. But he has also talked to him about having people in the organization who are willing to challenge him, a component, both Mara and Kraft believe, that is important for extremely successful people. Kraft said he tried hard not to second-guess, though. He said he wanted to encourage people who work for him to be bold. And he heeds the advice from Young that still resonates: minimize division from within.

“You feel stable,” the former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said of the working environment. “You don’t worry about the owner someplace talking to the barber and having the barber talk him out of a pick. It gives you such a feeling of security to operate.”

Young’s fingerprints remain on both teams: his last hire with the Giants was Jerry Reese, who rose through the scouting ranks and on Sunday could win his second Super Bowl as the team’s general manager. The comfort with risk that the Giants’ stability engenders might be best symbolized by their selection last year of defensive lineman Jason Pierre-Paul, a raw talent who bolstered a strong part of the team.

“If you look at our two franchises, you don’t see a lot of going all-in a given year and doing things that might be a big bet on something that might not be a consistent theme,” said Jonathan Kraft, now the Patriots’ president. “And I think it probably stems from the families at the top, but also the people that are running the team on the football side.”

Tedy Bruschi played linebacker for the Patriots’ first three Super Bowl championship teams and is now an ESPN analyst. Robert Kraft used to tell players that they were all welcome at his table, a comforting antidote, Bruschi said, to Belichick’s “do your job” mantra. But what struck Bruschi most from observing Kraft and the league was the ability to withstand criticism.

“The most important thing in any organization is the mental toughness of the owner,” Bruschi said. “People talk about the players’ mental toughness, but the owner has to have it more than anybody else.”

That is not always easy. Kraft said recently that a top broadcasting executive had encouraged him not to hire Belichick. Mara said that he, like everyone else who loves the Giants, was upset when they lost Steve Smith, Kevin Boss and Plaxico Burress to free agency. But all three received much more than the Giants had determined they should be paid. Now, Mara wonders if Victor Cruz would have gotten on the field if any of them had stayed. And Tisch concedes that he and Mara were frustrated during the Giants’ four-game losing streak this season. But they did not question decisions, Tisch said, and they never considered firing Coach Tom Coughlin.

“The biggest mistake people in our business make is when they are influenced by what will be in the next day’s headlines,” Mara said. “You can’t make football decisions based on the next day’s headlines. You’ve got to have patience to ride it out and do things that are best for the long term. I’m not sure that everybody shares that philosophy.”

Kraft added, “We want our competitors to drive their business on the headlines of the day.”

“Well, some of them do,” Tisch said.

Fifty years after he watched the Giants while in college, Robert Kraft marvels that he gets to play a Super Bowl against friends. When the Giants and the Patriots began their postseason runs last month, Tisch and Jonathan Kraft spoke after each game. Some of them will be crestfallen after Sunday’s game. But at least the three families will still have something significant in common: they will probably be near the top again next season.

“When we both realized that the four of us are going to be in the Super Bowl together,” Tisch said, “the conversation I had with Jonathan and Bob, you feel like you’re talking to very, very close friends who know you very well. For a period of time on Sunday, that friendship is not going to disappear. It’s just. ...”

Robert Kraft jumped in: “It’s not going to be quite as warm.”

(source New York Times)

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