Regardless of how successful his team has been, an NFL owner must have done more than simply be associated with winning to earn a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That is true even if you turn a franchise around from a loser and financial failure for 34 years, as Robert Kraft did after buying the moribund New England Patriots in 1994.
To reach Canton, an owner must make a contribution to the game far larger than simply winning Lombardi Trophies, although winning five and building teams that played eight times for the Super Bowl title in 23 years is a feat that cannot be ignored. It just simply cannot be all there is to an owner’s legacy.
For Robert Kraft, there has been much more.
Most Patriots’ fans would agree Kraft saved professional football for New England when he could easily have turned his back on it. He rejected a $75-million buyout to allow then-owner James B. Orthwein out of the stadium lease Kraft held so he could move the franchise to St. Louis. That decision, coupled with a subsequent one in 1994 to pay a then-NFL record $172 million for a team his financial advisors told him was worth no more than $115 million, kept the Patriots in New England six years after Kraft bought their stadium out of bankruptcy for $22 million.
It was a building nearly as extinct as the team had become, one with metal benches for seats and limited luxury boxes. But it had what Kraft wanted: An ironclad lease with the Patriots through 2001.
When then-owners Billy Sullivan and Victor Kiam tried to move the team to Jacksonville, Kraft used the lease to block them. When Orthwein offered to buy his freedom to move to St. Louis, Kraft refused. Had he not, within a year the AFC would have been left with only one major television market — New York — while the NFC would have had New York, Dallas, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco.
Had that been the case, a push would have been made either to reduce significantly the cost of the TV package for AFC games or force realignment. One can only imagine the fractious nature of such negotiations and the turmoil it would have wrought.
Only three years after buying the team, Kraft’s Patriots appeared in Super Bowl XXXI, winning the first of eight conference championships. That is the most in the Super Bowl era and the team’s five Super Bowl championships tie Kraft with 49ers’ Hall-of-Fame owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. as the most by a single owner.
Winning has become a habit in New England, just as losing once was.
In the Patriots’ first 33 years of existence, they made the playoffs only six times, hosted only one playoff game, and absorbed two of the worst beatings in championship game history, first losing the AFL title to the San Diego Chargers in 1963, 51-10, and then being dismantled by the Chicago Bears, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX. In Kraft’s 23 years as owner, the Patriots have been to the playoffs 18 times, own 14 division titles, eight conference titles and five Super Bowl championships.
As the team was beginning its dynasty in January, 2002, Kraft was finishing construction on a $350-million privately funded stadium which became the model for new stadium construction in which the stadium itself becomes the anchor store for surrounding development.
Yet it should take more than a singular focus on your franchise for an owner to reach the Hall, which is why only 14 are in Canton — half of whom are founding fathers of either the NFL or the AFL. While Kraft cannot claim that, he can claim much more than simply saving pro football for New England and creating one of sport’s greatest dynasties.
He played a key role in negotiating the lengthiest and most lucrative television contracts in league history, thus financially solidifying all 32 NFL teams, and was instrumental in settling the longest lockout in sports history at a time of personal crisis. Few will forget then-Indianapolis center and NFL Players Association executive Jeff Saturday’s warm embrace of Kraft, whose wife Myra died while he ferried himself back and forth from her bedside to negotiating sessions.
Those sessions led to a 10-year labor agreement ending a 135-day lockout.
“(Kraft) is a man who helped us save football and we’re so grateful for that,’’ Saturday said. “Without him this deal does not get done.’’
Kraft stood on the same podium with Saturday, union chief DeMaurice Smith, commissioner Roger Goodell and others at the request of both sides in the midst of sitting Shiva, the seven-day mourning period of the Jewish faith following the death of his wife of 48 years. He was unshaven, deeply saddened and clearly broken, wearing a torn black tie under his suit as a traditional sign of mourning. Even in his grief, Kraft was there for pro football … just as he had always been for his team.
“We needed him in this process because when he gets up in the room, people listen to him,’’ Giants’ owner John Mara said of Kraft’s deal-making skills. “When he got up and spoke during any of our negotiating sessions, the players paid attention and respected what he had to say. He had a tremendous influence over this whole process.’’
It was Kraft who created smaller groups of negotiators after the initial process broke down, insisting no lawyers be present because he believed attorneys on both sides had become so intransigent that no deal could get done.
He had private dinners with player representatives to try to convince them he had the game’s best interest at heart. He gave Smith a ride on his plane to one round of talks in an effort to forge a bond between them. More than once he told some of the hardest line owners they were wrong and had to modify their positions.
“I’d say that he was the single biggest player on their side,’’ said then-NFLPA president Dominique Foxworthy. “Without him, someone else would have needed to step up, and I don’t know who that someone would have been.’’
One example of this came when the two sides agreed to a new rookie salary system and a reduced length of rookie contracts, one of several major stumbling blocks to a deal. After it was done, Kraft returned to his wife’s side. But when owners and players reconvened, representatives of the owners balked at the new system. After a failed phone conversation with fellow owners, Kraft flew back the next morning and made his case, swaying his side to a more reasonable position.
“Everyone’s tune was different,’’ Foxworthy said. “I don’t know what he did or said or how he explained it to them, but he made it so it made sense.’’
Making sense is not always easy, however. In 2007, after his team was heavily penalized during the Spygate episode, Kraft did not threaten the commissioner’s authority nor challenge it in court. Instead he went to coach Bill Belichick and asked how much of an advantage the information had given him.
When Belichick sheepishly said, “One per cent,’’ Kraft replied, “Then you’re a schmuck.’’
He then apologized to owners and the league office for his team’s involvement in what he found to be an embarrassing episode. End of story…but not the end of his Hall-of-Fame resume.
He made clear his distrust of the league office’s Deflategate ruling that led to the four-game suspension of Tom Brady last season but again refused to take legal action. That angered local fans, but, despite deep reservations, he insisted he would not challenge the commissioner’s authority even when he felt it unjust and wrong.
To put Kraft’s accomplishments in proper perspective one needs to understand the Patriots’ sad history prior to his arrival. Between its inception in 1960 through 1993, the club had a winning percentage of .450 (225-276-9) and made the playoffs only six times. Between 1989 and 1993, they were at an all-time low with a winning percentage of .238 (19-61).
That offseason Kraft purchased the team. Since then, their winning percentage since is .691.
As former head coach Bill Parcells said of the pre-Kraft Patriots he inherited in 1993, “When we got here you could take archery practice in the stands and nobody would get hit.’’
It is fair to say Kraft’s decision to reject pocketing $75 million from Orthwein forced the sale of the Patriots to him, and his decision to pay a then-record $175 million for the team against the advice of his financial advisors altered not only Patriots’ history but pro football history.
And that’s only the beginning.
Such a man deserves a hearing in front of pro football’s Hall of Fame committee. If he gets it, he should get a bust in Canton, too.