MacMullan: Robert Kraft steady at the helm

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Robert Kraft is having company and he’s got some tidying up to do. The owner has been away, and just days before his Patriots were to host the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium, his office is littered with unopened mail, gifts, items earmarked for charity and a stack of business correspondence.

The room is already cluttered with mementos and framed photographs of his extraordinary run as owner of the New England Patriots.

There’s the framed picture of Tom Brady in the Tuck Rule Game, personalized by former Raiders coach Jon Gruden with the inscription, “It was a fumble!” (“I’m going to auction that off,” Kraft says). There are shots of Kraft with various dignitaries, including his friend, former President George H.W. Bush, who, Kraft says, plans to continue his birthday tradition of jumping out of an airplane when he turns 90 in June.

The most prominently displayed photographs are those of Kraft’s four sons and his wife, Myra, who lost her battle with ovarian cancer in July 2011.

Her death left him disconsolate, lonely and dispirited. His sons, who were initially deeply concerned about their father, say while the sadness of losing his wife of 48 years lingers, the veil of grief is finally lifting. Kraft, who will turn 73 in June, gives no indication he has any immediate plans to retire.

“After the love of my family,” said Kraft, “there’s nothing more important to me than winning football games. And I will do whatever I have to do to put this team in position to do that.”

Next week will mark the 20th anniversary of Kraft purchasing of the Patriots, providing an occasion to sort through two decades of memories that began when he paid James Orthwein $172 million for a franchise that had posted a dismal 19-61 mark (worst in the NFL) over the previous five years. At the time, the purchase price was the highest of any franchise in sports history.

Today, according to Forbes Magazine, the net worth of the Patriots is more than $1.8 billion, second in the NFL only to the Dallas Cowboys ($2.3 billion). Kraft has deftly molded the New England Patriots brand into an empire that includes the open-air shopping center Patriot Place, and he has done it with private funds.

He is one of the most powerful men in football, viewed as both a tender philanthropist and a ruthless businessman. In the past 20 years, he has been lauded as the man who saved the NFL and denigrated as the man who eviscerated the city of Hartford, Conn.

The success of his football team under his watch is indisputable. Since Kraft purchased the team in 1994, the Patriots have won more Super Bowls (3), more conference (6) and division (13) championships and more playoff games (33) than any other NFL team. Their sellout streak is at 216 and counting, with a lengthy waiting list of eager consumers raring to buy into the action.

While the team has reached dizzying heights, there have been some numbing lows, including the Spygate scandal and the incarceration of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez on murder charges.

True to the “Patriot Way” of leaving the past in the past, the team has successfully scrubbed itself clean of any Hernandez remnants. The Patriots initiated a program in which anyone could turn in a No. 81 Hernandez jersey for a different team jersey for free. It was a clever public relations maneuver that cost the team almost $250,000.

Players have been ordered to refrain from speaking about their former teammate, who was one of Brady’s favorite receiving targets.

The current Patriots roster, set to play the Denver Broncos for the AFC championship on Sunday, has earned its moniker as a plucky team that has defied odds as one significant player after another — Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Rob Gronkowski, Tommy Kelly — was lost for the season.

“This is a team with real mental toughness,” Kraft noted. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it reminds me of our ’01 group. We didn’t have the best players, but there was a sense of togetherness that was special.”

That team won the first Super Bowl in franchise history in surprising fashion. The 2013 team may or may not bookend that feat. So what has Kraft learned about the business in between?

“I’ve learned not to be surprised when unexpected negative things come along,” Kraft answered in a wide-ranging interview last week. “Everyone is there for the good times. It’s how you handle the difficult times that will separate you.

“It’s like keeping a family together. Let’s be honest: This is a sick business. [The NFL] is going for parity. Your games get scheduled in terms of how well you did. You draft according to how well you did. You’re punished for excellence, in a sense.

“You all have the same household budget you can spend, so you have to be wise. You have physical injuries that happen that are acts of God beyond anyone’s ability to predict. You have to be very, very artful in how you design the team.

“It’s like managing a business portfolio. And in the bottom third of that portfolio, the bottom third of your team, you need to be looking for specials that other people don’t know about. Players like [defensive tackles] Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga.

“We’ve had a lot of those. Our football people have done a great job. But you can’t rest. Once you think you’ve got it knocked, look out.”

Kraft was blindsided by the charges levied against Hernandez, who, upon signing a five-year, $40 million extension in August 2012, kissed his team’s owner, vowed to be a role model, then donated $50,000 of his new contract to the Myra H. Kraft Giving Back Fund.

“It’s the saddest, most unfortunate part of our history with the team,” Kraft said solemnly.

It is one of the lone blemishes on an otherwise brilliant success story in which Kraft transformed a football doormat into a juggernaut.

Resuscitating a franchise

Kraft had his sights on purchasing the Patriots as far back as 1985, when he bought an option on a parcel of land adjacent to the team’s stadium. Three years later he bought the stadium out of bankruptcy for $25 million, which included the stadium’s lease to the Patriots.

In 1994, Orthwein offered Kraft a $75 million buyout of his lease so he could move the team to St. Louis. Kraft, who had tried in vain to purchase the Red Sox, refused.

He was among a who’s who of groups interested in buying the Patriots that included Walter Payton, Donald Trump, Paul Newman, author Tom Clancy and Robert Tisch.

“I told Myra I was going to buy the team,” Kraft recalled. “She asked, ‘How much?’ I told her, ‘It’s $115 million, but it might go as high as $120 or 125 million.

“Then I got out there and it was a take-it-or-leave-it price of $172 million. I had to do it. You don’t always get a second chance.

“Myra went cuckoo on me when I got back.

“It was one of the few times that we had conflict over a business decision of mine.”

Kraft inherited coach Bill Parcells, quarterback Drew Bledsoe and 23 pieces of pending litigation against the team.

“I had trouble finding a Boston law firm that wasn’t representing someone who had complaints against us,” Kraft said.

Parcells era: ‘Division within’

Parcells was a dynamic leader, but he resented Kraft’s interference in his personnel decisions. He was enraged when Kraft and vice president of player personnel Bobby Grier drafted Terry Glenn in 1996 over his objections. That sparked Parcells’ famous utterance, “They want you to cook the dinner, at least they should let you shop for the groceries.”

Parcells and young Bledsoe led the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXI, but following the 35-21 loss to Green Bay, Parcells did not travel back to Massachusetts with the team and soon after was hired by the New York Jets.

“Sustaining success is so hard, and the one thing I learned you can’t have is division from within,” Kraft said. Both men have since expressed regret on how they handled their tenure together. “We have a great relationship now,” Kraft said. “It wasn’t so much Bill Parcells, but how he operated.

“We can only deal with people who are thinking long term. Bill was day to day. He’d go down to Jupiter [Fla.] and play his doo-wop music and decide whether he wanted to come back the next year.

“Well, we have a salary cap and we have [a cornerback] Ricky Reynolds and these other people who are waiting for answers and we need to know.

“Bill had already won his Super Bowl. He had his reputation, to be honest.

“He did a lot for this franchise. He taught me a lot on how to get ready for the NFL. I’m lucky I had him.

“But I learned you can’t be good in this business continuously unless you are thinking long term. Most football coaches are only thinking about what they have to do this Sunday.”

Enter Belichick and Brady

Kraft has tried to balance the all-business-no-sentiment approach of coach Bill Belichick by investing in personal relationships with his stars. When former linebacker Tedy Bruschi awoke in the hospital after suffering a stroke, Kraft was there, waiting.

One of the more emotional days of Kraft’s tenure was when Belichick permanently replaced Bledsoe, a Kraft favorite, with an untested Tom Brady.

“I stayed out of it, but I weighed in,” Kraft said. “When the head coach says, ‘Tell me what you want me to do,’ I say, ‘I want to hold you accountable for this decision.’

“When we traded Drew, I wanted to make sure it was a place where he’d get his full contract value. I valued his loyalty. He gave our franchise credibility.”

Kraft promised Bledsoe he would one day be feted by the Patriots. Last winter, he was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame.

In the meantime, Brady quickly established himself as one of the greatest quarterbacks of his generation, leading the 2001 team to the Super Bowl against St. Louis and the Greatest Show on Turf.

The Patriots stunned the heavily favored Rams by building a 17-3 lead off turnovers. Late in the game, quarterback Kurt Warner fumbled at the Patriots’ 3-yard line and safety Tebucky Jones scooped up the ball and ran 97 yards for a touchdown, but it was called back on a holding call against Willie McGinest.

“When Tebucky [recovered the fumble and ran to the end zone], I said, ‘It’s all over!'” Kraft said. “Then they called the penalty and it goes back to the Rams and they score, and I thought of the ball going through Bill Buckner’s legs.”

Warner scored a rushing touchdown, then tied the game 17-17 with a touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with 1:30 left. Commentator John Madden suggested the young Patriots should run the clock out for overtime.

Instead, Brady marched the Patriots 53 yards down the field with no timeouts and Adam Vinatieri kicked the Super Bowl-winning 48-yard field goal as time expired.

“I wouldn’t even allow myself to consider we might win until the kick went through,” Kraft said. “Then we had to rush down to the field and I forgot what we were going to say.”

With red, white and blue confetti settling on the Lombardi trophy, Kraft told the assembled crowd, which had witnessed the first Super Bowl since the Sept. 11 attacks, “At this time in this country, we are all Patriots.”

Two Super Bowl losses and a scandal

New England won two more championships in the next three seasons, then lost two Super Bowls to the Giants in 2008 and 2012.

The first diminished a 2007 undefeated regular season. The key play in the game was a throw under pressure by Eli Manning (who was nearly yanked down by Jarvis Green) to David Tyree, who held on by pinning the ball against his helmet.

“They could have called that [Manning] was in the grasp,” Kraft said. “And if Asante [Samuel] holds on to the ball before that [on a potential interception], we take a knee, and it’s ours.

“It hurt so bad. I’m into history and legacy, and if we had won that one we would have accomplished something that I think would be almost impossible to happen again. But for some reason it wasn’t meant to be.”

The 2007 season was also marred by Spygate, the scandal that cost Belichick a record $500,000 fine after his team was caught videotaping the signals of Jets coaches. The team also was fined $250,000 and docked a draft pick. It opened up the Patriots’ franchise to an avalanche of scorn and ridicule.

“I asked Bill, ‘On a scale of 1 to 100, how much did it help?’ and he told me, ‘1’” Kraft said. “That was a tough time. I was mad. It could have ripped this organization apart. But we got through it.”

Because of Spygate, the Patriots must endure criticism that they haven’t won a Super Bowl without cheating. It is, Kraft said, a ludicrous notion.

“Spygate meant nothing,” Kraft said. “Look how we’ve done. We’ve had the best record in the league since then. We’ve been to the Super Bowl twice since then.”

Kraft said the loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI is the one that still haunts him, in part because Myra had passed away before the 2011 season.

“That one was even harder,” he admitted. “The team was wearing Myra’s initials on their uniforms. I wanted that one more than ’07. I wanted it for Myra.”

Flirtation with Hartford

While Kraft is universally recognized as a shrewd businessman, there is one region in which his name will forever be mud. Kraft wanted a new stadium in 1999, preferably in downtown Boston, but the Massachusetts lawmakers were lukewarm in their support.

Kraft brokered a deal to move the team to Hartford which included a $374 million waterfront stadium that would leave him debt free.

The tentative agreement fell apart when Massachusetts pledged $70 million toward the infrastructure surrounding a new stadium in Foxborough. Kraft, citing concerns the Hartford group could not construct a new stadium in a timely manner, extricated himself from the agreement.

I love our locker room. When I lost Myra, they saved me. I spent a lot of time there. You can walk through on game day and feel the camaraderie.

— Robert Kraft

The backlash was venomous. When the Patriots went to the Super Bowl in 2002, the Hartford Courant’s Jim Shea wrote, “The team is owned by Robert Kraft, the ethically challenged, double-dealing greedy little white rat — no offense to rats — who played us all in Hartford for fools.”

Kraft likely would have experienced similar backlash from Massachusetts fans had he moved his team to Connecticut. The NFL, unwilling to lose its Boston market, also stepped in to ensure that didn’t happen.

“If we moved to Hartford, according to our research, 97 percent of our fans still would have gone to the games,” Kraft said. “They wouldn’t have been happy, but they would have gone.

“People don’t understand. I walked away from what would be $1.2 billion present value. There was no risk for me. No debt. I would have been much wealthier with no financial risk if I had done it.

“It wouldn’t have been like the Boston Braves moving to Milwaukee. Our stadium would have been a 1 hour and 15 minute drive from here. Most of the people who come and tailgate drive that far anyhow. But, it didn’t feel right, so we didn’t do it.”

Unprecedented stability

Although many in Connecticut have never forgiven him, Kraft has stockpiled reservoirs of goodwill throughout the rest of country for his role in settling the NFL labor dispute in 2011. Former Colts center Jeff Saturday publicly thanked Kraft for brokering the agreement while Myra was battling cancer.

“Without [Robert] this deal does not get done,” said Saturday, whose bear hug of the owner went viral. “He is a man who helped us save football, and we’re so grateful for that.”

Kraft is most grateful for the continuity that has become the hallmark of his franchise. During his tenure, he’s hired only two coaches (Pete Carroll and Belichick), and had two starting quarterbacks in Bledsoe and Brady (Matt Cassel filled in following Brady’s knee injury in 2008).

Kraft’s son Jonathan is the heir apparent to this NFL jewel, but the father is not quite ready to abdicate his football throne. He is energized and excited about the Patriots’ future.

“I love our locker room,” he said. “When I lost Myra, they saved me. I spent a lot of time there. You can walk through on game day and feel the camaraderie.”

He does not know if this New England team can win a fourth Super Bowl. He’s not sure how much longer Brady will play, but predicts, “It’s longer than you think.”

By the looks of his cluttered office, Robert Kraft plans on sticking around to find out.

  • Award-winning columnist and author
  • Recipient of Basketball Hall of Fame Curt Gowdy Media Award
  • Joined in 2010

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