NFL owners prepared to elect Tagliabue's successor

NORTHBROOK, Ill. -- In a meteorological stroke of good fortune, the skies over O'Hare Airport were brilliantly sunny Monday morning and most NFL owners, convening here for the purpose of selecting a successor to retiring commissioner Paul Tagliabue, arrived on time for the start of the session.

Which could mean clear sailing for the candidacy of Roger Goodell, the first lieutenant to Tagliabue the past several years and the man who clearly rates as an overwhelming favorite in a five-horse race.

In 1989, stormy weather and a glitch in the O'Hare radar system delayed the arrival of several owners as they were scheduled to huddle at an airport hotel to debate the merits of New Orleans general manager and football lifer Jim Finks, the clear-cut choice to succeed Pete Rozelle as commissioner. As the flight delays lengthened, and liquor tabs at the hotel bar mounted, so did the opposition to Finks by a contingent of younger owners who felt they hadn't enjoyed much input into the process.

The more the dissident group, which came to be known as the "Chicago 11," spoke, the less chance Finks had of landing the position for which he was supposed to have been rubber-stamped. His candidacy essentially vanished from the radar screen that day and, four months later, after a drawn-out and pitched battle, the league elected Tagliabue, who had served as its out-of-house counsel.

There was one similarity here Monday, with owners interviewing Gregg Levy, a Washington attorney who holds the same position Tagliabue did in the Covington and Burling law firm. Levy is one of the finalists selected last week from what began with a ponderous contingent of nearly 200 commissioner wannabes. But unlike in 1989, the selection doesn't look likely to take four months this time.

"I think there's a chance that we'll be done [on Tuesday]," said Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, co-chairman of the eight-man selection committee that winnowed the list. "A good chance."

If that is the case, this meeting, originally scheduled by the league to last as many as three days, probably will have turned into a coronation of sorts for Goodell, the NFL's chief operating officer and a man who has played an integral role in most of its most important accomplishments in recent years. In fact, when the list of five candidates was released July 30, some owners reacted to the absence of league insiders Jeffrey Pash and Eric Grubman as finalists by suggesting that the search committee chose the quintet with an eye toward not siphoning off potential Goodell votes with their inclusion.

Others responded with an undeniable "Who's he?" reaction to at least three of five candidates.

All the owners, of course, knows Goodell and the key role he has played with the league. Levy, who represented the NFL in the Maurice Clarett antitrust lawsuit, is familiar to most of them, as well. But the three other men -- Cleveland attorney Fred Nance, Fidelity Investments chief operating officer Robert Reynolds and Mayo A. Shattuck III, chairman of the board of Constellation Energy -- are virtual unknowns.

Or at least they were until Monday, when all five candidates were presented to the full membership.

A sixth finalist, Domino's Pizza chief executive officer David Brandon, withdrew his candidacy before his name was announced. Brandon had been identified by ESPN's Chris Mortensen as a finalist.

Each of the finalists had 15-20 minutes to present himself Monday and were questioned for another 15-20 by the owners, with each man being asked the same things. Executive search firm Korn Ferry International -- which helped to amass, then whittle the initial list of candidates -- presented detailed dossiers on each of the finalists. On Tuesday, the candidates will meet with owners in smaller forums, with four groups of eight owners each, and the questions are expected to be much more wide-ranging.

A vote could come as early as Tuesday afternoon. It takes the votes of two-thirds of the owners, or 22 of 32, to elect a commissioner.

"It's been a good and thorough process," said Jets owner Woody Johnson, a member of the search committee, "and that process is moving forward here today. But in matters this important, I'm not going to be drawn into making any predictions."

Most owners acknowledged that Goodell, 47, probably has the necessary votes in hand. But no one was about to say that publicly Monday.

"I'm not going to be surprised by anything this week," Tagliabue said.

If there is anyone with a semi-legitimate chance of upsetting Goodell it is almost certainly Levy, who was described by one source as "probably the smartest guy in the room."

Said one NFC owner: "No matter how worthy or viable the rest of the candidates appear to be, I just can't fathom us putting the league in the hands of a guy we've only known for a couple hours. You can read all the reports in the world, complete all the due diligence, but the bottom line is, they're outsiders. And I don't know that it's prudent to stir the pot with a person who isn't very familiar with us, and with whom we are not all that familiar, either. So, yeah, I'd say the tea leaves look pretty good [for Goodell]."

That said, strange things often transpire when the NFL huddles to select a commissioner, as evidenced in the case of Rozelle as well as Tagliabue.

There are, it seems, two potential hurdles for Goodell, the son of former U.S. Senator Charles Goodell of New York: First, there remains a block of low-revenue owners whose dissatisfaction with the recent extension to the collective bargaining agreement, an accord to which Goodell was crucial, is still festering. But those same owners, who are concerned about the status quo, backed down when it came time to endorse the CBA extension; they tend to be more about bluster than action. Second, there is a group of general managers and other front office executives who feel the time is appropriate for a commissioner with more of a football than a business background.

But the reality is that owners, not GMs, elect the commissioner. And the owners appear poised to elect Goodell as the next caretaker of their $6 billion-a-year industry.

As usual in commissioner elections, though, there remains a scintilla of intrigue -- but probably not much more than that.

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, whose father, Bob, was part of the "Chicago 11" that scuttled Finks' ascension to the NFL throne in 1989, acknowledged that things are expected to be smoother this time. But, in typical Irsay fashion, he leaned on a rock analogy, loosely quoting The Doors to sound a somewhat cautionary tone.

"You would assume it shouldn't be as fractious [as in 1989]," Irsay said, "but as the late Jim Morrison said: 'The future is always uncertain but the end is always near.' So we'll see."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.