NFL commissioner Tagliabue to retire in July

NEW YORK -- Paul Tagliabue is leaving the NFL, and he's
leaving it both peaceful and prosperous.

The 65-year-old commissioner will step down in July after 16
years, his tenure marked by labor harmony and unprecedented riches
through television deals.

Tagliabue has been in charge since 1989, when he succeeded Pete
Rozelle, and agreed last March to stay to complete the TV deal and
a long-term contract with players.

He finally got that done 12 days ago, finishing the most arduous
labor negotiations since the league and union agreed on a free
agency-salary cap deal in 1992.

"I really want to emphasize how much of a privilege it is to
spend most of your adult life with the NFL. This is not an easy
decision for me," Tagliabue said on a conference call Monday.

"As difficult as this decision is, I also know it's the right
decision. Right for me. Right for the league," he said.

Roger Goodell, the NFL's chief operating officer, and Atlanta
general manager Rich McKay are the two leading candidates to
succeed Tagliabue. Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass also is
considered to have an outside chance and Secretary of State
Condoleeza Rice has said she would like the job.

"Ask her," Tagliabue said when quizzed about Rice's candidacy.

Tagliabue said the search is wide open and that he will stay on
beyond July to avoid the kind of seven-month deadlock that occurred
between him and the late Jim Finks after Rozelle stepped down in
March 1989.

Owners will begin to look for a new commissioner at their
meetings next week in Orlando, Fla.

As for his own tenure, Tagliabue said, "Building a strong
relationship with the NFL Players Association is the thing I'm most
proud of."

"Everyone involved in the NFL in the '80s saw that as a
negative," he said.

More than anything else, Tagliabue took over a league that
already had already become America's game under Rozelle and took it
to the next level, enriching it and restoring labor peace.

In many cases, he turned millionaire owners into billionaires.
The value of many franchises has increased tenfold since 1989 --
those worth $70 million then are worth $700 million now.

With the labor and TV deals done, Tagliabue made no secret that
retirement was near.

Last week, he told players' union executive director Gene Upshaw
that he would spend the weekend at his vacation home in Maine.
Tagliabue also said he might look at buying a boat for retirement.

Upshaw heard about Tagliabue's decision while vacationing in
Hawaii, and e-mailed him: "I didn't expect I'd start my Monday
morning this way. I guess you bought the boat."

Turns out Tagliabue didn't -- although he did go shopping.

Tagliabue's first phone call with the news went to Pittsburgh's
Dan Rooney, the NFL's senior owner. The other owners learned of his
retirement by e-mail.

"We've got the best labor deal in sports. We've got the best
league. He's been our leader. The whole way he's done this has been
wonderful," Rooney told The Associated Press.

Tagliabue will stay on with the NFL as a senior executive and a
consultant through 2008, part of the contract extension he signed
last July.

His term will be remembered most for labor peace following
strikes in 1982 and 1987. His close relationship with Upshaw
finally led to a long-term agreement after five years without a

But the bargaining was hard this time, with three straight
deadline extensions needed. The agreement avoided the prospect of
entering free agency this year with the possibility of an uncapped
year in 2007.

It came at the expense of revenue sharing among the owners, an
issue that had divided high-revenue and small-revenue teams and
contributed to the deadlock. He did it with what has been
considered his greatest skill as commissioner, patching together a
coalition of nine teams with differing viewpoints to reach a
compromise considered satisfactory by all but two teams.

He also oversaw a massive stadium building program. More than
two-thirds of the NFL's 32 teams are either playing in or building
stadiums that didn't exist when he took over as commissioner in

He said his biggest regret as commissioner was allowing both the
Rams and Raiders to leave Los Angeles after the 1994 season -- the
Rams for St. Louis and the Raiders for Oakland. The league has been
trying to get a team back in Los Angeles since then.

Before taking on this job, Tagliabue was a league lawyer who
spent much of that time as the NFL's representative and unofficial
lobbyist in Washington.

"He has been a tremendous asset to our league and the direction
we have taken," New Orleans owner Tom Benson said.

"We have experienced very positive growth in the area of
revenue sharing and broadcast contracts, we have secured long-term
labor peace and have also even encountered some of the worst of
times following 9/11, but through it all Paul has been a leader, a
friend and a voice that many others within our league and other
leagues have followed."

Dallas owner Jerry Jones said: "We didn't always agree, but he encouraged the airing of
different opinions and philosophies amongst the entire ownership. From a personal perspective I know
he brought out the best in me in what I could do to serve the NFL
and the fans of this league. That's leadership."