Tagliabue to retire as commissioner of powerful league

Roger Goodell, the league's CEO, and Atlanta GM Rich McKay lead the candidates list.
NEW YORK (AP) -- Paul Tagliabue is retiring as commissioner of the NFL, a league that evolved during his 16-year tenure into the nation's richest and most powerful sports empire.
The 65-year-old Tagliabue will leave the NFL in July with labor peace, unprecedented revenue through television deals and a place in the American consciousness where Sundays mean football.
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 is considered to have an outside chance.
Tagliabue has said he wants 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 the search 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.
Tagliabue had made no secret that with labor and television deals done, retirement was near.
What's ahead
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."
Tagliabue 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 contract.
Bumpy bargaining
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 1989.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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