As the owners meeting crept to its conclusion Tuesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell couldn’t have asked for a better message than the one Bears outgoing chairman Michael McCaskey delivered to his peers.
The 2011 NFL season is in limbo, as the owners and players grapple over how to split up the spoils of the nation’s most popular and profitable sport. With negotiations at a standstill, and a federal court date less than two weeks away, McCaskey’s impromptu, four-minute speech provided much-needed perspective as owners and executives prepared to hustle out of New Orleans.
“He had a very nice message, and his message was about league think,” Goodell said. “He always does what’s in the best interest of the league, and he played off that theme.
“He’s continued on the tradition of the Halas-McCaskey family.”
Described as “professorial” and “a statesman,” McCaskey didn’t have any notes because he wanted to “speak from the heart.”
“It’s a question of making sure that, as we vote on different matters, on the best course of action, we always keep it firmly in mind, why we are where we are,” McCaskey said. “We started in 1920, being the low man on the totem pole.”
McCaskey pointed out how college football was trying to destroy professional football, and how his grandfather George Halas — a player and pioneer — would write accounts of games and then hand-deliver them to each of the Chicago newspapers.
“The general public knew very little about it,” McCaskey said. “Then jump ahead from that to the astonishing ratings from last season.
“To me, it’s an extraordinary journey, and it happened by accident,” McCaskey said, pointing to key figures like his grandfather, George Young and Wellington Mara, among others. “The list goes on and on.”
Tenure coming to an end
McCaskey’s popularity is difficult to gauge — many critical fans aren’t shy about voicing their displeasure with some of his decisions — but the Bears’ prosperity under his 27-year watch as president or chairman of the board is clear-cut. The Bears haven’t thrived like the New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers, but they’ve won a Super Bowl, fielding one of the greatest teams in football history, appeared in another Super Bowl and reached the NFC title game five times.
He also played a key role in rebuilding Soldier Field and building the new Halas Hall. Many consider his lowest moment to be in January 1999, when he prematurely organized a news conference to announce the hiring of Dave McGinnis as head coach, except the club hadn’t finalized a contract with the former Bears linebackers coach. McGinnis passed, and he took over as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals the next year.
“It’s not that bad,” McCaskey said. “Listen, we all make mistakes, and none of us are perfect. We try our best, and when we make a mistake, we recover from it and move ahead.”
McCaskey then hired Dick Jauron, who led the Bears to only one playoff appearance in five seasons, before he was replaced by Lovie Smith.
McCaskey said he’s proud of the team he’s turning over to his brother, George, in May.
“We’ve got a lot of very good people, in the right positions,” Michael McCaskey said. “But each season is its own battle to bringing a lot of personalities and abilities together in a strong enough way to make the Super Bowl.
“It’s really a challenge, and that’s what makes it so exciting. But I feel like I’m leaving the Bears in very good hands. George is smart, and he’s passionate about the Bears and football.”
McCaskey received two ovations on Tuesday, and he was congratulated by numerous owners, including Dan Snyder of the Washington Redskins and John Mara of the New York Giants.
“I’m sad to see Mike go, because he’s a friend,” Mara said. “He’s made great contributions to the league, but I’m glad to see that control is staying within the family.”
Given the rise in popularity, the NFL has garnered the interest of some of the country’s wealthiest businesspeople, including Paul Allen (Seattle Seahawks) of Microsoft fame. But a handful of families remain.
The Bears announced the transition plan last offseason, and Michael has served as a mentor to George since then. George McCaskey also said team president Ted Phillips has been integral in his preparation.
“My thinking is, just like a football game, if you’re well prepared, it should be a good result,” George McCaskey said. “It’s a big responsibility. It’s humbling. First and foremost, our family is fans, and there’s a lot to be excited about, as Bears fans.”
‘Face of the franchise’
It won’t be official until May, but Michael returned from a two-week trip to Ethiopia just before the meetings in New Orleans. Michael, 67, has more trips planned with his wife Nancy, and he’ll also invest more time in another passion, photography.
Michael was the chairman of the Super Bowl advisory committee, and he was also a member of the International and Stadium committees. But since committee seats aren’t inherited, George will have to work his way onto them in the future. In the meantime, George remained in New Orleans an extra day to visit with Saints owner Tom Benson, who was going to share some insight on what’s ahead for him.
Asked if he knew George, Mara said, “Mike was always the face of the franchise.
“But I’m getting to know [George] better, and he’s coming to visit me soon.”
George will certainly bring a different personality to his position, but Phillips said the transition will be smooth.
“I don’t think the organization is going to miss a beat,” Phillips said. “He’s energized, and it’ll be a real positive for the whole club.”