Pats owner Kraft builds steady, successful team

Robert Kraft sat in his office as his busy day was winding down.
Dressed casually in a blue sweater, he seemed animated about the
latest playoff berth for his New England Patriots.

Looks can be deceiving.

”You know what?” the soft-spoken owner who grew up just 20
miles away said. ”I’m tired today, but it’s good stuff. We’ve got
a lot of good stuff. So I’ll just knock on wood here.”

He leans forward, taps his desk twice, and wishes for more.

”Hope it keeps going past this weekend,” he said with a hint
of a smile.

Luck should have little or nothing to do with the outcome of
Sunday’s divisional playoff game against the New York Jets, just as
it hasn’t had much impact on his team compiling the NFL’s best
record since he bought it in 1994. Step by step, Kraft has
methodically and boldly built a franchise that once seemed headed
to St. Louis or Hartford.

He took big risks and spent loads of money. He is chairman of
the NFL’s Broadcast Committee and a member of its Labor
Committee.

He was listed as the ninth-most influential person in sports
last month by Sports Business Journal. Forbes magazine ranked him
as the 269th richest American with a net worth of $1.5 billion as
of last September.

”I love action,” Kraft, who turns 70 on June 5, said in an
interview with The Associated Press. ”I think I’m 28. I love
people. I love all kinds of people.”

Kraft occasionally strolls through the locker room talking with
players. He chats with employees such as those who do laundry and
cleaning for the team. He and his wife Myra recently announced a
$20 million gift to attract medical personnel to work in community
health centers in Massachusetts.

”I love this country,” Kraft said Thursday. ”I worry when we
have unemployment like we have, the social impact of that, and so
we try to create a system in medical treatment that would go into
the inner city and allow people of all backgrounds to get the same
treatment my family could get.”

For now, his focus is on football.

The Patriots are in the playoffs for the 12th time in his 17
years as owner. They’ve been in four of the past nine Super Bowls,
winning three. Their 14-2 record this season was the league’s
best.

At 4:30 p.m. Sunday, their next playoff game will start. Some
three hours later, Kraft will either have another home playoff game
to watch or the unenviable duty of patting disappointed players on
the back.

”I’m always a little uneasy,” he said.

Whatever happens, the Patriots should be contenders for a long
time. Young players are making major contributions and Tom Brady
has a $72 million, four-year contract extension that starts next
season.

He’ll be 37 by the time it expires and said before the deal was
made that he wants to play 10 more seasons.

The contract agreed upon three days before the season opener was
”one of the great strategic things we did,” Kraft said. ”I
wonder if Tommy would have had the year he had if we hadn’t taken
the contract (issue) away and put it to bed. … I think that was a
real big move in giving him peace of mind.”

Brady had one of his best seasons, perhaps surpassing his 50
touchdown passes with just eight interceptions in 2007 when the
Patriots went 18-0 before losing the Super Bowl to the New York
Giants 17-14.

He is a favorite to win his second regular-season MVP award
after throwing 36 touchdown passes and four interceptions.

”It’s a tremendous amount of money,” Kraft said, ”but he,
obviously, is worth it.”

Brady had given the owner fair warning soon after the Patriots
drafted him in 2000.

”He was this skinny beanpole,” Kraft said. ”I always tell the
story how he came down the steps at the old Foxboro Stadium. I’m
going out one night and … he had a pizza under his arm and he
comes up and he says, ‘Mr. Kraft, I’m Tom Brady.’ I said, ‘I know
who you are, you’re our sixth-round draft choice from
Michigan.’

”And he looked me right in the eye and he said, ‘and I’m the
best decision this organization has ever made.’ Verbatim.”

One of the best, anyway.

Kraft made a much riskier decision when he hired Bill Belichick
as coach against the advice of many.

After 16 years as an NFL assistant, Belichick got his first head
coaching job with the Cleveland Browns in 1991. He left after five
years with a 36-44 record and a rocky relationship with the
media.

He spent the next year as Bill Parcells’ assistant head coach
with the Patriots. But when Parcells left for the Jets as head
coach the next year, Kraft bypassed Belichick and hired Pete
Carroll. After three years, Kraft fired Carroll and hired Belichick
in 2000, giving up a first-round draft choice to free him from the
Jets where he had just been appointed, then stepped down, as
Parcells’ successor.

”People at the league office, people in this town, sent me
tapes of him in Cleveland and said, ‘you don’t want to hire this
guy.’ And, remember, he went 5-11 (his first season) and we gave up
a number one draft choice,” Kraft said. ”People thought we were
nuts. So I think that probably was one of the best decisions I’ve
made in football.”

That’s not the only time his sanity was questioned. Myra Kraft
wondered about her husband’s mental state when he paid $172
million, an NFL record at the time, for a team that was 19-61 the
previous five seasons.

”She thought it was nuts,” he said. ”She was afraid it would
affect our charitable giving and I said, ‘We will do more for the
community if we run this franchise correctly.’ ”

She also disagreed with his decision to buy season tickets to
the Patriots in 1971. Then there was the $350 million, without
taxpayer assistance, it cost to build Gillette Stadium, which
opened in 2002 with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Would anyone else have taken all those risks – hiring Belichick,
paying $55 million more than his investment bankers felt was a fair
price for the team, building a stadium with private funds?

”If you look at successful people, they make decisions that
other people look at as being weird, crazy, odd, strange,” former
Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. ”They’re not like normal
people. They’re visionaries. They see things a lot differently.
Where you and I may look and say, ‘that’s the color red,’ they say,
‘no, that’s maroon.’ That’s what Mr. Kraft has.”

That insight turned the Patriots into a widely respected
franchise and helped the NFL become a broadcast bonanza.

”All you have to do is look at the Patriots now compared to
when Robert acquired the team,” commissioner Roger Goodell said.
”The franchise was seriously challenged. Now they’ve won multiple
Super Bowls, transformed the stadium experience for Patriots fans,
and it’s a terrific success story all the way around.

”Robert is also fully engaged in helping to make our league
better. He has great business instincts and knowledge and spends a
good deal of his time on league issues.”

Kraft’s wife is the daughter of Jacob Hiatt, a philanthropist
and owner of the Rand-Whitney Group, a Worcester-based packaging
company where Kraft went to work. Kraft is still that firm’s board
chairman. He also founded International Forest Products in
1972.

On the wall behind his desk are large black-and-white photos of
his four sons. One of them, Jonathan, is president of the Patriots,
adding continuity and stability to the franchise.

On top of the desk is a letter from former Secretary of State
Henry Kissinger, sending his regrets that he won’t be able to
attend Sunday’s game.

”He’s a pal,” Kraft said quietly. ”He couldn’t change his
plans.”

Then the owner who calls himself ”just a kid from the streets
of Brookline” gets up. He walks toward the door of his office in
the expensive stadium that houses the team he paid too much for
that’s led by a head coach no one else wanted.

Risks? Sure.

So far, they’ve worked.

”I’ve got the best coach in Belichick, the best quarterback in
Brady,” Kraft said. ”We’ve just got to keep it together.”