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.”