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Super Bowl LII battle marks trilogy for Robert Kraft, Jeffrey Lurie

By
Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (R) congratulates quarterback Tom Brady after defeating the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-20 in the AFC Championship game on January 21 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. File photo by John Angelillo/UPI
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (R) congratulates quarterback Tom Brady after defeating the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-20 in the AFC Championship game on January 21 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. File photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- Super Bowl LII is not the first competition between owners Bob Kraft and Jeffrey Lurie, nor even the second for those who recall the Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl 13 years ago.

It is at least the third.

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In 1994, when the Patriots were a laughingstock of the league, having floundered under the ownership of the Sullivan family and fallen into even more disrepair under the brief ownership of James Orthwein, both Kraft and Lurie attempted to buy the franchise.

Kraft got it, paying at the time the highest price ever for an NFL franchise, $172 million. Lurie, outbid, instead paid even more, $195 million, to purchase the next NFL franchise to come on the market, the Philadelphia Eagles.

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Nearly a quarter-century later, we know that both men turned out to be successful club owners. One of them, Kraft, has been fabulously successful. The other, Lurie, moderately successful. Both franchises now are worth more than $2 billion.

Both owners grew up as Boston sports fans.

Both were season ticket holders years ago, long before the possibility of buying into the NFL was even a glimmer of a thought.

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Both grew tremendously wealthy in business, Kraft running a packaging company and Lurie producing movies.

Both achieved success with their third head coach -- Kraft with Bill Belichick after Bill Parcells and Pete Carroll; Lurie with Andy Reid after Rich Kotite and Ray Rhodes.

And that is where their history diverges.

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If you subscribe to the theory that an owner's job is picking the right coach, signing the checks and getting out of the way, Kraft has done it better than anybody. That's why he's looking to add a sixth Lombardi Trophy to the five he already has.

In today's game, owners often rely on consultants and search firms to find their coaches and other key employees. If Kraft had done that, he never would have hired Belichick. Instead, he relied on his own instincts. Most everybody he spoke to recommended against hiring Belichick, including executives in the NFL office. The perception was that Belichick had flopped in a previous head coaching position at Cleveland and his prickly personality was not suited for success. In addition, Kraft put him in charge of personnel decisions.

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But Kraft believed his history in business gave him a good feel for people and personalities, and he had developed a relationship with Belichick when Belichick was an assistant coach with the Patriots under Parcells. Even today, they remain something of an odd couple, but a ridiculously successful one: The Patriots are playing in the Super Bowl for the ninth time under Kraft's 22-year ownership, and they have won the championship five times.

His success has made Kraft a major power broker in the NFL, and he was a close confidant of Roger Goodell, the commissioner, until Goodell fined the Patriots and suspended Tom Brady for four games because of deflated footballs in the 2015 AFC Championship Game. It is believed the relationship has been largely repaired, with Kraft calling it now "a professional relationship."

Kraft remains a member of some of the league's most significant owner committees, including the management council executive committee. Lurie is less of an influence in league management circles.

Lurie has not managed to approach Kraft's success. When he bought the team, he brought along a boyhood pal, Joe Banner, as his key helper, and although it took a couple of tries, they eventually got the right coach.

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Neither of Lurie's first two coaches with the Eagles, Kotite and Rhodes, stir any memories of greatness. In 1999, however, Lurie hit on the surprise hire of Reid, who had not been on most teams' coaching radar since he was only a position coach with Green Bay, not a coordinator. Reid had been recommended highly by Mike Holmgren, his Green Bay boss whom Lurie had tried to hire first.

Under Reid, Philadelphia went to four consecutive NFC championship games. The Eagles lost the first three, two of them at home, but the fourth was the charm, a victory that put them into the Super Bowl against the Kraft-Belichick Patriots following the 2004 season. New England, of course, won by three points, and the Eagles shortly thereafter began a slow slide toward irrelevance.

Eventually, Lurie split with Banner, although both of them say the relationship has been repaired and is now good. And now, for the first time since that divorce, Lurie is back in the league's showcase game. The Eagles are trying to win their first NFL championship since 1960, six seasons before the Super Bowl was born.

Kraft actually was involved with the Patriots before becoming the owner of the team; he bought their old stadium when previous ownership ran into financial difficulty. He had a brief dalliance with the possibility of moving the team to Hartford, Conn., before their new stadium in Foxborough was built.

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Lurie, after failing to buy the Patriots, took a run at buying the Los Angeles Rams and also a proposed expansion franchise in Baltimore before he got the Eagles, mostly with money borrowed from a bank in Boston.

Now these two men, with their histories so intertwined, will sit on the sidelines once more as their teams play for the NFL championship.

--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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