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Indianapolis Colts' Jim Irsay a model for good NFL ownership

MIAMI — Someday, all of this will be hers. From the players to the profits, from the footballs to the fleur-de-lis, she will own it all.

When that happens, Rita Benson LeBlanc, proprietor of the Saints, is going to need a role model.

After all, holding the deed to an NFL team has its difficulties. There are decisions to make, there are plans to follow and there is money to count. A person has to grow into the job. A person needs a role model to follow.

Fortunately for LeBlanc, one is nearby. Not far away, there is an owner who knows about stability and blueprints, who knows when to decide and when to delegate, who has a feel for his team and for his city.

No, it isn't Tom Benson, her father.

It's Jim Irsay, the guy in the other skybox.

A lot of NFL owners — or, in the case of LeBlanc, owners-to-be — should try to emulate Irsay these days. He seems to have it down pat. His teams are good, his stands are filled and his future is bright. These days, you can put him up with owners such as Dan Rooney and Robert Kraft as the best the league has to offer.

Perhaps such praise will sound strange to a longtime NFL fans, because for much of Irsay's life, a lot of fans made his surname sound like a curse word. Robert Irsay was gruff and reckless and offensive. He once marched onto the sideline to demand the coach make a change. He once pulled a franchise out of Baltimore. He dictated draft picks.

And his son? His son did that rarest of things.

He cleaned up the family name. He made "Irsay" a good thing again. What more can a son do than clean off the family crest?

From the time Irsay took over the franchise, back in '98, the Colts have been terrific. They have won 134 games, and they've made nine playoffs, and they will try to win their second Super Bowl on Sunday. They have won at least 12 games for seven straight seasons.

What's that? You say he has had Bill Polian picking his players? True, but it was Irsay who hired Polian and let him work. You say he has had Peyton Manning? Yes, but it was Irsay who made a then-difficult decision to pick Manning over Ryan Leaf. You say he has had Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell? Yes, but Irsay hired Dungy, and he set up the heir-apparent situation that kept Caldwell in Indy.

Think for a minute. What would the Colts' fortunes have been if Irsay had botched any of those decisions?

As for Irsay, he'll tell you how much better things could have been if, say, the Colts had never left the NFC.

"I really think if we were in the other conference, we would have been to three Super Bowls, and this would have been our fourth," Irsay, 50, said. "I feel strongly about that. In '03, '04 and '05, we lost to the team that won the Super Bowl. The Patriots twice and the Steelers once. Conferences change as time goes along, but I feel we would have been to more. This might even be our fifth."

Ah, that Jimmy. He's a dreamer. He even talks that way, slow and rambling, as if he is picking through lyrics from his beloved rock 'n' roll idols. In the end, however, Irsay makes a lot of sense.

Yes, Benson LeBlanc could take a lesson or two. Eventually, she might have some cleanup to do with the family name, too.

Someday, she may have to make people forget the concept of the San Antonio Saints.

Oh, winning is a large container of forgiveness, and much of New Orleans has embraced Tom Benson again. He's the 82-year-old man who boogies, remember? He's finally the owner of a Super Bowl team.

Still, there are some in New Orleans who cannot forget the way Benson played footsie with San Antonio, Texas, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When his team played three games there after the hurricane, there was a question whether the Saints would ever come home. Maybe they would move to San Antonio permanently. Maybe Los Angeles.

"It was different than most people think," the elder Benson said. "It was just a matter of working through circumstance. We moved to San Antonio because we couldn't play in New Orleans, but that whole year we continued working on getting back to New Orleans."

That's true. But Benson also made statements back then that left no doubt he would leave in the middle of the city's worst time if it came to it. Benson spoke cryptically, saying "no decision has been made on our future location" and "there will be many factors considered" before one is. In other words, if he wasn't willing to move the Saints, he was willing to let people believe he would to get a deal. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans at the time, ripped Benson and suggested the city would want the Saints back, but not the owner.

It was not until then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue became involved that New Orleans was assured of keeping its team.

That's the first lesson for an owner. Cities don't like to be threatened, and fans don't like to be trifled with. For an owner, moving a team can be the deadliest sin.

Ask Irsay. He spent most of his life listening to people tell him how evil his father was for moving the Colts. When he had a similar chance in 2002, Irsay found a way to work things out with the city.

As for the Bensons, they received enough Superdome improvements to promise to hang around until 2025.

After that, when Benson finally tires of the boogie, it's up to Rita.

If she needs a little advice, she should talk to the guy in Indy.

Indianapolis Colts' Jim Irsay a model for good NFL ownership 02/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 3, 2010 11:00pm]
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