TAMPA — Paul Tagliabue estimates he worked with more than 100 owners in his 17 years as NFL commissioner and another 20 years before that working as an attorney for the league.
What made Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer stand out among that wildly successful group, Tagliabue said, was a humble awareness of the limits of his own knowledge and a constant desire to learn from others in those areas.
"He was a person who knew what he knew, and he knew what he didn't know," Tagliabue said Thursday by phone. "He was always a good listener, always a good questioner. He was always respectful in trying to develop information about things he didn't know."
Glazer died Wednesday morning at age 85 after being in declining health for several years following two strokes in 2006. Tagliabue, 73, retired as commissioner later that same year, and remembers well the transformation the Bucs had made in the decade after Glazer bought the team in 1995.
"I look back with a great deal of fondness on having worked with Malcolm," said Tagliabue, working in Washington, D.C., as the senior counsel at Covington and Burling, the law firm where he worked before becoming commissioner. "Of course, the first decade after they took the team over was so successful, it was really fantastic. He was so proud, leading up to that Super Bowl victory."
Tagliabue recalled the innate curiosity that Glazer had to learn more about everything, even about football, a sport he came to love but, almost amusingly, wasn't as familiar with as most league owners might be.
Tagliabue remembers watching a Bucs game in Tampa with Glazer, and in talking about quarterback play, the commissioner shared a few names he considered among the best ever: Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach and others.
"He said to me 'That's really helpful to have that perspective, because I don't know very much about quarterbacks,' " he said. "That was unique. Some people think they know everything about everything when their knowledge is limited. Malcolm was a realist. He was candid in dealing with me that way, which I thought was special."
Tagliabue liked that Glazer was an unusually quiet owner ("He didn't say a hell of a lot publicly to begin with," he said) who chose his words carefully but never backed down in private meetings with owners when the issue was something he cared about.
Such a time was when Tampa was seeking to host a Super Bowl after the community had invested heavily to fund construction of Raymond James Stadium. That investment had come with an understanding that a Super Bowl would result, and Glazer stood firm in asking the league to award Tampa the event for the 2000 season.
"He was very adamant that what had been done had been done with the league's support, with tremendous support from the community, including the construction costs," Tagliabue said. "He was adamant that now was the time to (award the Super Bowl to Tampa), that it was not right to defer it or, worse yet, to pass over Tampa for whatever reason."
Glazer is the fourth NFL owner to die in the past eight months, so Tagliabue has lost longtime friends and associates with significant contributions to the league. He said he is full of fondness and sadness as he remembers Glazer's passion to make the Bucs a successful franchise.
"The thing that stands out to me is his warmth," Tagliabue said. "When you got to know him personally, he and (wife) Linda were really genuine people, very warm people with a good sense of humor. … I frequently say that success starts with talent and innovation, and that's probably true of the Glazer family."