PRO FOOTBALL : NFL Deadlock Keeping Rozelle Tied Up

If any National Football League club owner has a bold, imaginative solution to the league's leadership problem, he is keeping it mighty quiet.

Pete Rozelle, the man who doesn't want to be commissioner any more, returned to his New York office Thursday, convinced that he will have to hold on indefinitely.

"I keep playing, 'California, Here I Come,' " said Rozelle, who is trying to rejoin his family in retirement in San Diego. "But nobody's listening."

Six months after Rozelle's resignation, the two candidates for his office, Jim Finks and Paul Tagliabue, each got 13 votes on the last ballot in Texas this week.

What has happened is that the 70-year-old league has divided itself into a pair of the strangest factions of fighting owners in U.S. sports history.

In one corner, there's a "Nobody but Finks" bloc.

In the other, it's an "Anybody but Finks" bloc.

The fighting owners who know Finks best are very much in favor of the New Orleans Saints' general manager. They haven't shown the slightest interest in any other candidate.

In a curious contrast, the owners on the other side have shown no special fondness for Finks' opponent, Tagliabue, an NFL lawyer. There was no groundswell of support for Tagliabue six months ago, three months ago, or even a week ago.

The "Anybody But Finks" fighters simply looked over the field of possible candidates at the NFL's Dallas meeting this week and anointed Tagliabue--throwing 13 votes at his feet.

What makes all this even more weird is that the "Anybody but Finks" fighters aren't really against Finks. Last spring, some of them nominated him for commissioner, and almost to a man, talking about him privately, they make plain their obvious respect for him.

But having held up his election in Chicago last July--when their animosity was mainly directed not at Finks but at the six-owner committee that nominated him--the "Anybody but Finks" owners are plainly much too embarrassed to vote for him now.

There are some smart, serious leaders in that movement--Norman Braman of the Philadelphia Eagles for one, and Hugh Culverhouse of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for another--but the momentum of their long opposition to the members and tactics of the original search committee has taken over.

Thus the NFL is still being haunted by the initial mistake of that committee: recommending Finks unanimously after promising to recommend several candidates.

As one "Anybody but Finks" owner said this week: "If they'd only given us two guys to vote on in Chicago--Finks and Tagliabue--it would be Commissioner Jim Finks today."

In the aftermath of the 13-13 tie in Dallas, here are some of the questions that are being asked now in and out of the league:

Question: Will the NFL make one candidate commissioner and the other president?

Answer: Apparently not. Rozelle said Thursday that when he brought that idea up, Finks and Tagliabue nixed it.

Q: Will one of them withdraw?

A: Some NFL people believe that's a possibility. Some see it as the only way out of a discomfiting interlude.

Q: Who nominated Tagliabue in the first place?

A: Finks submitted his name last spring.

Q: Does it matter to the NFL that baseball in recent years has been able to find and elect not one but three commissioners?

A: No.

Q: Does the NFL's long comic-opera search for a leader matter at all?

A: According to Rozelle, the answer is no. He added: "What matters is eventually getting the right man. What matters is the game. And the game has never been better than this year."

Q: Are the fighting owners setting an NFL record?

A: No. It took 10 consecutive days and nights of wrangling for the 12 NFL club owners of 1960 to elect Rozelle. After a seemingly endless 7-4-1 stalemate, they named him on the 26th ballot.

So far, the 1989 gang has taken only six ballots. Clearly, its brightest moments lie ahead.

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