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Rams owner Stan Kroenke brought the NFL back to L.A.; maybe a Super Bowl title is next

Divisional Round - Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams
Rams owner Stan Kroenke on the sideline at the NFC divisional round playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 12 at the Coliseum.
(Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

Too nervous to sit and watch, Stan Kroenke paced the back of the darkened visiting owner’s suite at the Superdome in New Orleans as his Rams lined up for the kick that would send them to Super Bowl LIII.

He didn’t chat with the 15 or so friends and family members in the box, only exchanging glances with similarly frayed Rams executives. Their dream — an absurd fantasy just two years earlier — was a 57-yard field goal away.

Kroenke saw Greg Zuerlein’s kick, but an overhang blocked his view of the flight of the ball though the uprights. His imagination filled in the rest. He knew the Rams had defeated the New Orleans Saints in overtime when he saw an offensive lineman triumphantly jab his arms in the air.

The Superdome, raucous all game, was quiet as a library. Except in the Kroenke box, that is.

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“My daughter, who I didn’t know had a pretty good vertical leap, demonstrated it when Greg made that kick,” Kroenke said during an hourlong interview with The Times this week. “That was a very cool moment. I guarantee my daughter and I will never forget that one, looking at each other.”

In the gleeful delirium, Josh Kroenke, the owner’s son, and Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer, accidentally crashed into each other.

“I jumped, and as Kevin jumped I caught a shoulder in the chin,” said the younger Kroenke, a former Missouri basketball player. “I had a sore jaw. It was the best sore jaw I’ve ever had.”

These are unforgettable times for Stan Kroenke, and highly unusual ones. His team, 4-12 and in dire disrepair at the end of the 2016 season, is one victory away from the second Lombardi Trophy in Los Angeles history, a bookend to a Super Bowl win by the L.A. Raiders 35 years ago.

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Standing in the way is the greatest dynasty in NFL history, the New England Patriots, who have reached their ninth Super Bowl with Bill Belichick as coach and Tom Brady as quarterback. The Patriots are 2½-point favorites in the game, which is scheduled for a 3:30 p.m. PT kickoff at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Kroenke was interviewed in a meeting room at his hotel, along with his son and Demoff. The room was part of a larger presentation area where the franchise was displaying artists’ renderings and a virtual reality tour of its crown jewel, the $3-billion stadium Kroenke is constructing in Inglewood that will be the glistening, state-of-the-art centerpiece of a 290-acre development. The Rams will share the venue with the Chargers.

Instead of his typical three-piece suit, Kroenke wore a tailored sweatsuit in his team’s throwback royal blue, with a Rams helmet on his right breastplate and a Super Bowl logo on his left.

“Do I have a ritual for the Super Bowl? Well, I’ve been there so many times,” he said sarcastically, smiling. “Ah, that’s right, we weren’t playing, though. I’ve developed a non-playing ritual. I’d go to the tailgate parties. We all get out in the mix with various folk. It’s fun to see the other owners and the league people.”

But now, for the first time since he bought majority control of the Rams from the Rosenbloom family in 2010, his team is playing in the game.

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Rams owner Stan Kroenke talks to Lakers star LeBron James before the Rams’ playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC divisional playoffs.
(Max Faulkner / TNS)

“I’m fired up,” said Kroenke, 71, a billionaire developer who paved the path for the Rams’ return to Los Angeles when he acquired the land that once housed the Hollywood Park racetrack. “You want me to run out on the field with the team? I’d probably do it if it would help.”

Just as his mind filled in the picture of his team’s victory in New Orleans, Kroenke has a vision for his colossal Inglewood development. The stadium, set to open for the 2020 season, is 60% complete.

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Plans for the sprawling development include retail and residential areas, a lake and a park, and a new home for NFL Media to replace its current nondescript studios in Culver City. Considering the league’s headquarters in New York are in a cookie-cutter office building on Park Avenue, the building adjacent to the stadium will be the first that bears the NFL shield.

“It will be a first-class, beautiful building,” Kroenke said. “What happens is, once you design the stadium, and you make it almost an iconic piece of art, the sculpture and the lines, you don’t want to put anything next to it that detracts from that, right?”

Kroenke owns several professional sports teams, among them the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and the English Premier League soccer team Arsenal. In the past five years, Kroenke has emerged as the preeminent risk taker among NFL owners. He figured out how to bring a team back to the nation’s second-largest market, a riddle that had flummoxed a long line of billionaires, politicians and other power brokers for two decades.

“He’s a doer, he just speaks with his actions,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said of Kroenke. “The way the thing has evolved in Los Angeles, it has shown everyone in the league, and frankly fans across the United States, his strengths. Rather than some words in a meeting room, you’re basically seeing right before your eyes what real strength is.”

The Rams took roster risks, too. They pulled off a massive trade to acquire quarterback Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft. Kroenke hired Sean McVay, when critics thought it was crazy to put the team in the hands of a 30-year-old coach.

And, heading into this season, the team brought in three defensive players branded elsewhere as character concerns.

Kroenke entrusts player decisions to McVay, general manager Les Snead and Demoff. He focuses on challenges concerning the stadium and surrounding development.

“The risk was, you didn’t know how all of this would turn out,” he said. “There was a lot of risk all along the way, and there still is. There’s huge, huge risk still, because you’re doing something at a cost no one’s ever done before.”

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The mountain got even higher when the Rams stumbled on the field in their return to Los Angeles, which they had called home from 1946 to 1994 before moving to St. Louis. Going 4-12 did nothing to ignite the old fan base or inspire a new one. But McVay triggered a turnaround, leading the team to the playoffs last season, his first as coach.

This season, in finishing 13-3 and winning playoff games against Dallas and New Orleans, the Rams have realized heights only dreamed about in best-case scenarios. Typically in the NFL, teams that relocate are doormats.

It’s also been a win for the league, having the sport’s most dynamic young coach, along with star players such as Goff, running back Todd Gurley and defensive lineman Aaron Donald, in a market it is trying to reengage. What’s more, the Chargers had a tremendous season, advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs before losing at New England.

The new stadium was expected to be the force that would drive Los Angeles football fans to reconnect with the NFL. Instead, the reborn Rams haven taken the lead.

“This is our team that came home,” Kroenke said. “To me, that’s one of the most satisfying things, because the fans appreciate that.”

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer


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