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Mr. Fix-It

In 10 years, Kraft has turned risky business venture into near-dynasty in NFL

FOXBOROUGH -- It was never about the risk-versus-reward ratio, about the half-billion dollars he'd sunk into a rickety football franchise. If it had been, Robert Kraft would have let James Orthwein out of his stadium lease, pocketed $75 million and watched the Patriots mosey off to Missouri.

It was, Kraft says, always about the fantasy, cockeyed as it might have seemed -- a winning team playing in a magnificent stadium with every seat filled every Sunday, every game on TV and the Super Bowl at the end.

"You dream about winning a championship, but you never know if it's going to happen," the Patriots owner mused from behind his desk, two days before the team left for Houston and a date with the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII a week from today. "For us to be doing this for the third time in eight years . . ."

A decade and a week after Kraft bought the club for a record $170 million, his starred-and-striped players are favored to win their second NFL title in three seasons. Gillette Stadium (and its demolished predecessor) have been sold out for 104 consecutive games and season tickets have been capped at 61,759, with a paid waiting list of more than 50,000.

What once was fantasy has become fact. "I've got nothing but admiration for what the Kraft family has been able to achieve," says Philadelphia owner Jeff Lurie, who grew up in the Boston area and knows the franchise's checkered history by heart.

For the first time in the franchise's 44 years, the words "Patriots" and "dynasty" are appearing in the same sentence. "A dynasty is not one championship," counters Jonathan Kraft, team vice chairman and the owner's eldest son. "You have to win multiple championships. We haven't done that yet."

What the Patriots have done under the Krafts' supervision is establish stability and a commitment to quality from season to season. As significant as their three Super Bowl appearances is the fact that the team has reached the playoffs six times in 10 years and missed a seventh on a tiebreaker.

"The No. 1 thing is, you have to field a good football team," says Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, who helped broker the political deal that led to the building of Gillette Stadium. "They may not win every year, but you have to make sure they have the opportunity."

The league always thought the Patriots had the makings of a top-level team. "It was a franchise that was ready to emerge," says Lurie. "There was no reason why it couldn't happen in New England."

Seeing the potential

It was all about stability. There had been brief, brilliant starbursts -- most notably the 1985 run to the Super Bowl. But when Kraft bought them, the Patriots had been through two owners and three coaches in six years and had won only 19 of their previous 80 games.

Yet they still were drawing more than 45,000 diehards to the least-hospitable facility in the league. "The thing on the balance sheet that nobody noticed was the potential fan base," Robert Kraft says. "If you understood the passion of the people . . ."

Kraft had held season tickets on the goal line since 1971 and he understood how starved the fans were for a winner. "I knew how my winters were ruined," he says, "when other teams were still playing and I was going into withdrawal."

What convinced Kraft to buy the team, his son says, was the final game of the 1993 season, when the Patriots beat Miami at home in overtime for their fourth straight victory after a 1-11 start.

"The crowd was just going nuts," Jonathan says. "They were just dying to have stability and commitment to a championship. Robert turned to me and said, `There's no way I'm not buying this franchise.' "

Kraft had wanted to buy it ever since cash-strapped founder Billy Sullivan began talking about selling it in the mid-1980s. That was why he'd bought an option to the land around the stadium with partner Steve Karp, purchased the stadium out of bankruptcy, then bought out Karp's interest.

"If we really wanted to own the team, we needed to find a way to have a competitive edge," Kraft says. "It was step by step, taking these risks."

The purchase price, Kraft says, was more than $50 million beyond what economic analysts had estimated for a high end. "My wife Myra thought I'd gone nuts buying the team," he confesses. "But there are moments in your life when you do things even though they're crazy but you think they're right. This was what I dreamed of as a kid, so I just decided to do it. Was it nuts at the time? Yes. It was not a prudent decision."

Though father and son high-fived each other on the plane ride back from St. Louis after completing the deal, they realized that all they'd done was make a down payment. "We bought the chance to fix something that was broken in a lot of places," says Jonathan.

The stadium needed a massive overhaul, if not a wrecking ball. The payroll was the league's lowest. What the Patriots did have, though, was one of the league's top coaches in Bill Parcells, a franchise quarterback in Drew Bledsoe, and an impending league cap to keep player salaries from spiraling out of sight.

Sticking to the plan

Those were the key stable elements that led to the first Super Bowl appearance in a decade in 1997. When the split came between owner and coach, that was the issue -- stability.

"Bill was a great coach and he did a lot for the franchise," Kraft acknowledges. "But at the end of each year he'd say, `I don't know if I'm going to be here next year.' "

Kraft, though, was in for the long haul, ready to ante up several hundred million dollars more for a stadium, with the rockiest days still ahead. The roughest patch came during the autumn of 2001, when the Patriots started out 1-3 after a 5-11 season, coach Bill Belichick was under fire, and Kraft had a $325 million hole in the ground next door. "It was brutal," Kraft recalls. "A lot of sweaty palms and sleepless nights."

Hiring Belichick had been a mistake, people told him, especially after Miami had stomped the Patriots by three touchdowns in October. A turnaround might take time, but Belichick had a system and a plan, Kraft concluded. "I believed in Bill," he says. "I'd call him and say, whatever you're doing, keep doing it."

That was how Kraft ran his other businesses: Hire the best people and give them autonomy, but hold them accountable. "The thing I think the Krafts have done really well is to surround themselves with excellent people," says Lurie.

The owner's job, as Kraft sees it, is to put the team in the best position to win. The football decisions -- drafting and signing, trading and cutting -- are left to the football people. "Bob hired a good coach and he's smart enough to let him do the job," says Rooney. "At some places, that doesn't happen."

Trading Bledsoe to Buffalo two years ago was a football decision. So was releasing star safety Lawyer Milloy just before the season. "I trust Bill's judgment to do things that are right for the team," says Kraft. "He explained to me what he was doing and we supported him. Did I feel bad as a fan? Absolutely."

But with the Patriots on a club-record run of 14 straight victories, nobody's second-guessing football decisions. Since the loss to Miami two seasons ago, New England is 38-11, with a 21-4 record at home, where the high-decibel spectators and the low-reading thermometer have made Gillette Stadium a nasty playoff venue.

That's one reason why Kraft nixed the idea of a dome when the design was drawn up. "Why did the Bills make it to four straight Super Bowls? Because people had to go through Buffalo," he says. "People don't want to go to Green Bay."

The fans, Kraft says, are a huge part of why the Patriots will be playing in February. Problem is, only 10,000 of them will be inside Reliant Stadium. That means 50,000 season ticket-holders will be watching on TV. "We're going to the Super Bowl and we can't give them tickets," Kraft says. "I apologize to those fans."

A decade ago, who would have imagined a waiting list nearly twice the size of the 1993 season-ticket base? "It's what I call a high-class problem," Kraft says.

It's one of the challenges of success. Now that the Patriots have fulfilled their fantasies -- the championship ring, the new stadium, sellouts all the way to the horizon -- what do they do? More of what they've been doing, Kraft muses. "You run a business for the bad times," he says. "That's why you give quality."

The list of deposed NFL dynasties is long -- Green Bay, Miami, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Dallas, Denver. Who would have predicted a year ago that both Super Bowl teams would go on to losing seasons? "It's hard to stay on top in this business," says Kraft. "The system is built to bring you back to the middle."

So the mission is to stay ahead of the curve, to establish an enduring standard of quality. "The whole thing now is about legacy," Kraft says. "We would like to become an example of what other teams would like to follow."

It isn't about a dynasty -- not until there are rings for the whole hand. Ten years ago, when the Patriots were America's chumps, the idea of winning just one Super Bowl was nirvana. But their owner won't say no to a second. "Winning championships," Robert Kraft says, "is addictive."

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