A Super Bowl for the Old Guard

Wellington Mara and Art Modell are the perfect Super Bowl odd couple. One is all about football, the other likes a little of everything.

The owners of the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens have a combined 115 seasons in the NFL and are close friends who have known each other since the early 1960s.

Just don't look for many similarities between two of the league's most venerable figures.

``Art is a man about town. He does and watches all kinds of things,'' said Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who served in the same capacity for Modell in Cleveland a decade ago.

``Wellington is all football. He likes to watch the offensive line.''

The 75-year-old Modell always has a one-liner to lighten the tension or deflect a question he doesn't want to answer.

Mara, 84, speaks softly but the humor is there, just more unexpected and often more sarcastic.

``We were the worst team ever to get home-field advantage in the playoffs, the worst team ever to reach the championship game,'' Mara said after his team beat Minnesota 41-0 in the NFC title game.

``Now we'll be the worst team to win the Super Bowl.''

Mara started as a ball boy at 9 when his father bought the team in 1925. During the nearly 40 years since Modell bought the then-Cleveland Browns, the owners have been tight off the field, dominant figures in the back rooms.

``Wellington Mara and Art Modell already rank among the legendary owners in sports,'' NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. ``Their personal friendship reflects the unique structure that has been the foundation of the NFL's success. They are tremendous competitors on the field but work closely together off the field for the overall good of the league.''

Mara's biggest contribution was agreeing to - even encouraging - revenue sharing in the early '60s, putting Green Bay and other smaller cities on equal financial footing with his team in the nation's biggest market.

Modell's impact, lessened somewhat by the anger he engendered by moving the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996, was getting $18 billion in television money in the last contract.

``It's safe to say that Wellington's actions in revenue sharing stabilized the league,'' said Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney, another of the NFL's most powerful owners.

``His counsel is always wise and to the point. Art's contribution was in television.''

But that's business.

Sunday's Super Bowl is about football.

For many years, Mara ran the Giants' football operations.

Through the '50s, with Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry on a coaching staff headed by Jim Lee Howell, New York was a power in the Eastern Conference. Even after Lombardi left for Green Bay and Landry for Dallas, the Giants were championship caliber.

They won the league title in 1956, but lost title games in 1958-59 and 1961-63 - in effect, the Buffalo Bills of that era.

When the Giants didn't win the Eastern Conference title in 1957, the Browns did. Cleveland also won the NFL championship in 1964 and losing the title game the next year to Lombardi's Green Bay Packers.

Mara gave up direct control of football in 1965 when his brother Jack died, leaving his half of the team to Jack's son, Tim.

But Wellington Mara kept a firm hand on the team as the Giants turned from winners to losers, missing the postseason for 17 straight years while he and Tim played their own version of ``Family Feud.'' Wellington Mara, who goes to Mass almost every day, disapproved of his nephew's playboy lifestyle.

Mara hired ex-Giants from the glory years to run the team - Andy Robustelli as general manager and Alex Webster as coach, to name two. It was part of Mara's philosophy: once a Giant, always a Giant.

Mara regularly pays the medical expenses of ex-Giants and looks after their families. When several players and ex-players contracted cancer during the early '80s, Mara provided limousine service to take them for treatment in New York.

``I was amazed when I got here to see so many old people around - I mean people over 70 and 80 working with equipment and other things. And I don't mean that negatively because I'm an old guy,'' said 37-year-old left tackle Lomas Brown, who joined the team last March and became a team leader.

``There's an amazing family atmosphere that I haven't seen on any of the other three teams I've played on. Once you become a Giant, you're a Giant for life.''

By 1978, the family was being split by on-field failure, which came to a head with ``The Fumble,'' quarterback Joe Pisarcik's muff that allowed Philadelphia to win a game the Giants could have locked up simply by having Pisarcik kneel.

When the Maras couldn't agree on a general manager to replace Robustelli, commissioner Pete Rozelle stepped in, recommending George Young, then Miami's personnel director.

Young's first draft pick in 1979 was Phil Simms; two years later it was Lawrence Taylor. Two years after that, Bill Parcells became the coach and the Giants won Super Bowls in 1987 and 1991.

Modell, meanwhile, often was frustrated, joking his way through adversity. He was hands-on in a different way than Mara, calling the press box on the most minor issues.

``Art says to tell the band to be quiet when we're coming out of the huddle,'' the team official who answered the ``hot line'' from Modell's box once told his superior.

But on the field, it was heartbreak.

There was Mike Davis' interception of Brian Sipe's ill-advised pass in a 1980 playoff game with Oakland; the 98-yard drive engineered by Denver's John Elway that led to Cleveland's loss in the 1986 championship game; and Earnest Byner's fumble as he was going into the end zone for the tying TD in the conference title game the next year.

``Art saved the day after Byner's fumble,'' Accorsi said. ``We were all down. Then he cracked a joke. I don't care how bleak it is, he's always one one-liner away from breaking the gloom.''

The Browns declined after coach Marty Schottenheimer left in 1988, but they still sold out the stadium. That's why many people were shocked when Modell announced midway through the 1995 season that he had struck a deal with Baltimore, which lost the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984.

It was all about money.

While Cleveland delayed its plans for a new stadium to replace the Depression-era facility that housed the Browns, Modell jumped at $50 million to relocate, plus a new downtown stadium. The other owners approved the deal after Modell agreed to leave the Browns' name, colors and history in Cleveland for an expansion team that began play in 1999.

Modell was vilified in Cleveland - he still has not gone back for a game. Many of his fellow owners remain cool toward him.

But not Mara.

``I didn't like to see a team move from Cleveland, but I didn't desert Art,'' he said. ``I understood there were other forces in the city that were making things hard for him there.''

The Baltimore Ravens were losers for three seasons, 8-8 last year and Modell was still in debt. Last spring, he sold 49 percent of the team for $272 million to Stephen Bisciotti, who has an option to take over in 2004.

That made this season crucial.

In the parity of the modern NFL, teams often get just one shot at the prize. Rarely do two close friends get the shot together and rarely are the ties so deep.

Modell, for example, still holds 67 Giants season tickets and he remains Mara's greatest fan.

``Wellington Mara IS the National Football League,'' Modell said. ``He is the man everyone attempts to emulate, follow, walk in his shoes. He is a man of integrity, honor and a competitive man. If the Hall of Fame gives out oak-leaf clusters, he should get one.''

It works the other way, too - there remains a Modell influence in New York.

On the day after the conference championship games, New York television stations showed Giants fans jamming a sporting goods store to buy team regalia.

The store?

Modell's, the descendant of an emporium sold by Modell's father to his uncle in the early 1920s.

``I love it,'' Modell said.

He also loves being in the Super Bowl.