Owners elect a commissioner to do two things: Make Money and Handle Problems. There is no doubt that Goodell has made money for the owners as league revenue has surged to an estimated $14 billion. Goodell has been well compensated for the largesse, pulling in more than $200 million in salary and bonuses since becoming commissioner in 2006. But the problems persist, and the popular perception is that Goodell has done little to halt the slide. But Jones’ motivation is purely personal after Goodell moved to suspend Cowboys star RB Ezekiel Elliott after a prolonged investigation of several domestic violence incidents. It wasn’t the first time Jones stood at the gates of the NFL commissioner’s office, waving pitchforks and torches.
Barely eight months into his ownership of the Cowboys in 1989, Jones joined a cabal of insurgents who protested the selection of Saints President and GM Jim Finks to succeed Pete Rozelle as commissioner. After Pete Rozelle announced his retirement at the March owners’ meeting in Phoenix, a committee led by Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney recommended Finks for the job. It was a logical selection since Finks was considered one of the top executives in the league, having built the Minnesota Vikings that appeared in four Super Bowls and the Chicago Bears team that won it all after the 1985 season. Even more remarkably, Finks had turned around the league’s doormat Saints into a playoff team in his second year in New Orleans. He also had the respect of the players since he had come into the NFL as a quarterback and defensive back with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was elected to the Pro Bowl in 1952.
There were no flies on Finks. However, there were objections to the process. Minnesota President Mike Lynn was the most outspoken, voicing outrage that the majority of owners did not have input in the process. It was personal for Lynn because Finks proved to be a tough act for him to follow with the Vikings. Lynn’s only football experience came in Memphis, where he was a theater manager who became active in trying to lure NFL exhibitions to the city. In 1974, Lynn was hired as an assistant to Vikings owner Max Winter and in 1975 was named to succeed Finks who had resigned to become GM of the Bears. Lynn would never be Finks in the minds of the team or community, trouble that likely started when Winter introduced his new president as “Mike Lynch.” But in 1989, Lynn was successful at persuading other owners that the process to elect a commissioner should be revisited. His goal was solely to deny Finks the opportunity he spent a lifetime earning. Rooney felt strongly enough about Finks’ support that he announced an owner’s meeting to formally vote on the new commissioner. Rooney was aware of the pushback and urged Finks to call some of the reluctant owners to assure them that he understood their position, but Finks refused. He told me privately, “If I have to campaign for it, I’ll have to owe people, and a new commissioner can’t do his job if he owes anybody.”
Lynn had persuaded ten other clubs to vote against the Finks nomination, including former Finks supporters Bob Irsay of Indianapolis and a new owner who was a surprise addition to Lynn’s cabal. Earlier that year, the Jerry Jones, his son Stephen and head coach Jimmie Johnson had spent a day in New Orleans talking with Finks and his staff about how to put together a successful organization. Despite Finks spending time with a new owner and giving him a peek under the tent of success, Jones sided with Lynn and voted against Finks. After much discussion and debate, Rooney realized the insurgents had locked arms and, more concerned about making a point than picking the right man, would never vote for Finks. He withdrew Finks’ name and switched his support to the No. 2 choice, Paul Tagliabue, the League’s long-time legal counsel. Nearly 30 years later, Jerry Jones has assumed the Mike Lynn role and is rallying support to make a point. Having a major voice on who is commissioner was personal for Mike Lynn in 1989 and it’s personal for Jones today.
My new book, "Integrated: the Lincoln Institute, Basketball and a Vanished Tradition" is now available from the University Press of Kentucky or at Amazon.com.