Generally speaking, it's tough to see sports team owners as sympathetic figures. Many are either absentee landlords, camera-hogging loudmouths, or low-rent dictators in various stages of their own private Steinbrenner complexes.
Robert Kraft is a different breed of cat.
Since Kraft purchased the New England Patriots in 1994, the season ticket holder from 1971 on helped assemble and has presided over one of the most consistently successful athletic organizations in the world. Since 1994, the Patriots have had just two losing seasons, and one of them came in 2000, when Bill Belichick was asked to remake the franchise. Belichick's 139-53 record in the regular season — and 15-6 mark in the playoffs — is a testament to how that journey has gone.
Still, the successes are not what define Kraft. Indianapolis Colts center and NFLPA rep Jeff Saturday hugged Kraft at the end of the 2011 lockout as a gesture of friendship and sympathy. It was a reaction to the passing of Kraft's wife, Myra Hiatt Kraft, in July. Near the end of the prolonged negotiations between the NFL and NFLPA, Kraft became the voice of reason despite the fact that he was doing so with a heavy heart. On Friday, Kraft talked about the meaning of this particular season.
"Before the season started, I spoke to the team and said how they'd be wearing a patch -- we're dedicating the season to my sweetheart and what that meant to the family," Kraft said. "I'm a great believer in spirituality, so I'm pretty pleased and excited that we have the privilege of playing in this game at home. When you think about it, I think our family has been privileged to own the team 18 years and this is our seventh AFC Championship Game, five of which I believe have been played at home. I go around the league and I speak to some great players [who have] never had the privilege of playing in a playoff game where they win. I think back to when I was sitting in the seats with my boys [as a Patriots fan] and our season would be over at the end of December. So my sons know what it is like to have the season over. My grandchildren, I think, are a little spoiled because we've had the privilege of being in the postseason a great deal. It's a great credit to the coaches we've had here and the players we've had here."
Kraft had some experience with Belichick before he was hired as the team's third head coach since 1994, but the owner agreed that the coach has exceeded all expectations. Kraft could have bailed after that first 5-11 season, and he could have made a change after the Spygate scandal that rocked the NFL in 2007, but it's pretty clear that once Kraft established a belief in you, it takes a lot for that faith to be shaken.
"I saw a little of it in 1996 when he was here (as Bill Parcells' assistant head coach), but I think Bill has evolved and grown and I think he'll go down as the greatest coach in the history of the NFL, because he's really competing in the era of the salary cap," Kraft said of his coach. "Remember, when I bought the team, it was the beginning of the salary cap. I think a lot of great coaches had difficulty understanding how to balance the economics of the game and the budgets. His product knowledge is so great. I really like this team a lot this year. I think he's done a great job assembling people. We have a very good locker room. We had the privilege of being the number one seed back-to-back. I personally can feel a big difference in the locker room this year and last year. In the end, going back to your question, what really makes a difference is the mental toughness — when teams get down, how do they react? I just think of that game we were down 21-0. We've been down a number of times this year. I think we're privileged to have him as a head coach. I just think he does an outstanding job."
That said — and it's a glaring omission given the standard set by three Super Bowl wins in the time from the 2001 and 2004 seasons — the lack of a Lombardi Trophy for the Patriots since the end of the 2004 season (and the absence of a Patriots team in the Super Bowl since the 2007 season) has some questioning if the window is starting to close for this franchise. Kraft remains unconcerned.
"I sat in the stands for 34 years and we had one home playoff game, so I savor every year," he said. I don't ever like losing and I want to do whatever I can do to try to put us in the best position. I think those people that are a little superstitious, one of them was in my box last week and debated whether to come because they had been there the last two times when we were, as you say, 'one and done.' We were fortunate to get through it. The league is designed to go 8-8 and the reason the networks pay us what they pay us is because no one knows what is going to happen -- head coaches, quarterbacks, owners, D-linemen -- so no one knows what is going to happen Sunday. You just work hard and try to put yourself in the best position to win. The key is to always gather good people around you. I like the people we have around us."
Of course, the key to the on-field product is quarterback Tom Brady, and Kraft took the time on Friday to recall an often-told anecdote about the player the Patriots didn't pick up until the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft.
"I still have the image of Tom Brady coming down the old Foxboro Stadium steps with that pizza box under his arm, the skinny beanpole. When he introduced himself to me and he said, 'Hi, Mr. Kraft' and he was about to say who he was and [I said] 'I know who you are, you're Tom Brady, you're our sixth round draft choice.' He looked me in the eye and said, 'I'm the best decision this organization has ever made.'
"It looks like he could be right, although hiring Bill Belichick, I think, also has been a pretty good decision, even though the media beat me up pretty good for the first year and half. Watching Tommy grow and evolve and watching from being a single guy in the marketplace to getting married and going to his wedding and seeing the kind of father he is, he's just a very unusual young man and a great leader. He's matured beautifully and he's still kept his humility. I'm really happy that we have him as our quarterback. I hope we have the best quarterback and coach in the history of the game. I guess to prove that we have a little more execution that we have to do over the next few years. I certainly hope we do it."
Winning their first playoff game in four years was the first step, and exacting a measure of revenge against the Baltimore Ravens for an upset in the 2009 wild-card round would be the next. Kraft's Patriots can take care of that in Sunday afternoon, and then, it would be on to the fifth Super Bowl of the Belichick era. But no matter what happens to Kraft's Patriots, he's proven to be a winner — because he showed the most faith during the season in which he lost the most.