He once oversaw one of America's most successful sports operations. Now, he's trying to find solutions for one of its most dysfunctional.
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is leading a panel that's trying to figure out what works and what doesn't at the U.S. Olympic Committee — a task that has been repeated dozens of times over the past several decades without any galvanizing success.
"The Olympic movement is a complicated array of grass roots, volunteerism and highly sophisticated global competition," Tagliabue said. "My impression is, there's not enough clarity in who plays what role in each part of the process."
Which has never been much of a problem at the NFL.
In his 17 years as commissioner, Tagliabue took the groundwork laid by his predecessor, Pete Rozelle, and helped pro football surpass baseball as the most popular sport in the United States. He constructed billion-dollar TV deals, decades of labor peace and a workable revenue-sharing model. He herded a diverse board of directors — the NFL owners — who knew they had to agree on much more than they disagreed on if they wanted to thrive.
"At the NFL, you had some pretty passionate individuals as owners and a pretty wide cast of characters," said Skip Gilbert, chair of the National Governing Bodies Council, who is on Tagliabue's 14-person advisory panel. "You've got to be able to bring them together for the good of the sport. It might be a stretch, but in some ways, you could say he's looking at the same kind of task with the USOC."
But instead of 32 owners, the USOC has hundreds of stakeholders, all seeking money, attention and a place at the crowded table of Olympic interests.
In 2003, after hearings in Congress, the USOC reduced the size of its board from 125 members to 11, part of a dramatic overhaul that was supposed to improve accountability and efficiency.
The most notable move the reconstructed board has made, however, threw the entire organization into flux. That came in March, when the board ousted CEO Jim Scherr and replaced him with Stephanie Streeter — a move that brought howls of protest from people in the Olympic family and weakened the USOC's international reputation.
The most tangible result was Chicago's last-place finish in the voting to award the 2016 Olympics last month. A new CEO will be hired in the next several weeks. Tagliabue wants to have his report done by March, though he already has identified one key area for change: More board committees with more input from experts.
"Your key committees should reflect your key priorities as an organization," Tagliabue said. "So if you feel development of top athletes is key, you need to have an athletic development committee. If distributing your events on the Internet and cable and new media is important, then you have to have a new-media committee."
Under Tagliabue's vision, not every expert on a committee would have to be a board member.
But he clearly sees the need for more input, which could mean a larger board. Part of the focus in 2003 was bringing more so-called independence to the board so decisions would not be made by people beholden to certain parts of the Olympic movement.
Critics of the board have complained, however, that the push for independence led to a lack of institutional knowledge that has moved the USOC in the wrong direction.
They want this problem rectified, though nobody seems up for another complete overhaul.
"The way a lot of them put it is, where did we hit the mark in 2003? Let's keep that," Tagliabue said. "And then, they say, where did we miss the mark? And what can we do to correct it? It's three simple questions."