By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun
7:01 PM EST, January 21, 2012
It was well past midnight, and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti was ready to sign off after his team's second straight exhilarating victory over arch rival Pittsburgh Steelers. But Bisciotti had one last thought to share with friend and adviser Ron Shapiro.
"I want to bring the Lombardi Trophy to Baltimore so much!" he texted.
The missive provides a glimpse of the exuberance the publicly reserved billionaire draws from his most famous property. It also channels the hopes of a city and the urgency felt by this year's Ravens, who will play the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon for a trip to the Super Bowl.
After five playoff appearances in six years, few could dispute the sound health of Bisciotti's organization. But there is a sense that this particular version of the Ravens — the one with Ray Lewis patrolling the middle and Ed Reed hawking errant passes — might be staring at its last, best chance for a championship.
Shapiro says he wouldn't use the word urgency to describe Bisciotti's mentality about this season. "But I do think there's a sense of timeliness," says the longtime attorney and sports agent, who often sits with the Ravens owner during games.
"When things get put together in a way that you have legendary older players with potentially great younger players, it's not often that you get the pieces to coalesce at the right moment," he says. "So there is a sense that this is the most timely point he has faced."
Bisciotti, 51, had a minority stake in the team when the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001. But the Millersville resident was a behind-the-scenes figure, learning the ropes from his venerable senior partner, Art Modell.
Since Bisciotti took full ownership before the 2004 season, the closest the Ravens have gotten was a 2009 trip to the conference title game. But coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco were rookies then, so that was more a happy surprise.
This year feels different.
"There's an increased sense of urgency in that, yeah, we're closer," says Harbaugh, when asked about his owner's outlook.
"We all feel an urgency because the realistic expectations for this group are greater," says Dick Cass, the former Washington attorney picked by Bisciotti to run his team's business operations. "The disappointment would be greater this year, though it's not because he thinks any window is closing."
Bisciotti has often spoken of the quest for championships with a philosophical reserve. You try to run a smart, disciplined organization and put yourself in the playoff mix every year, he has said. But once the chase narrows to a few really good teams, you never quite know how the ball is going to bounce.
That outlook is unlikely to change, friends say, even if the Ravens come up short this year and Lewis, an iconic player who has become close to the owner, retires without a second ring. Bisciotti wants to win badly, they say, but he's not going to become a different person if 2012 isn't the year.
"You go for it every year," says former Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, a close friend of Bisciotti's. "It would be great if a guy like Ray Lewis got to win another one, but at the same time, Steve is going to be the owner for a long time."
'It's not about him'
Bisciotti — Maryland's fifth-wealthiest resident with a net worth of $1.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine — often looks like a rich guy enjoying the spoils of his many victories. He wears his hair slicked back, fancies fine cigars and has been known to show up at January events with a summer tan and no socks underneath his expensive loafers.
But any outer glitz belies a businessman of intense discipline, one more apt to surround himself with old friends than celebrities and one completely uninterested in making public statements about himself. Friends don't tell wild stories about him; they praise his loyalty, restraint and unfailing good manners.
A team spokesman denied requests to speak with Bisciotti last week, and the owner has rarely consented to interviews about himself, though he talks about the state of the franchise a few times a year.
"It's not about him; it's about the team and the sport," says Baltimore investment banker John Moag, a former Maryland Stadium Authority chairman who helped facilitate Bisciotti's investment in the Ravens. "I don't think Steve sees how talking about himself has anything to do with that."
But friends go out of their way to talk about him. Shapiro called from a cruise ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Williams, who has mostly shunned the spotlight since his retirement last year, quickly replied to a phone message about Bisciotti.
"When you're coaching, you tend to get negative once in a while," Williams says. "He was a sounding board for me when things weren't going so well. Steve has the ability to lift people up."
Players light up when asked about the boss. They describe him as the ideal owner, because he spends his fortune to build the best roster and maintain the finest facilities without second-guessing Harbaugh or general manager Ozzie Newsome on football matters. In 2009, Sports Illustrated named Bisciotti one of the NFL's top five owners.
"He's just a real genuine guy," says Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who dined with Bisciotti, Lewis and running back Ricky Williams during the team's recent bye week. "He wants to smoke a cigar, watch football all day on Sunday with his buddies, and he doesn't want anything to get in the way of that."
Ayanbadejo says the dinner conversation did turn to this year's Super Bowl prospects. "We talked about how now is our time," he says. "It wasn't like now or never, but we all talked about how that opportunity is there, so let's take advantage of it."
Bisciotti has never made any bones about his admiration and affection for Lewis. Some even wondered if he would force Newsome to overpay the great linebacker during his last contract negotiation, though the situation never reached that point.
"From the first handshake that we ever shared and the times that we've spent after that, the conversations that we have are about being better men and being better friends," Lewis says of Bisciotti. "How we can really just make this team better and make our city better and things like that. He's not the pushy type to always control this, control that. Steve is a very open guy."
Work ethic learned early
Bisciotti grew up in Severna Park, the son and grandson of salesmen. He was only 8 when his father, Bernie, died of leukemia. Friends say his work ethic and discipline were forged in the ensuing years, as he watched his mother, Pat, hold together her family of four.
The name of Bisciotti's first boat, C Student, describes his academic career at Severna Park High and what is now Salisbury University. But he never shied away from toil, building piers in the summer while his classmates frittered away their afternoons.
He has said that he and his cousin, Jim Davis, simply outworked competitors as they built their company, Aerotek (now part of the Allegis Group), from two desks in the basement of a rented Annapolis townhouse into one of the largest private staffing firms in the world.
It was at Aerotek, Bisciotti has said, where he honed the ability that has served him best in the NFL: He learned to pick good people for the most important jobs and to support them without getting in their way.
However, companies he has owned have come under criticism for contributing to a modern culture of downsizing, outsourcing, and hiring fewer employees and paying them less. In addition, Maxim Healthcare Services, which he co-founded, settled one of the government's largest-ever medical fraud cases last year. Maxim officials had said Bisciotti was not involved in its daily operation.
After 15 years of relentless work and travel that made him fabulously wealthy, Bisciotti decided to step back from supervising his company's daily operations in the late 1990s and enjoy time with his wife, Renee, and his sons, Jason and Jack.
"A lot of billionaires are never satisfied with what they have," Cass says. "If they have $2 billion, they want $4 billion. But he's not motivated that way."
Given his fortune, Bisciotti was approached about buying stakes in several other professional teams, including the Florida Marlins and Minnesota Vikings. But his heart lay at home. He never wanted to own a team just for the sake of making a splash; he wanted to own a team of which he was a fan.
He became a prominent University of Maryland basketball booster before the Ravens moved to Baltimore, and has joked that if the Terps were for sale, he might have bought them instead.
Moag approached him in 1999, because Modell needed an infusion of cash that would come from a minority owner buying into the Ravens. Bisciotti was already a season-ticket holder, and it seemed a perfect deal for the guy who never wanted to leave the Baltimore area. But Bisciotti had worked assiduously to remain unknown, even as his net worth soared, so he didn't know if he wanted his name on the tongue of every rabid football fan in the city.
"That was his biggest reservation, losing his anonymity," Cass says.
Bisciotti was only interested if the buy-in came with an eventual option to purchase the team outright. The parties eventually agreed to a $600 million deal, with Bisciotti buying an initial 49 percent stake of the team and beginning a four-year apprenticeship under Modell, one of the NFL's most experienced owners.
It was Bisciotti's deference to Modell during those years that convinced Moag of the new owner's exceptional quality.
"You had this young guy, who had just plunked down hundreds of millions of dollars, who was literally willing to sit and listen as an elder taught him the game," says Moag, who has worked on transfers of power in many franchises. "That just doesn't happen. It speaks to the manners he learned from his family."
As Bisciotti and his wife oversaw the design of the team's lavish new practice facility in Owings Mills, he insisted that the key feature of the central lobby be an oil portrait he had commissioned of Modell.
Where many new owners might have made sweeping changes, Bisciotti hardly tweaked his staff when he took control in 2004. He brought in Cass, who had advised him during his negotiations with the Modells, but left Newsome's football operation untouched. Those first moves foreshadowed the kind of unmeddling owner Bisciotti would prove to be.
"He told everybody, 'Do your job. You're doing a good job,'" Cass recalls. "We have to explain ourselves, but he respects us and the decisions we make."
For a town that often complains about its baseball owner's heavy-handed management, the approach was welcome.
"It's palpable how much Steve enjoys the team," Moag says. "But what never changed was that discipline. He has never succumbed to the trap that gets so many other owners, of thinking he knows more than his GM."
Bisciotti's absolute confidence in his ability to read people allows him to delegate with a light touch, friends say. It guided him through his toughest period as owner, when he fired coach Brian Billick after the 2007 season and installed Harbaugh, who had never even been in charge of an NFL offense or defense.
The owner was somber in announcing Billick's removal. Bisciotti said at the time that he had more to prove than the coach, who had brought Baltimore a Super Bowl win. But he gleamed with confidence at Harbaugh's introduction a few weeks later.
"Do I like a guy who has to earn his resume?" he said at the time. "Absolutely. I've made a living on guys with thin resumes for 25 years, and it's worked out well for me."
With at least one playoff win in each of his four seasons, Harbaugh has made Bisciotti look smart. "The guy is the best I've ever been around," the coach says when asked about his owner. "And the quality of the organization reflects that."
Bisciotti always has a say on major business decisions and often tries to assert the fan's point of view, Cass says. For example, he didn't like seeing adult autograph seekers push aside kids during training camp, so he insisted on a new policy that would place younger fans front and center.
When the 2011 season seemed in peril because of a labor dispute, Bisciotti said he was "embarrassed" to be part of a public fight over money between millionaires and billionaires.
When his football people advocated moving training camp from Westminster to the team's private facility in Owings Mills, Bisciotti resisted, remembering his childhood joy at attending Colts camp.
"He ultimately accepted the decision," Cass says. "But he didn't like it."
Bisciotti has never reached for a dime of the Ravens' earnings, the team president adds. "He never tells us to maximize profits," Cass says. "He wants to win a championship, so we plow every dollar back into the team."
If you want to know Bisciotti's heart, Shapiro says, watch him in the owner's box at M&T Bank Stadium. On the walls, you'll see the photos he and his siblings collected at Colts training camp as children. In the seats, you might see his mother, rooting vociferously for the Ravens, or a pack of grinning buddies he's been friends with for 35 years. At the center, you'll find Bisciotti, puffing on a cigar and commenting on the game like the team's No. 1 fan.
"You can see how he built his love of the game," Shapiro says. "And the box is full of people who have touched his life since he was a kid, just plain people who have affected him. With Steve, none of it is a show."
Education: Graduated from what is now Salisbury University in 1982.
Personal: Married to Renee; they have two sons, Jason and Jack.
Company: Co-founded staffing company Aerotek (now part of the Allegis Group) in 1983.
Net worth: $1.3 billion, according to Forbes, making him Maryland's fifth-wealthiest resident.
Ravens: In $600 million deal, became principal owner of the Ravens in 2004.
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