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Being boss is not easy for Benson

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson met with his interim coach, Rick Venturi, last week, he got right to the important stuff.

He told Venturi to make sure the assistant coaches clean off their desks at night before they leave the training complex.

Benson also stresses that the coaches should keep their cars washed -- Benson's a car dealer and doesn't want his employees seen driving dirty cars -- and not to eat at their desks.

Benson also wants the office staffed on Saturdays during the off-season even though nobody calls because they don't expect the offices to be open.

Not that Venturi and the rest of the staff have to worry about that. They won't be in New Orleans in the off-season.

Benson's obviously going to clean house, but it's uncertain if the team will improve now that he is running it.

The Saints had been a model franchise when the late Jim Finks was running the front office.

When Benson bought the team in 1984 to keep it from going to Baltimore, he hired Finks and let him run the show.

Finks, who had been successful in two earlier stints with the Vikings and Bears, always had the same message for owners. He told them their role was "to own."

Although the Saints never won a playoff game in his tenure, they were a consistent contender and put together back-to-back 11-5 and 12-4 seasons in 1991 and 1992.

When Finks became ill with cancer in 1993, Benson decided to try to become the next Jerry Jones, and things began to unravel.

Last year, he made the foolhardy move of trying to persuade Jimmy Johnson to take over even though he had made it obvious he wasn't leaving South Florida.

That made Jim Mora a lame-duck coach, and he quit in frustration Monday.

The team then had an embarrassing day Tuesday when the director of pro personnel, Chet Franklin, was offered and accepted the job as head coach. A news conference was called for 11 a.m.

But when Franklin found the assistant coaches wanted the new coach to come from their ranks, he changed his mind.

Reporters waited several hours before general manager Bill Kuharich announced the coach would be named Wednesday and that offensive coordinator Carl Smith, a target of much criticism, had been fired.

On Wednesday, the job went to Venturi, who was 1-31-1 at Northwestern and 1-10 as an interim coach with the Colts in 1991 and was a victim of job burnout in Cleveland last year when he wore himself to a frazzle.

Venturi made a good first impression. He seems to have mellowed after last year's experience, which he said was a sign to keep the job in perspective.

He seems to know he's only going to fill out the year.

"Hey, I'd like to be president of General Motors, I really would, but it probably isn't going to happen. I'm just going to do the best job I can," he said.

Meanwhile, Jim Mora Jr., the team's secondary coach, diagnosed the problem. "If you asked me the turning point in this thing, I'll tell you that the day Jim Finks left this organization was what ultimately brought my dad to this. That is my personal opinion."

Since Benson wants to play a big role, he's unlikely to find another Finks.

When he recently fired vice president Jim Miller, Benson told him he was too much like Finks.

"I took it as a compliment," Miller said.

Sending a signal

Jim Irsay, senior vice president of the Indianapolis Colts, seemed to be using a Cleveland reporter to send a message to Indianapolis city officials last week that they should sweeten his lease -- or else.

"The bottom line is we can sell out every game and we'd still be last [in revenue]," he said. "We're the lowest-grossing team in the league, and we pay top dollar. That can't continue. I simply can't afford to do it."

Irsay said that more luxury boxes probably aren't the answer.

"I think the problem is a little more with the market than with the stadium," Irsay said. "If we doubled our sky boxes, I don't know if we could sell them. I'm looking at [adding] club seats, but I don't know if that's viable in this market."

Just in case Indianapolis didn't get the point, Irsay said he's having his attorneys -- presumably Michael Chernoff -- review the lease, which runs to 2014, to see if he can buy it out if negotiations sour.

Irsay then put in the usual disclaimer.

"We're not a team seeking a new location," he said. "The real goal is to keep 100 percent Irsay ownership and have a new, updated lease in Indianapolis. I don't see any reason why that can't be accomplished."

A team spokesman said that it was the first time Irsay has made these comments, and that it was just a coincidence he made them to a Cleveland reporter, not a sign he's eyeing a move to Cleveland when that city gets a new team in 1999.

But unless Irsay gets a new deal in Indianapolis, those comments will fuel the rumors.

Johnson's dilemma

Four years ago, when the Dallas Cowboys were getting ready to play the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game, Jimmy Johnson guaranteed a victory.

There were no guarantees from Johnson last week as the Miami Dolphins coach prepared to meet the Cowboys and his old nemesis, owner Jerry Jones.

Instead, Johnson walked out of a CNN interview with the cameras rolling and abruptly cut off an interview with a Dallas reporter because he didn't like the questions.

Johnson's sour mood may belie the fact that for now, he knows Jones has the upper hand regardless of what happens today.

Johnson had to leave Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin behind when he left Dallas.

Johnson eventually may rebuild the Dolphins, but as long as Jones has the star trio, he has the edge.

Changing the rules

When the owners meet in New Orleans this week, the issue of cross-ownership will be key.

This isn't an issue that excites the fans, but it provides a keen insight into the unstable situation in Paul Tagliabue's league.

When Wayne Huizenga bought the Dolphins in 1994, it was illegal under the NFL's cross-ownership rules. He said if the rules weren't changed by 1996, he agreed to sell either the Dolphins or his other two Miami teams, the Florida Marlins and Florida Panthers.

When Tagliabue couldn't get the 23 votes to change the rule, he extended the deadline to 1997.

Now Huizenga is hinting at the usual NFL solution -- a lawsuit.

Although some owners are upset about that, it's likely they'll cave in and change the rules.

The scuffle

Things are a bit tense in Cincinnati in the wake of the firing of coach Dave Shula.

Two members of the staff, special teams coach Joe Wessel and staff assistant Bobby DePaul, got into a brawl last week. New coach Bruce Coslet brushed it off:

"It happens all the time," he said. "We're like a family here together. I see these guys much more than I see my wife. Something like this is not out of the ordinary. I've seen it happen before and this is a very stressful week. Don't read anything into it."

Pub Date: 10/27/96

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