New England Patriots: Building a Champion Krafts Construct Dynasty, Model Franchise

The Vince Lombardi Trophy awarded to each year’s Super Bowl winner doesn’t leave the New England Patriots’ facility in Foxboro, MA too often, but in a moment that would make many NFL stars envious, HBS students spent quality time with the ultimate symbol of NFL success on Wednesday when New England Patriots Chairman and Owner Robert Kraft (1965/C) and his son, Vice Chairman Jonathan Kraft (1990/H), visited Burden Auditorium with hardware in tow to share insights on “Building and Leading a Championship Team.”

The event, co-sponsored by the MBA Program and the Business of Sports Club, drew several hundred visitors to Burden Auditorium and was the highlight of a banner month for the club which also included the club’s inaugural “Spring-Training Panel Series” on April 7, a visit from Boston Red Sox Assistant General Manager Josh Byrnes on April 12, and several club members involvement in the NFL Exec Ed program April 6-8.

Although the Krafts have celebrated their successes in front of bigger crowds and more famous audiences, including City Hall and the White House, few venues hold the special meaning that HBS does. Following a spirited opening which featured an introduction by Dean Carl Kester and a highlight video, both Krafts fondly recalled their HBS days and credited the school for developing skills that have helped them build one of the NFL’s model franchises. They also emphasized the role that other HBS grads have played in the team’s success, most notably Andy Wasynczuk (1983/I), who recently left his post as COO to join the Negotiations faculty.

Ironically, the elder Kraft’s relationship with the Patriots actually began here at HBS as a fan, when the team, then called the Boston Patriots, played its games at nearby Harvard Stadium. After an initial foray into the business of sports with the Boston Lobsters of World Team Tennis, he found a creative pathway to realizing his vision of one day owning those same Patriots when he bought their old home, Sullivan Stadium, out of bankruptcy. “Some franchises never go up for sale, so I realized I needed a competitive advantage,” said Robert Kraft of the stadium purchase.

Owning the stadium positioned Kraft to pursue the team when former Patriots owner James Orthwein plotted a move to St. Louis following the 1993 season. Orthwein offered Kraft a hefty $75 million to terminate the team’s lease in Foxboro, but instead of taking the money, Kraft paid the highest price ever for a professional sports franchise to buy the Patriots from Orthwein.

In addition to fulfilling a dream, Kraft recognized a tremendous turnaround opportunity and executed brilliantly. Despite finishing 5-11 the season before and ranking last in the league in attendance and revenue, the Patriots had won their last four games under heralded rookie QB Drew Bledsoe. The Krafts worked tirelessly to capitalize on this momentum and fill old Foxboro Stadium. Robert Kraft estimated that he and his son made 70 public appearances in a span of 90 days after buying the team. The Patriots have sold out every game since then and have since moved into a privately financed facility, Gillette Stadium, which is generally regarded as one of the league’s best.

Despite a successful run in the 1990’s which included four playoff appearances and a trip to the Super Bowl, today’s Patriots dynasty didn’t truly take shape until the Krafts sacrificed a first-round draft pick to pry Head Coach Bill Belichick, the mastermind of two Super Bowl defenses with the New York Giants, from his contract to become head coach of the New York Jets.

“I run the Patriots like all of my other businesses,” said Robert Kraft. “I figure out what I can’t do and find good people that I can trust…. In today’s NFL, the head coach is the most important person in the organization.”

Despite Belichick’s turbulent head coaching debut with the Cleveland Browns in the mid ’90s, Kraft had seen enough during Belichick’s stint as the Patriots’ Assistant Head Coach in 1996 to know that he could be more than a great defensive coordinator. “I was really impressed by how he understood the salary cap and the idea of value,” said Kraft. “In today’s NFL you have to know the economics.”

As it turns out, Kraft was right on and the one-time Economics major from Wesleyan has proven to be a mastermind both on and off the field. In addition to devising game plans that have foiled the likes of Kurt Warner, Steve McNair, and Peyton Manning in the midst of MVP seasons, Belichick has teamed with Director of Player Personnel Scott Pioli to devise a value-oriented strategy for roster management which has been unmatched in its creativity and resourcefulness.

This approach has allowed Belichick and Pioli to uncover late-round draft gems such as quarterback Tom Brady (6th round, Michigan), whose battle for playing time with phenom Drew Henson led many to ignore his four fourth-quarter comebacks as a senior, and receiver David Givens (7th round, Notre Dame), a top high school recruit who was buried in an option offense that rarely threw the ball. In free agency, the Patriots have sought out tough, versatile role players such as linebacker Mike Vrabel, a career backup in Pittsburgh who has 15 sacks the last two seasons as well as two Super Bowl receiving touchdowns as a part-time tight end.

“This isn’t like basketball where one big guy like Shaq can make a huge difference,” said Jonathan Kraft. “Some teams tie up a big part of their salary cap in their top few players, and that means they have to make sacrifices when it comes to the 40th or 50th guy on the roster.”

“I was really impressed with how much the Krafts attribute their success to finding good character players who are loyal, rather than just signing the big name superstars,” said Logan Wilcox (2006/B).