By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun
3:33 PM AKST, January 30, 2013
After nine tantalizing seasons, Steve Bisciotti finally stood exactly where he wanted to be, encircled by jubilant Ravens players and cradling the hollow silver football that said his team was on its way to the Super Bowl.
Bisciotti had just accepted the trophy from former player O.J. Brigance, whose fight against ALS has inspired the Ravens organization. As the king whose army had conquered the enemy's field, he could have basked in a nation's gaze.
Instead, as is the Ravens owner's wont, he exited the stage quickly.
Bisciotti thanked Brigance and Bob Kraft, owner of the vanquished Patriots, then said: "I'm just speechless. I'm going to let [coach] John [Harbaugh] talk about these players. It's just special."
And that was that.
"The public Steve is so consistent with the private Steve," says Bisciotti's friend and adviser Ron Shapiro. "He's always talking about others. As excited as he is, I have heard him use the word 'I' so infrequently in the last few weeks."
There's little question that Bisciotti, 52, is relishing his first run to the Super Bowl as the Ravens' principal owner, say friends and team executives. It's the culmination of so much that he's done, from signing long-term deals with the team's key players to selecting the unsung Harbaugh as his coach. The ride is even sweeter because of the ending it will give the retiring Ray Lewis, to whom the owner has grown close.
In his 13 years as minority and then majority owner of the Ravens, he has rarely granted more than a few interviews a year. As the media glare turns toward him in the days leading up to the Super Bowl in New Orleans, those who know him say they would be shocked if the bright lights brought out a flashier, more self-aggrandizing Bisciotti.
"I've seen that man change less as his star has risen than almost any other figure I've been around," says Shapiro, a longtime Baltimore sports agent who has worked with Cal Ripken and other Hall-of-Famers.
Bisciotti, with a net worth of $1.6 billion according to Forbes, built his fortune in near anonymity, never leaving his hometown of Severna Park. He has filled his box at M&T Bank Stadium with family and close friends rather than starlets and tycoons, and he regularly asks television producers not to train their cameras on him during games.
He is often described as one of the best owners in the NFL in large part because he doesn't assert his personality or opinions over those of Harbaugh or general manager Ozzie Newsome.
"No. 1, he is a very humble person," Newsome says. "He's not afraid to challenge the issues, but he's a very good listener. … He enjoys it, but he also believes one thing — that he hires people to do their job. Let them do their job."
With the seconds ticking down on the Ravens' win over the Patriots, Bisciotti really did seem as happy for Harbaugh and Newsome as for himself, says team president Dick Cass, who has run the organization's business side since 2004.
"He just appreciates how hard they work and how hard it is to win even one game in the NFL," says Cass, who sat beside Bisciotti during the AFC championship. "But he's enjoying this tremendously. It's really a validation of how he's run the team."
'The right way'
Bisciotti is a local guy through and through. As kids, he and his siblings collected autographs from Baltimore Colts players at the team's training camp in Westminster. He graduated from Severna Park High School and what is now Salisbury University, a C student who nonetheless learned a work ethic from his mother, a young widow raising a family of four.
He and his cousin, Jim Davis, started their company, Aerotek, from the basement of an Annapolis townhouse and built it into one of the world's largest private staffing firms.
Though Bisciotti was a low-key success story, barely written about even in local publications, he was thrilled when his wealth allowed him to buy a 49-percent stake in the Ravens, one of the area's most cherished public institutions. He began a four-year apprenticeship under the late Art Modell, one of the league's most experienced owners. And Bisciotti consciously remained in the background as the Ravens delivered Modell his first and only Super Bowl victory in 2001.
"He said, 'I will not take any part of the stage from Art,' " Shapiro recalls. "So he was really restraining himself at a time of great excitement."
Bisciotti took the reins before the 2004 season and kept Modell's football brain trust, led by Newsome, in place.
"I've had a chance to watch him grow," Newsome says. "I talk to a lot of the other GMs in our business, and they always say that Steve had it done the right way. He was able to come in to be a minority owner to learn and watch and then become an owner. Some of these other guys aren't having the opportunity, so therefore they make a lot of mistakes."
Bisciotti took his biggest on-paper risk after the 2007 season, when he fired coach Brian Billick and replaced him with Harbaugh, a largely anonymous special teams coordinator from the Philadelphia Eagles. Bisciotti said he fell back on his hiring instincts from Aerotek, trusting his sense of what the career assistant could become.
In five seasons, Harbaugh has never failed to steer the Ravens to at least one playoff win. He did his best work this year, holding the team together through waves of injuries and a dispiriting late-season losing streak.
Shapiro, who often sits with Bisciotti during games, says it wasn't easy to watch the owner quietly agonize his way through losses. But he says Bisciotti never stopped looking for the bright side and that he could not be prouder of Harbaugh's performance.
"He takes gigantic pride in it," Shapiro says. "I remember talking with him after he first met John. And Steve had been down because [Cowboys coach] Jason Garrett was spinning away from him. But he said about John, 'I just walked in and talked to this guy, and wow!' "
With Harbaugh in place and Newsome continuing to stock the roster with talent, Bisciotti's Ravens came within a game of the Super Bowl in 2009 and again last year. But as injuries struck down star after star and a once-promising playoff position slipped away, few believed this year's team could repeat that success.
Some have wondered if Bisciotti, fed up with the losing streak, was behind Harbaugh's decision to fire beleaguered offensive coordinator Cam Cameron late in the season.
But Harbaugh has said the call was his, and Newsome reiterated that last week. "No, no, no, no, no," he said when asked if the firing was taken out of Harbaugh's hands. "That wouldn't be fair to John. John has to stand before his coaching staff and his players, and if at any one point do they ever think that he's overly influenced by Steve or I, then he loses his staff and his players."
The season took on even greater urgency for Bisciotti when Lewis announced his impending retirement before the playoffs. The owner makes no secret of his affection for the linebacker, who has been with the franchise since its first game. And the feeling is mutual. Lewis often alludes to the depth of his friendship with Bisciotti.
Bisciotti became unusually quiet as he watched the Ravens seize a commanding advantage in their home playoff opener against the Indianapolis Colts. "It was because of his feelings and his connection with Ray," Shapiro says. "He was really feeling the emotion of watching Ray play in Baltimore for the last time."
A bad case of flu kept Bisciotti from traveling to the next game in Denver. But as he watched his team trade huge plays with the favored Broncos in a playoff classic, Bisciotti texted Harbaugh to say that win or lose, he had never been prouder. Harbaugh shared the message with his players after they won in a second overtime.
The coach did not have to serve as a proxy in Foxborough.
"I think the words 'I love you,' came out of his mouth to a lot of different people," Harbaugh says in describing Bisciotti post-game. "That's kind of who he is, the type of leader he is. He's the kind of guy that he wants you to know that he cares about you. He's proud of us. Like any boss … They put their arm around you and tell you good job — that means a lot."
Age: 52 (April 10, 1960)
Years with Ravens: 13
High school: Severna Park
College: Salisbury State (1982)
Family: Wife, Renée (Foote); two sons, Jason and Jack.
Source: Baltimore Ravens