NFL unanimously approves Falcons sale

Sunday, February 3rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ NFL owners unanimously approved the sale of the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday to Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, who immediately said Dan Reeves would remain as coach.

Blank needed 24 votes to make the purchase official.

Reeves, who was in New Orleans for the announcement, also confirmed earlier reports that Wade Phillips, a former head coach with New Orleans, Denver and Buffalo, would join the Falcons as defensive coordinator.

Blank, paying $545 million for the Falcons, said Reeves' contract would be extended by three years. The deal reportedly is worth between $7.5 million and $10 million. Reeves declined to get more specific about his salary Saturday.

Reeves, also an executive vice president, will see his focus shift more to coaching, Blank said, while he and Reeves recruit a new general manager.

``I personally will not rest until I have the opportunity to wear a Super Bowl ring on behalf of everybody in Atlanta and everybody in the state of Georgia,'' Blank said. ``For those of you who say that can't happen, all I have to say is look at the New England team this year... That will be the story of the Atlanta team as well.''

New England, which plays in the Super Bowl on Sunday, was 5-11 in 2000 and was not expected to be a playoff contender this season.

The sale marks the end of NFL team ownership for the family of Taylor Smith, whose late father, Rankin Smith Sr., paid about $8.5 million for the rights to start the team in Atlanta 36 years ago. When Rankin Smith died in 1997, the team was placed in trust for Taylor and his four siblings.

Blank and Bernie Marcus founded The Home Depot in 1978, building it into the world's largest home-improvement retailer. Both have retired from the Atlanta-based company.

Blank, 58, who's fortune is about $1.9 billion, said he began talking with the Smith family about buying the team in 1995. Blank said he played high school football and has always had a passion for the game.

The Smiths were not sure they wanted to sell the team until part way through the 2001 season, Blank said. But Blanks persistent overtures led to a friendship with the Smith family and gave the Smiths confidence that Blank was sincere in his desire to ensure a healthy future for the team in Atlanta, the new owner said.

Blank said he would run the team with the same emphasis on customer service that made the Home Depot a success.

``I'm reading every e-mail from the fans,'' he said.

Reeves, 58, blamed himself for Atlanta's failure to make the playoffs in the three seasons since its only Super Bowl appearance and thanked Blank for keeping him.

``I know he had choices, and it seemed like every day that rolled around there became more and more coaches that were available,'' Reeves said. ``I didn't get the job done the way I wanted to over the last five years and now I have a (second) chance.''

Reeves and Blank said they both hoped that running back Jamal Anderson, who has been injury-plagued since 1999 and was not protected in the expansion draft coming up this off season for the Houston Texans, will return to Atlanta and play in 2002.

They were more vague about the future of Chris Chandler, who started most of the 2001 season at quarterback while fans clamored for an opportunity to see Michael Vick, the team's first-round draft pick last year.

``In terms of Chris, we have some tough choices to make,'' Blank said.

``We do have some options and thank goodness we don't have to make those decisions right now,'' Reeves said.

Also on Saturday, the Falcons announced the hiring of former Buffalo and Denver head coach Wade Phillips as their new defensive coordinator, Emmitt Thomas as secondary coach and Mike Johnson as wide receivers coach.

Phillips has 25 years of experience coaching in the NFL, including four previous stints as defensive coordinator with New Orleans, Philadelphia, Denver and Buffalo.

Thomas was the defensive coordinator for the last two years for the Minnesota Vikings. Thomas, 58, has spent 34 seasons in the NFL as a player and coach. He played 13 seasons as a defensive back at Kansas City and made the Pro Bowl five times.

Johnson, 34, has been the quarterback coach for San Diego for the last two seasons.