OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Two men in purple ties walked through the front doors bearing a gift basket. Dick Cass greeted the visitors warmly and began to show them around the Baltimore Ravens headquarters: a position meeting room, the team auditorium and eventually the cafeteria.
Haven Shoemaker and Doug Howard are elected commissioners from Carroll County, and they’d scheduled the meeting to discuss the team’s decision to stop holding their training camp at McDaniel College in Westminster.
For Cass, the team’s president, it’s just another item on a growing to-do list in the days leading up to the playoff game against the Houston Texans. A player needs help with arrangements to attend a wake. What uniforms should the Ravens wear Sunday? Where will Commissioner Roger Goodell sit at M&T Bank Stadium? How much time does linebacker Ray Lewis get to dance during player introductions?
“He’s involved in everything,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said.
Cass, 66, drives an hour from his Chevy Chase home each day, reporting to work at a franchise many hold up as the NFL’s model. While Harbaugh and General Manager Ozzie Newsome are showered with credit, Cass is comfortable in the background, quietly making sure the trains run on time. Yet his work, and his relationship with owner Steve Bisciotti and others in the organization, are critical to the Ravens’ success.
Born in Washington, Cass grew up a Redskins fan. He had a successful career as a corporate attorney in the District and helped facilitate the sales of the Dallas Cowboys to Jerry Jones, the Redskins to Daniel Snyder and the Ravens to Bisciotti. Nearly a decade ago, the new Baltimore owner hand-picked Cass to run the Ravens. It was the first hire Bisciotti made and still his most important.
“I wasn’t getting in this business to go back to working 60 hours a week,” Bisciotti said. “I tell people this is an uber-hobby. It’s somewhere between a hobby and a business. It’s big. And I don‘t have to worry about it because I have Dick.”
In the cafeteria, Joe Flacco and Haloti Ngata sat one table away. Harbaugh was seated with former owner Art Modell. And the county commissioners were wide-eyed.
“I'm a little starstruck, to be honest with you,” Shoemaker told Cass. “When you come here as a fan for the first time, you know, it’s a little overwhelming.”
It wasn’t that way for Cass. His background is unusual in the small circle of NFL executives. His father was in the U.S. Coast Guard, so Cass’ family would move from Washington and back every few years. He still remembers his first football game — Oct. 14, 1956 at Griffith Stadium — watching Chicago’s Ollie Matson run back a kick 105 yards against the Redskins.
“It was a different time,” Cass said. “We’d be out raking leaves in the yard and my dad would say, ‘Let’s go to the game.’ So you hop in the car and just walk up and buy a ticket.”
He played football, too, but only until he suffered a bad knee injury during his freshman year at Princeton. He attended Yale Law — one year ahead of Hillary Clinton, two years ahead of Bill — though he doesn‘t announce such things loudly.
“Usually, you meet people who graduated from Harvard or Yale and they figure out a way to tell you they graduated from Harvard or Yale within an hour of meeting them,” Bisciotti said. “You could know Dick for a year and if you didn’t specifically ask him, you’d never know.”
Cass returned to Washington and began his legal career at the prestigious firm Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, For many years, the closest he came to football was RFK Stadium, where he shared season tickets and cheered for Joe Gibbs’ dominant teams.
“Dick’s a superlative lawyer,” said Steve Sachs, a former partner and former Maryland attorney general. “Dick combined legal acumen and a strong sense of practicality to solve any problem that came up.”
Cass’s specialty was mergers and acquisitions, and in February 1989, Jones called and asked him to hop on a plane for Dallas. In a matter of hours, the basic sale agreement was hammered out that would give Jones control of the Cowboys.
Cass spent the next 17 years working as outside counsel for Jones, representing the Cowboys’ lightning rod of an owner when the NFL sued Jones — and Jones countersued — in a dispute over the league’s corporate sponsorship policies.
“He was not my attorney,” Jones said. “I mean, he was, but he was more like a right hand to the franchise and a right hand to me. He helped me with all matters and had an incredible impact, not just on the Cowboys organization but the entire league.”
While Jones and Cass pushed the NFL into a new era of marketing and money, there were drawbacks to his new relationship.
“My dad wouldn’t forgive me,” Cass said with a chuckle. “He was a life-long Redskins fan. I would invite him to Cowboys games and later Ravens games, but he wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted to watch the Redskins at home on television.”
So impressed was the NFL with Cass’s handling of the Cowboys’ sale that he was tabbed to represent the estate of Jack Kent Cooke and help sell the Redskins a decade later — first unsuccessfully to Howard Milstein, and then to Snyder.
Through that process, he met a banker who eventually recommended him to Bisciotti.
Cass picked at his salad as one of the commissioners pointed out that an economic study had found the Ravens’ training camp had a $2 million impact on the city of Westminster.
“We understand from a business standpoint,” Hanover began.
“It’s not much about business,” Cass said. “It’s not the money. It’s football readiness. We didn‘t make this decision for money reasons at all. The facilities were not good enough, not as good as we have right here.”
Just a couple of months earlier, Cass recommended to Bisciotti that the team move its training camp to the Ravens’ facility. The relationship between the two is instrumental to the Ravens’ success. While Cass might wear a suit, Bisciotti is in blue jeans. Cass’s hair is carefully parted on the left, and Bisciotti’s is slicked back. Cass attended two Ivy League schools, while Bisciotti went to Salisbury State and named his first boat “C Student.”
“I’m type-A,” Bisciotti said, “and Dick, although he’s got that in him, he’s very methodical, very thought out and very calm amidst chaos. I’ve never seen him rattled in any situation.”
Cass attends all the NFL meetings with Bisciotti. There are some meetings that are open to just one person per club — the owner — and an exception is made only for a son or daughter of the owner. That didn’t work for Bisciotti.
“I went to Roger [Goodell] and said, ‘If you don’t let Dick in this meeting, I’m going to adopt him,’ ” the Ravens owner said. “’It’s ridiculous. If you don’t let him in, then I’m not coming in.’
“If only one is allowed in, it’s going to be Dick. He’s smarter than me, he knows the issues better than me. He understands it, and it’s his job to implement it.”
If Jones had his way, Cass might not have a plush office with the deck overlooking the Ravens’ practice fields.
“I can’t stress this enough,” said the Cowboys’ owner, “when we worked together, it was a very contentious time. Even though we had these lawsuits, the league and the other owners had so much respect for Dick.
“Later when we were interviewing people to be commissioner of the NFL, I wanted Dick to consider being a candidate,” Jones said. “I just knew he was very qualified. He would’ve done a great job.“
Paul Tagliabue and Goodell have turned to Cass for advice over the years. In fact, the commissioner’s office consulted often with Cass during the lockout that marred the 2011 offseason.
“He is not someone who has to always hear himself talk,” said Jeff Pash, the NFL’s general counsel. “He doesn’t have to show you that he’s the smartest person in the room. He’s just someone who can listen, analyze, give good advice and come up with good solutions. A guy like that is invaluable.”
Bisciotti knew that right away. In December 1999, Bisciotti agreed to purchase 49 percent of the Ravens from Modell with an option to buy the balance five years later. A couple of years before Bisciotti was to assume full control of the team, he took Cass to lunch and asked him to serve as the Ravens’ president.
“I knew this was an opportunity that doesn’t usually come along,” Cass said. “I didn’t even think about it, to be honest with you.”
People in the organization say from Day 1, Bisciotti has articulated a vision, and Cass has carried it out.
“Whenever we have conversation,” Harbaugh said, “it’s usually me bringing him a problem and him immediately solving it.”
Cass watches practice each day, but he doesn’t pretend to design plays. He sits in the draft room, but he doesn’t scout players. Still, his fingerprints are everywhere and his responsibilities endless. When Terrell Owens balked at a trade to Baltimore. When Jamal Lewis was arrested. When Brian Billick was fired. And when Harbaugh was hired.
“Dick ties everything together,” Harbaugh said.
If there’s a common thread in Cass’s responsibilities, it’s people. He might spend a good deal of time chatting with Bisciotti, but he ultimately touches everyone in the organization. One day last week, he stayed late in the area to attend a wake for a family member of the team’s equipment manager.
“He understands relationships,” Bisciotti said.
The owner remembers a day in 2006, when he was having lunch in the cafeteria with Cass, Newsome and Kevin Byrne, the team’s senior vice president of public relations. Cass said he’d need a few days off work. A former law school classmate needed a new kidney, and Cass had volunteered one of his.
Cass only talked with the classmate once or twice a year, but says, “It didn’t seem like that big a deal to me.”
“Afterward, Ozzie, Kevin and I were just looking at each other,” Bisciotti said, “and I know the same thing was going on in every one of our heads: ‘I don’t know if I would do that.’ I would do that for my brother, my best friend, but an old classmate?”
In that same cafeteria last week, the Carroll County commissioners chatted with Cass. If they were displeased, it didn‘t show. They handed over a certificate proclaiming Sunday Baltimore Ravens day in the county and hoped to keep dialogue open between the county and the team.
“Is there something else we could do another time of year?” Howard asked.
“We are thinking about some type of event there this summer,” Cass said. “We don't know what it is yet. But we’ll figure something out.”