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Bill Conlin: Errors of their ways

Plenty of mistakes paved the path for failure after

ROME DIDN'T collapse in a day. Neither did the four professional sports franchises that carried us to such giddy heights in 1980, Year of the Phillies Parade and three "Honorable Almosts. ''

But 1986 is as good a place as any to start. The barbarians already were at the gates. We just didn't know it. The Phillies and Eagles had new owners. The Bill Giles Group had won the 1983 pennant with a collection of holdover veterans from the 1980 World Series champs who broke the historic, 97-year drought and a creaking collection of pickups responsible for the "Wheeze Kids'' nickname.

Norman Braman, a Miami auto tycoon with Philly ties, had rescued the Eagles from Leonard Tose, who left the franchise on the blackjack tables of Atlantic City. Tose's beloved team had lost to Oakland in the Super Bowl in January 1981. Braman prevented a fate far worse than death - an Eagles move to Phoenix.

The Sixers had followed their 1980 and '82 NBA Finals losses to the Lakers with the "Fo, Fo, Fo'' near-sweep of Los Angeles for the title in 1983. That turned out to be the town's last non-Mummers Parade.

The Flyers had played for the Stanley Cup in 1976, '80 and '85, but failed to reprise the back-to-back Cups they had scored in 1974 and '75. Of the drought-stricken four, they have been able to avoid the collapses that afflicted the baseball, football and basketball franchises. Chairman Ed Snider has presided over the NHL's gold standard - sorry, Jeff Lurie. The Flyers rarely have failed to make the playoffs in the 32 years since that first procession down Broad Street. In fact, the start this season that has led to the resignation of iconic Bob Clarke and firing of coach Ken Hitchcock represents a low-water mark for the Flyers.

By 1986, the Team of the '80s that Phillies president Bill Giles "drafted'' on a cocktail napkin in 1984 was taking shape. That club won 86 times and finished a mere 21 1/2 games behind the Mets. It would be the organization's high-water mark until the miracle 1993 pennant. Despite his claims that the Phils' minor league system was second to none, Bill's scouting and development people had abandoned the fertile Caribbean rim. Top scouts, including Texas legend Doug Gassaway and Moose Johnson (Ryne Sandberg), had been let go. Giles watched his minor league people make a series of ruinous draft picks - righthander Johnny Abrego with local prep star Mark Gubicza on the board, Chicago high school outfielder Jeff Jackson with college slugger Frank Thomas available, pencil-thin righthander Marvin Freeman with Jersey Shore lefthander Al Leiter still there.

Paul Owens, the best general manager and all-around baseball man in franchise history, was moved into a closet-sized office with vague advisory titles. The minor leagues still have not fully recovered from the dry rot that set in during the late '80s.

The success of the brigands assembled by GM Lee Thomas and superbly managed by Jim Fregosi in 1993 was tempered by a series of contract decisions that blew up in the club's face. Stars Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton signed long-term contracts and went down with a series of injuries. Expensive free agent Gregg Jefferies underperformed. Those contract busts foreshadowed the well-intended but ruinous no-trade contracts bestowed by GM Ed Wade that limited the movement of managers Larry Bowa and Charlie Manuel.

It would take a doctoral thesis to document all the screw-ups of the Bill Giles/David Montgomery stewardship. But none was more destructive than the highly public requests of star righthander Curt Schilling, then All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen to be traded to teams with a commitment to winning. Schilling has since won rings with the Diamondbacks and Red Sox. Rolen has played in two World Series with the Cardinals and just claimed his first ring.

Sixers owner Harold Katz pushed the plunger on the success of the Julius Erving-Moses Malone era with one cataclysmic 1986 stroke.

After losing to Milwaukee in a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal, Katz and company decided it was time to get younger in the middle and deeper across the front line. On the night before the draft, the former Nutri/System mogul and his advisers sent Malone and Terry Catledge to Washington for creaky-kneed center Jeff Ruland and forward Cliff Robinson, and also traded the first overall pick to Cleveland for forward Roy Hinson. That pick turned out to be center Brad Daugherty.

The Sixers went downhill faster than an Enron CEO. When they stopped bouncing, new regime president Pat Croce was addressing a Core-States Center mob of mutinous season ticketholders. The star of the team became an elfin guard from Georgetown with a non-stop motor and an attitude bigger than Texas. Croce had that terrible Johnny Davis, Brad Greenberg debut season, then brought in Larry Brown.

Segue to full houses, one NBA Finals appearance under the Ed Snider/Comcast ownership followed by a gradual slide back into the world of low expectations.

The Eagles were in total disarray when Braman rode to the rescue. Norman was at the wheel of a Cadillac, of course, courtesy of Braman Motors, one of South Florida's biggest dealerships. A burned-out Dick Vermeil had retired in 1982. His replacement, Marion Campbell, was an unmitigated disaster. The nucleus of the Super Bowl team was aging.

Enter Buddy Ryan, the best idea of Braman's mottled stewardship. Buddy was the architect of the Bears' Super Bowl defense and wasn't shy about admitting it. He built an awesome Eagles defense around Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner and a hammering secondary. He handed the offense to young quarterback Randall Cunningham, a freestyle rambler with a rocket arm. The Eagles staged a modest renaissance. But three teams that should have done much better given the outstanding talent at hand were one-and-done in the playoffs.

Ryan was increasingly disdainful of Braman and GM Harry Gamble. He referred to wine collector Braman as "The man in France'' and established a clear divide between the field and executive levels of the organization.

Braman fired Ryan after the ugly playoff loss to the Redskins after the 1990 season and gave the job to undistinguished offensive coordinator Rich Kotite. The bittersweet smell of semisuccess continued under both Kotite and his successor, Ray (Home Invasion) Rhodes. You could sum up the Ryan-Kotite-Rhodes years with a country song title: "It Ain't Love But it Ain't Bad. '' Double-digit wins in seven of 13 seasons, eight postseason games (one win each by Kotite and Rhodes) wrapped in a pervasive sense of "Is that all there is? ''

Enter Lurie and the gold standard in his mind and Andy "Blame Is on Me, Time Is Yours'' Reid. It is hard to knock the results achieved by Reid and his electric quarterback, Donovan McNabb. Hard to dismiss the elevation of the Eagles from a pleasant Sunday unwinding to a near-religious experience with a road-tripping fandom that travels America clad in midnight green, an amazing phenomenon in itself.

But the restive masses have watched three straight NFC title losses to the Rams, Bucs and Panthers - the last two at home. They have agonized through the curious and still-unexplained 2005

Super Bowl final drive meltdown by McNabb.

Perhaps the team that most deserves a pass in the blame game is the Flyers for the simple reason that they have been by far the most consistent. They have had the best talent year in and year out. And - a huge and - have made the most playoff appearances (OK, it's the NHL, eh?) and played for the Stanley Cup seven times, including the losses in '76, '80, '85, '87 and '97.

And, yes, they had their one big, ongoing controversy, as well. The Phillies had Ed Wade. The

Eagles had Terrell Owens. The Sixers had Allen Iverson. And the Flyers had Eric Lindros. *