[size=18px]Finding next commish may require thinking outside the box[/size]
By Chris Neubauer ([email protected])

So NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue isn’t lacing up his Nikes just yet.

With a little more than two months left until he is scheduled to retire and with no replacement in place, the outgoing commish indicated he would stay in office past his announced retirement date of July 31st if a coronation for his successor hasn’t taken place.

“I won’t have my track shoes on to run out of office on the 31st of July,” Tagliabue said at the NFL owners' meetings in Denver this week. “I’ll be working hard, enjoying looking forward to doing other things at some point in my life.”

Lost in the shuffle at the owners' meetings, somewhere between which jersey number rookie Reggie Bush would wear (since when do rookies get to rewrite league rules?) and when an NFL franchise will reappear in L.A. (Who cares? The L.A. fans are just going to show up late and leave early, anyway), was that the owners are finally kicking their search for a new commissioner into high gear.

While that “some point” Tagliabue is looking forward to almost certainly won’t be by the end of July, it’s starting to appear like it won’t be too much later. The league’s search committee — comprised of eight league owners, including Carolina’s Jerry Richardson and Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney, who are heading the search — has set a new target date of Aug. 18.

We’ve heard of all the logical replacements. The big three. The guy in the league office — NFL chief operating officer Roger Goodell. The guy with the pedigree — Falcons GM Rich McKay. The guy who helped owners and the NFLPA reach an agreement on the new Collective Bargaining Agreement — Ravens president Dick Cass.

By all accounts, Goodell, McKay and Cass are the leading candidates, and they were basically the only ones garnering any ink in the media until recently.

But a name emerged in the past week that may have caught some people off guard. It was revealed that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who will leave office in January when his second term ends, was contacted last month to gauge his interest about becoming the boss of one of his favorite sports.

The Bush announcement got me thinking. We really haven’t heard too many candidates mentioned from outside the league. I intend to change that right here, right now.

Here’s my list of the top five commissioner candidates who are not currently affiliated with the NFL.

5) World Cup organizer Franz Beckenbauer

The man responsible for staging the world’s biggest sporting event (sorry, Olympics) that actually decides a world champion (sorry, World Series) has accomplished everything possible in European football and knows a thing or two about leading and organizing. He won a World Cup trophy for Germany as a player and later as a coach. Beckenbauer is president of Germany’s premier club team, Bayern Munich (the New England Patriots of Germany), and is vice president of the country’s national soccer team. He’s only 60 and is already planning on coming across the pond after the World Cup to help advise the beleaguered Red Bull New York of Major League Soccer.

4) Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Pat Rooney Sr., brother of search committee co-chair Dan Rooney, contacted Gov. Bush about the commissioner’s job last month. According to some reports, the governor appeared very interested. Gov. Bush is a huge sports fan who learned the ins and outs of pro sports from his brother, President George W. Bush, the one-time part-owner of the Texas Rangers. The governor doesn’t leave office until January 2007 and he has said, “I’m not going to consider any other options other than being governor until I finish.” So, unless Mr. Tagliabue wants to postpone his retirement for another six months, Gov. Bush is probably eliminated from consideration.

3) NBA commissioner David Stern

The longest-serving head honcho in American professional sports has guided the NBA since 1984. Stern took a route to the NBA’s top job that was similar to the one Tagliabue took to become the NFL commissioner. Both began as outside legal counsel to their respective leagues before joining the league full time as lawyers and then moving up through the ranks. Stern has presided over unprecedented success for the NBA and turned it into a global venture. Why would Stern jump to the NFL? Because the NFL is by far the most popular and profitable league in the U.S. and is at the height of its popularity, whereas the NBA is battling Major League Baseball for leftovers.

2) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Condi, as President Bush calls her, is an even bigger pro football fan than Bush’s brother Jeb, and she has openly talked about her desire of running the NFL in the past. But, as with Jeb, the timing just isn’t right. Rice is plenty busy at the moment handling global events, and she said in March, when Tagliabue announced his retirement, that she wasn’t interested in the job at this time. But Rice, who sat in the NFL commissioner’s box at the Super Bowl with Tagliabue, might be an excellent candidate down the road when she’s done serving her country. She has advised world leaders on the United States' sometimes controversial foreign policies, so she’d have no problem whipping 32 NFL owners into shape. Plus, she’s extremely loyal. Rice is a die-hard Browns fan, after all.

1) Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban

This maverick owner, whose Dallas franchise is down 1-0 in the Western Conference final of the NBA playoffs, is an omnipotent gnat constantly buzzing around David Stern’s head and occasionally biting him. But no matter how much of a pest Cuban can be at times, he gets it. He understands what professional sports are about and what it takes to produce a winner. Cuban understands that to attract fans he needs to have an attractive product both on the court and in the stands, so fans get their money's worth. So, he’s not a football guy. Neither was Tagliabue, who was a basketball player at Georgetown. Cuban is an ultra-successful businessman and a shrewd negotiator. Cuban knows what he wants and gets it done. He probably needs to tone down some of his polarizing antics, but his message is almost always on target, even if the delivery can scare some people off. Cuban’s charisma and forward thinking are just what the image-conscious NFL needs to shake things up.