NORTHBROOK, Ill. -- The knock on Roger Goodell's hotel room door came almost three hours to the minute after NFL owners began voting for a new commissioner.
When he opened it, there stood the Steelers' Dan Rooney. He didn't have to say a word.
"When I saw Dan smiling, I knew it wasn't bad news," Goodell said yesterday.
And right then, in a seamless transition that followed a swift, unanimous selection, the symbol of the NFL's storied history embraced the league's future.
Favored for months to succeed Paul Tagliabue, Goodell, 47, said he expects to begin serving a five-year term before the regular season starts Sept. 7.
Goodell, who never stopped rising through the ranks during his lifelong service to the NFL, was chosen on the fifth ballot, beating four other contenders in a vote that took only three hours.
He becomes just the fourth commissioner since World War II, having started his NFL career as a public relations intern a quarter-century ago and having served as Tagliabue's second-in-command for most of the last decade.
"We've had the two greatest sports commissioners in the history of professional sports, Paul Tagliabue and Pete Rozelle, and I was fortunate to work for both of them," said Goodell, who shook every owners' hand afterward. "I look forward to the challenge and thank them again for their confidence."
Goodell remained the favorite even through a four-month search conducted by a committee headed by Rooney and Carolina's Jerry Richardson. There was no question that he was the choice of the league's most important owners all along, but none declared any allegiance until the finale.
"I said from the beginning that we were going to look for the man to lead us," Rooney said he told the owners during the voting Wednesday afternoon. "I said that when we finished, I had no doubt that that was Roger Goodell."
New England's Robert Kraft, one of the most influential of the newest owners, said: "Roger got his MBA from Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue. That's not a bad education."
The son of former U.S. Sen. Charles Goodell of New York, Goodell had been Tagliabue's top assistant on expansion and stadium construction. He also was the contact man with union head Gene Upshaw during the recent labor talks. In 2000, he became the NFL's chief operating officer.
League revenues have skyrocketed during the 17 years under Tagliabue, who said he would leave his post after brokering new television and labor deals. The NFL will collect about $10 billion in TV rights fees during the next six years, and enjoys labor peace with the players' association under an agreement completed in March.
The owners believed Goodell would carry on in that tradition.
"The continuity was very important to me," said John Mara of the New York Giants, whose family, along with the Rooneys, represent the NFL's founding generation. "Roger has an awareness of the history and the tradition that the league represents."
Goodell beat four other finalists: lawyers Gregg Levy and Frederick Nance; Fidelity Investments vice chairman Robert Reynolds; and Constellation Energy chairman Mayo Shattuck III.
Goodell's election was much less complicated than Tagliabue's in 1989, when it took owners seven months to select a successor to Rozelle. Originally, the top choice appeared to be Saints president Jim Finks, who was recommended by an advisory committee. But many of the newer owners would not back Finks, favored by most old-liners.
It took 12 ballots -- six of them on Oct. 26, 1989 -- to finally elect Tagliabue. Goodell's selection was over in less time than it takes for a long, leisurely lunch.
"The process was good in that it got everyone looking ahead and not just at the circumstances in their own city," Tagliabue said.
Tagliabue simply introduced Goodell as the new commissioner, then stepped aside as he took the podium.
"I spent my life following my passion," Goodell said. "The game of football is the most important thing. You can never forget that." Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said, "Those of us who have been around a long time were rooting for someone from inside the (NFL) family.
"He's always been aggressive and always had a presence about him. He's obviously bright. He couldn't be more qualified for this job."
Goodell, born in Jamestown, N.Y., is married and has twin daughters.