If you were born after 1960, you know that being a Browns fan makes no sense. None. Zero. That’s because the team’s most recent championship was in 1964.
OK, maybe some of you born in 1960 actually believe you remember that stunning 27-0 victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in the 1964 championship game. I’ll simply remind you that in 1964, you would have been 4 years old. What else do you remember from the age of 4?
Here’s how it works ...
I remember seeing Paul Brown coach the Browns. I really do remember seeing him coach, only I know I didn’t. I was born in 1955. Brown’s last season was 1962. I know that my father never took me to a Browns game until the late 1960s. He couldn’t get tickets. I know I never saw Paul Brown coach the Browns on television, because at that age, I was not about to spend three hours on a Sunday staring at a black-and-white TV, watching the Browns.
So I know I never saw Paul Brown coach the Browns.
Only I know I did see him, because my father talked about how Paul Brown always wore a hat but seldom a smile. How he and Otto Graham won all those titles, seven in 10 years. How Brown had messenger guards bringing in plays from the sidelines. I know I saw all that, only I didn’t see any of it. I just heard about it from my father. We weren’t a football family. Baseball was our game, the Indians our team. But I still remember Paul Brown, thanks to my father.
Just as many of you heard about Otto Graham, Paul Brown, Jim Brown and Gary Collins. Just as many of you insist you remember the 1964 championship game, even though you were born in 1968. It’s the football version of the repressed memory syndrome. Do we really remember it, or do we just want to?
I asked fans who read The Plain Dealer to send me e-mails for this book, to try to explain why they still follow the team and what it means to them.
Remember, this isn’t just a team that never has played in a Super Bowl. It’s not just a team that loses more than it wins. It’s not just a team that is best known for two games--The Drive and The Fumble. (Both of which make grown men cry ... 20 years later!)
It’s not only that the Browns have won a grand total of one playoff game since 1990. Or that the team has had only three winning seasons between 1990 and 2009.
The dawg-gone team up and moved!
Gone to Baltimore after the 1995 season. Gone for no good reason other than Art Modell was a rotten businessman who could not figure out how to make money in a league where nearly every other owner--and most of these guys will not be confused with Warren Buffett--turns a profit. The point of this is not to rehash the move or to pile on Modell. It’s to state the fact that the team MOVED. After the move was announced in the middle of the 1995 season, the Browns still had four more home games. Here are the attendance figures for those games with a lame duck team, an unpopular coach and a hated owner: 57,881 ... 55,388 ... 67,269 ... 55,875. Those were fans in the seats, not tickets sold. The Browns even sold 600 tickets in the first 24 hours after the team announced it was moving.
Does any of this make any sense?
As Gay Snyder e-mailed, Browns fans have "The Drive ... The Fumble ... The Move."
And no other NFL fans can (or would want to) claim that terrible trifecta.
* * *
Despite being born in Cleveland, spending all but four years of my life in Northeast Ohio and having covered sports here since 1980, not even I can fully understand the power the Browns have over their fans.
This is why I wanted to write a book about what I’ve learned from watching the Browns. Some of this is history. Some of it is catching up with former Browns such as Bernie Kosar, Earnest Byner, Sam Rutigliano and Brian Sipe. Even Bill Belichick couldn’t wait to write an e-mail about the influence Paul Brown had on him and pro football.
But I also wanted to hear from you, the Browns fans. I wanted to know what the team means to you, why you still care about a franchise with the NFL’s second-worst record (thank you, Detroit Lions) since the Browns returned as an expansion team in 1999. I asked for input ... just once ... in The Plain Dealer.
More than 1,000 overwhelmed me with e-mails. Some were short; many went on for thousands of words. Some fans kept sending in more e-mails as they thought of something else to add.
As Kevin Robison e-mailed: "The Browns are in our DNA.... They have become family to many of us. The names and faces of the players change, but the orange and brown are always present. They are passed down from generation to generation, like blue eyes and male-pattern baldness. We just can’t help our chemical predispositions."
Justin Zawaly took it down to the street when he e-mailed: "Being a Browns fan is much like being an alcoholic or a drug addict. It’s an addiction with no cure."
But like many Browns fans who start out angry or frustrated with their favorite team, Zawaly turned sentimental: "My grandfather was a season ticket holder back in the days of Otto Graham. My grandmother won’t let him watch the games anymore because he gets too emotional. At 89 years old ... the Browns can be a health issue! My Mom and Dad were Kardiac Kids.... I do think there is something extra when you are born into it. It is in my blood.... Now, I have three kids, and they have the Browns addiction as well. You know what they say ... ’Misery loves company’!"
None of this is rational, and the fans know it.
Jeff Biletnikoff e-mailed: "When the news broke that Art Modell was moving the Browns, no matter where you went in Cleveland, there was silence and disbelief. It’s like the whole town froze. I’ll never forget how the city felt to me. The Sports Illustrated cover that had a cartoon of Art Modell sucker-punching a ’dawg’ in the stomach captured that day perfectly."
If ever there were a time for fans to turn their backs on a franchise and a professional league, it was when the NFL brought back the Browns as an expansion team that truly was set up for failure. I wrote an entire book about it, False Start. I thought it would be too depressing for most fans. It was extremely grim, but it became a local bestseller.
As Biletnikoff’s e-mail continued: "I can’t explain it, but the Cleveland Browns are in my DNA. Something about seeing those orange helmets come on to the field is exciting. Some people who aren’t Browns fans say Cleveland’s helmets are among the ugliest in sports, and I could not disagree more. Cleveland has the best helmets in all of football. That helmet (and uniform in general) stands for Excellence, even though they are temporarily down. That is such a Browns fan reaction, isn’t it? They’re ’temporarily down’ after 20-plus years! I know it makes no sense ... ."
* * *
It makes no sense, but Browns fans are proud of their team’s history, even if they weren’t around to see the best of it. As Greg Johnson e-mailed: "No logos on the helmet. No dancing girls (cheerleaders). No climate-controlled dome.... Even the name ’Browns’ lacks glitz.... It’s just honest, down-home, Ohio football. There is no better stage than the Super Bowl to showcase our city, and no better team to represent it. The simplest and most humble uniform, the simplest and most humble name."
Greg, did you say ... Super Bowl?
And did you suggest the Super Bowl be played in Cleveland ... with the Browns in it?
Greg, great points about no logos, no cheerleaders and orange helmets. But you really kicked the ball between the literary goal posts with the "humble" part. If any franchise has been humbled, it’s this one.
Of course, you are not alone in this sports delusion. You have lots of company: millions of Browns fans across the globe.
And the word "globe" inspired Mike Olszewski to turn poetic: "Two words: the helmets. Eleven globes of sunshine breaking through the often bleak and blustery late-fall Cleveland afternoons, melting away the snow for a few brief hours. The jerseys and pants may change from brown to white, solid or striped, but there is nothing like those bright orange icons of Cleveland football. Some say they are ugly and boring. I say they exude power and tradition."
Lindsay Dudas knows being a Browns fan is strange, sort of like being trapped in a dysfunctional family. As Lindsay e-mailed: "Say that your child went to prison but you would not embarrass him because of that embarrassment and failure. The Browns have been in prison for most of the last 10 years. I have not given up on them and still visit them every fall and winter on the shores of Lake Erie."
Lindsay, it’s more like they’ve been locked into losing for the past 20 years ... except when they were in solitary confinement for three seasons during The Move.
Then again, as Mike Griffin e-mailed: "We watch games surrounded by people wearing dog masks, throwing dog bones and barking. It’s great fun!"
Griffin doesn’t mean at the Stadium, he means at a Browns Backers meeting in Denver. And he drives 70 miles each way to meet with other Browns fans in Colorado. As he explained, they are "Pilgrims in an Unholy Land!"
Aaron Funke tried to explain this irrational exuberance about the Browns: "I was born near Cleveland and grew up watching the team during the 1980s. When I was in fourth grade, my family moved to Chicago. It was tough to find the games on TV. So on Sundays, we’d get in our Chevy Astro van after church and just start driving east into Indiana to try and pick up a radio signal. I remember how excited we would get when we could finally hear it come in. Then we would just sit in some gas station parking lot or rest area for the duration of the game."
This guy hasn’t lived in Cleveland since the fourth grade but remains hooked on the Browns in Chicago.
"We wised up and found a bowling alley where the Browns Backers of Chicago met, and we started going there to watch the games," explained Funke.
Dale McCombs wrote: "I first became a Browns fan in 1968 at the age of 10. Bill Nelsen with his bad knees, well, he signed a picture of himself that I still have buried in the attic. Back in those days, the signings were for free."
So far, so good.
Bill Nelsen was one of my favorite players, too. He was the Brian Sipe of my youth, although Sipe was a much better player.
McCombs continued: "You should definitely write about old Municipal Stadium and those awful poles that always seemed to block the view. My most memorable game was in the dog pound in 1978 against Houston when the bleachers broke out in a riot where fans were throwing bottles onto the end zone. I was in Row 2, and all the drunks up in row 40 with the weak arms were not getting the bottles onto the field. They were whizzing by me. I was on the front page of The Plain Dealer the next day. Stupid me, I never saved the paper, and it still haunts me to this day."
Ah, the memories of drunks throwing bottles! And the old stadium, where parts of it smelled like an animal died years ago, but no one could find the carcass.
* * *
"I was raised on Cleveland Browns football," e-mailed John Greg Jr. "My bedroom was plastered, floor to ceiling, in Browns posters and paraphernalia. If I wasn’t wearing an article of clothing with the Browns’ logo on it, it was only because I was in the bathtub at that moment. I was the only kid in kindergarten who didn’t associate The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland and the Wicked Witch of the West. At 7 years of age, the first song I learned the complete lyrics to, beginning to end, was Messenger’s The Kardiac Kids."
Greg added, "It’s impossible to walk away or turn my back from them, although I’d admit to covering my eyes in horror a time or two."
A time or two? How about for a decade or two?
But it is the memories that are the cement. It could be when Bernie Kosar made Browns fans proud. Or when Brian Sipe pulled off another impossible win. Or when Jim Brown kicked off the arms of tacklers with his piston-like legs. Or when it was Graham-to-Lavelli, passes so beautiful they almost made Paul Brown smile.
"I still see Webster Slaughter streaking down the left sideline taking a perfect pass from Kosar for a winning touchdown," e-mailed Tony Vallo. "It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I was too hoarse from yelling that I couldn’t even talk on Thanksgiving Day."
More memories ...
Dan Lind e-mailed: "Every Sunday home game from 1989 to 1995 was the same for me. I’d drive down to old Municipal Stadium with my big brother and pour my heart and soul into the Brownies. We’d go early, cruise down Carnegie and stop for ribs at Hot Sauce Williams on the way. We’d listen to WKNR pre-game and chuckle at ’Mike from Brunswick,’ who’d always call in and swear this was his FINAL year buying season tickets.... My love affair for the franchise started right there and continues to this day.... Win or lose, the sights and sounds make the NFL an extraordinary product. Each game was a story, and every play was important. Watching Joshua Cribbs and Phil Dawson today gets my heart pounding just like cheering for Eric Metcalf and Matt Stover in the 1990s. I grew up on the Browns, and despite their lack of success this past decade, I will loyally support that franchise till the day I die."
You have a feeling that Lind really means it.
Consider how McCombs--who lovingly recalls those days of beer bottles whipping by his head--ended his e-mail: "The most important reason to write the book is to show how the Browns and their fans unite together and bond over our misery.... My grandfather passed away in 2006 at the age of 96. For nearly 40 years, we commiserated each week over the Browns. I last talked to him three days before his death. He was in and out of consciousness. I said, ’Grandpa, I don’t know if you know who I am, but you know how sucky those Cleveland Browns are.’ He raised his head in a near-comatose state, looked at me and smiled.... It was his last smile."
It is a family thing.
"Some fathers and sons work on cars or go fishing," e-mailed Nicholas Allburn. "We watch, read and wring our hands about the Browns.... Most of all, it’s strengthened my bond with my father."
Or as Willard Stanley e-mailed: "No matter how often they disappoint us, I’ll always love and be grateful to this football team for bringing my family closer together. There aren’t many topics that will keep the attention and provide common ground for a computer programming father and his three sons: One a graduate student in Vietnamese history, another a biologist and the last a student of European history."
Mike Lebowitz e-mailed about his military service in Iraq, "where I’d hope the combat mission would end in time so we could return to the base and watch the Browns.... I’d wake up at 4 a.m. to catch a Browns game (in Iraq).... No matter where I’ve lived, it finally dawned on me: The Browns, good and bad, equate to home."
And it goes on. That’s the reason for this book, and for ending this chapter with this e-mail from Aimee Andrich.
"My best day at Cleveland Browns Stadium was September 16, 2007--the first game my husband and I took our (30-month-old) son Max to see," she explained. "We had discussed for weeks whether he should attend only the game, or if we should give him the full experience by taking him to the Muni Lot to tailgate. We decided that it must be all or nothing.
"We dressed him in all of his Browns gear and painted his hair to match the Browns’ helmet. On our walk into the lot, fellow fans were giving him high-fives and cheering for him from the parking garages. He even ended up on the Channel 19 tailgate show holding his "This is my first Browns game" sign. The smile on his face was matched only by the final score of the game: Browns 51, Bengals 45.... After the last TD pass, I remember telling Max to never forget this day because the Browns may never put up 51 offensive points again!
"Fast-forward to the 2009 season. After a particularly ugly loss, I was listening to my regular sports talk radio show when frustration over the continued poor performance had gotten the best of me. As embarrassing as it is, I stood in my kitchen and shed a few tears. Max caught me at this low moment. He asked why I was so sad. I told him that I was sick and tired of losing.
"I then proceeded to tell him that he should pick another team to root for because there was still time for him to find a winner. He looked up at me and said, ’Mommy, the Browns are my team because they are your team.’ The tears flowed again, but this time it wasn’t over the losing."^ top
Three things have made me cry as an adult: 1) The passing of my father in 1985. 2) The passing of my mother in 1994. 3) The news the Browns were leaving for Baltimore. I guess one would not think that a sports happening would equate with the loss of a dear loved one, but I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only adult male shedding tears when that news broke.
The move still stings knowing if the Browns had stayed in Cleveland, we likely would have a Lombardi Trophy and a consistent playoff-caliber team. Instead, we are in a constant rebuilding mode.
Does Art Modell belong in the Hall of Fame?
Most Browns fans have an answer to that one, but what they have to say usually isn’t printable. And when it is, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. “MODELL, IN THE HALL OF FAME??? ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? FIRST HE FIRED PAUL BROWN!!!! THEN HE STOLE OUR TEAM AND LEFT US WITH THIS CRUMMY EXPANSION FRANCHISE!!! THE MAN BELONGS IN JAIL!!!!”
Browns fans should be able to make a rational—or at least a very emotional but logical—argument against Modell being enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
Let’s begin with a cold, hard fact that some people still refuse to accept. Except for in Green Bay, Wis., the fans don’t own the team. From March 21, 1961, until Modell moved the team to Baltimore after the 1995 season, the Cleveland Browns were owned by Art Modell.
In 1999, when the Browns returned as an expansion team, owned by the Lerner family, the city welcomed them. Everyone was delighted to be rid of Modell and happy to have a fresh start with the front office team from the San Francisco 49ers. But Modell wasn’t responsible for any of the problems the team faced over the first 11 years the return.
There’s a good case to be made against Art Modell. But it usually isn’t the one that Browns fans sputter about.
Some Browns fans will open their case against Modell by saying, “He fired Paul Brown, the greatest pro football coach ever. He doesn’t deserve to be elected just for that!”
In this book, the argument is made that Paul Brown is the greatest Cleveland Brown . . . ever. People in Green Bay may tell you that Vince Lombardi was greater than Brown. But when he was a young assistant with the Giants, Lombardi asked Brown for advice. People from San Francisco will mention Bill Walsh, but Walsh, who was an assistant for Brown, called Brown the greatest coach in NFL history. Chuck Noll and Don Shula played for Brown and considered him their mentor.
New Englanders make their case for—who ever would have believed this—Bill Belichick as being this generation’s Paul Brown. When I contacted Belichick for this book, he declined to discuss some topics. But he did e-mail me his feelings on Paul Brown. Belichick believes Brown is the greatest pro football coach . . . ever.
But Art Modell was right to fire Paul Brown!
There, I wrote it.
When I began the research for Browns Town 1964, I dug deep into Modell’s decision to fire Brown. I began writing the book in 1994, when the Browns were still here. I didn’t finish it until 1996, after they moved. There was every reason to hammer Modell for his decision. But I couldn’t do it.
The man who invented so much of modern pro football, the man who coached in Cleveland starting in 1946 had simply run out of gas by the early 1960s. Even the best coaches can suffer a bit of burnout. They can become inflexible. They can become stale in the same city with the same team, the same fans, the same set of expectations and history of disappointments. Player after player on the 1964 team said that Paul Brown had to go. They said he seemed to be losing touch with the players. Jim Brown was frustrated that Paul Brown continually ran his star fullback between the tackles—there were no sweeps, there was no creativity. Both his longtime starting quarterbacks—Milt Plum and even the great Otto Graham—said they were given no real freedom to change plays that Brown called from the sidelines. Veteran sportswriter Hal Lebovitz and players, such as quarterback Jim Ninowski, said Brown refused to criticize Jim Brown.
“The truth is Paul was scared of Jim Brown,” Lebovitz told me when I interviewed him for the book.
Remember, from 1959 to 1962, Paul Brown’s last four seasons with Cleveland, the team failed to make the playoffs. His final four records were 7-5, 8-3-1, 8-5-1 and 7-6-1.
Brown was even becoming isolated from his friends. Blanton Collier first met Paul Brown during World War II when Brown was coaching at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Collier was a high school coach before the war, and he began hanging around Brown’s practices—just to watch and learn. Soon, Brown put Collier to work as an assistant. After World War II, Paul Brown took the Cleveland job and brought Collier along as an assistant.
In 1954, Collier left Paul Brown to become the head coach at the University of Kentucky. In 1958, when Green Bay was looking for a new head coach, they asked Brown whom to hire. Brown told them to choose Collier or Lombardi. When Kentucky fired Collier after the 1961 season, Brown hired Collier back as an assistant. But in 1962, Modell was the owner. At the time, Modell was 37, only a little older than his players. When players began to come to Modell with complaints about the coach, Modell was flattered. He was too willing to buy them drinks and listen. Brown began to feel threatened.
During the 1962 preseason, Brown permitted Collier to make some changes to the offense. Collier began giving quarterbacks two or three options to pick from when they arrived at the line of scrimmage, rather than the one play that Brown had insisted be used. The Browns looked sharp in the preseason and won all their games. Reporters began writing about Collier’s new “Check-off System,” and how it revived the offense.
“Paul read those and put Blanton in the corner (of the office),” said Lebovitz. “The check-off system was junked. That was the beginning of the end of the relationship between these two men who had been such close friends.”
Ninowski said the quarterbacks were stunned to see the little bit of freedom taken away.
During the 1962 season, there was a practice right after a blizzard when there was about a foot of snow on the field. Usually, Brown kept workouts in those conditions very short. He also was on the field and in the cold with the players. But on this day, he sat in his car, about 20 yards from the practice, and watched.
“The quarterback would go to Paul’s car after every play, and Paul would roll down the window, tell him something, then roll up the window,” recalled Ross Fichtner, a defensive back. “The players were freezing, but Paul never left his car.”
Collier shared most of Brown’s philosophies and strategies, but he didn’t rule by fear. He had a knack for making the players think that his idea was really their own. He had long conversations with Jim Brown, Gary Collins, Frank Ryan, Bernie Parrish, Jim Ninowski and other key players. He took some of their suggestions and then made a few suggestions of his own. In many ways, Collier was a modern coach, working with players rather than them having a sense that they were nothing more than worker drones. Collier’s approach worked because the players already knew him as an assistant—and he was a change from Brown. If you are going to fire a coach, then bring in one with a different personality. Collier was the best and perhaps the only coach who could have replaced Brown and immediately been successful.
The Browns were 10-4 in 1963 . . . up from 7-6-1 in Brown’s final season.
Sports Illustrated wrote, “There can be no doubt about it, the major factor in the improvement of Jimmy Brown and his teammates is the absence of Paul Brown.”
Paul Brown did return to the NFL after five years, when the AFL gave the city of Cincinnati an expansion team. Brown coached the Bengals from 1968 to 1975, going 55-56-1. He made the playoffs only three times and lost in the first round every time. This was a strong performance for an expansion franchise. It also happened because Brown had five seasons away from the game to recharge emotionally and reconsider some of his tactics.
Yes, Paul Brown was the greatest pro football coach . . . ever.
But Modell got it right by replacing Brown with Collier.
I’m still not completely healed from the dagger wound to the heart that Art Modell inflicted when he ripped my beloved Browns out of Cleveland. I cannot look at my Kardiac Kids button, my Brian Sipe rookie card or the photo with me and Dave Logan without drifting back (to when the Browns moved). . . . On that day, I cried like a girl. Well, I am female, so I guess that’s not too weird. I went to work with swollen eyes and a sullen disposition.
The case for putting Modell in Hall of Fame, or any owner, should be based mostly on what his teams did on the field. Modell was certainly better than average. He had 21 winning records in his 35 years of owning the Browns and a .519 winning percentage in the regular season. In those 35 years, Modell’s teams went to the playoffs 17 times. In 1964, his team won the last championship—as of 2010—that any Cleveland fan has seen. The Browns went back to the NFL Championship Game in 1965 and lost.
Browns fans often point out that the Browns never won a Super Bowl—never even made it there under Modell. Since the Super Bowl wasn’t played until the 1966 season, this isn’t entirely his fault. Most people remember the Browns came one game short of the Super Bowl in 1986, 1987 and 1989. But the team also reached the NFL Championship—also one game short—in 1968 and 1969.
In the 1960s, a case can be made that Modell was not just a good owner but an outstanding one. He made a daring decision to fire Paul Brown and promote Blanton Collier. Collier was a better coach for the Browns than Paul Brown was at that point.
Paul Brown’s final four records were 7-5, 8-3-1, 8-5-1 and 7-6-1.
Collier’s first four records were 10-4, 10-3-1, 11-3 and 9-5.
From 1962—Art’s first season as owner—through 1969, the Browns went to the NFL finals four times in eight years.
After the 1960s ended, Modell’s team began to stumble. In 1970, Collier was 64. He had battled hearing problems for his entire coaching career. In 1970, he went 7-7 and retired at the end of the season.
In the 1970s, the Browns made the playoffs only twice (1971, 1972), losing both times. They had five winning records in that decade, along with some real stinkers such as 4-10 in 1974, 3-11 in 1975 and 6-8 in 1977. Nick Skorich had a winning record (30-24, from 1971 to 1974), but everyone else went 42-46.
In the 1980s, Modell’s Browns had a good decade. They made the playoffs seven times (1980, 1982 and 1985 to 1989). But they also had two 5-11 seasons.
In the 1990s, the Browns had one winning season and five losing years under Modell. After he moved to Baltimore, he had one 8-8 record and three losing years.
Due to financial difficulties, Art had to sell his team in January 2004. From 2000 to 2003, the Ravens had three winning seasons. They made the playoffs three times and won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2000 season.
So what can we say about all this?
If anything, the case for Art Modell to be enshrined in Canton really looks like more of an argument for Blanton Collier (74-34, .688 percentage from 1963 to 1970). Collier ran the team in his own fashion, but he used many of the methods and plans that he and Brown had developed over the years. Many of Collier’s assistants were men who had been hired and trained by Brown. Modell deserves credit for making the coaching change. At the time, Brown’s firing was unthinkable. In the days before big TV contracts and luxury suite sales and the pressure to win every year, teams let a coach who won a title stay until he felt like leaving.
The firing seemed to convince Modell that he could run a football team as well as Paul Brown. The seamless transition to Collier deceived Modell into believing that he really knew football, that he did not need a strong general manager.
So, in 1970, the Browns traded Paul Warfield to Miami for a draft pick and used the pick to take Mike Phipps.
From 1971 to 1995, the Browns’ final 25 years in Cleveland with Modell, the team went 187-188.
That’s one game under .500 for a quarter of a century after Collier.
It’s 12 winning seasons in 25 years after Collier.
It’s 4-10 in the playoffs after Collier.
It’s seven coaches (including two interims) after Collier, and only two with winning records: Skorich (30-24) and Marty Schottenheimer (44-27). Modell hired two coaches who eventually took teams to the Super Bowl, Belichick and Forrest Gregg, but he fired both. After that, they won a title.
It’s hard to see how his performance in Cleveland—or his 63-64 record with the Ravens—qualifies Modell for the Hall of Fame.
Art Modell does not belong in the Hall of Fame, and I will carry that torch for as long as I live for what he did to us . . . . The move was not about football, it was about my family! My family owned season tickets for more than 50 years. His father was an usher at the old Stadium from the day it opened until he died in 1963. . . . Art Modell stole our team . . . Paul Brown’s team . . . he stole our family!
When watching the press conference to announce the Browns move to Baltimore, I thought, “These guys are stealing my childhood. They’re stealing my childhood!”
Modell’s supporters want to see him inducted to the “Contributors” wing in the Hall of Fame at Canton. The only way to make a case for Modell is based on the mediocrity of some of the previous selections. Art won one Super Bowl title (2000) and one League Championship (1964). Most of the other inductees have much stronger credentials:
Curly Lambeau (six titles): He spent 30 years as a player, coach, general manager and founder of the Packers.
Wellington Mara (six titles): His father, Tim, founded the Giants in 1933. Wellington was given a share in 1937, and he owned the club until 2005.
George Halas (six titles): He is the Papa Bear of the Chicago Bears.
Tim Mara (four titles): Founder and then majority owner of the Giants for the first 34 years of their existence.
Art Rooney (four titles): He owned the Steelers from 1933 to 1988, but the franchise was a joke until the late 1960s. In 1965, Art made his son Dan the general manager. That’s when the team began to make smart moves. Dan is far more worthy than Art, but the Rooney family does belong in the Hall of Fame.
Tex Schramm (three titles): He was a team president who started with the Rams in the late 1940s and won a title in 1951. He was fired late in the decade and then joined the expansion Cowboys.
Al Davis (three titles): He has owned the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders since 1966. He also served as AFL commissioner and is credited with forcing the AFL-NFL merger. He also moved the Raiders all over California.
Ralph Wilson (four Super Bowl appearances): He won two AFL championships and four AFC titles with the Buffalo Bills. Lost in four Super Bowls.
George Preston Marshall (two titles): Owned the Redskins from 1932 to 1969 and is credited with being the guy who convinced the other owners that they needed to play a standardized schedule and a championship game. Both were revolutionary football ideas at the time.
Dan Reeves (two titles): Owned the Cleveland/Los Angeles Rams from 1941 to 1971. The 1945 title was in Cleveland. He moved the team to Los Angeles the next year for the money. You can argue this is a man after Modell’s own heart.
Lamar Hunt (one title): Hunt founded the American Football League and served as its first commissioner. His decision that the AFL would share revenues of ticket receipts and have a national TV contract with every owner sharing equally was promptly “borrowed” by the NFL. It’s a major reason the league has prospered.
Jim Finks: Finks was a very well-liked man who served as general manager for three clubs that achieved very little: Minnesota, from 1964 to 1973 (one league and one conference championship); Chicago from 1974 to 1982 (nothing); and New Orleans from 1986 to 1992 (nothing, although the Saints did have their first winning season in team history under him). Finks served on the rules committee for many years.
Charles Bidwill (one title): An incomprehensible pick. He founded the Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals, whose only title was the 1947 NFL championship.
Bert Bell: Owned the Eagles from 1933 to 1940 and co-owned the Steelers from 1941 to 1945. His teams never won a thing. He was elected because he served as commissioner from 1946 to 1959.
Pete Rozelle: The NFL commissioner from 1960 to 1989. He is credited by everyone with turning pro football into the big-time business that it is today.
Hugh “Shorty” Ray: He served as supervisor of officials and technical advisor on rules from 1938 to 1952. He is credited with pushing through all the rules changes during his tenure. He also insisted that the league hire referees. Until then, they were hired by the teams. He required the referees to learn the league rules and pass tests on them. He also would show up at games unannounced, to make sure referees were enforcing the rules as written.
Joe Carr: The first commissioner of the NFL, who served from 1922 to 1939. Carr’s admirers credit him with professionalizing the league, by pushing reforms like “Let’s not count pickup games in the standings.”
* * *
There are at least three owners whose teams outperformed Modell’s: Carroll Rosenbloom of the Colts and Rams (three titles, two leagues); Joe Robbie of the Dolphins (two titles, three leagues); Jack Kent Cooke of the Redskins (three titles, two leagues).
Art Modell’s biggest “contribution” is the money he helped his fellow owners make. In the 15 years since Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore after the 1995 season, there have been 12 new stadiums built for NFL teams. Almost all of the money came from taxpayers. Maybe the owners of these teams should vote Modell a cut of their profits, but not a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Following the Browns was a way to escape life’s trials. . . . Whatever I did, I had the Browns on my mind. When the move was announced, I told a friend (also a pastor of the church where I worked) that I had the same feeling when my mother died when I was 9 years old. He said they were feelings of grief.
So what is the case for Modell in the Hall of Fame?
Of the owners in the Hall of Fame, Marshall, Bidwill, Hunt, Reeves and Davis all moved their teams. Yes, Modell was in financial trouble, but it was not all his fault. In the 1970s, when the City of Cleveland had financial problems, Modell signed a contract to operate and maintain Cleveland Stadium, in return for all the revenues. This was a phenomenally poor business move as the ballpark was falling apart and the Indians were losing and their attendance was terrible. He took out a line of credit with an adjustable rate. In the middle-1970s, and the rate went into the stratosphere during the Carter administration. At one point, he was paying 21 percent. Modell refinanced several times, but it didn’t bring relief in the long run. Twenty years later, as the Indians were on the verge of a good team, the county built a new stadium to lure them and all their fans away. Modell lost the rent, the concession and parking. He was stuck with upkeep on a stadium that had been opened in 1931.
Modell said he didn’t need a new stadium, then changed his mind and moved the team to Baltimore. His supporters admit that was bad, but no worse than what his fellow two owners did. The county built the baseball stadium for the Indians because Dick Jacobs threatened to move the team. The Cavaliers’ owner, Gordon Gund, moved a franchise twice. Gund brought the California Golden Seals to Cleveland, and then moved them to Minnesota. He pulled NHL hockey out of two cities. Gund bought the Cavs at a bargain price. He refused to move downtown unless the city gave him an arena and found creative ways to avoid having to pay even the minimal rent the county charged him. Modell was the worst businessman of the three, but he cost the taxpayers of this region far less than the other owners.
But I still think, Modell was a lousy businessman. The question is not how he compares to Jacobs, Gund or any of the other franchise owners over the years. It’s what he did with the Browns.
In the 1960s, my father and I watched games together. . . . He reiterated to me over and over that one day I would understand that Art Modell was not an honorable man and did not deserve any credit for the success of the Browns under his ownership. It turns out that he was completely right about Art Modell, although I didn’t understand it at the time . . . .
I have to know why Art Modell had no choice but to move. Does he realize that he’s a pariah? Does he care about his legacy? Was it worth it? Could his wife have talked him out of moving? Did Al Lerner advise him to move? Couldn’t Art live off the proceeds of selling the team? Does he have any regrets? Does he miss Cleveland? Can he fathom the hurt he caused? Does this bother him?
Here’s what bothered me the most about The Move: There was no need for it to happen.
For at least 10 years, Modell watched his team play with Al Lerner. They were very close friends. Lerner was like Jacobs, a man tied to the Cleveland power structure who knew how to get deals done. He also was very aware of Modell’s financial situation. Modell reportedly was $70 million in debt by the time of the move in 1995.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Modell spent 10 years with Lerner at the games. The two men considered themselves “close friends.” They both supposedly were committed to the city of Cleveland. What was the obvious solution to Modell’s problem?
Sell the team to Al Lerner!
I once asked Lerner why this didn’t happen. Why did Modell have to move, and why did you help him? After all, the final details of the move were agreed to on Lerner’s private jet. Lerner had the connections with the bankers in Baltimore.
“Art said he wanted to keep the team for his family,” Lerner told me. He meant that he wanted to turn the team over to his son, David Modell.
“Why did you help him move the team?” I asked Lerner. “You had to know how angry it would make the fans.”
“I viewed it as helping a friend,” Lerner said. “That’s what I was doing, helping a friend.”
That was the end of the discussion, at least from Lerner’s view.
But aren’t there times when a friend has to say, “Art, I am not going to help you move the team to Baltimore. That’s just not right.”
Lerner saw this as a business deal. Maybe he believed that the NFL would award an expansion franchise to Cleveland. Maybe he believed the move was the shock needed to convince the city to build a new football stadium. Maybe he even believed that he’d end up as the owner of the expansion franchise. Lerner clearly was the league’s favorite to own the expansion Browns. They knew he had to cash to buy it and believed he’d do a good job running it.
But had Modell sold to Lerner, he could have retained a small interest in the team and been some type of president emeritus. He could have gone around town giving speeches, shaking hands, being Art Modell, Owner of the Browns . . . even if Lerner supplied the cash behind the franchise. He could have been a very respected figure, given credit for bringing in Lerner to save the team for Cleveland. And like Dick Jacobs did for the Indians, Lerner would have found a way to muscle the city into a new stadium. Unlike Modell, he was the kind of guy who knew how to get big deals done.
If you want to really play What if Art sold to Al? then you’d have a situation where Ozzie Newsome is running the Browns in Cleveland with Lerner’s checkbook. Newsome led the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl in the 2000 season, and they have been a regular playoff team for a decade.
Yes, all that and more could have happened here.
Here’s my point for Modell being a terrible businessman.
He moved the team into a rent-free facility in Baltimore. He received every imaginable perk that a city could give a new owner. He sold out every game. But in January 2004, he still ran out of money and had to sell the franchise to Steve Bisciotti to deal with all his financial complications.
In a Baltimore Business Journal article written by Daniel Kaplan after Modell’s sale, the former Browns/Ravens owner said: “The quality of ownership is not what it was in yesteryear. The people in football today, and maybe they have to be because of the amount of money they spent to buy their franchises, but the owners today are bottom-line-oriented—profits, give me profits, revenues, profits.”
The article is very sympathetic to Modell. Many media stories credit Modell with surrendering the team’s nickname, colors and history to Cleveland right after the move. But when I was writing False Start, I found stories in the Baltimore papers stating the new team would be “The Baltimore Browns.”
It was only after the fans screamed and protested and filed law suits and pressured the league that Modell gave up the name, colors and history.
Modell explained moving the Browns to Baltimore Business Journal this way: “I wasn’t greedy . . . it was survival, not greed.”
But in the end, he didn’t survive as an NFL owner. He didn’t keep the franchise in his family. He failed in his main goal and lost respect in his adopted hometown in the process. That hardly sounds like a Hall of Famer.^ top
Excerpted from the book Things I’ve Learned from Watching the Browns, copyright © Terry Pluto. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by Terry Pluto
Here’s a question for any Browns fan: Why?
Why, more than four long decades after your team’s last championship . . . despite a relentless pattern of heartbreak, teasing, and more heartbreak . . . capped with a decade of utter futility . . . do you still stick . . . [ Read More ]
Terry Pluto is a sports columnist for The Plain Dealer. He has twice been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the nation’s top sports columnist for medium-sized newspapers. He is a nine- . . . [ Read More ]TerryPluto.com