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Cleveland and Pro Football

A team’s storied history and the contributions of Paul Brown.

Cleveland Municipal Stadium

Futility breeds discontent.

Nothing is truer in sports or in a marriage. In sports, no matter how successful your team was in the past or how many championships the franchise has won, if you have several bad seasons in a row, anyone in the organization can be shown the door. And if your wife comes home and the power is off, the hero you were earlier has minimal merit today.

Which brings us to the “Cleveland Sports Curse.”

The City of Cleveland has been known for futility with its sports teams for many decades. Anybody who followed sports became well-educated about when the last time a team from Cleveland had won any title. Prior to the 2016 season, the list was lengthy: Cleveland Indians (baseball) - 1948, Cavaliers (basketball) – never, Cleveland Rams (NFL) – 1945, Cleveland Browns (NFL) – 1964, Cleveland Monsters (hockey) – never, Cleveland Barons (hockey) – 1964, Cleveland Gladiators (Arena) – never, Cleveland Crunch (soccer) - 1999.

Up until the 2016 season that is. The NBA Cavaliers won this year’s crown plus the American Hockey League Monsters won that league’s championship as well. Finally - superstition broken.

But Cleveland is no stranger to winning titles in the landscape of pro football. In fact, the city has taken home 10 championships.

One of the very first references to any type of a pro football game was scheduled in Cleveland in 1905 between the Massillon Tigers and Carlisle Indians. Both teams had hired professional players; which meant some players were paid to play. From this time until 1919, many town and city clubs competed on a professional level in the state of Ohio in a league loosely called the “Ohio League.” Teams came and went every year with freely-constructed schedules every year. Only clubs deemed “major” were considered for the league every season; which at no time had any sense of organization to it. The league’s star was Carlisle’s Jim Thorpe (now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame).

The first pro football team to call Ohio’s largest city home was the Cleveland Indians in 1916. This entity lasted only a season amidst sparse crowds and a poor record.

Beginning in 1917, there began discussions about forming a real professional football league. Besides Ohio, there were quite a few clubs in New York State, plus other areas such as Minnesota, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois.

In 1919, there was a serious attempt to form this new league, but many felt another year was needed. The Cleveland Tigers were formed in what would become the Ohio League’s final season and went 5-2-2. They played their games at Dunn Field, home of the baseball Cleveland Indians. The American Professional Football Association (APFA) was formed in 1920 with the Ohio teams leading the way including the Tigers as a charter member. Two years later, this league would be renamed the National Football League (NFL).

Cleveland Indians of the NFL

For that maiden season the Tigers finished 2-4-2 and had few followers. The following year the team was changed to the Cleveland Indians (as many a pro football team was named for their baseball counterparts). The Indians sported Thorpe as head coach but limped to a 3-5-0 record and 11th in the standings. After a season off, the Indians returned in 1923 to finish fifth in the NFL with a 3-1-3 record.

In 1924, the owner of the Indians bought the two-time defending NFL champion Canton Bulldogs for $2,500, merged the best players from each squad into a single team, renamed his club the Cleveland Bulldogs and continued to play at Dunn Field. With a successful club in the Indians and a plethora of star-caliber players with the Canton troop, the new Bulldogs finished 7-1-1 and captured the NFL title under player/coach Guy Chamberlin.

The next year they finished 5-8-1 and were close to bankruptcy. With the league’s approval, they decided to take a year off. Per the void in 1926, a new team surfaced in Cleveland – the Panthers. They played in a brand new pro football league called the American Football League, but lasted only one season. After their hiatus, the Bulldogs rebounded in 1927 to an 8-4-1 finish behind the sterling play of quarterback Benny Friedman, a Cleveland native. The franchise was sold once again and relocated to Detroit.

An ad for the Cleveland Rams.

The City of Cleveland was devoid of the pro game until 1936 when the Cleveland Rams joined the second entity called the American Football League (AFL) and finished in second place with a successful 5-2-2 season amidst consistent crowds. This AFL was poorly organized and most teams struggled financially. The top two teams qualified for the championship game, however, the players on the number one-seed Boston Shamrocks refused to play the title game because they had not received their weekly checks.

Meanwhile, the NFL had been operating with an odd number of teams and was looking for another club to join their ranks. It appeared as if the new AFL would have a short life, so Rams’ owner Homer Marshman petitioned the NFL for admission. The NFL already had applications from Los Angeles and Houston, but chose Cleveland so that the league would remain centered in the East and Midwest. This version of the AFL folded after the 1937 season.

The Rams’ attendance was sparse initially mainly due to their 1-10 record and subsequent losing seasons for the next four years. New York native Dan Reeves then purchased the Rams. For the 1943 campaign, World War II decimated the Rams roster plus Reeves served in the military; so the entire franchise shut down for an entire season. As the club reinstated operations the following year, most of their better players returned (including WR Jim Benton) plus UCLA star quarterback Bob Waterfield was drafted. Benton would become the NFL’s first receiver to net 300-yards in a single game – a record that stood for 40 years.

The 1945 season for the Rams would prove to be golden. Waterfield finally had time to groom himself into the pro game as Cleveland went 9-1-0 and captured the city’s first Conference title. They qualified to play in the NFL Championship Game against the Washington Redskins.

1945 NFL Championship game - Rams vs Redskins
Plain Dealer File Photo

The title game was played during a week of a major winter storm. Days before the game 9,000 hay bales were brought into the 80,000-seat Municipal Stadium to lay on top of the tarp that covered the field in an effort to provide some warmth so that the ground would not become a glazier. On the day of the game the temperature held around minus-8 degrees with 18 inches of snow. The City of Cleveland was responsible for the stadium and parking lot which went unshoveled. There wasn’t any taxi service running that day and the parking lot was a mess. An expected crowd of over 77,000 became less than 33,000.

Despite the Rams efforts, the field was a cold, hard, icy sheet. The crowd was mostly muted except for an occasional round of gloves suddenly being pounded together. One of the most unusual plays in NFL history happened in this contest. During this time period, the goal posts resided on the goal line instead of the back end zone line like today. Redskins QB Sammy Baugh had dropped back into his own end zone for a passing play. When he released the ball, it hit the goalpost and fell back harmlessly into the end zone. The ruling was a safety. The Rams would go on to win 15-14 because of that one play. The following year, the ruling was changed to become an incomplete pass, but it helped the Rams win their first NFL title and the second professional football title for the City of Cleveland.

For several years Reeves had wanted to move the Rams to California, and with the advent of air travel becoming a common occurrence in the mid-1940s, the owners approved the relocation for his Rams to Los Angeles for the 1946 season. In the interim, the newly formed rival league the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) was slated to begin in 1946 and had approved for a new Cleveland team among its 8-team maiden season.

Paul Brown was hired by Cleveland owner (and local cab company proprietor) Mickey McBride to coach the new squad. The first name selected was the Panthers. The old Cleveland Panthers from the failed 1926 AFL had some success and was a popular choice. However, once announced, the family of the deceased owner of the old Cleveland Panthers came forward and said they still had rights to the moniker. McBride wanted to call the team the “Browns” after his heralded coach, but Coach Brown didn’t wish to use it. Finally, after weeks of practicing under no nickname Paul Brown relented and the Cleveland Browns were born.

The AAFC did not have a college draft nor any system in which players would be distributed amongst its member teams. Brown had won six high school state championships in Ohio and a national championship while head coach at Ohio State. He knew heaps of star-quality players that he either coached or coached against and filled his Browns club with All-Stars from the get-go. Brown’s whole philosophy was for the Browns to be the darlings of pro football.

First ever Browns game ticket stub vs. Miami Seahawks - AAFC

The first game for the Browns was captured by 60,135 hometown fans. The game was covered by a multitude of national media including Life Magazine. Tommy Flynn, a midget dressed in a Brownies outfit, led an orchestra while a 120-member marching band cascaded along the field amidst the bombardment of a sky full of fireworks.

The Browns captured all four years of the AAFC’s titles from 1946-1949. They were one of three franchises who merged into the NFL for the 1950 season. Suddenly, the City of Cleveland had six pro football crowns. And more were about to be added to the pile.

Paul Brown led the way in advancements in pro football that are used today. The Browns were the first to:

  1. Use a scout to travel to games of the Browns next opponent,
  2. Use hand signals for different formations,
  3. Use messenger players (usually a guard) to bring the next play into the huddle instead of the on-field quarterback having to call his own plays,
  4. Invented the Taxi Squad - today called the Practice Squad. This system allowed Brown to stash players and use them when other rostered players became hurt or waived,
  5. Experimented with audio into a quarterback’s helmet for communication,
  6. Re-instituted the hiring of black players by signing fullback Marion Motley and defensive tackle Bill Willis (both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame),
  7. First to conduct psychological testing on players,
  8. Time players in the 40-yard dash instead of the standard practice of 100 yards,
  9. Invent the draw play,
  10. Place all players in a local hotel the night before a game,
  11. Use the face mask that Brown invented,
  12. Hire a staff of full-time, year-round assistants,
  13. Classroom study by players.

For the entire duration the AAFC existed, NFL commissioner Elmer Layton had professed that the worst team in the NFL could defeat the AAFC’s best team at any given time. The media labeled the Browns the best team in the minor leagues. The first game of the season in 1950 would address just that as the AAFC Champion Browns were slated to play the NFL Champion Philadelphia Eagles.

Because the NFL and AAFC never had a championship game between the two leagues, this would be the first time any NFL club would have seen the four-time reigning AAFC champs. The Eagles had taken the NFL crown the season before and had a stingy defense. On September 16, 1950 before a capacity crowd of 71,237, the Browns passing attack swept through Philadelphia’s defense en route to a 35-10 decisive victory. After the game, NFL Commissioner Layton was quoted as saying that the Browns were the greatest football team he had ever seen.

Near the end of the 1950 season, the Giants and the Browns were both knotted at 9-2-0 with one game each. Both clubs won and had to play a one-game playoff with the winner to meet the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL Championship Game. On a freezing night in Cleveland, the Browns outlasted New York 8-3 as neither team could mount any type of offense on the icy field. The Browns then performed the impossible by defeating the Rams 30-28 and their very first NFL title in their very first year playing in the established league.

Several coaches who served under Brown include Don Shula, Blanton Collier, Bill Walsh, Weeb Eubank and Chuck Noll. And from those assistants came Bill Arnsparger, Marc Trestman, David Shula, Howard Schnellenberger, Rich Kotite, Red Miller and Lou Saban, to name a few. Fifty of his players became coaches themselves.

Paul Brown trading card
Wiki Commons

Many a list has been compiled about the greatest coaches to roam the sidelines of pro football: Vince Lombardi, Joe Gibbs, George Halas, Bill Parcells, Tom Landry, Bill Belichick, Curly Lambeau, Chuck Noll, Bud Grant, Bill Walsh, Sid Gillman, Hank Stram, Don Shula and Paul Brown. You can shuffle the names in and out in any particular order, but Brown’s name will invariably remain at the uppermost positions.

He asked his players to call him Paul. His full name was Paul Eugene Brown, and his forte’ was coaching the game of American football.

As head coach of the Cleveland Browns, his teams won eight championships: four in the AAFC and another four in the NFL. In addition to the titles, the Browns took seven conference crowns and he was named Coach of the Year four times. He was strict and his players were perennial All-Stars.

And Paul Brown is responsible for eight of Cleveland’s 10 championship crowns in the jeweled universe of professional football.


Barry Shuck is has been a freelance pro football writer for about 18 years. He writes historical articles over at Big Blue View, our Giants affiliate, and his latest work here focuses on the contributions Paul Brown made to pro football and the changes that occurred because of him, along with his ties to Cleveland.