For almost three solid decades, the Cleveland Browns would dominate the game of professional football. From 1946 to 1955 they have been described as “The Best Show in Town.” From 1956 until 1973, the club won eight division titles, went to the playoffs 11 times, played in the NFL Championship Game four times and won one NFL title. During this time, the Browns only had one losing season.
Their very first head coach was Paul Eugene Brown who was at the helm from the inception until 1962. He asked his players to call him “Paul.”
Brown had coached Massillon (Ohio) high school to six state championships. His teams were also voted to being the high school national champs four times. Then he accepted the head coaching job at Ohio State University (OSU) and won a national championship in 1942. When World War II broke out, he enlisted and took a temporary leave from OSU knowing that job was waiting for him when he got out with a standing $15,000 annual salary offer. His military duty orders as lieutenant included stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Station and coaching their football team - the Navy Bluejackets. In 1944, that squad went 9-2-1 and was ranked number 17 in the AP poll. They had upset powerful teams of the day such as Purdue, Wisconsin and Illinois.
How he became the head coach of the Browns was rather unusual.
A New Pro Football League
Brown was still enlisted in the Navy when the Browns hired him - or perhaps it should be noted the club was only known as “Cleveland” at this time. Yellow Cab Company owner Mickey McBride was awarded a franchise in the newly-formed All-America Football Conference (AAFC) in 1945 with play to begin with eight teams beginning in 1946.
McBride was a millionaire and had for years attempted to purchase the NFL Cleveland Rams to no avail.
Right away, the AAFC would be a rival to the NFL and compete for established and rookie players, fans, sponsors, veteran players and media coverage. They announced they had placed teams in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Cleveland – cities which already had an NFL club. The other franchises were located in Miami, Brooklyn, San Francisco and Buffalo.
The Rams had just captured the 1945 NFL Championship. For many years, owner Dan Reeves had petitioned the other owners to allow him to relocate the Rams to Los Angeles. The owners had objected because of the added travel expenses and time devoted to the actual journey which back then was by train or bus. At the time, Chicago was the most western franchise whereas Washington was the southernmost club. However, commercial air travel had just become available which made Reeves’ pitch to move west more plausible. When he found out the AAFC had placed a team in Cleveland and they had hired Brown as their coach (who at the time was one of the most popular and influential men in all of the State of Ohio), he got his wish and moved the Rams to Los Angeles for 1946.
McBride contacted Brown while he was at Great Lakes and offered him the head coaching position. Brown was already thinking about not returning to OSU because of tensions between himself and Athletic Director Lyn St. John. McBride’s offer was to hire Brown at $1,500 a month while he was still enlisted, then begin a $25,000 annual salary upon his discharge date, plus a five-percent ownership in the Cleveland franchise. He would also have full control over players and other personnel.
Upon his acceptance of the Cleveland head coaching position, Brown was still in the Navy drawing a paycheck, and at the same time an employee of a pro football club that was in its infancy without any players, front office, assistant coaches, equipment, colors, uniforms or even a team name. And being paid for that, too.
What excited Brown the most was the opportunity to build a team from the ground up. Plus, with professional football players there wasn’t going to be any class schedules to work around, or grade evaluations that might sideline a player, or study time, or final exams to allow time for. These men could devote all their attention on football.
Building a Team
The AAFC did not have any guidelines in which the eight member clubs would form their rosters. There wasn’t a college draft nor any system put in place that would fairly dispense the talent among its clubs. Basically, each team was on their own. With the end of World War II, there was suddenly a vast supply of readily-available athletes to sign. Many college players had gone straight from the classroom to the war effort and now they were back in great shape and ready to commence playing the game they loved.
Other NFL players who had enlisted were suddenly without employment, so to fill eight new franchises with players was not an issue. Many former NFL players had standing offers to rejoin their former club, but were without valid contracts which allowed AAFC teams a crack at them also.
While still in the Navy, Brown hired as his first assistant coach John Brickels who would be his “Girl Friday” stateside. Since Brown had coached at Massillon, OSU and the Great Lakes team, he knew of his own former players, plus had the advantage of knowledge of every player that his teams had played and what their skill levels were. This was a huge advantage. Not to mention the fact that he was an officer in the military and had access to information of former NFL and college players that were currently serving, which branch they were in, where they were stationed and how to contact them.
This capability alone was pure gold.
Brown compiled a list of targeted athletes. McBride was very wealthy and gave Brown a green light financially with signing players. Obviously, this was another instant advantage for the new coach. Unknown to most, a lot of players were signed while still in the military (just as Brown had been) and paid monthly retainers.
Brown sent out in the standard military mail to prospective players a personal letter, an offer of $250 per month until the war ceased, a signing bonus of $2,500 and when they arrived at Cleveland’s training camp, a $7,500 salary to play professional football with the new Cleveland ballclub.
Players Brought into the Fold
The players Brown wanted are what he called “first-class citizens.” He felt character and intelligence were just as important as playing skills - but he also focused on speed.
He would install the T-formation offense and needed a QB who was brainy with a good touch throwing the ball; but not necessarily a player who had played the quarterback position since running the ball would be a good portion of the duties. While at OSU, the loss that Brown remembered the most was to unranked Northwestern. Late in that contest, halfback Otto Graham had torched his Buckeyes with a long TD pass as the play appeared to be a sweep.
Brown never forgot the play. He knew Graham was intelligent and was also a musician who played the cornet, French horn, piano and violin. Brown contacted Graham who was stationed in the Navy’s V-12 flying program. OT Lou Groza and OG Lin Houston had played for the freshman team while Brown was head coach at OSU. The following year both players enlisted and missed their final three years and now were in the Philippines when the coach contacted them. After signing, Groza, also a kicker, was sent two footballs in the mail to begin practicing.
WR Dante Lavelli was on Brown’s OSU national championship squad. He had fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was serving in the 28th infantry division when he signed. Other former OSU players were OT Jim Daniell, FB Gene Fekete and OG George Cheroke. WR Mac Speedie was seen by Brown when he was playing for a Marine Corps team. DB Al Akins was serving in the Pacific when he got Brown’s letter.
Coach Brickels found OG Ed Ulinski who he remembered playing at Marshall University and now was in the Air Force. In all, 26 of the players signed to the 36-man roster had played in the NFL or have been drafted by an NFL club prior to enlisting in the military.
In the spring of 1945, the franchise announced a name-the-team contest. The winner was the “Cleveland Panthers.” There had been another Cleveland Panthers team that began in 1919 and played until 1933 as an independent team and also a member of the first American Football League of 1926. However, once announced, the former owner of the Panthers, Charles Zimmerman, came forward and claimed the rights to the name. Brown then dropped the Panthers moniker. Besides, the old Panthers had predominately losing seasons. So at this point it was simply referred to as “Cleveland” but most folks and the media began referring to the club as “Paul Brown’s Team.” McBride suggested calling the franchise the “Browns” since everyone was calling it that anyway. At first, Coach Brown did not like the fact that it seemed boastful. Eventually he relented on his stance and agreed to the team name.
The Browns first training camp was at Bowling Green University in the northwestern portion of Ohio. Another OSU player that Brown had contacted but had yet signed was DT Bill Willis who had been named to the UPI All-American team and had been on Brown’s national championship squad. Willis had agreed to play with Montreal of the Canadian Football League (CFL) since the NFL was in a period where they did not sign black players, but was to officially sign his contract once he reported to Montreal. While in preparation to report, he got a message once again asking him to come try out for Cleveland. Since he was not contractual obligated to Montreal, Willis surmised that if the Browns gig did not pan out he could always head to the CFL.
Coach Brown only wanted Willis if he could still play. It took one day to answer that question to which Willis’ name was etched atop the depth chart. There was a problem, though. Although Brown did not see color, the rest of the world did. Brown had no issue with rooming Willis with a white player, but on the road during the season hotels would not allow blacks and whites to sleep in the same room. So, Brown needed at least one more black player.
Marion Motley had been Brown’s fullback on the Great Lakes team as a member of the Navy. Motley was now married with two children and working in a steel mill in Canton, Ohio. Brown had a friend who lived in Canton who relayed a message to Motley that Coach Brown would like for him to come for a tryout. As with Willis, after the first day of pounding other players, he was signed.
Brown had one more problem. He had signed so many quality players that it was evident that after the 36-man roster was finalized that there would be many excellent athletes looking for work. Brown did not want to lose them to other clubs in the AAFC, the CFL nor the NFL. In fact, fullback Fekete had gotten hurt and would be out for the year plus RB Ted Fritsch had asked to be released. He needed a supply of readily-available players that he could add to his roster when he needed to. So, he devised a plan.
He talked McBride into hiring the extra soon-to-be-cut players in his taxi cab business - secretly of course. Those players would then have cab driver work schedules that would allow them to practice with the club but would not be added to the 36-man roster. Every afternoon a slew of cabs would show up at their practice facility League Park in Cleveland and if a player was injured or cut, Brown had players ready to play. Within the team, they were called the “Taxi Squad.” Today, this same scenario is called the “Practice Squad” and is based on the exact same premise: readily-available players that can be added to the roster when needed.
Right off, the Browns rented the 78,000-seat Cleveland Municipal Stadium, home of the baseball Cleveland Indians. Conversely, the NFL Rams only played there in their first two seasons (1936-1937), then moved their home games to the smaller Shaw Stadium and then later League Park, which held a capacity of only 22,500. The 1945 NFL Championship Game against the Washington Redskins, however, was moved to Municipal Stadium in hopes of a larger attendance, but frigid conditions kept crowd numbers subdued.
Whereas the Rams used League Park as their home game day stadium, the Browns used the same facility as their practice field.
The AAFC and Beyond
The AAFC lasted four years before closing down although three teams were merged into the NFL. The Browns won all four championships and basically dominated each season. Their records were as follows: 1946: 12-2-0, 1947: 12-1-1, 1948: 14-0-0 and 1949: 9-1-2.
Every year when an NFL team begins their season undefeated, TV viewers are reminded of the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only unbeaten/untied team. In the NFL, that is. The fact is, there have been numerous pro football clubs who finished their respective seasons without a loss or a tie, and the 1948 Browns are one of them.
The Browns had outclassed the entire AAFC. They were stronger, faster and more prepared than almost every opponent each week. Because of a lack of a college draft and McBride’s open checkbook, the Browns were able to sign numerous blue-chip rookies and several seasoned veterans each season away from the NFL. Graham was a stud on the playing field in which Cleveland would throw on any down and in any yardage situation. He was a natural team leader with an accurate touch. Motley was a beast in the running attack while the defense simply smothered. Groza was dead accurate with kicking field goals while Lavelli would become one of the best WRs to play the game.
Things were not always rosy, however. In their first season for a road game at Miami in December, they were informed that the State of Florida had a law that prohibited black athletes and white athletes from competing on the same field. Plus, there wasn’t a single hotel in the City of Miami that would rent a room to a black person. Brown made the decision to leave these two key players back in Cleveland, and then directed his players to unleash hell on their opponent. The 34-0 score was only part of the result. Miami only gained a mere eight rushing yards, 38 yards in the air and were the victims of nine turnovers.
Paul Brown was a proud man and passionate about his players. He did not have a single bone in his body that was dedicated to bigotry or hatred towards other races. He was a stern cuss, but he was a stern cuss to everyone. And that filtered down to his players. There was many an instance where a white player would come to the defense of their fellow black teammate. Although the Browns only had two black players in 1946, throughout subsequent years the team signed many as their position needs dictated.
The new league not only offered more football players a place to play for pay, but increased the amount that the athletes would ultimately make in both the AAFC and the NFL. Before the AAFC’s existence, a $9,000 a year player was now making $20,000 a season whereas a $15,000 a year blue-chipper was suddenly basking in the $35,000 a season plateau. This forced the NFL to increase their payrolls as well as multitudes of high-profile NFL veterans were offered larger contracts to jump ship.
And many did. At the beginning of the 1946 maiden season, 95 NFL players had signed with the new league. The NFL’s response was to impose a five-year suspension to any player who switched leagues and then filed a lawsuit against the AAFC in order to cease the drain of the talent pool, but their suit was denied.
As a new league, there were many financial pitfalls of which many were derived from increased player contracts. Of the eight AAFC clubs, only the Browns turned a profit the first two seasons. In 1947 alone, losses for the other clubs were as follows: Los Angeles Dons: $350,000; Baltimore Colts: $255,000; Chicago Rockets: $250,000: Brooklyn Dodgers: $200,000: Buffalo Bills: $185,000: New York Yankees: $150,000: and San Francisco 49ers: $150,000.
Domination in Two Leagues
The Browns winning all four years of the AAFC would prove to become the league’s demise. At one point Cleveland had won 18 straight games over parts of three seasons. They scored 1,551 points for an average of 28.7 points per game versus 683 points allowed (12.6 point average). They led the league in scoring three of four years and their defense allowed the fewest points every single season.
Many scores were simply lopsided affairs. 42-7, 61-14, 19-0, 42-13, 55-7, 44-0 and 42-17 were actual final tallies. And because of this, fans of their home teams just quit showing up. After a few seasons, what used to be 44,000 fans in Buffalo was now just over 22,000 paid gate. Everyone knew the outcome - it was just a matter of by how much was their beloved team going to lose to the Browns by.
By 1948, Paul Brown had become the nation’s most recognizable head football coach.
If the AAFC had installed some sort of talent parity (especially via a common college draft), the league might have continued onward. It was not Brown’s fault that his team was so much better than the other clubs in the league. And he told his players just that: do not worry about being the superior team. You worry about this next game and score as many points as you can.
In the media, however, they began writing articles about how the Browns were killing their own league. By 1949, the final year of the AAFC, even Cleveland fans began staying home. After leading the league in attendance the first two seasons, in 1948 the gate declined and by 1949 there was a 25,000 count drop-off per home game.
During the 1949 season, the NFL and the AAFC reached a merger agreement. Every team in the NFL plus the AAFC was hemorrhaging money each and every season mainly because of player payroll. For the 1950 season, the NFL accepted the Browns, 49ers and Colts into their fold.
Way back in 1946 when the AAFC began, then-NFL commissioner Elmer Layden had commented that the NFL’s worst team could defeat the AAFC’s best club at any time and in any season.
Now a member of the NFL, the 1950 Browns won all five preseason games and then was scheduled to take on the Philadelphia Eagles on the road in their very first official NFL contest. The Eagles were not only the current NFL Champions, but were back-to-back NFL champs. Of course the schedule-maker forced the Browns to play the one NFL club that was set to defend their title against the new kids on the block boasting the fact that they were the four-time AAFC Champions.
The game was built up with a league championship aura and massive press coverage with sportswriters from all across the United States. It was coined “The Dream Game.” Cleveland went up 14-3 at the half and won 35-10 in front of 71,237 Philly faithful. In a time when a 300-yard game was a rarity for a QB, Graham threw for 346 yards.
This single victory proved that the AAFC had without question been a major sports league.
The NFL did in fact adopt a very important AAFC league rule: free substitution. American football, although different from its father sport rugby and grandfather sport soccer, still held many traditions from their former selves. And one was that if a player went off, he could not come back. The AAFC did away with this rule and the NFL copied it. The era of two-way players officially ended.
The Cleveland Browns would capture the 1950 NFL Championship - their very first year in the established league. The franchise would then play in five more consecutive NFL Championship Games, winning in 1954 and 1955. From 1950-1969, the Browns played for the league title an astounding 11 times, winning four.
AAFC’s History Ignored despite Coach Brown’s Legacy
When the American Football League (AFL) merged with the NFL in 1970, the NFL accepted all 10 AFL clubs along with their history of win-loss records, championships, team records/statistics and individual player statistics into their fold. However, when the NFL accepted the Browns, 49ers and Colts from the AAFC into their league in 1950, the NFL did not accept any of the team records nor statistics into their archives. This has remained true to this day. Players who had up to four years of statistics suddenly had zero stats to carry into the NFL annals. Team histories were also ignored.
This meant that the Browns’ four championships in the AAFC were – and are - considered nonexistent. Their combined 47 wins, four losses and three ties are invalid. QB Otto Graham’s two AAFC MVP awards don’t count nor do his 10,085 yards passing and 86 TD passes. Motley’s 3,024 yards rushing and 29 TDs are ghosts. All of this still remains statistics in the AAFC record books, but none of it was ever added to the NFL journals.
For a then-record price, McBride sold the Browns in 1953 for $600,000 to four prominent Cleveland businessmen.
Paul Brown is credited with being an innovator including inventing the draw play, installing helmet communicators in 1956, invention of the face mask, the practice squad, timed players’ speed in 40-yards instead of the standard of 100-yards, first to have “scripted plays” to start each game, first to house players at a hotel the night before a game, first to call all plays instead of the QB (pre-cursor to offensive coordinators), first to have a six-man coaching staff, first to institute psychology testing, first to scout opponents, first to hire year-round assistant coaches, and the stadium home of the Cincinnati Bengals is named for him.
While with Cleveland using accumulated AAFC and NFL statistics and records from 1946-1962, Coach Brown won 158 games, lost 48 and tied eight. His Browns’ teams would capture 12 division crowns, played in the league championship game 11 times, won the title game seven times, and he was named Coach-of-the-Year four years. In that 17-year span, his Browns’ teams would have only one losing season and at one point won 10-straignt division titles. As a head coach, he is tied with former Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach Bill Cowher for the record for his squads going to the playoffs in each of his first six seasons. If you factor in the AAFC years, Brown would have the record outright.
Paul Brown was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967. He has since been referred to as, “The Father of Modern Football.”
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.