After the 1995 season, Cleveland Browns’ owner Art Modell moved the club to Baltimore with the lure of a new stadium among other things. The Browns had been a franchise since 1946 and had captured eight league championships: four in the All-America Football Conference, and four in the National Football League (NFL).
When the Browns moved, it caused such a commotion that the NFL stepped in and decided to award the City of Cleveland with a new expansion franchise that would enter the league as announced for 1999. Over the course of the NFL’s 100 years of operation, lots of franchises have moved to another city for one reason or the other. But in those cases, not a single franchise left behind their team name, colors, uniform style, retired jerseys and history. When the Baltimore Colts left for Indiana and became the Indianapolis Colts, all those things went with the team. The Tennessee Titans’ history and colors are the Houston Oilers history and colors.
But not the Browns. All of that was placed into storage, and then when the new Browns became operational, their history and so forth was simply re-activated. Al Lerner was approved as the new owner and paid $750 million for the franchise. A new stadium was planned on the site of the archaic Cleveland Memorial Stadium.
One of Lerner’s first hires was Carmen Policy as President and Dwight Clark as Director of Football Operations. Policy was a plum hire for Lerner as he was an integral part of the San Francisco 49ers formidable Super Bowl years. He was also a minority owner. While with the Niners, Policy was named NFL Executive-of-the-Year and at one point, the Sporting News named him as one of their “Most Influential People in Professional Sports.”
During his tenure with San Francisco as Vice President and then President/CEO, the 49ers captured Super Bowls in 1981, 1985, 1989, 1990 and 1995.
And now he was with the Cleveland Browns. There was an entire new franchise to construct from ground-zero and Policy was one of the founders and architects of bringing professional football back to Cleveland. Not only would there be a new stadium, but the team needed everything from coaches to front office to equipment to office furniture and of course players.
Policy now lives in California with his wife Gail of which he has been married to for 29 years. The couple operate a vineyard and winery called Casa Piena. The website is www.casapiena.com and they ship globally. He has five grown children and does most of the cooking and in fact makes a mean marinated chicken. Gail did not especially grow up a sports fan, but enjoyed watching sports or going to sporting events. Their winery produces about 550 cases a year.
He has been featured in numerous publications not only for his role in the success of the 49ers and development of the Browns, or his many committee placements such as the NFL Financial Committee, but for the winery’s achievement. Policy’s exploits have appeared in the New York Times, Wine Travel Adventure, Haute Living, Wine Spectator, the Wall Street Journal, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others.
Policy, who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio as a Browns fan, was part of an Italian-American community who made their own homemade wine when he was growing up buying grapes from California right off local trains.
He was named NFL Executive-of-the-Year in 1994 and enshrined into the Bay Area Sports of Fame in 2017. But, oddly enough, despite representing the 49ers at owner’s meetings as if he actually owned the team while only the club’s President, he has been omitted from the 49ers Hall of Fame.
In 2017, Policy was hired to help the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers pitch their idea of building a new stadium in Carson, California outside Los Angeles. Then in March of 2019, after Denver Broncos’ owner Pat Bowlen passed away, there was a conflict of who now owned the Broncos between five individuals, two of which were Bowlen’s daughters. The NFL employed Policy to become the principal voice on an arbitration team in order to settle the dispute which was essential for the league to have definitive controlling club owners.
DBN caught up with Policy at his home in California to find out who owned a television set in Youngstown when he was growing up, how he got involved with the 49ers, and what obstacles it took to bring the new Browns back into the league.
DBN: You began your association in professional sports with the San Francisco 49ers in an attorney capacity. What was the first contract you negotiated and at the time, did it dawn on you that dealing in sports legal work was a lot better than doing criminal defense cases?
Policy: I was the personal attorney for Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. and also did some work for his father Eddie, Sr. I began doing some things for the 49ers in 1977 and in the following year Eddie, Jr. said it was time to get more involved with the team and to clear my schedule for January. I was told they were going to meet this guy named Bill Walsh and wanted me to sit in on the interview process. After they decided to hire Bill, it was my job to negotiate his contract, which was my first with the team. That same year, the general manager Joe Thomas, was fired and then filed a grievance and I was hired to handle that process.
DBN: After working for the City of Youngstown prosecutor’s office you went into private law practice. How much different was it to represent clients on a daily basis versus athletes and a major sports franchise on a daily basis?
Policy: In some ways nothing ever changed except in concept. I always viewed whomever as a client I was representing regardless of what I was doing for them. It was an inbred attitude that served me well. I didn’t view it as a job - I viewed it as a responsibility. But there is a huge difference working within the NFL dealing with team needs and helping players than someone who got in trouble with the law. The expense and the pressure in the league is exceptionally big. I have always been in love with law, and my time in the prosecutor’s office was a good training ground for things down the road.
DBN: You and Tex Schramm of the Dallas Cowboys had very distinct positions in that the team owners would send each of you to owner’s meetings to represent their respective clubs instead of going themselves. Did the other owners view you as “the hired help” and how long did it take for them to accept your decision making abilities and suggestions?
Policy: In the beginning the attitude among the other executives was that here is this personal attorney from Youngstown and we’ll see how this goes. From our team owner the attitude was when I spoke it was like him speaking. Then I started being placed on certain committees and then placed on several key committees such as the finance committee. Then owners would ask me about certain statutes and opinions as if I was an actual owner.
DBN: You were involved with the 49ers in five Super Bowls. Which of these victories would you say was your most memorable?
Policy: No one can forget the first. It was a building process because we get this Montana kid and then drafted players like Ronnie Lott and Dwight Clark and all of a sudden, you’re playing the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship. And after you beat them you ask yourself if this is true and it just seems more surreal and here we are going to the Super Bowl. That was life changing for all of us involved. But my most memorable was the fifth because we had gone into such a transition period and should have been on the way down instead of having that great roster including Steve Young who waited it out for his chance and was finally rewarded. It was also a time with the new salary cap and the problems that had created yet were able to re-do some contracts in order to keep those veterans alive and remain on the team.
DBN: As President and CEO, what was your fondest memories, and what was your greatest regret?
Policy: The ability to get involved in this wonderful sport and be involved in the community. The players, coaches and how much the 49ers meant to the whole Bay Area. We created the sense of being vibrantly alive. The Montana trade was a difficult time but had to be done and even Joe knew it was going to happen. But my regret is not being able to get Eddie, Sr. one more Super Bowl run before he left as the owner. He was a key element of the dynasty.
DBN: You were NFL Executive-of-the-Year in 1994, represented the club at owner’s meeting, was an instrumental component of the success of five Super Bowls, plus a member of the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, yet you have not been enshrined into the 49ers Hall of Fame. Your thoughts?
Policy: That is a difficult subject. Ownership has its privileges and if they don’t see that I should be there then that is how it is. You can’t be disappointed.
DBN: In 1993, the league implemented a salary cap. At the time, the 49ers and a few other teams like the Washington Redskins were putting out more money for players. Was this salary cap put into place to keep these few clubs from getting a financial advantage getting key players, or was this designed to keep the league more competitive?
Policy: The correct answer is to keep the league competitive, but they used the 49ers and Redskins as targets to get a hard salary cap enforced. It was literally designed to cap teams like the 49ers outwardly from being aggressive to get some of the league’s better players. Now equity and balance are what keeps the league more equalized and they like that. But they didn’t keep it a secret that the hard cap would immobilize the 49ers and Redskins.
DBN: Where were you when that massive earthquake hit San Fran in 1989 and what memories do you have?
Policy: I was actually back in Ohio at the time with Eddie and his daughters. One of his daughters had tickets to the World Series against the Oakland A’s and we flew out the first flight we could to get back. Interestingly, Candlestick Park held up pretty well. There had been renovations done and (California) Senator Dianne Feinstein mandated that the first dollars spent would be on reinforcing the upper deck. That always remained with me. We had to move to Stanford’s stadium to play until we got the all clear to go back to Candlestick.
DBN: All of us here at DawgsByNature absolutely love Joe Montana. Can you arrange a dinner date with Joe and then afterwards get him to go outside and play catch?
Policy: The first thing I would want to know is what quality of wine would you be serving.
DBN: You are an Ohio native. Is this one of the reasons you wanted to become a part of the renaissance of the new Browns franchise?
Policy: Dan Rooney and I were the spark plugs which pushed the NFL owners to get into a serious mode to get the team back into Cleveland instead of waiting. What was difficult in the meanwhile was the City of Cleveland was being used as leverage with some of the other teams who would make noise that they were willing to relocate and really was just wanting to get concessions from their own city. Art Modell was willing to vote yes to make the arrangements for a new expansion team instead of holding this whole process up. I had no desire to leave San Francisco, but then the ownership fiasco came about and then the vote to go ahead with the expansion process which I had the opportunity to partner with Al Lerner and he said, “Let’s give it a shot.” The vote on the new Browns ownership happened on October 23, 1998 and we were announced as the winning ownership group. We wanted to start the new season in 2000 instead of 1999 but the league said that everything was already in the works and laid out so we couldn’t get an extra year to prepare. We rented some office furniture and got right on getting ready to make this into a team. And even then we had to careful on which decisions we did because the community was so toxic on Modell and we didn’t want fans to be turned off on what he liked and did.
DBN: In any sport, who were some of your sports heroes growing up and the teams you followed?
Policy: Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle. Mainly Yankees because they were always so good. I wasn’t really an avid sports nut who kept up with everything and read box scores. But I liked Roger Staubach, Kenny Stabler. Guys who were tough and maybe had to struggle a bit to get to where they were. I liked the Indians and felt terrible for Herb Score. In Youngstown we were equal distance from Cleveland and Pittsburgh so we got both Steelers and Browns games on the radio. Nobody had a television set then so you had to listen to games on the radio. Go to church, eat dinner and then catch Browns’ games.
DBN: Where were you when you first heard that the Browns were moving to Baltimore, and what was your opinion?
Policy: I had heard rumors, but was actually at (Commissioner Paul) Tagliabue’s office in New York for a meeting. His assistant came out and told me that he was running late. After the meeting, we were going to go out for some dinner. Art Modell then came out of his office. He said to me, “I am going to tell you something. You’re a friend. I am going to move the Browns to Baltimore. Keep that to yourself. I just told the commissioner.” He then told me the commissioner was not happy and told me all this in confidence. Paul was upset when I went into his office for our meeting. He said the league had a problem on their hands and was trying to find a way to talk Art out of the relocation. It was a black eye for the league.
DBN: With the new Browns you were a minority owner. When you found out that your group had won the bid process, when did it sink in that you were now officially an owner of the Cleveland Browns?
Policy: Al Lerner looked at me and said that now all we had to do was get it done. It was a little bit of ecstasy mixed with a whole bundle or obligations that balanced each other out.
DBN: Candlestick Park, Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Levi’s Stadium and FirstEnergy Stadium. If you were the sole owner of a brand new NFL expansion club right now today and you could have your choice, which would become your home field and why?
Policy: I really like FirstEnergy Stadium and how it is set up despite how crazy the weather gets. The fan situation is great. Clevelanders are very loyal. But I would have to go with Levi’s only because of the Northern California market. You get that stadium and you have all that territory for yourself especially since the Raiders are about to move. I don’t like the design, however, and the sun in the afternoon is a problem for half the field. But for financial reasons, I’d have to take the market reasons over the stadium reasons.
DBN: What were the steps taken to stockpile the new Browns with players?
Policy: First, when Jacksonville and Carolina came into the league as expansion teams the NFL gave them just about everything they needed to succeed very quickly. And both of those teams did succeed almost instantly. So most of the old guard owners didn’t like that they didn’t have to struggle for years and felt like they gave them too much of an advantage. So when we came along, they wanted to eliminate a lot of concessions that the other two teams had gotten. Since we were awarded the team, in nine months we had to be in training camp. Al and I had to rely on others to help with the veteran disbursement draft and then right behind it was the college draft. We wanted to make our team as player-friendly as possible just as we had done with the 49ers for decades. We had a good cap position and a lot of draft picks and wanted veterans who had some leadership abilities because everyone else was kids. We actually needed more time for the veteran draft and just didn’t have it.
DBN: With a brand new franchise, you have to buy everything from furniture to athletic equipment to office supplies to uniforms to a practice facility. Was this fun for you, or at one point did you think opening day would never come?
Policy: I don’t think fun was the word at first because there was so much to accomplish. You have to understand, we were awarded the expansion team in October and the following year we were to hit the field. We needed another year to get ready and the league just wouldn’t budge on that. Other expansion teams had at least two years. There was just so much work to do in a short amount of time.
DBN: Part of getting another franchise, the NFL allowed Cleveland to keep the Browns team name, logos, uniform designs, history and anything else associated with their former selves – but you were not locked in to any of this. At any point, did the management team (which included yourself) ever consider changing the colors, the uniforms or perhaps even adding a logo to the helmets?
Policy: It just happens I would have given thought to some of that. But Al Lerner would not allow us to change anything. I did get him to change one thing, though. The Browns never had any cheerleaders and so I asked some high schools in the area if they would come and do a rotation on Sundays, and he agreed to that. I was agreeable to toss around ideas about the helmet, maybe change the shade of the Brown or make it more modern. But Al didn’t want any of it, so we didn’t. The league was behind the idea of adding some new logos and it wouldn’t have cost us anything to get them involved.
DBN: Opening day for the new Browns was September 12, 1999 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Who did you invite to watch the game with you?
Policy: Commissioner Tagliabue and Roger Goodell were there. There were lots of friends of Al Lerner from New York. Gail and I had a separate suite with friends and family. It was a great night - until the game started.
DBN: That 1999 season did not start well as the Browns lost eight of their first nine games. What was discussed about how to stop the bleeding?
Policy: One game we invited some Catholic nuns. We thought it would be good luck and was hoping for an advantage. Then at some point we brought a woman from Italy who was known for being able to extract the evil eye out of people. Demons. She was there to extract the evil eye out of the Browns. Really. But Coach Palmer abandoned our plan for the first year. We were going to leave in the veteran for the first half of the season and he panicked and brought (quarterback Tim) Couch in too early. We still were working out which offensive line combination would work best and we just led him out each week to slaughter.
DBN: Name two things that fans would not realize that has to happen when bringing a new team from ground zero to opening day.
Policy: You need to bring together a good coach and a good quarterback. The quarterback is the key element no matter who’s in the front office. I know that sounds like oversimplification, but it’s true.
DBN: Other than money, how is the NFL different today than when you were involved with the 49ers and Browns?
Policy: First off, structure of ownership and a background of ownership. Back then, owners were sportsmen who usually played college football or were fans of college football, and then would attend owner’s meetings and stay all week, socialize, and have dinner with each other. Now, owners fly in on their private jets on Monday evening, have the meeting on Tuesday and then are gone that night or the next day. They have Hedge Fund and Wall Street viewpoints instead of a sports outlook. And the league today needs big money for where it is. It was far more fun when I was there. At one point, the old guard of owners tried to warn against it.
DBN: Growing up in an Italian-American neighborhood in Ohio, what do you remember about your family making wine?
Policy: All families made their own wine. They would find a guy who had a running truck and then go down to the railroad yards where wine grates full of grapes would arrive from Central California. Everyone got the same grapes, but it was what each family did with their grapes that made it diverse. At our winery today we use brand new French oak for our barrels, but back then families used the same barrels year-after-year. You would crush your grapes in November, taste in March and then release your wine at Easter. Always in those gallon glass bottles with the hook.
DBN: How did you end up owning a vineyard?
Policy: Living around the San Francisco area we got into the downtown culinary scene and then was exposed to wines from nearby Napa, Italy and France. Gail and I were drawn to the quality of the Napa wines and visited there quite often. We had a house in the area while I was with the 49ers, but sold it once I became part-owner, President and CEO of the Browns and moved there. After I sold my equity in the Browns, we were looking for a place in the Napa Valley and found a gorgeous spot. It had been a vineyard before sitting on nine acres but all of the grape vines were gone. So we built a house and then spent two nights a week in the city and the rest out there. We had to replant the whole thing.
DBN: What type of wines does your winery produce, what is your favorite, what is your wife Gail’s favorite, and what is the company’s biggest seller?
Policy: We make a Cabernet Sauvignon with the Casa Piena label. It is elegant and hardy. Casa Piena means “full house” in Italian and it’s a play on me having three sons and two daughters. Gail prefers champagne more than anything else. I like food, and because I like food it means you need to drink wine; but you also have to pair wines with certain food. I also like French Burgundy, some Italian wines and white wine.
DBN: What are your fondest memories of bringing new life into the new Browns?
Policy: Before we played a single game, there was actual appreciation from fans displayed because they were getting their beloved team back. As a community, they just wanted that experience to return. The best part of all of it was my ability to work with Al Lerner. I enjoyed his wit, and did not like any part of when he developed cancer. But we did something good and everyone was behind us. It was important that we brought the Browns back and I am proud to have been a part of that journey.