Art Modell was an advertising executive when he was part of an ownership group that bought the Cleveland Browns for $4.1 million in 1961 with himself as the principal owner. As a businessman, he was used to being in charge. He instantly took over the financial responsibilities of the club from then-head coach Paul Brown. As the namesake, Coach Brown had built the franchise which began in 1946. Through two other ownership groups, they were content with Coach Brown making all of the decisions regarding every facet of the team.
Modell was different and wanted his team to do things differently. He wanted the control, and his wishes were for Coach Brown to simply coach the players and nothing else. Throughout his tenure in Cleveland, Modell made many horrible decisions regarding the Browns. Here’s 10.
10. Was going to play a dying Ernie Davis
In 1961, halfback Ernie Davis of Syracuse was awarded the Heisman Trophy, the first black man to do so. The Browns had just finished up their season with a respectable 8-5-1 record. However, it was not good enough to make the playoffs, their third year in a row missing the post-season.
Cleveland head coach Paul Brown realized his offense needed more firepower. The Browns had gone from Top 5 to 14th in total offense. The club still had Jimmy Brown as their fullback and always a smaller, quicker player to insert at the halfback position. At this time it was Bobby Mitchell. This combination complimented Brown, who annually was the best running back in the pro game. In 1961, Jim Brown had just beaten out Jim Taylor of the Green Bay Packers by 101 yards as the league’s leading rusher.
But Coach Brown wanted another spark plug.
The Washington Redskins had the first overall pick in the 1962 college draft and chose Davis. Cleveland had two first-round picks and selected wide receiver Gary Collins (Maryland) with the fourth overall pick and running back Leroy Jackson (Western Illinois) at the number 11 slot. Redskins’ owner George Preston Marshall was a racist and had his GM, Bill McPeak, draft Davis because he could not voluntarily draft a black player. The government was pressuring Marshall to integrate the Redskins, which currently had zero black players, because their new stadium was publicly-owned. One black player was not going to satisfy the government’s demands.
Davis refused to sign with Washington and over some time, demanded a trade. So Coach Brown proposed a swap with Marshall: Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Jackson, both black players, for Ernie Davis. The deal was done without Modell’s knowledge or consent as had always been the case with Coach Brown.
While at Syracuse, Davis had broken all of Jim Brown’s records and even wore his number 44. While Jackson and Mitchell were both fine players (Mitchell eventually became a Hall of Fame inductee), Coach Brown envisioned a backfield with Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. Regardless, Modell went ballistic upon not only hearing about the trade, but of the contract numbers: a total package of $200,000 in a time when most players were making between $25,000 - $69,000. But the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League (AFL) had made a similar offer after drafting Davis, so Coach Brown’s figures were competitive.
The signs of Davis’ health began at the College All-Stars vs. the NFL Champs game in Chicago. He had swelled glands which was initially diagnosed as the mumps and was hospitalized. But tests revealed it was leukemia in its most serious stage. Modell had several more tests performed to which one of his doctors passed him to compete in training camp because he wasn’t contagious. Davis did practice some, but not in any contact situations.
But Coach Brown got other professional opinions and was told that Davis was not going to beat the disease and in fact decline. Modell wanted Davis to compete and play in the Browns’ first exhibition game, but Coach Brown refused to play him.
This caused yet another firestorm between Coach Brown and Modell. At the August 18 preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Davis was formally introduced to the Cleveland home crowd, but in a suit instead of a uniform. Davis would pass away from the disease at the age of 23.
In the end, the relationship between Modell and Coach Brown was forever broken.
9. Took the Browns out of the NFC
At the time of the merger between the AFL and National Football League (NFL) in 1970, there were 16 NFL franchises whereas the AFL was comprised of 10 clubs. It was decided that the league would be divided into two separate “conferences.” At first, it was going to be all 16 NFL teams in the “National Conference” and all 10 AFL teams in the “American Conference.” But then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle stepped in and made a mandate that the two conferences must have an equal amount of clubs. This meant three NFL clubs would have to step over.
At the time, most of the best teams in this new league, now 26 franchises, were NFL clubs: Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Baltimore Colts, Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams and the Cleveland Browns. The AFL had a few strong franchises, mainly the New York Jets and the Kansas City Chiefs. Within the merger agreement, the AFL clubs had to pay $1 million to each NFL team to join ($16 million), but unlike other mergers that only took in a few teams, none of the existing AFL squads would be excluded. Rozelle then offered a portion of the new $16 million coffers as incentive payment to any NFL team that would cross over.
Immediately, the Colts took the bait with the stipulation that they would be placed into the same division as the Jets; who at the time had quarterback Joe Namath at the helm and always drew very large crowds. Plus, the Colts would receive a one-time payment of $3 million.
It was decided that it would emasculate the NFL if any of their powerhouse clubs were to move over to the American Conference. After all, for almost 10 years the two leagues were at each other’s throats and their owners literally despised one another. The last thing NFL owners wanted was to help the former AFL owners become more competitive.
The owner’s meeting drudged on for several days. Suddenly, Modell was rushed to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. Three of his dearest friends, Giants’ owner Wellington Mara, plus Art and his son Dan Rooney, owners of the Steelers, came to visit him. While bedside, Modell told the men that he had decided to break the logjam and take Cleveland over to the newly-formed American Conference on the condition that he would have the blessing of Mara, and that his good friend Art Rooney would slide his franchise over also.
Immediately Dan Rooney spoke up that the Steelers had been a National League club since 1933 and there wasn’t any way that Pittsburgh would be any part of the move. But, Art disagreed and the conversation went on through dinner. The three men arrived back at the owner’s meeting around midnight and shortly thereafter Dan approached Commissioner Rozelle who handed him a piece of paper that read: Clev, Pitt, Hou, Cincy. Dan Rooney handed the note to his father Art who asked what the scribbling meant. Dan explained that it was their team’s new division.
8. Took away the Giants rivalry, and instead implemented a new contention with the Steelers
From their maiden season in 1933 until the early 1970s, the Steelers were annually one of the league’s worst teams. Packers’ head coach Vince Lombardi would never deal with a player agent, and if a player showed up in contract negotiations with one, he would be traded to Pittsburgh. It was the Siberia of its day.
The Browns biggest rivalry was the New York Football Giants. Ever since Cleveland merged into the NFL in 1950, it was either the Browns or the Giants in the league title game almost every year. Plus, early on they were in the same division. In 1950, both the Browns and Giants finished tied for the division lead with identical 10-2-0 records. Every year it was either one of these two franchises who would win the division while their regular season games were epic because of division implications. There weren’t any playoffs back then, so the divisional winners would instantly play in the NFL Championship Game.
This winning tradition lasted throughout the 1960s for both clubs that enabled a rivalry among the league’s best. And both teams boasted the two largest stadiums in the NFL which each seated over 70,000; so every time they played each other it was a financial bonanza.
When Modell decided to take part of the AFL stipend fund dangled in front of him, he looked at a new division which included the Cincinnati Bengals – an AFL expansion club, the mediocre Houston Oilers, and the Steelers – perennial losers. No more win some - lose some division fights with the Giants. Three easy AFL teams and the powerhouse Browns.
But what Modell did not anticipate, was that the Steelers were about to embark on a decades-long championship trek shortly after hiring head coach Chuck Noll. Nor the fact that the Bengals were now coached by Paul Brown, who every game had an ax to grind against Modell. Plus, in a few short years the Oilers would sport running back Earl Campbell and become playoff contenders for years.
7. Owned the Browns for 35 years with zero Super Bowl appearances
35 years without coming in first place is a very long time at doing anything, much less owning a professional sports franchise. Yet, that is Modell’s distinction with ownership of the Browns. Cleveland did capture the 1964 NFL Championship under Blanton Collier with a roster full of Coach Paul Brown’s players. But since the merger in 1970 and the invention of the Super Bowl, the Browns have only sniffed around the big game but never became participants.
6. Fired Brownie the Elf
Apparently, Modell, who became the team’s owner in 1961, was completely embarrassed by the elf and hated it so much that in 1962 he completely shelved the iconic emblem. Modell called Brownie “childlike” and was not going to have his professional football club represented by a cartoon. Within a week of Modell taking control of the Browns, the lovable Brownie was spotted in the unemployment line.
5. Ousted Marty Schottenheimer
When Schottenheimer was named as the Browns interim head coach in 1984, the 41-year old defensive-minded assistant took over a 1-7-0 ballclub and went 4-4-0. The following season, he was named head coach and Cleveland won the AFC Central Division and a playoff berth. That was the magic of Schottenheimer who instilled a no-nonsense approach. The Browns had developed into an opportunistic, tough ballclub which blossomed with new quarterback Bernie Kosar and a stiff, complex defense. It only lasted four full seasons, but Schott never coached the Browns to a losing season and made the playoffs each year.
The problem then? Modell believed Schott could never win the big game. Ever.
In the playoffs, lost by three to the Miami Dolphins, win by three in double overtime over the Jets, lost by one to the Oilers. Then, there were the AFC Championship Games – two in fact. In 1986, the 12-4-0 Browns got the ball first in overtime, punted, and then watched Denver Broncos’ quarterback John Elway orchestrate a 98-yard drive in overtime in order to get in range for the winning field goal. The next year, it was the Broncos victorious again after Cleveland was down 28-10 only to tie the game 31-31. Then, with 1:05 remaining, the Browns drove to the two-yard line and fumbled.
Despite Schottenheimer compiling a 44-27-0 record in four-and-a-half seasons, three AFC Central Division crowns, two AFC Championship Game appearances, a 3-4 playoff record, making the playoffs all four years, and an elite status in the NFL, Modell wanted a more offensive-minded man at the helm and felt the playoff losses were the result of not being able to score points when the game was on the line. Issues between the two men became evident and the offensive differences were not going to mend itself. Four days after losing to the Oilers by a single point, a news conference was called and Schott was out.
Since Schottenheimer has left, the Browns have had only had four winning seasons among 28 years.
4. Fired Bill Belichick
Is Belichick the greatest pro football head coach ever? Perhaps. This much we know, those six Super Bowl wins the New England Patriots have compiled were all meant for Cleveland instead. Belichick had issues early on with the Browns, but in 1994 they went 11-5-0, beat the Patriots in the Wild Card Playoffs before losing in the Divisional Playoffs. Leading up to the 1995 season, Sports Illustrated predicted a Super Bowl berth for the Browns. His 2000 Patriots went 5-11-0 (his only losing season with New England), but since that maiden season the Patriots have captured 18 AFC East titles, 13 AFC Championship Game participants (winning nine), went to the Super Bowl nine times and took home the Lombardi Trophy six different seasons. All of that, was meant for Cleveland.
3. Forced Jim Brown to quit
Jim Brown played only nine seasons. He was in the prime of his professional football career when he quit. Out of those nine seasons, he was the NFL rushing leader eight different seasons. As each game would progress, defenders became less compelled to attempt to tackle him.
Brown rushed for 1,863 yards in 1963 alone – in a 14 game season. In 1965, he had 1,544 yards on 289 carries, was the NFL rushing leader and rushing touchdown leader, averaged 5.3 yards per carry, named to the Pro Bowl (his ninth), and was the NFL MVP. He was then on the movie set of the World War II flick “The Dirty Dozen” with a supporting yet prominent role.
The filming in England had been delayed for two weeks due to inclement weather conditions when training camp was to begin in Hiram. Brown was still filming his movie. He called Modell to explain his situation as he expected to play again in 1966. The Browns’ owner told his superstar that he would fine him $100 a day that he wasn’t in camp. You see, despite all the accolades his 30-year old star running back had achieved, Modell didn’t want to set a precedent among his other players.
1966 was to be the last year of a three-year $60,000 a year contract anyway, so Brown thought about it overnight, and then telephoned his friend guard John Wooten and told him that he was retiring effective immediately. Wooten informed Cleveland Plain Dealer sports editor Hal Lebowitz and informed him about Brown’s decision. Next, a press conference was held in London by the movie’s production company Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Brown sent then-Browns head coach Blanton Collier a letter regarding his retirement.
In the book When All the World was Browns Town, Modell admitted he forced Brown’s hand. “I may have acted hastily (with Brown) in 1966. If I had told him to just forget training camp and show up when he could, I think he would have returned. But it wasn’t fair to the coaches and players (for Brown to miss camp).”
Nine Pro Bowls in nine seasons, eight-time All-Pro, three-time NFL MVP, NFL Rookie-of-the-Year, eight-time NFL rushing titles, five-time rushing touchdowns leader, NFL Champion, NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, Browns jersey number 32 retired.
No Art, what “wasn’t fair” was diminishing your franchise just because you wanted to impose your will on a player that really didn’t need training camp anyway.
2. Fired Paul Brown
How is this for head coaching numbers? 214 games, 158-48-8 record , .767 win percentage, 9-5 playoff record, 12 division titles, 11 Championship Game appearances, six-time Coach-of-the-Year awards, only one losing season among 17 seasons, 4 AAFC Championships, 3 NFL Championships, 4 one-loss seasons, and one undefeated season (1948: 14-0-0).
And one firing.
Prior to Modell becoming the principal investor when his group bought the franchise in 1961, both prior ownership groups allowed head coach Paul Brown to make all of the decisions regarding the team from roster moves to equipment to coaching hires to training camp facilities to what kind of ash trays were needed. But Modell saw himself as more the GM and Brown just the coach. And Modell was much more accessible and would attend every practice and would offer input, which both irritated Coach Brown.
Paul Brown’s main office, the largest in the complex, was taken for Modell’s use. Coach Brown even mentioned to Modell to cease coming into the locker room before games. He mentioned to the owner that those times were between the coaches and the players only.
Situations such as these instances created many riffs between owner and head coach for years to come. The main thorn began when Coach Brown traded away halfback Bobby Mitchell without Modell’s knowledge for Ernie Davis. The GM, Modell asserted, made those moves – not the coach. And not for the money Davis was being given either.
The way the trade came down made Modell especially angry. Days after the trade was finalized, Redskins’ owner Marshall had called Modell on unrelated business. When asked how he liked the trade, Modell inquired what Marshall was talking about. After hearing the details, Marshall then asked Modell exactly who was running the franchise. Then the fact that Davis never played whereas Mitchell continued on and had a Hall of Fame career was yet another rub between Coach Brown and Modell.
Even though Modell was the owner, Coach Brown bucked the system to relinquish his powers within the franchise. Modell also felt that the game had become more contemporary and that Coach Brown had lost touch with how the modern game of pro football was now being played. In his final four seasons although Coach Brown produced winning records, Cleveland had tasted second place in the division twice and came in third two times. This meant four straight seasons without any playoff appearances.
After finishing 7-6-1 in 1962, Modell informed Coach Brown that the team was going in a different direction “for the best interests of the club.” Coach Brown was fired in January, but the news did not penetrate the fans until early April because of a lengthy newspaper strike.
For several years, Coach Brown was paid by Cleveland because of an existing eight-year contract. He set the standard in professional football and created many innovations that are still being used today such as the draw play, helmet communications, practice squad and the invention of the facemask.
Coach Brown was ahead of his time and deserved to be able to leave the franchise that he founded, molded, built, captured numerous championships and was the namesake of, in his own time frame.
1. Moved the franchise to Baltimore
The day that it was no longer rumor that the team were indeed going to relocate to the City of Baltimore will remain etched into every die-hard Browns fan. You remember where you were, what you were doing, how you felt, and your gut reaction.
Cleveland had just reeled off a remarkable 11-5-0 season under fourth-year head coach Bill Belichick. The outlook was rosy and upbeat for the 1995 Browns. Sports Illustrated had predicted a Cowboys – Browns Super Bowl appearance during the preseason. 1995 was also the 50th Anniversary of the franchise, founded in 1946. The Browns began the year 3-1-0 and on top of the AFC Central Division just weeks into the season.
Then the rumors began to swirl. The Browns lost three straight including a 23-15 loss to the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars in front of just over 64,000 fans whereas just three weeks earlier 74,280 crammed the stadium to witness a 35-17 victory over the Chiefs. After a win over the Bengals, the Browns were bludgeoned 37-10 by the Oilers at home with a 57,881 gate. The very next day, it became official: Modell announced that the Browns were indeed moving to Baltimore the following season.
Part of the perks Modell got from the City of Baltimore was a spanking new $200 million stadium rent-free for 30 years plus a $50 million cash signing bonus just for moving. At the press conference, Maryland governor Parris Glendening gleefully held up a document and stated, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a signed contract in hand. The Browns are indeed coming to Baltimore.”
The Baltimore Browns?
The team collapsed and lost six of seven games to finish 5-11-0. At first it was speculated that the team would be christened the “Baltimore Browns”, but the NFL stepped in and allowed the history, colors, uniform designs and namesake, among other things, to remain in Cleveland. In March of 1996 at an outdoor press conference, Modell held up a small sign which displayed the moniker “Ravens.”
Former NFL great and head coach Iron Mike Ditka was quoted as saying, “These are some of the best fans in the NFL. I said that when I came here with my Bears. They (the Cleveland sports fans) don’t deserve this. If Modell had any sort of sense of dignity, he would have sold the team.”
In 2001, the Ravens defeated the Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa. The following season, Bill Belichick’s Patriots captured Super Bowl XXXVI. The significance of these two championships was the Browns’ old team and the Browns’ old coach had found Super Bowl success.
Just not with Cleveland.
Several NFL owners have been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Art Modell was a finalist for the 2020 class. Should he be inducted?
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