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Paul Brown – The Massillon Years

Browns HOF coach learned his craft at a lower level 

The Cleveland Browns have won eight pro football championships. Only the Green Bay Packers (13) and the Chicago Bears (9) have captured more titles.

Seven of the Browns championship rings were at the hands of a single head coach: Paul Brown.

But before he became a Hall of Fame coach with Cleveland, he was the head coach at Ohio State where his squad won a National Championship; and during World War II he was the coach of the Great Lakes Navy Bluejackets where his team went 9-2-1 and defeated college football teams such as Notre Dame, Northwestern, Illinois and Wisconsin.

However, Cleveland, Ohio State and Great Lakes is not where Coach Brown honed his football coaching skills. That aspect was reserved for Massillon Washington High School, located 57 miles due south of Cleveland in Massillon, Ohio.

The cradle of American Football lays squarely in Northeast Ohio. The professional teams that sprang up from small-to-medium towns early on were in cities such as Canton, Columbus, Dayton, Cleveland, Akron and Massillon.

Home of the Tigers

Paul Brown was raised in Norwalk, Ohio until the age of nine when his family relocated to Massillon because of his father’s job. Lester Brown worked for the Wheeling and Lake Eerie Railroad as a dispatcher.

Brown attended Massillon Washington High School, home of the Tigers, as a teenager beginning in 1922.

At the time, Massillon had a professional football club named the Tigers that formed as early as 1903 and played in the Ohio League. The Massillon high school team received its mascot name from these early professional Tigers. Both the high school and the pro team used orange and black as their colors (as did most teams nicknamed Tigers).

The professional Tigers’ roster was a group of locals just like every other pro club that played for pay. The Massillon area was a steel town with the largest employer in the area the Republic Steel Corporation, so there was an extensive array of willing steel workers that had either played some college football or who were ruffians and tough. The remainder of the roster was comprised of firemen, police officers, construction workers, and the likes. These Tigers were very successful and won six Ohio League Championships throughout the years. The Ohio League was a loosely-formed professional entity that pre-dates the NFL.

With the professional game in town, the entire town was in love with football. That same feeling filtered down to the high school level and was a very big deal. Texas style high school football big deal. Brown wasn’t very big and concentrated on being an athlete on the track team, but by his junior year he had filled out and became the school’s starting quarterback.

The high school Tigers went 15-3-0 during Brown’s two-year stint as the starting quarterback, but never sniffed a state title. Not that Massillon wasn’t competitive. They were highly competitive and in fact were an extremely detailed operation on the gridiron.

With Lester Brown being a dispatcher with the railways, this meant that every train every day had to be on time. It was Lester’s responsibility and nobody else, and it was this ability to become ultra-punctual and precise that he taught his son the same values.

Massillon, a town of about 26,000, was a breeding ground for the game of American Football - and Paul Brown was spawned in its infancy. When a player took the field for the high school, or the professional Tigers, they weren’t playing for their school or for the money, they were playing for the town.

Win or lose, Massillon Always.

Ohio State bound – or was he?

Like every other high school football player in the State of Ohio, Paul Brown had his sights on playing for the Ohio State Buckeyes in 1926. His success at the high school level seemed to stimulate him forward thinking.

However, he wasn’t even given a uniform after his tryout as Ohio State passed. Apparently 150 pound quarterbacks don’t make the roster in the Big 10. After one year as a student at Ohio State, he transferred to Miami University down the road in Oxford, Ohio.

Brown found limited success at Miami of Ohio and became the starting quarterback for two years. By the end of the 1928 season, Brown was named to the Second Team All-Ohio small college team. With Brown under center, Miami went 14-3-0 in two seasons.

The college game taught Brown how to game prepare for the tougher season-defining contests. This time period also taught him how to not tolerate players who appeared injured when his reality was those players simply were outplayed and preferred excuses to manning up and playing through the pain. This experience followed him forever in his future coaching career.

While at Miami, Brown studied pre-law and at some point assumed this would become the direction he would pursue a career. He also took as many history classes as he could and was fascinated with this field. Perhaps teaching history might become his future avenue. At some point, he was in line for a Rhodes Scholarship.

Then in 1930, it hit. The Great Depression. Suddenly a job, any job, was enticing.

Brown took a trip to Pennsylvania to assist his former Massillon high school coach, Dave Stewart, for a short spell. It was there that Brown was informed by Stewart that a prep school was looking for a coach after the young coach they had hired had been diagnosed with throat cancer.

Severn School was an elite school laid out in Severna Park, Maryland just minutes off the Severn River that rolls past Annapolis. Brown didn’t have a coaching resume, but got the job at age 22 off of Stewart’s recommendation. The purpose of the institution was to prepare young men for acceptance into the U.S. Naval Academy through discipline and academic excellence.

The semi-military aspect of the school plus the scholarly expectations greatly appealed to Brown. His mannerism himself were designed around punctuality, which he learned from his father, hard work and a focus on the game itself and all of its intrinsic functions.

In the first season at Severn, Brown’s squad went undefeated in seven games and captured the Maryland State Championship. In two seasons, Brown compiled a 12-2-0 record.

With all the success he found at Severn, there was something he found missing – the overall love of the sport itself. Severn was a place of a rigid environment and an almost forced attitude towards every function of a young athlete’s life. The joy of playing didn’t seem to be instilled into his players like he had experienced back in his playing days at Massillon.

Perhaps, football was just a means to an end at Severn; whereas at Massillon, it was a religion.

And Paul Brown missed that theological virtue environment.

Back to his roots

Brown loved Massillon. And Massillon loved the game of football. Since the six years that Brown had graduated and moved on to college, the high school program had fallen on hard times. In 1931, they went 2-8-0.

With his Severn resume in hand, Brown was hired as the new head football coach at Massillon Washington High School, but his hiring and acceptance from the community was anything but affirmative. The two main obstacles was that he was just 24-years old, plus he had only two years of experience at being a head coach at any level.

Coach Stewart had gone 38-9-0 during his tenure at Massillon and captured the 1922 Ohio State Championship. But after Brown graduated Stewart had accepted a more lucrative head coaching gig in Pennsylvania. Since his departure, the program suffered.

After that horrid two-win season, a school board member contacted Stewart and asked for his assistance for him to put together a list of potential candidates for the now-head coaching vacancy. Stewart responded with only two words: Pick Brown.

During his interview, the school board noticed that Brown “was wound a little too tight” and wondered if the 20-something could handle the job. In their final analysis, it was decided that Brown would be hired on his intellect, love for the game itself, his alumni status plus Stewart’s recommendation.

When Brown arrived for the 1932 season, he found a program that was in shambles. The year 1932 laid smack right in the Great Depression and not only did people suffer, but funds for things such as equipment and cleats just weren’t readily available. Most everything at Massillon was broken, stitched, worn out, repaired, retreads or missing something.

There was a fog that surrounded most Americans: a sense of hopelessness. And one of Brown’s first items to repair in this portion of the country was to restore the pride in the school’s football program.

Exceptional success

The first official act of Paul Brown’s tenure at Massillon was he fired an assistant coach who had showed up late to a practice because he had been working on his farm. Even at the young age of 24, Brown wasn’t accepting any excuses.

Brown was tough in his first season. There weren’t any water buckets on the sidelines. Players were required to stand for the duration of each game instead of sitting on the bench and resting. He also was color blind believing that the best player would be on the field regardless of skin color. This was unheard of in the 1930s.

1940 Massillon Tigers with several black players

Brown used a double-wing formation for his offense. He had learned this from studying the system of Jimmy DeHart, the head coach at Duke University, and then attending a coaching clinic. This offensive scheme utilized speed and deception which was friendly to smaller-sized athletes that Brown had inherited.

At the time, American Football was a big, burly brute sport. But with DeHart’s system, which was now Brown’s system, speed, rather than strength was the main ingredient.

Brown also used the line blocking techniques used by Purdue University head coach Noble Kizer. These methods displayed quickness in his linemen with sudden shifts in assignments.

In Brown’s first season, he finished 5-4-1. It was considered a successful year by the standards of the past several seasons. More importantly, there was a change of attitude in not only his players, but in the community once again.

Here’s a spoiler alert: during Brown’s nine-year tenure at Massillon, his head coaching record was a sterling 80-8-2. That first season provided half of his coaching losses and half of his tied games.

After that first season, Paul Brown saw that the attitude on his roster was changing, but he also wanted to alter the environment that surrounded his athletes. His goal was to make Massillon the best at absolutely everything. He pushed the direction of the academic curriculum, and even entities such as the school choir and debate teams. Brown brought in George Bird to renew the marching band; which eventually became one of the finest in the state.

Brown wanted his football games to become a complete entertainment package. Bird provided the pageantry and was a genius of music selection and instruction. Brown also chose the tune “Tiger Rag” as the school’s rallying cry and organized the first booster club. Both remain a mainstay at the school today.

Quite a few of Brown’s players were poor farm boys who weren’t eating enough and usually missed the last bus because of practices and were forced to walk home. His first indoctrination was when one of his players was vomiting green tomatoes during a practice session. Brown then learned that some of his players just weren’t getting enough to eat or the proper nutrition needed for competitive sports. He worked out meals at the local YMCA plus a ride home from a booster club member.

Finally, the talent level for Massillon began to gel.

Brown had certain rules that he could not budge on. First, arrive on time for practices. Another was to attend classes. Many of the nuances he would use with the Cleveland Browns in later years began here in Massillon such as using play books, grading players on intelligence, coaches calling plays instead of the quarterback and scripting opening offensive plays.

There were three junior high schools in the area at the time. Brown found out that each one was using a different offensive scheme. Soon, each school’s head coach was given instruction and tutelage of how to use Brown’s system and eventually all three complied which provided a feeder system. In the next two seasons Massillon went 8-2-0 followed by 9-1-0.

Beginning in 1935 through 1940, the Tigers went 58-1-1. Included during this time-period was a 35-game win streak, five 10-0-0 seasons, six consecutive state championships and four national championships. During this succession, they averaged winning by a score of 27-2.

Paul Brown Tiger Stadium

Eventually, Brown was appointed athletic director at Massillon for every sport. In 1936, the athletic program used WPA funds, bought vacant land and built a football stadium which seated 21,000 patrons. It was named “Paul Brown Tiger Stadium” and today retains that moniker.

In Brown’s last season of 1940, the school began using a cartoon as their mascot that was nicknamed “Obie.” Years later with the Browns, Brownie Elf became a remake of Obie.

And Paul Brown’s full cycle from Massillon was complete.