The Cleveland Browns were sold to an ownership group in 1961 headed by a man named Art Modell who grew up in the burrows of New York City.
The head coach of the Browns was future Hall of Famer Paul Brown. Under his leadership, Cleveland captured seven championships – four in the NFL-rival league the All-America Football Conference, and then three in the NFL.
Each of the three groups had minority owners plus a figurehead who was the principal owner. Mickey McBride, Jones, and Modell were all principal owners in their respective groups. Coach Brown was a minority owner in each ownership group as his percentage grew with each sale of the franchise.
Modell had paid $4 million for the Browns and closed the deal on January 25th, 1961. Part of the deal of the sale was Modell’s opinion that Paul Brown was the greatest coach in the NFL and he would remain the head coach going forward.
Coach Brown had the ability to block Modell’s New York group from purchasing the Browns but was satisfied that things would continue as usual as with the first two ownership groups.
“Continue as usual” meant that Coach Brown ran the franchise. With every decision. Period.
He hired the secretaries and approved the office chairs they sat in. Coach Brown hired all the coaches and scouts and decided which college to hold training camp. He negotiated player contracts, made trades, drafted new players, and was the Browns’ voice at every owner’s meeting. He worked on league-appointed committees as if he owned the Browns.
Rarely was any of the principal or minority owners ever-present except for games. Nobody saw them at practices and certainly not in the locker room.
Paul Brown was the Browns.
The sale to Modell’s group would need three-quarters of approval from the other NFL owners. Before the sale was completed, there were a few loose ends to take care of.
The Browns drew well which was important to a visiting club that would take home 40% of the gate. The league didn’t want that messed with. Plus, the other NFL owners trusted Coach Brown to continue to be a good steward for the league.
Coach Brown had his lawyer work on a new contract during the sale proceedings. In that deal, he would remain the head coach with a new eight-year agreement, remain the GM plus would be installed as Vice President, and would retain a small stock in the club with an option to obtain more.
Coach Brown drew up the contract and worded it to suit him. When presented to Modell’s group, none of the new owners had no issues about the agreement and nothing was altered.
Coach Brown’s responsibility would be coaching, all field operations, still doing the hiring and firing, continuing as the Browns vote during owner’s meetings, and controlling the factors important to the success of the franchise. Modell would take on the financial and promotional responsibilities.
Coach Brown was quoted as being 100% satisfied with the arrangements prior to the sale. Modell then said, “We’ll be partners in the Browns operation.”
The first wedges
Right after the sale, Coach Brown was quoted in the New York Times, “I retain control over those things I consider essential to the operation of the team.”
Coach Brown did not care that Modell was from the Burroughs of New York City, or that he was an advertising man, nor that he was Jewish. The last thing Coach Brown happened to be was racist. His 1946 Browns squad had helped re-integrate pro football when he hired Bill Willis and Marion Motley, two black players. In fact while on the road, if the hotel they were scheduled to stay in had a policy against black people, Coach Brown would rent hotels that catered to black people even though the majority of his team was white.
The first inkling that raised Coach Brown’s curiosity was when the 35-year-old Modell moved to Cleveland. Why, he thought. The second occurrence was one day Coach showed up for work, and Modell had moved into the big office -Coach Brown’s office forever. Coach Brown’s things were moved into a smaller office down the hall in the back.
In the newspapers, Modell stated, “My job is to supplement the team effort with a zealous promotional program and make it a financial success while Paul Brown continues to produce winning, colorful teams on the field. I view our relationship as a working partnership. We’ll be consulting frequently.”
The media was important to Coach Brown. The overall appearance of the franchise was equally essential. He did not allow his players to smoke or drink publicly and they were always dressed in a suit and tie while out. What the local and national newspapers and radio were saying about his ballclub was almost a religion to him. Nothing negative was his aim.
So when Coach Brown read in his morning newspaper that Modell said they were going to be “consulting frequently”, his first impression was: consult on what? Another wedge began to brew.
The next wedge happened when Modell contacted retired Lou “The Toe” Groza and invited him to dinner. Groza had been one of Modell’s favorite players. In conversation, Modell asked Groza if he could still kick. Groza explained a back injury had cut his career and he was now selling insurance. Modell invited Groza to kick at a local high school and the Browns great nailed every kick up to 45 yards.
The following day Modell told Coach Brown about the Groza encounter and suggested that he give him a shot at kicker. Coach Brown told Modell Groza was over the hill. The following night Modell caught an announcement on the local sports show that Coach Brown had signed Groza as the club’s new kicker.
The wedges become more serious in Coach Brown’s eyes
Modell was a relatively young man. An unmarried young man. He owned a big black and maroon Cadillac which in Coach Brown’s mind was Playboy-ish. Modell would frequent the Theatrical Grill which was a Cleveland nightclub. He would buy players dinners and drinks. Wasn’t there a team rule about drinking in public?
What about the team’s image?
Modell also had a stylish bachelor pad right on Lake Erie. He listened to his music loudly and was seen with a bevy of women. Coach Brown had a hard enough time keeping his players out of establishments such as pubs and bars, but now he had Modell setting a different example of the franchise. Consider this a pretty big wedge.
With the first two ownership groups, rarely did anyone see one of the owners at practice. But here was Modell at every single practice.
And then there was the locker room incident.
During a preseason game in Modell’s first year as the principal owner, he walked into the Browns locker room and sat on a duffel bag in the corner, not saying a word. Coach Brown gave his pregame talk before the players went out onto the field. Coach Brown then motioned to Modell to come over. He told Modell, “I’d appreciate it if you would never come in here again. This is private, between myself and the players. You don’t belong here and don’t come back.”
Ever since 1946, Coach Brown was used to owners who would show up for games and occasionally congratulate players in the locker room after a victory. The Browns were just another business venture to these men and basically a sports hobby.
Coach Brown’s comments to Modell in that pregame locker room became the largest wedge to date. It would not get any better.
Don’t touch that dial! The conclusion with Part 2 is later this week.