The highlight of the deal for Modell, who would become a hands-on owner, was that Paul Brown would remain the head coach. Without this stipulation, the deal may not have gone through.
What Modell did not realize was the fact that Coach Brown was much more than the head coach, GM, and Vice President, he was the franchise. He attended the NFL owner’s meetings as if he was the principal owner although his shares were minimal.
Modell came to Cleveland to be the boss, not bossed around. He was a native New Yorker and demanded respect. Working with Coach Brown, or should it be working under him, the last thing Coach wanted was a “meddling owner.”
Tensions began, words were said, and wedges between the two men began at a slow pace, and then gradually got worse.
Modell had told the newspaper that the Browns were now his new life and were not his hobby. He had sold everything he had, had a huge loan to pay off and quit his lucrative job back in New York City. He was quoted as saying, “The Browns are my only business and I am going to keep my hands on it.”
The issue was that Modell wanted more authority in the team. The team that he owned. What he also wanted was respect from Coach Brown.
The next wedge happened frequently in the local newspapers. Modell would state in several interviews that the Browns had the best players at most playing positions and should be competing for a league championship every season. Modell was an advertising guy whose former job it was to drum up interest and promote ticket sales. The issue with Coach Brown was now suddenly, every year it was either NFL titles or bust. He began to feel the pressure that Modell’s media hypes were bringing. At about this time, the Browns were mostly an above-average team.
Then, the press box wedge.
It is an unwritten rule that members of the press box do not yell and scream or openly root for either team. What Modell was doing on gamedays was complaining about players and openly criticizing Coach Brown’s methods, strategy, and decision-making. All in front of the media who then had every opportunity to report this as dissension in the Browns organization.
When Modell’s tirades got around to Coach Brown, he told the owner that he cannot second-guess everything – especially around the people who had the power to make the franchise look worse than a normal Sunday loss. The media could make the team look like it was completely dysfunctional with turmoil midst the very men who were running the franchise. Talk about killing ticket sales.
Then Modell went on record and told the press that he was prepared to guarantee that the Browns will win an NFL title under his ownership.
Although Jim Brown and Coach Brown had their own personality differences, Jim Brown loved his coach and the discipline he instilled. The two never had any real problems. He liked that Cleveland was not a rinky-dink operation and was always prepared. Coach Brown felt that every player was an equal ingredient in the success of the team. Other than the head coach, no player was allowed to do their own print or TV commercials, have a weekly radio show, or be involved in a regular column in the newspapers.
Modell saw Jim Brown in a different light. Although Coach Brown knew Jim Brown was his star player, he didn’t treat him as such. Modell saw a walking, running, receiving dynamo as a promotional tool. He busted Coach Brown’s publicity rule and placed Jim Brown with Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter Hal Lebovitz for a weekly newspaper column plus a regular radio show. Yes, another major wedge.
The final wedge
Coach Brown had scored big for Cleveland when he drafted Jim Brown out of Syracuse. Now there was another young buck coming out of the same school that Coach Brown coveted: running back Ernie Davis who had just broken all of Jim Brown’s college records. He envisioned the two backs and the holy terror that would impose upon a defense.
The Redskins had a problem, though. Make that a big problem.
They played their home games at Griffith Stadium which was built in 1937 and was home to the Washington Senators of the American League, the Negro League’s Homestead Grays plus games in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. It held 28,669 patrons. At one end temporary seats were constructed around the baseball diamond, but overall was a pretty run-down facility.
The federal government used public money to build a new stadium called District of Columbia Stadium (later renamed JFK Stadium) to be open in 1961 which would become Washington’s new home field with a capacity of 56,692. The Redskins were the only team in the NFL devoid of black players. Washington’s owner, George Preston Marshall, was a well-known bigot and was proud of it. The United States Government told Marshall that the new stadium was used with public funds and was to be used by all people. And if he wanted his football team to use it, he must employ some black players.
So, he drafted Davis. However, Davis refused to report knowing the racist history of Marshall. This created a quandary for the Redskins. The U.S. Government said to get black players, they drafted one, and now he wouldn’t sign. Drafting and playing are two different animals.
Coach Brown called Marshall and offered him 188-pound RB Bobby Mitchell, plus his second first-round draft pick Jackson for the rights to Davis. Marshall jumped at the chance and realized he was now getting two black players who would report in his shiny new, vastly enlarged digs.
And Coach Brown got exactly what he wanted for the Browns. Just the thought of Pro Bowl OT Gene Hickerson coming around the corner while either Jim Brown or Davis carrying the ball with the other athlete as lead blocker was quite a vision for Coach Brown.
In a few days, Modell received a call from Marshall. “What do you think of our trade?” Modell then inquired, what trade? Marshall then explained the trading of the two Number 1 picks along with Mitchell. Modell was completely silent.
Then Marshall barked, “Aren’t you running that franchise?” to which Modell meekly stammered he didn’t know.
The next words out of Marshall’s mouth were the turning point between Art Modell and Paul Brown. Marshall told Modell, “Don’t ever let that happen again. You are the owner. You own the franchise. It’s yours.”
It was like a light went off inside Modell’s head. The owner has full authority - not the head coach.
When Modell approached Coach Brown about him not being a part of the decision-making process with player trades, Coach Brown had nothing to say. His actions, though, were along the lines of Paul Brown never consulted with an owner as he had always made all the decisions for the club. Don’t place a wedge where you don’t belong was the attitude.
Then Modell did something in Coach Brown’s eyes as a dastardly deed: he took over Davis’ contract negotiations and then overpaid him. On top of that, Modell then stated the Davis trade guaranteed another league championship. That statement alone placed Coach Brown in a position to fail if Davis did not perform well. Wedges are suddenly flying.
Of course, we know the finality of this story when Davis was diagnosed with leukemia and never played a down with Cleveland; although he did suit up for a single preseason game and stood in front of a packed Municipal Stadium crowd who cheered him loudly. Davis passed away at the age of 23.
All the while Modell’s presence was well-known in Cleveland. He had special tables reserved for him at several nightclubs. He held up a team bus once. Coach Brown’s team rules were no public display of smoking or drinking alcohol. Another wedge occurred in 1962 when the Browns’ flight was delayed because of fog and Modell bought all the players drinks at an airport lounge which further demonstrated Coach Brown’s loss of authority.
In Modell’s first year with the team, the Browns had finished third in their division with an 8-5-1 record. In 1962, they began 1-2-0 and ended 7-6-1 with another third-place division finish. It would become the only NFL season that Jim Brown was not named First Team All-Pro and was not the league rushing yards leader. On flights back to Cleveland during the season, Modell was active in talking with players about Coach Brown. His tactic was getting feedback from them, and he learned a lot.
After the season at the owner’s meeting - which was a first for Coach Brown not to attend - Modell asked to speak privately with Commissioner Pete Rozelle. They talked in Rozelle’s hotel room. Modell explained that he had to make a coaching change. Rozelle was silent. Modell was silent.
Then Rozelle explained to Modell that he had just been the owner all of two years. Was he certain? Modell stated it was either Coach Brown or himself that had to leave.
A Cleveland-area writer’s strike began a few weeks after that 1962 season. Modell waited three weeks before asking Coach Brown to meet him at the team’s offices. It was January 9, 1963.
Modell stated, “I’ve made a decision. You have to step down as coach and general manager.”
After a moment of silence, Coach Brown replied, “I really don’t know what to say. I have a contract for six more years.”
Modell then stated, “This team can never fully be mine as long as you are here because whenever anyone thinks of the Browns they think of you. Every time I come to the stadium, I feel that I am invading your domain. And from now on, there can only be one dominant image.”
Coach Brown was then informed he was still Vice President of the club and would be reassigned. He then left the facility in a huff. His contract still had six years left that paid him $82,500 annually. When Coach Brown came back to clean out his office everything was already boxed up. Coach Brown had expected a full exodus of his assistant coaches in response to his release, but Modell had retained all of them in advance. When the coach’s walk-out didn’t happen, this infuriated Coach Brown.
Was Modell’s firing of Coach Brown done intentionally during the local writer’s strike? Nobody actually knows. Neighboring cities were the only newspapers to cover the story. Was this another wedge where the public’s opinion could not be heard or the mighty pen had been silenced?
After hearing the news, Arthur Daley of the New York Times wrote, “The dismissal of Paul Brown is a move that defies comprehension. The moody genius from the lakefront had achieved an eminence in his profession that lifted him far above the pack, virtually exalting him to a class by himself. If he was unloved, he was admired and respected by all. He was a man who built a better mousetrap. What nudged Modell into dismissing him was a personality conflict.”
Suddenly, the wedges ceased. Things settled down.
Coach Brown did not remain in a lesser capacity, but instead sold his house in Cleveland and retreated to his new home in La Jolla, California, and played golf while drawing his $82,500-a-year salary. Since he left the head coaching position with the Browns, he had several offers to coach again but most franchises just wanted a coach; and he wanted total control of all aspects of the team just like he had in Cleveland. After several years he decided it was time to pursue grinding out a new season on the sidelines.
Back in 1963, Brown had examined whether the NFL would entertain an expansion team in another Ohio city. The state had a long history of pro football with former teams in Columbus, Canton, Cincinnati, Akron, and Dayton. Cleveland at the time had a populous of over 876,000, so he wanted another large city to start a new team. He focused on either Cincinnati (population 502,000) or Columbus (471,000). The NFL had looked at Cincinnati, but no new franchises were planned until they placed a team in Atlanta in 1966.
The American Football League offered him their next expansion team to coach and become the principal owner. The cities offered were Seattle, Columbus, New Orleans, or Cincinnati. Coach Brown thought the AFL was an inferior league, but the two entities had already made an agreement to merge all 10 AFL clubs into the NFL in 1970. This meant, he would be back coaching in the NFL in a few short years.
On September 26, 1967, Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes held a press conference at the Sheraton Hotel to announce the AFL’s newest member: the Cincinnati Bengals to begin play in 1968. Brown told reporters that he realized that a new team would certainly have to experience some tough times, but he was ready to do what he always loved – being a head coach.
That same year he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For Modell and the Browns, he hired Coach Brown’s OC Blanton Collier which became a smooth transition. Cleveland improved to 10-4-0 in 1963 and lost to the Green Bay Packers 40-23 in the playoffs. Jim Brown had been named to his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl and was once again selected First Team All-Pro.
In 1964, Cleveland defeated the Baltimore Colts 27-0 in front of a standing-room-only home crowd. The Browns went into the NFL Championship Game as 17 points underdogs. WR Gary Collins caught three touchdown passes and was named the game’s MVP and was awarded a brand-new Corvette.
Modell had promised the Cleveland faithful a league title under his administration. 1964 proved him right as the franchise had won its eighth pro football championship.