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History of Browns first training camp: Bowling Green State University

Newly-minted franchise wanted a quaint, secluded college setting

Otto Graham With Father and Coach After Victory
QB Otto Graham (center) with Paul Brown (right)

The four-time NFL title holders and four-time AAFC Champs Cleveland Browns are set to open training camp on July 22 at The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

The Greenbrier features golf, estate homes and legacy cottages, beautiful gardens, scenic views with multi-colored trees, unique Farm to Table dinners featuring fruits, vegetables, and herbs fresh from the garden and locally sourced meats, exclusive fishing spots, private hunting grounds, summer fireflies, power yoga, and the picturesque Allegheny Mountain.

Yeh, none of the Browns players will be doing any of that. Well, maybe the fireflies.

Training camp at The Greenbrier will commence from July 22-30 and will be closed to the public. Then the team will practice at Berea for a half-week before playing in the Hall of Fame Game in nearby Canton on Thursday, August 3 broadcast nationally on NBC and locally on WKYC.

The last time Cleveland played in the Hall of Fame Game was in 1999 in a victory against the Dallas Cowboys.

Prior to their August 17 preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles, the two squads will hold joint practices just like last year’s training camp. More NFL clubs are doing this especially since the amount of preseason games has been cut from four contests to three. This time spent with another roster gives more live contact and the ability to gauge players from another offense or defense.

Philadelphia Eagles v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Since the Eagles are the current NFC Champions, this can only become better scrimmages with more aggressive hitting.

The Browns call Berea their home during the season and also during training camp. If you haven’t seen this magnificent complex, it is quite a gem for the players and coaches.

Years ago all NFL teams had training camp at a small college. The purpose was that the only thing the players could do each day and night was focus on the playbook plus the competition at hand.

The seclusion and isolation were key. Most every college student had gone home for the summer so the entire campus was basically a ghost town. They had a football stadium with practice fields, plus training rooms, classroom facilities for meetings, dining halls, exercise and weight rooms, and dorm rooms. This also allowed the coaches to contain the players at night – or at least try to – while at the same time shielding their families from them.

The focus was on football. Football is a business - no guarantees.

But there were issues. For one, the staff had to crate up and move all of the team’s stuff like equipment, practice uniforms, laundry supplies, balls, cleats, camera equipment, and anything associated with a more than full football roster. Not to mention all of the coaches’ stuff and player personnel items needed.

Cleveland Browns Training Camp Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

This is the main reason why over the years NFL clubs have built a training facility near their home stadium and remained put during each year’s training camp. From Cleveland’s inception in 1946 up until 1991, they held training camps at area colleges and universities just like other league clubs were doing. Usually, an NFL club will pay to have upgrades made to the host college either to their practice facilities or dorm areas as a good neighbor symbol.

But, it hasn’t always been first-class/first-rate with training camp facilities. In fact, in the beginning, it was hard work and isolation.

Choosing the first training camp

Paul Brown was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy when he was hired as the franchise’s very first head man. The team was named the Panthers and then that fell through. So the team owner, Mickey McBride, named them after his illustrious coach.

Coach Brown Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images

Coach Brown had won a national championship at Ohio State, six state championships as head coach of Massillon Washington High School, plus a state championship at his first gig at the Severn School in Maryland. At the time, he was the most famous sportsperson in the State of Ohio.

As the Tigers, Massillon’s colors were orange and black. Coach Brown knew he liked the color orange but wasn’t sure of what to pair it with. He considered black or gray but wasn’t certain.

He knew he wanted training camp to be housed at a college somewhere in the State of Ohio instead of neighboring states including Wisconsin which had several NFL teams break camp there. He toured quite a few campuses looking for the right site for the first-ever Browns training camp.

One of the last colleges he visited was in April of 1946: Bowling Green State University. Coach Brown knew that the Cleveland Rams had used this college as their own training camp, so he was intrigued at what was available for an entire pro football team. Obviously, the school must have made all of the accommodations necessary and checked every box.

Bowling Green Falcons v Pittsburgh Panthers
Not the Browns, but Bowling Green State University
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

During his tour, Coach Brown walked into the front foyer of the school’s gymnasium. On the back wall, enclosed in a glass case, was a football jersey. More precisely, a brown jersey with white and orange stripes on the sleeve. Coach Brown took one look and realized that he had found the color combination for his new team.

Only the Miami Seahawks of the AAFC were using orange (with green) whereas none of the NFL clubs did. And nobody was using brown. Bowling Green plus the Browns still remain the only institutions to use this color combination.

The birth of the Browns was the sole creation of Paul Brown. And now, so was the color scheme.

Bowling Green State University: 1946 - 1951

Once World War II was over and the Browns’ coaches and players could finally get together as a formal team, the first official training camp was held in Bowling Green, Ohio at Bowling Green State University, home of the Falcons.

Coach Brown felt at home here because of the university’s V-5 and V-12 Navy training programs. The school had also just built 15 metal buildings to house students close to their football stadium which was a perfect setup.

Bowling Green was close enough to Cleveland in the event that the short trip was needed for whatever reason, but far enough to keep the players away from everything the big city had to offer. There would be an occasional picnic day with the families of the players and coaches, so this aspect became convenient as the campus sat just about two hours west of Cleveland.

Student population hovered around the neighborhood of 4,000-5,000 and was mostly vacant during the summer months during the period that training camp would be held which was perfect conditions for classroom sessions.

The Rams had made the campus more desirable over their years of training there which made a transformation simple.

The entire campus of Bowling Green was quiet and serene with large trees and lush green grass. Players slept in the Alpha Xi sorority house with the only complaint that the beds weren’t very big. But the sorority’s three-story building could house many players in one place.

Team meals were in the Student Union building at a cafeteria called “The Falcon’s Nest.” Being a college, there were plenty of classrooms available for team meetings plus outdoor athletic fields.

The rules of the camp were pretty straightforward in Paul Brown’s eyes:

  1. T-shirts in camp, jackets and ties in public
  2. No smoking in the locker room or dining hall
  3. Dress shirt or sport shirt for the evening meal
  4. No alcohol tolerated
  5. All players must be in their rooms by 10:30 pm with lights out by 11:00 pm

Dante Lavelli at Bowling Green training camp

Many of the Browns players had just been released from their service duty in World War II and had arrived at Bowling Green with their duffle bags.

As the years rolled along and the championships began to build, the campus every summer was considered a lucky charm for the team as players loved going there. Dorms and other buildings were all nice with then-modern amenities. While training here, the Browns won four AAFC titles, plus the 1950 NFL Championship followed by their very first defeat in a league title game with a 24-17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the 1951 NFL Championship Game.

Key players during this time at Bowling Green included Marion Motley, Bill Willis, Frank Gatski, Dub Jones, Ara Parseghian, Ollie Cline, Cliff Lewis, Abe Gibron, Otto Graham, Lou “the toe” Groza, Mac Speedie, and Dante Lavelli.