TGS SPECIAL REPORT...THE VANISHING BREED OF BIG THINKERS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
“Art (Modell) was decent about my retirement. He didn’t like it mostly, I believe, because he didn’t get his way, and Art wasn’t the kind of guy who was used to that happening. He has a big ego, and I say that with respect. A man with a large ego isn’t a parasite, doesn’t ride on the back of others. He creates and accomplishes.”
--Jim Brown from his book, Out of Bounds
--Jim Brown from his book, Out of Bounds
For the new generation of media 30-somethings who attempt to define sports legacies these days, Art Modell is probably not much more than a footnote in the timeline of the NFL. The former Browns and Ravens owner, who passed away last week at the age of 87, is mostly remembered by those sorts as the one who abandoned Cleveland for Baltimore in a crass money grab almost two decades ago.
But the negative narrative of that episode, while accurate, hardly begins to measure the impact (both good and bad) of Modell, one of those fascinating characters who helped define an era when professional sport, and the NFL in particular, became a national institution rather than a mere “sophisticated diversion” (as former commissioner Pete Rozelle used to call it) for sports fans.
We would certainly hope that Modell’s legacy recalls more than the Browns’ move from Cleveland to Baltimore. And if the modern media chooses to overlook some of Modell’s contributions, we’ll try to fill in the gaps while hoping to provide a reminder that pro sports lore, and the NFL’s in particular, should grant a wide berth to the few big-picture thinkers such as Modell.
Like Jim Brown said, those sorts often create and accomplish.
Of course, having been in business at TGS since 1957, our publishing history even pre-dates Modell’s ownership of the old Browns, commencing in 1961. Most all of pro football’s movers and shakers from our early publishing years have left us; about the only connection to ownership from those days lies in the handful of families who have been able to pass down their franchises from generation to generation.
But among all of those owners since 1957, we must say that Modell was among the most influential and forward thinking. And interestingly, a quality sorely absent from the many corporate types and those with inherited wealth who constitute much of the modern-day NFL ownership brigade. Of that bunch, perhaps only Dallas’ Jerry Jones is remotely as fascinating a character as was Modell.
In retrospect, Modell was in the right place at the right time, for himself and the NFL, when he bought the Browns over a half-century ago. Like a contemporary, Sonny Werblin, who added a necessary showbiz flair to the New York Jets of the 1960s when convincing Joe Namath to sign with the upstart AFL, Modell brought a much-needed Madison Avenue advertising expertise to the NFL. He was a significant ally to Rozelle throughout the ‘60s as the league began to enhance its leverage with the TV networks. Modell was also a bulwark in helping NFL management to arrive at the earliest collective bargaining agreements with the players association, and served as the NFL’s only league President (as would the AFL’s Milt Woodard) for the post/pre-merger span between 1967-69.
Like Jerry Jones in Dallas, who moved out iconic HC Tom Landry almost three decades later, it took a fellow with lots of nerve (and ego, too, as Jim Brown would likely remind us), such as Modell, to displace HC Paul Brown, from whose ownership group Modell had purchased the Browns. The thought of any owner having the guts to fire Paul Brown seemed almost ludicrous at the time, and there was definitely a power-play aspect to Brown’s removal. But the iconic coach and his methods had worn thin by 1962.
Modell was not a football man per se, but he knew relationships and how organizations were supposed to operate, and correctly reckoned that scholarly Browns assistant and ex-Kentucky HC Blanton Collier would be a better fit moving forward than the autocratic Brown. And it would be hard to argue with the results, as Cleveland remained a contender throughout the rest of the decade with Collier and won the city’s last sports championship in a memorable 27-0 NFL title game win over the Colts in 1964. Almost every Browns player in that era, Jim Brown included, had nothing but praise for Collier, vindicating one of Modell’s most controversial moves.
Modell was also a visionary, hatching the idea of preseason doubleheaders at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, which became wildly popular events (a first for NFL exhibition games) in the ‘60s. When Rozelle was trying to institute a second Thanksgiving TV game in 1966, it was Modell who gladly stepped forward and offered his Browns as the visiting team for a contest at Dallas (a landmark game reviewed comprehensively in John Eisenberg’s excellent Cowboys history book, Cotton Bowl Days), and a new tradition was born.
Then, after the AFL-NFL merger, when the combined new league was facing a stalemate as it tried to convince three franchises to jump from the NFL (NFC) side to the newly-named AFC in 1970, it was Modell and Baltimore Colts’ comrade Carroll Rosenbloom who volunteered, with Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney simply following the lead of Modell. And when it was time for ABC to televise its first-ever regular-season Monday night game in 1970, the Browns were an obvious choice to host it (against Joe Namath's Jets), as along with Rozells, Modell had been one of the driving forces for the prime-time TV concept.
Modell was a visionary, but could also have a soft touch. When this writer was out of college and sending out employment feelers to all manner of sports franchises over 30 years ago, Modell was one of the few team owners who sent a personal reply. No job materialized with the Browns, but a hand-written response from an NFL owner fueled a dream that would eventually become a career. I should have thanked Modell long ago.
Yet Modell was also not without his flaws. From the outset, his purchase of the Browns was highly-leveraged (indeed, he was offering shares for $50,000 to various friends, most of whom scoffed at the idea), and Modell continued to borrow and borrow, even while his investment value skyrocketed. He lost a very public game of chicken in 1966 with none other than Jim Brown, who might have considered one more season with the team but became so disenchanted by Modell’s antics that he decided to retire. When Modell was running the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the MLB Indians found him to be an inhospitable landlord. Yet it was the heavy leveraging of the Browns franchise that prompted the move to Baltimore and the promises of riches at a new stadium to partially offset the debt load, which eventually became so great that Modell had to sell off his majority interest in the newly-named Ravens in 2004. But not before he won one more championship in 2000.
The nefarious nature of the Browns’ move from Cleveland, however, would be a wart that Modell could never remove in the later years of his life, becoming a pariah in a town in which he was once idolized. Although the vitriol eventually subsided on the shores of Lake Erie, the anger didn’t; those raw nerves are still exposed for old-time Browns fans who never forgave Modell despite the team being replaced by a new franchise in 1999. All of which have probably contributed to blocking Modell’s induction into the Hall of Fame.
Perversely so, perhaps, Modell’s escape to Baltimore also provided a new template for stadium-hungry owners who could use the Browns as an example to intimidate municipalities into building upgraded facilities, or risk losing their teams, as did Cleveland. Again, maybe not a legacy to be proud of, but a legacy nonetheless.
Granted, for all of his accomplishments, Modell also made mistakes along the way. But, then again, that’s the risk big thinkers often take. And we suspect that pro football historians will eventually recall Modell in a mostly-positive light.
For better or worse, they don’t make them like Art Modell anymore.
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