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The Impact Former Owner Art Modell Had In The Creation Of The Cincinnati Bengals

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The Morning Banter (which isn't the Bengals Banter) is an experiment on "other" stories around the league.

+ Former Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell could be characterized as the Jerry Jones of the 1960s. In 1961 a 36-year old Modell purchased the Cleveland Browns for $4 million, quickly portraying the elements of fanaticism that any fan would express after turning his personal NFL team into his playground. Though Paul Brown remains widely respected today as an innovator, the subject of many autobiographies because of his impact on the sport, he was also extremely bull-headed, believing that his way was the way. You can only imagine the impact an interfering 36-year old owner had with an old-school head coach that knew everything.

Let's characterize this as simply as we can: Head Coach and General Manager Paul Brown disregarded Cleveland's newest owner as if a small house fly buzzed around his peripheral vision. A nuisance. A meddling Jerry Jones. And the tension grew.

Sports Editor Al Abrams with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote an observation during the closing moments in the first half between the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins in 1962.

"I was in Washington (DC) on November 11 when the Browns met the Washington Redskins. A minute or so before the end of the first half, Cleveland got the ball in its own territory while training by ten points. The Browns' quarterback, on orders from the bench, played it safe by running a couple of plays through the line.

"While this was going on, an excitable young fellow walked back and forth behind the front row in which I was sitting, loudly second-guessing Browns' strategy. 'That's no way to play winning football', he shouted. 'Go for the scoring bomb! Throw the long pass!'

Abrams continued his observation:

"After the Redskins trimmed the favored Browns and I returned to Pittsburgh, I reported what took place to Art Rooney and Ed Kiely of the Steelers. Rooney shrugged, said nothing. Kiely said, 'If there is something wrong between them (Modell and Brown), I doubt if anything will happen. Brown still has a six-year contract the club has to honor."

Brown, with his towering shadow, often ignored the insight of his owner. The feud reached its peak on January 9, 1963, when Modell fired Brown.

But it wasn't just Modell having trouble dealing with Paul Brown. Cleveland Browns players weren't happy with their head coach, calling his system obsolete, that the "parade had passed him by". And Brown hated dissidence. Bart Plum, once a starting quarterback for Paul Brown, was traded to the Detroit Lions for openly criticizing the head coach. Listening to Bob Trumpy stories over the years, it's an impression already understood by older Bengals fans. Starting cornerback Bernie Parrish, acting as a player representative, told The Herald on January 15, 1963:

"After being in contact with many of the Browns' veteran players, I found it is the virtually unanimous opinion that it was time for a change. We have complete confidence in Art Modell's decision. I am certain that it prevented premature retirement of at least five and possibly seven veteran players that form the core of our football team."

During a press conference within a week of Brown's departure, Modell somewhat articulated his decision:

"There were maybe 25 reasons why I fired Paul Brown, but only two were really important. First of all, in my considered opinion, I don't believe the maximum potential of the ball club was being realized. Secondly, it was reliably reported to me that, for various reasons, no less than seven key players - and these weren't rookies, believe me - weren't coming back next year under the same conditions."

When asked if Modell fired Brown because he wants to coach the Browns himself, Modell deflected saying, "I don't want to do that. I couldn't do the job even if I wanted to. I'm no more qualified than any fan who comes down to the stadium on Sunday."

Due to the contract that Brown signed, the former head coach was receiving a reported salary of $82,500 from Cleveland. Due to his love of playing golf, many mused at the time that only two people made more money playing golf. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

In a bit of irony, Parrish, the cornerback that supported Modell's decision to fire Brown in 1963, opened a feud in early January 1965 with Modell when Parrish called for the removal of Pete Rozelle as the NFL Commissioner, proposing that the new NFL Commissioner become Paul Brown himself -- the guy Parrish said needed to be fired from Cleveland. Modell told reporters:

"I am going to have to assume that Parrish is speaking only as an individual and not for the NFL players association of which he is a vice president. Too many members of the players association are familiar with Rozelle's efforts on their behalf.

"If Parrish is unhappy with conditions that prevail in the NFL, then I suggest he seriously consider retirement."


Eventually Brown's retirement ended when his contract in Cleveland expired, becoming instrumental in bringing an AFL team in Cincinnati. In late May 1967 the American Football League awarded Cincinnati the league's tenth franchise. At the time there were five different ownership groups seeking to become owners, but there were really only two groups with a realistic shot. One was headed by Paul Brown, who had been actively promoting football in Cincinnati for some time and a lawyer named John Wiether, who was a former guard for the Detroit Lions and former coach for the University of Cincinnati basketball team.

One of the reasons that Cincinnati received a football team was due to the merger between the AFL and NFL, which was negotiated and agreed on June 8, 1966. According to the terms of the merger, both leagues were required to add a new franchise by 1968. The NFL awarded a team to New Orleans (becoming the Saints) while the AFL gave a team to Cincinnati.

After months of speculation the league awarded Paul Brown the Cincinnati in the summer of 1967. Brown, out of football since 1963, became the beloved father of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Through Browns fans have mixed emotions following Modell's passing due to the team's eventual departure for Baltimore, there's simply no avoiding the historical impact that Modell had on the NFL and particularly the development of the Cincinnati Bengals. Without the bitter firing of Brown to motivate the legendary coach to stay in the NFL, it's possible that the Bengals never come to be.

Paul Brown's son, current Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike, released a statement following Modell's passing.

"I'm very saddened to hear of the passing of Mr. Modell. Having been a part of the origin of the Ravens franchise, I know how near and dear his football team was to his heart. It was truly an extension of his family, almost like another child to him. I want to send my sympathy and best wishes to all of Art's family, and especially to his sons David and John and their families."

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement:

"Art Modell’s leadership was an important part of the NFL’s success during the league’s explosive growth during the 1960s and beyond. As the longtime chairman of the league’s Broadcast Committee, Art was a visionary who understood the critical role that mass viewing of NFL games on broadcast television could play in growing the league. Art played important roles in many other league matters as a key advisor to Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue, and also built championship teams in Cleveland and Baltimore. His skills as an owner and league contributor were matched only by his great sense of humor. Any conversation with Art included laughs. He always left you with a smile on your face. We extend our condolences to John, David and the rest of the Modell family."

The Baltimore Ravens will wear a decal on their helmets with the initials "ABM", honoring former owner Art Modell, who passed away Thursday morning and the thought momentarily captured me. How much did Art Modell impact professional football in Cincinnati? Let's put it his way. His decision to fire Paul Brown set events into motion that culminated with the creation of the Cincinnati Bengals.