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Paul Brown: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

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Recently, The NFL Network aired a great "Football Life" documentary on NFL icon, Paul Brown. We look back and remember his enormous impact on the game today.

Recent fans of the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals are at a disservice. I'm not speaking to the lack of success the teams have experienced over the last three decades, but more to the fact that the younger generations weren't privy to witnessing one of the architects of the game of football.

Vince Lombardi, Lamar Hunt, Al Davis, George Halas, Wellington Mara, and the Rooney family are all well-recognized within the NFL community, but often overlooked goes the Brown family. Part of it stems from the Cincinnati Bengals' "dark ages", experienced in the 1990s-early 2000s, while the other reasons reside in the Browns' franchise leaving the NFL back in 1995 and their futility since re-entering the league. Still, the franchise that bears the name of a prominent football figure and another that has surprisingly become a pillar of NFL consistency over the past five seasons should get more recognition.

On Friday, NFL Network featured a documentary on Paul Brown--one of football's most iconic figures. The Brown family currently controls the Bengals and are a bit standoffish, often wrongly-confused for being arrogant; they speak about football and the patriarch of their family only when asked. The truth is, the Brown family, starting with Paul, are thoughtful, careful and even a bit shy, but their standing in football lore is undeniable.

The following are highlights from the documentary, including quotes and other anecdotes for those who might be unfamiliar with Paul Brown and his impact on the game today.

Stories, Jokes, "Did you Knows" and His Legacy:

  • Current Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (and one of the best ever NFL coaches) said of Brown "When I think of Paul Brown, I really think of him as the father of professional football... I was a Browns fan because of my dad and Paul Brown. When I tied coach Brown for career NFL victories, I just thought this would be a way pay tribute to the greatest person in professional football". Belichick wore a fedora to the stadium in honor of Brown's trademark sideline attire. Belichick also noted that "95 percent" of what current football coaches do, in terms of preparation, study, film review and more, came from the mind of Paul Brown. "There is no one in the game that I have more respect for than Paul Brown. His contributions, from the game to the way it's played protective equipment, to playbook--every film breakdown, every meeting. Everything that he did as a coach, 50 years later, everybody is still basically doing the same thing. I really think of him as the father of professional football."
  • Former Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth noted "Check the record. Then you tell me who's the greatest coach of all time. I don't think we'll see anybody have that great an impact. They're not 'The Green Bay Lombardi's, as great as he (Vince Lombardi) was". He also noted, "At the time, Paul Brown was Bill Gates. He transformed the game from a physical exercise, to an intellectual exercise."
  • "Football was a black-and-white kind of a game. There was no color until there was Paul Brown", said former Bengals quarterback and head coach Sam Wyche. Brown had a positive impact in the league on joining together different races for the good of football.
  • Perhaps the greatest football player ever, running back Jim Brown, noted "When you saw a Paul Brown team go on the field, it would be a reflection of Paul Brown, totally. It would be Paul Brown, the creator--his images, his thoughts, something would always be new". Though the star running back was known to be difficult to coach, Brown respected PB noting he never left anything on the field. "I like the fact that with Paul, I didn't leave anything in the gun".
  • While dynasties are few and far between in the parity-driven NFL of 2015, Brown took the Cleveland Browns to the Championship game in 11 of his 12 seasons coaching the team (1946-1957).
  • A back-handed compliment on Brown per his reputation was that he was a control freak. "He wanted to control every single detail on the field. He wanted to know exactly what every player was going to do and for them to know exactly what was expected of them on every play," said Mark Bechtel of Sports Illustrated.
  • Brown was also a bit paranoid when it came to football, as he thought other teams would try and tap into radio frequencies he was using to hear the plays he was calling. His paranoia was actually founded, as some teams attempted to do so. Then-commissioner Bert Bell outlawed the radio and it wasn't used again in the league for almost four decades.
  • Did you know Brown's career in coaching was essentially an accident? He played quarterback at Miami of Ohio University, but began to pursue a career in teaching. His son and current Bengals owner Mike Brown relayed the story, saying, "When he showed up, they asked him if he wanted to help out as an assistant. The head coach took sick and he couldn't go on and that's how my father became a football coach". It's the blend of a teacher's heart with a football mind that made Brown one of the most iconic figures in the sport. PB said, "I'm primarily a teacher and I think a coach has to be a teacher".
  • Massillon High School had to build a stadium with a 20,000-person capacity because Brown led the team to six-straight State Championships. It was around this time that GoodYear blimps began circling football stadiums and did so at Massillon High School games.
  • It was Massillon's mascot, the Tigers, that forged Brown's second franchise's colors and mascot--the Bengals.
  • Another "did you know?", Brown served in the United States Navy, but basically was assigned as a football coach to some of the armed forces. His team won the final game of the 1943 season over perennial powerhouse, Notre Dame. The team was known as "The Great Lakes", as that is the naval base Brown was serving at in Chicago, Illinois.
  • Some believe that it was Brown who formed the Cleveland football franchise that bears his name. That is only a partial truth. An ownership group was forming the team and recruited Brown to coach, as well as be a minority owner of the team. Because of his acceptance of the offer after WWII, the franchise simply called the team "the Browns", after demanded such in his contract demands. "I think it was, in his mind, his team and he was going to say so," Mike Brown said in the documentary.
  • The Brooklyn Dodgers were known as the team that brought racial integration into professional sports back in 1947 with Jackie Robinson. What is often overlooked is Brown's bringing in of tailback Marion Motley a year earlier to break the NFL's color barrier. Jim Brown noted: "Paul Brown never gave us speeches on integration. He gave us speeches on excellence." When Brown himself addressed one of his teams, he was on record as saying: "I don't care whether you're black, white, a Catholic Protestant, or Jew, such could be a Communist, I guess--I can tell you that we will be successful to the caliber of people you are".
  • Four-time NCAA football champion coach, Nick Saban said of Brown: "When you have a lot of success, it creates a lot of complacency. Paul Brown was innovative enough to get players to respond toward wanting to continue to be successful. To do ten in a row is a fantastic accomplishment".
  • Famed actress and Cleveland native Patricia Heaton, of "Everybody Loves Raymond" and ABC's "The Middle", made an interesting joke/anecdote reflecting on the stature of Brown on a national level. "A football player died and went to heaven and he saw a game happening and a man on the sidelines with his hat and tie and his coat. And, he said to St. Peter, 'Is that Paul Brown?!'. St. Peter says to him, 'No, that's just God pretending to be Paul Brown'". She later joked, "How do you keep a Cincinnati Bengal out of your backyard? Put a goal post in it".
  • Brown had one of the most iconic wins in NFL history when his Browns beat the Eagles in the first game of the All-American Football Conference and National Football League merger. The 35-10 beatdown of Philadelphia showcased a ton of passing plays, which prompted critics to respond with such accusations that the Browns weren't playing "real football". Later that same year, both teams faced off again and Brown decided to give the Eagles and his team's critics a taste of their own medicine. He played ground-and-pound football for another 13-7 win, just to show that his team could win in both styles of football. Brown was so adamant about sticking it his naysayers that the Browns had zero net passing yards in the game. Cleveland won the Championship that season.
  • Along with valuing the character and on-field ability of his men, rather than the color of their skin, Brown also captained a tough ship. "If they were boozers, or chasers, or things of this nature, I wouldn't have them", Brown said. Though his son went the other way on his father's mindset throughout the mid-2000s, he and Marvin Lewis have embraced PB's mantra and have a team of talented, high-class young men.
  • One of Paul Brown's trademark "isms" he'd use when referencing players and coaches was "We're all useful, but none of us are necessary." While it personified how Brown ruled his football teams, he learned it from a doctor who was treating him while one of his teams was playing a football game.
  • It wasn't a simple power struggle of two large football egos that prompted new owner Art Modell to fire Paul Brown from the Cleveland Browns. It was PB's trade of running back Bobby Mitchell for rookie Ernie Davis, without Modell's consent, that sent Modell over the edge. Davis was coined as the "Next Jim Brown", and likely would have been had Leukemia not struck the former Syracuse star. The Hollywood movie, "The Express" chronicled Davis' short life and his arrival to the Browns. Unfortunately, in the picture, only Modell was featured and there was no mention of Paul Brown. Some believed, as Modell initially did, that Davis was brought in to slowly replace Jim Brown. PB said it was a strategy he took from the Green Bay Packers and their employment of Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. "What we really did, was get Ernie Davis to with Jim Brown. Green Bay did it with Hornung and Taylor. We arrived at the conclusion that that's what we had to do to dominate",  Paul Brown said. According to Mike Brown, Modell insisted that Paul Brown play Ernie Davis, even when his diagnosis of Leukemia was public--a sort of publicity stunt for the fans. Paul declined Modell's request, furthering the disconnect between the two power-hungry football Hercules's.
  • While Paul Brown's firing from the Cleveland Browns seemed to be in the favor of the players at the time, looking back, some of the stars regret having a part in pushing him out the door, decades later.
  • "They took my team away from me", Mike Brown recalled Paul saying in a phone call. Mike didn't recall any other time his father got choked up, other than when he was fired from the Browns. It was a sign that the traditional, hard-nosed innovator had more of a heart than he'd let on to others. It was this firing that led to the Brown family's ire towards the Cleveland franchise that exists to this day.
  • Condoleeza Rice, former United States Secretary of State, coined Paul Brown a hero for a variety of reasons, including his stance on racial integration in the NFL. Her father was a former Pentecostal minister and she quipped that he'd end sermons a "little short on Sundays so that they could watch the Cleveland Browns". When Brown was fired from Cleveland, Rice, an ardent Browns fan, claimed she tore down posters and other paraphernalia from her bedroom walls in anger over the move. In referencing Paul Brown's decision to hire Bill Johnson over Bill Walsh for the head coaching job after his 1976 retirement, Rice astutely observed: "The same mistake that the Browns made in firing Paul Brown, Paul Brown probably made in hiring Bill Johnson over Bill Walsh".
  • After he was fired and in his 50s, jobless, Paul Brown was enshrined in the Hall of Fame but was unfulfilled, living a semi-retired life in San Diego, California. It was in this period of stewing that he'd attempt to get back into football and stake his revenge against the then-current Browns owner.
  • Former Commissioner Bert Bell wasn't the biggest fan of Paul Brown, but Pete Rozelle, the Commissioner from from 1960-1989, noted that the game was better with Paul Brown in it and wanted Brown to spearhead an expansion franchise.
  • Both an ardent critic and fan of the Bengals, former great tight end Bob Trumpy noted that the Bengals got "The broken-down version of Paul Brown". Trumpy also noted that Brown would continuously compare the early years' Bengals' strategies to that of the Cleveland Browns two decades earlier. The former Bengals great not only noted that he thought the Bengals were an effort to try and regain PB's success in Cleveland, but were also a project in the reclamation of his reputation around the NFL.
  • A Brown family staple for decades was the issue of contracts, agents and the like. Brown stuck to his stance he took throughout the 1950s, but the game had changed. He wouldn't bow to a player's' contract demands, most notably with Lemar Parrish and it stuck with the family through recent years with players like Chad Johnson and Carson Palmer. PB was on record calling come agents "two-bit hustlers".
  • Paul Brown once cut the team's union representative. The team, realizing the power that PB wanted, decided to make the irreplaceable starting quarterback, Ken Anderson, the next union rep, in an effort to make a statement to the Bengals' owner/coach. Trumpy relayed a story that Anderson's tenure as the team's union rep was short-lived after a meeting with Paul Brown.
  • Greg Cook was Paul Brown's 1960s-1970s answer to Otto Graham with the Bengals. After an outstanding rookie season, Cook injured his rotator cuff and was never the same, Cincinnati struck gold with subsequent quarterbacks like Anderson, Boomer Esiason, Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton, but Cook was to be the foundation of the franchise at its inception. Former offensive coordinator Bill Walsh said: "Greg Cook could very well have been remembered as the greatest quarterback of all time. He had a rotator cuff injury and then really couldn't make a comeback".
  • It was Cook's injury that paved the way for Virgil Carter (as well as Anderson and others), that forced Paul Brown and Walsh to develop what's now known as the "West Coast Offense". It's built around smart, accurate quarterbacks, who may have arm strength limitations, but aids them in timing routes and other high-successful plays. Belichick called it "Paul Brown's Ohio River Offense".
  • Former Cincinnati mayor and famed daytime talk show host, Jerry Springer, was quoted as saying "The happiest moment of Paul Brown's career was beating the Cleveland Browns". Trumpy added that the only time he saw PB cry was after a win and the team gave him the game ball.
  • Peter King, former Bengals beat writer and one of the most prominent sportswriters in the nation, noted that Brown had some of the most fun around football in his later years with the Bengals. With the stress of coaching off of him and his desire to just be around players, he wanted his final years to be entertaining. He even emulated "The Ickey Shuffle" publicly at a Super Bowl press conference in 1989.
  • To credit ESPN Cleveland sportswriter, Tony Grossi, he credited Brown with successes to both the Bengals and Browns, but also made a notable, but overlooked observation. There are no notable trophies in the NFL named after Paul Brown. Lombardi, Lamar Hunt and others all have some of the highest accoladed-trophies bearing their name, but the man who shot unanimously be on an NFL Mount Rushmore is without anything that bears his name in this regard.

Brown's Innovations Shaped the Game into its Modern State:

  • Paul Brown was the first to put together what's now known as a "playbook". He'd write out every play on paper, distribute them and have his players study the write-ups. No other coach before him was utilizing this practice.
  • Along with inventing the playbook, Brown was the first to use film as a study tool for his teams. No other coach was using this method to study upcoming opponents.
  • He was the first to use "substitutions" of players and switch up personnel in drives. This practice was previously being used on a drive-by-drive basis.
  • Huddles were used for the quarterback to call the play for the offense. Brown, ever the control-freak, called the plays from the sideline, giving coaches more power and emphasizing the use of coordinators in future decades.
  • Brown was the first coach to utilize a phone system on the sidelines to contact other coaches and assistants "upstairs". Bechtel noted: "He wanted to see and hear, in real time, what was working and what wasn't".
  • Initially, the old-school football minds shunned Brown's ideas, mocking his practice of using players "like pieces on a chessboard".
  • One of the biggest events on the NFL calendar, although it's in the offseason, is the NFL Combine. One of the major barometers used in the Combine is the 40-yard dash, and yes, you guessed it--Brown was the first to use such a measurement for player performance.
  • Aside from implementing offensive systems that utilized the forward pass more than it had previously been done (thanks to a great passer in Otto Graham), Brown was able to create a running play, which is a staple in every offense, at any level of play. The draw fooled defenses into thinking a pass was forthcoming, but a last-second handoff was the actual play.
  • How important is "the pocket" in today's pass-happy NFL? Well, it's a concept Brown made popular with his forward-thinking.
  • The facemask, you ask? Yep--that's Mr. Brown's invention, thanks to his working with football equipment giant, Riddell.
  • Today, the in-helmet radio is frequently-used to ensure the correct play is relayed and limits crowd noise interference. Brown used a very archaic version of this, while getting the idea from the military. He was the first to do so.

The Incredible Names on His Coaching Tree:

  • The leader in wins for NFL head coaches, Don Shula, played and studied under Paul Brown. "Paul Brown was a professor in the football classroom and a real asset in the way of life," Shula remarked.
  • Chuck Noll, No. 7 on the all-time winningest head coach list, was a guard for the Browns under the old man's tenure.
  • Bud Grant, a Hall of Fame coach with the Minnesota Vikings, played for Brown with the Great Lakes team.
  • Tom Landry, the enigmatic Dallas Cowboys coach who resembled Brown in attire and stature on their sidelines, was a disciple of PB. He was quoted as saying that "the person who influenced me the most was Paul Brown. I mean, this is where my whole coaching came from." Landry is one of the most successful coaches in NFL history.
  • "You don't live in Cleveland--you live in Cincinnati!" Former quarterback, assistant and head coach Sam Wyche led the Bengals to their second Super Bowl berth after studying for years under Paul Brown. Wyche was the winningest coach in Bengals' history before Marvin Lewis' arrival, who overtook it recently.
  • In what is an ironic and sad twist of fate, Paul Brown promoted others to head coach, including Wyche and Bill Johnson, over Bill Walsh. One of the greatest coaches of all time, with his four Super Bowl wins, internalized Paul Brown with his cool, teacher-like mentality, along with his innovative West Coast offense he took with him to the Bay Area. Walsh went on to beat the Bengals twice in the Super Bowl in the 1980s, and remains one of the innovators of modern football. "As Paul Brown would say, 'we're a precision machine'", Walsh would tell his teams.
  • Weeb Ewbank, a longtime assistant of Paul Brown, led the New York Jets to one of the most iconic wins in NFL history. His Jets, along with Joe Namath's guarantee, won the Super Bowl for the 1968 season against Lombardi's Packers. He is currently in the Hall of Fame.
  • Forrest Gregg, a former Packers great, took over the reins from from Bill Johnson after Walsh left for Stanford University. He took the Bengals to their first Super Bowl in the franchise's history following the 1981 season.

The Incredible Players he Coached and Made Hall Of Fame Inductees:

  • Otto Graham, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, was the mainstay of the Cleveland franchise. He won 80 percent of his games and seven championships as the team's signal-caller.
  • As noted earlier, Jim Brown is one of the greatest football players to ever don an NFL uniform. He too was a Browns staple.
  • Always wanting cerebral players, Brown recruited Lou Groza, an Army surgical technician, to the Browns when he was forming the team at its infancy stages.
  • Dante Lavelli, a Hall of Famer played end for Brown and the early days of the Cleveland franchise.
  • Anthony Munoz, widely-considered the greatest offensive tackle the game has ever seen was a Cincinnati Bengal under Brown's insisting in the draft.
  • Boomer Esiason, an MVP quarterback and one of the better in his generation, was a pick Brown oversaw as Anderson began to age.
  • Fringe Hall of Fame candidate Ken Anderson led the Bengals to a Super Bowl and was an NFL MVP. In his early day as Bengals owner and head coach, Brown attempted to identify his next Otto Graham. Initially, he thought he had it with Greg Cook, but eventually found his man in the West Coast-type of system in Anderson.
  • Marion Motley, along with Paul Brown are credited with breaking the NFL's color barrier. Motley was a Hall of Fame inductee after a decorated career.
  • Gene Hickerson was an offensive guard for the Browns who helped paved the way for running back Jim Brown. He played for Cleveland from 1958-1973.
  • Mike McCormack was a versatile offensive lineman who played both guard and tackle for the Browns in their heyday. A dominant line with a dominant rushing game made it an easy choice to enshrine McCormack, Groza and Hickerson in the Hall of Fame.
  • Len Ford was a dominant defensive end, who had the athleticism to contribute on offense as well--especially in an era that big offensive numbers from positions outside of running back were almost non-existent. The team simply had too many offensive weapons, including Lavelli, so Ford moved to defensive end. Though stats for the position were rarely counted in the era, Ford was a dominant force on defense.