After winning eight championships early on in their existence, The Cleveland Browns firmly established themselves as a beloved part of the Cleveland community. So what exactly led to the team leaving after nearly fifty years, and then returning just three years later? In today’s video we’ll take a look back at how their meddling owner Art Modell, got himself into financial trouble after a series of disastrous decisions which left him feeling like he had no choice but to move the team.
The Championship Years
With their first season in 1946, the Cleveland Browns were one of eight original teams a part of the All American Football Conference of AAFC for short. The Browns were by far the most successful AAFC team, winning the championship four seasons in a row between 1946 and 1949, when shortly after the AAFC collapsed due to financial issues. The Browns, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Baltimore Colts (who are technically not the same team as the current Colts team) all made the move over the National Football League in 1950. From there the Browns continued their dominance, appearing in the NFL championship game six seasons in a row and winning three of them between 1950 and 1955. This was in large part due to the team’s legendary quarterback Otto Graham and equally legendary head coach Paul Brown, who was hired by the team’s original owner and founder Arthur B. “Mickey” McBride. The team even got their name thanks to Paul Brown, who reluctantly had the team named after him, when owner Mickey McBride had trouble deciding on another name. Although, Paul Brown tried to tell a different story as to how the team name came to be. Brown had always wanted the name to reflect the team’s championship aspirations, so he claimed that a top choice in a fan vote naming contest was the “Brown Bombers”. The Brown Bomber was also the nickname for boxing heavyweight champion Joe Louis, and Brown felt that would be the right fit for the team, with the name ultimately being shortened to just “Browns”. This alternate version of the naming history was considered factual for many years, until Paul Brown later admitted that he made the Joe Louis story up because he felt so uncomfortable with the Browns being named after him. The Browns being named after Paul Brown is now considered the official origin of the Browns name by the NFL and the team.
As successful as the Browns were, the ownership of the team would actually exchange hands a couple of times during this period. During the summer of 1953, McBride sold the Browns for what at the time was a record sale of $600,000. The team was sold to a business group based out of Cleveland, where Dave Jones, a former director for the Cleveland Indians, initially purchased part of the team as a minority owner, but would later become a majority owner in 1955. The sale of the Browns may have been due to testimony that Mickey McBride gave in front of the Kefauver (KEAF-OFFER) Committee back in 1951. The special committee was formed to investigate interstate commerce, and was headed by Estes Kefauver (ES-TIS KEAF-OFFER). McBride’s testimony revealed that he had partial ties to organized crime and illegal gambeling, but he was never charged with any crime. Although he never publicly admitted it, it’s believed that McBride most likely sold the team due to public pressure over his alleged connections with the mob. Jumping ahead to 1960, rumors began to form that the Browns were once again going up for sale. Former Browns running back Fred “Curly” Morrison overheard that Dave Jones was potentially looking into selling the team. Morrison, who had joined CBS as an advertising executive after retiring from football, relayed what he heard to a fellow advertising and television executive named Art Modell. After becoming excited by the possible lucrative television revenue he could make from owning a team, Art Modell borrowed as much money as he could and offered to pay Jones just under 4 million dollars for the Browns. The sale of the time became final in March of 1961, and Modell quickly assured fans that he had no interest in meddling with the team’s football personnel and promised that coach Paul Brown could run the team as he wished. That promise would be put to the test early on, as clashes over players and other team decisions would put the two men at odds.
Not long after Modell purchased the team, concerns began to rise over Paul Brown’s coaching style. Even Jim Brown, the Browns star running back publicly questioned coach Browns decisions and his undermining of the team’s quarterback Milt Plum. But the rift that would ultimately lead to the severing of Modell’s and Paul Brown’s relationship came when the team traded for running back Ernie Davis in 1962. Davis was the first ever African-American player to win the Heisman Trophy, and was drafted as the number one overall pick by the Washington Redskins. However, Redskins owner George Preston Marshall (who was, not shy about hiding his racist views) publicly stated that he preferred to keep his team an all white team. Basically the only reason Washington drafted Davis was so that the team could avoid having their 30 year lease of their stadium revoked by the Sectuarty of the Interior, Stewart Udall (You-Doll), who threatened to do so if the team didn’t integrate their squad. Understandably, Davis had no desire to play for Washington and forced the Redskins to trade him. Paul Brown, excited about the possibility of pairing Ernie Davis with Jim Brown as the two main running backs on his team, approved of the trade, but did so without consulting Art Modell first. Modell wasn’t pleased about that, and to make matters worse, Ernie Davis suddenly came down with a serious illness prior to the 1962 season. Paul Brown ruled out Davis indefinitely, while Modell kept pressuring Brown to find a way to play Davis. But crushing news came, when it turned out that Ernie Davis had leukemia, and it became clear that he was unlikely to return that season. Clear to everyone except Modell, who even after Davis’ diagnosis brought in his own doctors who claimed that Davis was healthy enough to play. Even with Modell’s meddling, Paul Brown refused to play Davis and essentially ruled him out for the year. This disagreement became the start of a major rift between Modell and Brown that never improved. The Browns finished the season with a disappointing 7-6-1 record, and by that point Modell had had enough, firing Paul Brown shortly after the season. This ended an incredible 17 seasons as the team’s first and only head coach, having won seven championships between the AAFC and NFL during that time. Sadly, Ernie Davis would never get the chance to play a game for the Browns when he tragically passed away in May of 1963, at the age of 23 years old.
Blanton Collier (Blan-Ton CALL-E-AIR), who had been Paul Brown’s assistant head coach, was promoted to head coach after Brown’s firing. His tenure got off to a good start with the Browns improving their record in 1963, with a 10-4 record and Jim Brown winning the league MVP award. The next year, the Browns reached the NFL championship game, thanks to Jim Brown once again having a career year, rushing 1,446 yards that season. Cleveland matched up against Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in the Championship game, where Baltimore had been favored to win. However, after a scoreless first half, the Browns managed to shut out the Colts 27-0, winning their forth NFL championship in just 14 years. Over the next few seasons, Cleveland would make three more appearances during the NFL championship game, but unfortunately they lost each time, once to the Packers in 1965, to the Colts in 1968, and then to the Vikings in 1969. By this time the NFL had agreed to merge leagues with their rivals the American Football League for the following season in 1970. With the merger, came a realignment within the conferences and divisions within the NFL. The Browns were placed in the new American Football Conference or AFC, in the central division with their rival the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the old AFL teams the Houston Oilers, and the Cincinnati Bengals. The 1970 season would also be the first time that the Browns and the Bengals would get to play each other, and this was significant because after being fired by the Browns, Paul Brown went to the AFL and started a new team there called the Cincinnati Bengals. Their first ever meeting took place on October 11, 1970 and the Browns defeated the Bengals in a close game 30-27. After finishing the season 7-7, and plagued by hearing problems, head coach Blaton Collier announced his retirement shortly after the season. This marked the end of an era for the Browns, as the team would slide into medicrodity throughout the 1970’s with a rotating cast of different head coaches. It wasn’t just the poor play on the field that was affecting the team, because beginning around this time, a series of poor ownership decisions by Art Modell would eventually jeopardize the team financially.
The Stadium Corporation
Modell had long struggled financially to keep the organization running smoothly, afterall he barely scraped together enough money to be able to buy the team in first place. But Modell’s financial problems truly began from a deal that he made in 1975 when he signed a 25 year lease of Municipal stadium that gave Modell near full control of its use. In exchange, Modell promised to give a portion of his annual profits to the city, and to pay for any improvements out of pocket. Modell then created a new company called, “Stadium Corporation ” (a real creative name right there) that would pay the city annual rents of $150,000 for the first five years and then $200,000 each year for the rest of the lease. Initially, the deal worked out well for Modell, as the stadium was profitable by not just hosting Brown’s home games but also having the Cleveland Indians as tenants, as well as renting it out for concerts and other events.
While it was profitable, Modell paid $625,000 to purchase land in Strongsville (a suburb just outside Cleveland) as land for a potential site of a new stadium. But he then turned around and sold the land to his own company, Stadium corporation for 3 million dollars (a pretty nice payday for himself). This is where things get a bit complicated, by 1981 Municipal stadium had mounting financial losses, and Modell was bleeding money. He then decided to sell Stadium corporation to the Browns for 6 million dollars, which again netted a pretty nice payday for himself. This triggered a lawsuit by the Brown’s minority owner Bob Gries (Grease), who claimed that Modell was making business decisions without consulting the ownership group, and using the Browns as his own personal bank account. The case was settled by Ohio’s state Supreme Court, where Gries won and Modell was ordered to reverse the $6 million dollar sale of Stadium corporation and pay Gries’ legal fees of $1 million dollars. After the costly legal battle, Modell sought help from a banking and real estate executive named Al Lerner, who bought a five percent stake in the Browns but more importantly bought half of Stadium Corporation. But overall the deal that Modell made to take on the costs of maintaining Municipal stadium while also trying to run a team would later turn out to be disastrous.
The Drive & Fumble
By the mid 1980’s, the Browns had improved greatly becoming annual playoff contenders. Led by quarterback Bernie Kosar, and head coach Marty Schottenheimer, the Browns won the AFC Central division four out of five seasons between 1985 and ‘89. Unfortunately, the Browns became better known for their string of playoff disappointments and mishaps during this period than anything else. Plays like the “The Drive” where John Elway lead a successful last minute comeback against the Browns in the 1986 AFC Championship game, or the “The Fumble” where Browns running back Earnest Byner (Bye-Ner) had the ball stripped from hands just before he could score what would have potentially been a game tying touchdown, all became infamous moments in Cleveland Browns history. The team that was once known for their championship dominance, was now seen as one of the unluckiest franchises.
During this time, there were several attempts to build a new stadium for both the Browns and Indians. County Commissioner Vincent Campanella proposed a multi-purpose domed stadium, similar to the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, Michigan. Both the Governor of Ohio, Richard Celeste (Sell-Lest) and Art Modell liked the idea, but had disagreements over how it should be funded. Governor Celeste was opposed to having taxpayers foot the bill, and subsequently a ballot initiative for a $150 million dollar domed stadium was defeated on May 8, 1984. A year later, another project called the “Hexatron” was designed as a six-sided dome with a retractable roof, and the proposed idea to pay for the project, would have been to implament a sin tax on things like alcohol, and cigarettes, however the Hexatron idea never really got off the ground. It wouldn’t be until 1990, when the city of Cleveland finally approved of a project called the “Gateway Sports and Entertainment Complex”. The project included a brand new baseball only stadium for the Indians, as well as a brand new arena next door for the Cavaliers. Modell made the strange decision to not take part in the Gateway complex, wanting to instead focus on trying secure funds for renovations to Municipal stadium. Jacobs Field opened in time for the 1994 baseball season, and the Indians after moving in, were now no longer paying Modell the near $700,000 of yearly rent or sharing revenue from the luxury suites at Municipal Stadium. This turned out to be a huge blow to Modell (Seen here contemplating what went wrong in his life). Amid growing debt, rising player salaries, and struggling with losses from the stadium, Modell claimed that he had lost $21 million dollars between 1993 and 1994. He also said at the time that the team was currently $40 million dollars in debt, and that he had to borrow $10 million dollars from banks just to cover the costs. After the Gateway complex was completed, there were efforts to secure money for a renovation to Municipal Stadium. A proposal of $175 million dollars was floated, but Modell felt that $175 million most likely wouldn’t be enough nor would the voters approve of it.
During this time, Al Lerner (Learn-ER), the team’s minority owner, was privately pushing Modell to explore moving the Browns elsewhere. The city of Baltimore had long been wanting to replace the Colts who in 1984 skipped town in the middle of the night and moved to Indianapolis. However, the city was also hesitant to provide any money towards building a new stadium unless they could get a full commitment from a team, or the NFL, that one would be coming there. In late July 1995, Maryland’s Stadium Authority chairman John Moag (MOE-G) met with Al Lerner to discuss a potential move. Moag presented Lerner with an offer of the rights to a brand new $220 million stadium, if the Browns promised to move there. Moag also stressed that if the Browns were serious about moving that they’d better act soon, because he was in discussions with at least one other team about potentially moving. That other team turned out to be the Cincinnati Bengals, who like the Browns were trying to get a new stadium built in Cincinnati, to replace the aging Riverfront stadium, but had trouble convincing the city on how to pay for it. In fact, a deal between the Bengals and Baltimore had progressed far enough that a lease document had been drawn up between two parties, but when word leaked of the potential move it sparked outrage in Cincinnati. The city almost immediately put forth a measure to the voters in Cincinnati, who then approved of the referendum that got both Paul Brown Stadium (where the Bengals now play), and Great American Ball Park (where the Reds play) built. Through September of 1995, negotiations between the Browns and Baltimore continued, with Moag convincing Modell that the people of Baltimore would view him as a hero if he were to make them move.
On November 6, 1995, while standing in front of Camden Yards, Art Modell officially announced that the Browns would be moving to Baltimore for the 1996 season. The very next day after the announcement, voters in Cleveland approved of the $175 million dollars needed to renovate Municipal Stadium. But it was too late, Modell had made up his mind and felt that his relationship with Cleveland was permanently damaged saying, “The bridge is down, burned, disappeared. There’s not even a canoe for me.” The immediate reaction from the fans and the city of Cleveland was an intense backlash, and protests over their team that was leaving town after nearly 50 years. Advertisers also began to pull out of the stadium and sponsor the team, fearing company boycotts from the fans. The city sued Modell, the Browns, Stadium Corporation, and the Maryland Stadium Authority stating that the Brown’s lease with Municipal Stadium ran through 1998 and couldn’t be broken. Local fans also tried to sue Modell, while the United States Congress even held meetings to discuss the move. The situation got so bad that by midseason, when the Browns visited Pittsburgh to play their arch rivals the Steelers, in a rare sight both Browns and Steelers fans joined together to protest the move. Steelers fans were upset that Modell would rob the fans of the history and rivalry between the two teams. Through the media circus surrounding the team, the Browns struggled on the field as well, finishing with a record of 5-11. They also had the dubious record of losing to expansion Jacksonville Jaguars twice that season, which made them the first team in the modern history of the NFL to lose to a first year expansion team twice. During the team’s final home game, which coincidentally was against Paul Brown’s Cincinnati Bengals, fans in the Dawg Pound section of Municipal Stadium threw beer bottles, and other objects onto the field, while other fans ripped out entire rows of seats and tossed those onto the field, all in disgust over the move. In response, the referees had the players play in the opposite direction of the field to continue play, where the Browns won 26-10, their only win after the relocation announcement.
The Browns Return
The NFL, after witnessing how ugly things had already become, decided to step in and mediate between Modell and Cleveland. By February 1996, a compromise was struck when Cleveland agreed to allow Modell to move the team to Baltimore in exchange for the Browns name, team history, and colors to remain in Cleveland. Modell would receive what technically amounted to an expansion franchise that would have a fresh start in Baltimore. However, Modell would get to keep all of the current Brown’s contracts of players, coaches, and other personnel as part of his new team. Also part of the deal was that the Browns would remain deactivated for three years, while the NFL and Cleveland could search for a new ownership group and have time to build a new stadium for the team. The $175 million dollars that had been allocated to renovating Municipal Stadium would now be used to construct a new home for the Browns, with an additional $48 million provided by the NFL. Modell, seen here shocked when presumably, he learned that he was also ordered to pay Cleveland $9.3 million dollars to make up for lost taxes and income revenue, plus another $2.25 million to cover the city’s legal fees. The last part of the deal was that the future Browns team must be placed in the same division as the Bengals and the Steelers, to continue their long standing rivalries. The league held a vote of the owners to approve of the deal, with it being approved by a 25-2 margin, with the two “No” votes coming from Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney and Buffalo’s Ralph Wilso, while there were also three abstentions (AB-SEN-TIONS). After the approval of the deal, the NFL setup the Cleveland Browns Trust, which would help facilitate the Browns return. The NFL hired Bill Futterer (FUT-TER-ER) as the trust’s president, who had helped both the Charlotte Hornets and Carolina Panthers come to North Carolina as expansion teams. The trust’s main job was to help oversee the construction of a new stadium, sell season tickets, the leasing of stadium suites, and the overall general marketing of the team.
On November 4, 1996 almost a full year after Modell’s announcement that the Browns would be leaving, the demolition of Municipal Stadium began and was completed by early 1997. On the exact same site, construction on a brand new stadium started on May 15, 1997 and cost $283 million dollars to build. The new stadium would be called, “Cleveland Browns Stadium”, and later changed to “FirstEngergy Stadium” as it’s known today. During this time, the NFL began the search for a new ownership group for the Browns. Many different hopeful investors appeared, like a group lead by HBO founder Charles Dolan and former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar, other interested parties were former Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula, comedian Bill Cosby (the Browns definitely dodged a bullet on that one). But the NFL settled on one person who had been very close to the Browns situation for many years, Al Lerner, yep the same Al Lerner who had helped convince Art Modell that he needed to move the Browns out of Cleveland. Lener bought the team for $530 million dollars in September 1998. Former 49ers president and CEO Carmon Policy became a minority owner in the Browns, owning a 10 percent stake and also becoming the team’s president running the day to day operations. While Modell’s team in Baltimore technically was considered an expansion team, the new Browns team needed to have an expansion draft in order to fill out their roster (because Modell had taken all of the old Browns players contracts with him when he moved). A special expansion draft was held on February 9, 1999 where the Browns were able to select from 150 unprotected players from the other 30 NFL teams. Cleveland selected center Jim Pyne (PINE) from the Detroit Lions as their first expansion draft pick. The Browns were also given the first pick in the regular NFL draft that took place between April 17-18, 1999, where the team selected quarterback Tim Couch from Kentucky as the number one overall pick. The first game that the newly reactivated Browns played was the annual Hall of Fame game on August 9, 1999, in a matchup against the Dallas Cowboys. A little over a month later, the Browns opened the regular season against their old rivals the Steelers on September 12, 1999. The game turned out to be an absolute blowout, with Pittsburgh winning 43-0, which turned out to be the first of seven straight losses in a row (But, hey at least football was back in Cleveland, right?)
The Ravens Take Flight
Once Modell got settled in Baltimore, he decided to clean house, starting with the firing of the Brown’s old head coach Bill Belichick. Belichick struggled to turn the team around early in his tenure as head coach, but managed to reach the playoffs with the Browns in 1995. Belichick’s replacement would be Ted Marchibroda (March-E-BRO-Da), who had previously been the head coach of the Baltimore Colts from 1975 to ‘79. This made Marchibroda the only person to coach both iterations of Baltimore’s NFL teams. On deciding on a name, after a failed attempt by Modell to try and buy the Colts name back from Indianapolis for $5 million dollars, the team settled on “The Ravens” as the team’s new nickname which came from fan surveys and focus groups. This was in reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven”, as well as Poe’s connection with Balitmore having lived there later in life and being buried there. The Ravens moving into town had ripple effects of its own as well, as Baltimore’s only other professional football team at the time the Stallions out of the Canadian Football League felt they had no choice but to relocate themselves. The Stallions had been a successful team, and were the reigning Grey Cup champions but economically they were no match to try and compete with the NFL for market share. The Stallions, after deciding to move to Montreal, reclaimed the old Montreal Alouettes (AL-OO-ETZ) team name (who had ceased operations before the 1987 season). The Alouettes coincidentally much like the Browns, were formally recognized by the Canadian Football League as having resumed operations with their previous history fully intact. Jumping back to Baltimore, after the Colts left in 1984, the team’s marching band had remained loyal to the city of Baltimore, waiting for the moment that a new team would arrive. When that time came, and the Ravens came into existence, the team formally adopted the old Colt’s Marching Band and rebranded them as “Baltimore’s Marching Ravens”. Modell had actually already established a relationship with the band years prior, when he invited them to play at halftime during a Cleveland Browns game, jokingly remarking that booking the band was “cheap”.
And speaking of cheap, Modell himself would again run into financial trouble not long after the Ravens began play in 1996. Unlike virtually all of the other owners, Modell was hardly a wealthy man himself outside of the appreciation of his football team. Due to his ongoing financial struggles, the NFL finally had enough and essentially forced Modell to sell the Ravens in 2000. Early that year, the league approved of businessman Steve Bisciotti (BISH-SHOTY) buying a 49 percent stake in the team, leaving Modell with a slim 51 percent majority in ownership. Part of the deal was that Bisciotti had the right to purchase the remaining half of the team after four years, which he later did on April 8. 2004 for $325 million dollars. After the sale, Modell retired and later passed away on September 6, 2012 at the age of 87, having never returned to Cleveland before his death. The Ravens dedicated the 2012 season in his memory, while the rest of the league commemorated his life the following Sunday after his passing. All of the league, except one team, the Cleveland Browns, who did not commemorate or even mention Art Modell’s name that day. This was at the request of Modell’s adopted son David, who felt that it was better to not upset the Browns fans by even mentioning his father’s name. Understandably, the wounds ran deep in Cleveland, with the original Browns leaving the city not just having a huge impact on Cleveland but around the football world as well. Between 1995 and 2006, 16 brand new NFL stadiums were constructed, with many of them due to pressure team’s put on their cities to get them built, in the wake of the Browns leaving Cleveland. To name a few, The Lions, Seahawks, Broncos, Buccaneers, Cardinals, and Eagles all received new facilities in their towns. While the Houston Oilers actually made good on their threat to leave, with Bud Adams moving the franchise to Tennessee and becoming the Titans.
So what did you guys think of the Browns leaving Cleveland, and then being reactivated three years later? And what did you think about Art Modell never coming back to Cleveland? Let me know in the comments below!