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Moment 26: Enter Art

Steve King, Staff Writer


Forget, for a minute, what happened to the Browns in 1995.

Yes, we realize that's like trying to forget getting run over by a freight train or having your heart ripped out of your chest, but please try anyway.

Good. Now sit and relax, because we're going to talk about that man, Art Modell.

On a list of the 60 biggest moments in Browns history, he unquestionably deserves two prominent places. One, of course, focuses on the events of 1995, which resulted in his moving the club to Baltimore.

But the other centers on the beginning of his tenure in Cleveland football. That occurred on March 21, 1961 when Modell purchased the Browns for the then unheard of price of $4 million from Dave R. Jones. Jones had owned the club since June 10, 1953, when he bought it from the original owner, Mickey McBride.

Modell, who was just three months shy of turning 36 at the time, did not have any local ties when he came to Cleveland. He was a native New Yorker who was in the advertising and television production business. He loved football and the NFL and looked at the purchase of the high-profile, highly-successful Browns as a way to enter that elite fraternity of team owners.

"I came to Cleveland as an out-of-towner and purchased one of the great loves of this community," Modell said in 1982. "I think I understand that responsibility and I'm thankful for the support the people of this area have given me and my family."

Even before the events of 1995, Modell's 34-year tenure with the Browns was marked by change, innovation and controversy. Upon arrival, he became a mover and shaker not just in Cleveland but in the NFL as a whole, being a key person in a number of events that would forever shape the league, most of them in a positive and extremely profitable way.

Other than the moving of the team, Modell's biggest and most controversial decision occurred when, a little over two years after his purchase of the Browns, he fired founding head coach and general manager Paul Brown, for whom the club was named. Fortunately for Modell, the immediate impact of the event, though earthshaking locally and nationally, was actually minimized somewhat by the fact there was a newspaper strike in Cleveland at the time. Today, the other various media outlets would have gladly taken up the coverage slack, but they didn't exist then.

The move was obviously not popular, especially with longtime Browns fans, even though Brown's 1962 team was his second-worst ever record-wise at 7-6-1. What bailed out Modell to a great extent, however, was the fact the man he hired in Brown's place, Browns assistant coach Blanton Collier, was well-liked and well-respected - and competent. His 1963 team just barely missed making it to the NFL Championship Game and his '64 club won the title - the Browns' last - with a 27-0 decision over the Baltimore Colts.

The Browns also made it to the title game in 1965, '68 and '69 and got to the playoffs in '67.

And as all this was going on, Modell was quickly moving up the ladder in the NFL, serving as league president, chairman of the league's Television Committee for 31 years (during which TV revenues skyrocketed), a member of the NFL-AFL Merger Committee, chairman of NFL Films and a member of the Finance Committee.

When he volunteered the Browns to move to the AFC, he broke the stalemate that threatened the completion of the NFL-AFL merger. He then volunteered the Browns for something else - the host of the first Monday Night Football game against the New Yotrk Jets in 1970.

In addition, he came up with the idea of hosting what turned out to be the highly-popular and highly-successful preseason doubleheaders from 1962-71.

Not bad for someone who dropped out of high school at the age of 15 to help provide money during the Depression for his financially-strapped family after the death of his father. His first full-time job was as an electrician's helper, cleaning out the hulls of ships in a Brooklyn shipyard.

Modell's last 15 years in Cleveland were about as lively as you can get. The 1980 Kardiac Kids Browns lost to the Oakland Raiders in the famous Red Right 88 playoff game.

In the Bernie Kosar era from 1985-89, the Browns made it to the playoffs five times, won four Central Division titles and got to three AFC Championship Games, losing on each occasion, including twice at the very end.

Bill Belichick was hired as head coach in 1991, and at the midway point of the '93 season, the popular Kosar was released, causing a firestorm among the fans.

Modell's next-to-last Browns team, in 1994, made the playoffs and set club defensive records.

His 3 ½-decade tenure was an interesting, eventful and, for the most part, successful time in Browns history. If only that were the legacy Art Modell left behind.