Earning His Stripes


In his prime, legendary foodball coach Paul Brown exercised complete control. But when Brown himself was sidelined by Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, only one thing could bring him back to the sport he loved: a team of his own. In 1968, that team was the Cincinnati Bengals. Here’s how he found the backers, negotiated with the league, rallied the governor, and sweet-talked a city into giving him another chance to call the shots.

It is not hyperbole in the slightest to say that Paul Brown changed the game of football. His ideas and coaching philosophies went a long way toward creating modern professional football as it is still played today. His innovations? He started the practice of giving players psychological exams and IQ tests; switched from evaluating players’ speed in 100-yard sprints to timing 40-yard dashes; developed the first face mask (after his quarterback had to get 15 stitches inside his mouth following an altercation during a game); pioneered the use of intricate pass patterns and the zone pass defense; and was the first to put a radio receiver in his quarterback’s helmet so he could call in plays from the sidelines. He also talked Pete Rozelle into throwing his hat into the ring for the NFL commissioner position. If those were his only contributions to the game, that would be an impressive résumé. But he was also a winner. He coached Massillon’s Washington High School Tigers to six consecutive state titles and led the Ohio State Buckeyes to their first-ever national championship. Then, in 1945, he took a job with an unnamed team in a fledgling professional football league.

That team became the Cleveland Browns, and in those heady days, Brown led them to five straight championships. But the good times couldn’t last—on the field or off. After clashing with owner Art Modell, he was forced out of his beloved Browns in 1963, and spent four years nursing his wounded ego and laying the groundwork for his return to pro ball. As Andrew O’Toole details in Paul Brown: The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Football’s Most Innovative Coach (Clerisy Press), when Brown’s opportunity finally knocked, he leapt at the chance to get back in the game. But he had learned his lesson in Cleveland: This time, he would have total control.

ON JANUARY 24, 1961, a group of New York investors, led by Arthur Modell, a television producer and advertising salesman who was also a rabid football fan, beat out an assemblage of Cleveland businessmen in a bid to buy the Cleveland Browns. Negotiating with his new coach, Modell struck a deal that would give Paul Brown $500,000 for his stock in the team. The catch? The coach would no longer command off-the-field ventures, business, and publicity. Chain-smoking Marlboros, Modell looked the part of the young hotshot as he tooled around town in his Cadillac. He was a hound for the spotlight, a quality that Brown found abhorrent.

Their relationship was rocky from the start and studded with small power moves on both men’s parts that only ratcheted up their mutual disregard—no matter how much they may have played it down in the press. Brown angered the new owner by finagling a trade with the Redskins for Ernie Davis without ever telling Modell. Modell frequently flaunted team rules by taking players out for a night on the town, disregarding Brown’s ban on alcohol. Meanwhile, on the field, losses mounted. The championship seasons that Brown had brought to Cleveland soon became distant memories. Ultimately, Brown’s arrogance, his failure to produce, and his barely veiled distaste for Modell forced the new owner to act.

In early 1963, after a disappointing 7-6-1 season, Modell called Brown and asked the coach to meet him at the team’s offices. “You have to step down as coach and general manager,” Modell told him.

Brown was thunderstruck. His ego would not allow for the possibility that this young upstart from Brooklyn possessed the audacity to fire him. Finally, the coach spoke. “I really don’t know what to say,” he said. “I have a contract for six years.” The contract would be fulfilled, Modell assured him. He would be reassigned and given different responsibilities. As Modell droned on, Brown’s thoughts wandered. He can’t do this to me. I have a contract. This is my team. As if in a daze, Brown left Modell’s office, got in his car, and drove home to Shaker Heights. After breaking the news to his wife, Katy, he picked up the telephone and called his son Mike. Mike immediately sensed something was amiss. Paul’s voice betrayed his emotional state. It was the first time—in fact, it would be the only time—Mike ever heard his father’s voice waver. “He’s taken my team from me,” he said.

The next day Brown went to the office, where he found his belongings already packed neatly in several cardboard boxes. What cut the most was that his entire staff was present, studying game film as if nothing had happened. Where was the solidarity, the loyalty? he wondered. Why weren’t they walking out on Modell and all his nonsense? These men all had families to support and mortgages to pay, of course. But none of that mattered to Brown; none of it entered his mind.

Brown needed to gather his thoughts. He also needed to sit down with his attorney, and meet with Modell and the team’s lawyers. “I’m on the shelf now,” he told reporters afterward. “A vice president of I don’t know what. I’m under contract for six more years. I can’t take another job without breaching the contract…. My life is coaching—this has been my life, next to my family.” Here he began to mumble. “I guess Art can do this to me.”

The reporters were taken aback. Brown was always in control, no matter what the situation was. Suddenly he looked worn, and interminably old.

THERE WAS NOTHING keeping Brown in Cleveland, so when he and Katy took a trip to La Jolla, California, and loved it, they decided to relocate. Brown spent his days playing golf and walking on the beach with his wife. Still, football was never far from his mind. La Jolla allowed easy access to American Football League games in San Diego, 12 miles to the south, and the National Football League in Los Angeles, 115 miles to the north. In truth, Brown only went to the games to see friends who ventured out to the coast. Former Browns assistant coach Weeb Ewbank visited Brown in La Jolla when his New York Jets came west to meet the San Diego Chargers. The visit had a melancholy tinge to it. Before Ewbank took his leave, Brown reached out. “Weeb,” he told his old friend, holding his arm tightly, “don’t ever let them do this to you. I used to think losing was the worst thing in the world, but it’s not. No football at all is worse.”

Despite—or rather because of—his wistful state of mind, Brown was alert to any opportunity to return to coaching. In early 1964, Jerry Wolman, who had just purchased the Philadelphia Eagles with Ed Snider, arranged to interview Brown for the Eagles’ head coaching job. It did not go well. To Brown, Snider and Wolman, with their casual attire and perceived lack of respect, were not real football men. To Snider and Wolman, Brown’s clear ire toward Modell and the Browns made a working agreement impossible. The following year, rumors had Brown talking to the group behind the new Atlanta franchise. Brown denied the rumor, while admitting, “I’ve said on several occasions that if the right opportunity is there, I’d be interested.”

Not long after, in the fall of 1965, William Hackett, a veterinarian who had played for Brown at Ohio State, approached his old coach with a message from John Galbreath, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hackett asked Brown if he was interested in becoming commissioner of baseball. Brown told Hackett no, then added: “What I would like to do is form the 16th NFL club.” Hackett asked Brown what it would take to make that happen. “I need some people who will back me,” he said. “Someone who will give me total control. People I could trust.”

Brown knew what he wanted: his own team. Control over the whole operation. He could see that the NFL was on the verge of expanding. The addition of Atlanta left the league with an uneven number of teams—15—meaning each week one club would have a bye. This situation wasn’t practical, Brown reasoned, and would definitely change. The Brown family had done its homework. Mike, who had graduated from Dartmouth in 1957, then proceeded on to Harvard, where he earned his law degree, had joined the Browns as legal counsel. He left the Browns when his father was fired, and had conducted an independent study of all major cities without professional football—including Boston, New Orleans, Seattle, Houston, Montreal, Phoenix, Memphis, and Portland, analyzing population, economy, stadium facilities, and competition—and concluded that Cincinnati was the most attractive. Paul Brown relayed this information to Hackett, saying that he was so sure of the prospect he was willing to invest a substantial amount of his own capital in the team.

Hackett immediately thought of someone who might be interested in backing Brown: John Sawyer, president of Orelton Farms in London, Ohio. Sawyer had the financial wherewithal and the right friends to make something like this a reality. A successful businessman in his own right, Sawyer came from old money in Cincinnati and his father, Charles, had served as secretary of commerce under Harry Truman.

The more Hackett thought about it, the more Cincinnati seemed to be a perfect fit for pro football; Sawyer’s influence in the Queen City would be helpful, and Hackett knew he would be content to stay in the background. Hackett contacted Sawyer and he and Brown tossed the idea around. The more they talked, the more they realized this could work: Pro football in Cincinnati, Paul Brown back in Ohio where he belonged.

Eventually, Sawyer invited Brown to his Madison County farm. The meeting was fruitful. The coach already knew that he could trust his old guard Hackett, and this Sawyer fellow seemed like a stand-up guy. The next step was to approach Governor James Rhodes, an old acquaintance of Brown’s. Brown felt it was imperative that Rhodes be on board with the plan; the governor’s influence would be vital in stroking the right business egos and maneuvering through the political minefield that a massive civic project like this could cause. A new stadium would have to be built in Cincinnati or the NFL wouldn’t give the city a second look.

The whole thing came together with surprising speed. A corporation was formed: Ohio Valley Sports, Inc. Sawyer served as president, Brown as vice president, general manager, and coach. Hackett performed the duties of treasurer, and Brown’s son Mike would be the organization’s secretary and business manager.  

On Tuesday, December 14, 1965, the group held a luncheon at the Sheraton Gibson in downtown Cincinnati to announce their intentions. Invited to the gathering were 125 leading businessmen and civic leaders as well as Cincinnati’s sporting press. The revelation that a group led by Paul Brown wanted to bring professional football—NFL football—to their fair city was as pleasing as it was shocking. “We’ll do our best to bring [a] franchise here,” Brown told the business leaders. “We’ll be operating and ready to take a go at it, but time is of the essence.”

BROWN WAS REFERRING to the NFL league meetings, which were scheduled to be held in Palm Beach on Valentine’s Day. The league’s owners were to decide then which city would be granted the 16th franchise. Cincinnati faced stiff competition, but it ranked high in many of the factors being used by the NFL in comparing cities, such as population, per capita income, and highway access. “I’m encouraged,” Brown told the crowd, “and I believe you’re in a better position than you realize.”

Most important, though, was the establishment of funding for a new stadium. The existing options were Crosley Field and Nippert Stadium. Crosley was primarily a 28,000-seat baseball park, and Nippert was the home field for the University of Cincinnati Bearcats. Nippert held just 29,000 fans, well under the amount the NFL required. Within a week of the luncheon at the Sheraton Gibson, the governor, city council, county commissioners, and a newly formed stadium steering committee met. Three sites were discussed: just south of Crosley Field, the riverfront, and Blue Ash. Within a few weeks,  Sharonville and Springdale also expressed interest in housing a stadium.

Local sportswriter Pat Harmon, who was also editor of The Cincinnati Post, had approached NFL commissioners Bert Bell and Pete Rozelle five times, and Joe Foss of the AFL on three occasions, with the idea of bringing professional football to his hometown. The answer was always the same: Get some people with some money to invest and then come see us. Harmon was therefore delighted with the Brown group’s gambit. “I’ve given up any other jobs I’ve had a chance for,” Brown told Harmon. He was done with the game of musical chairs coaches were forced to play. “I’m going to find out if we have a chance to operate a National Football League franchise in Cincinnati—and I think we have a great chance.”

The fact that the word “we” had crept into Brown’s dialogue indicated he had thrown himself headlong into this effort. Brown was commuting back and forth between La Jolla and Cincinnati, keeping Pete Rozelle up-to-date with the group’s progress. James Rhodes, too, was busy pushing, trying to drum up support. The governor vowed that he would speak with every NFL owner prior to the league meetings, but his first priority was Art Modell. On the second day of 1966, Rhodes was Modell’s guest at Lambeau Field in Green Bay as the Browns took on the Packers for the NFL championship. Although 335 miles separated Cincinnati from Cleveland, the city was still considered Browns territory, as the team’s radio network also ventured into southwestern Ohio. Surprisingly, Modell did not hesitate when Rhodes raised the topic of Cincinnati entering the league. He was on board, he assured Rhodes, and he would do anything he could to promote the city to his fellow owners.

Doing his part, Brown flew to Los Angeles two days before the Pro Bowl to meet with Rozelle and update him on the group’s progress. Rozelle was encouraging, but he didn’t promise Brown anything. Truth be told, the commissioner was beginning to think that nothing would be decided in February. There were more pressing issues facing the league.

FOR SOME TIME, rumors had been circulating that the NFL was seeking a merger with the upstart American Football League. The whispers turned into full-blown negotiations in April 1966. By June, Rozelle announced that the rival leagues had come to an accord. Escalating player bidding, which proved costly to both leagues, contributed to the merger, especially the $400,000 paid by the AFL’s New York Jets for quarterback Joe Namath. The NFL and AFL agreed to unite under one commissioner and play as a single league by 1970. In the meantime, the NFL and AFL consented to meet in a championship game and to hold a common draft beginning in January 1967.

With the terms of the merger settled, the next step was securing congressional approval. Monopolistic concerns were voiced and lawsuits were threatened. Much maneuvering was necessary by Rozelle to convince congressional leaders to OK a merger exemption. Two legislators—Louisiana Senator Russell Long and Representative Hale Boggs—met with the commissioner. Before he cast his vote, Boggs waited for Rozelle’s promise that New Orleans would be granted the next expansion franchise. Rozelle assured the congressman that he could “count on” the owners’ approval. Within the hour, the merger exemption had passed.

On November 1, from the ballroom of New Orleans’s Pontchartrain Hotel, Rozelle announced that the Crescent City would be awarded the NFL’s 16th franchise. The day before, he had visited Brown to tell him the league’s decision. Traveling to Cincinnati with Rozelle were members of the AFL’s expansion committee. Brown’s disappointment was masked by his grateful feeling for the support he was given by his friends in the NFL. The AFL, which Brown gave no consideration just a short while earlier, suddenly looked like a viable option. “I sort of realized from the start that everyone had his own ideas on which city should get the 16th NFL franchise,” Brown admitted later. “And Louisiana did lead the way in saving the merger. It was a strategic situation.”

In the end, he came away from the meeting with Rozelle and the AFL expansion committee emboldened. Rozelle informed Brown that Cincinnati had the inside track for becoming the next AFL club. The only competition was Seattle, where voters had turned down a stadium bond issue only two months earlier. “I believe we can have the franchise for 1968 if assurance is given that a new stadium in Cincinnati will be ready in time,” Brown told reporters afterward.

Just a few months earlier, Cincinnati City Council had approved funding for a new stadium. While Brown’s group agreed to a long-term lease—in the event they were granted a franchise—Reds owner Bill DeWitt balked at such a proposition. He was adamant that the Reds should play in a publicly financed park, but he did not want to sign a long-term lease.

Pressure began to mount on the Reds owner but he refused to yield. The local press portrayed him as a villain, the culprit keeping the city from getting professional football. In the pages of _The Cincinnati Enquirer, publisher Francis Dale was relentless in his criticism of DeWitt’s determined stance that the riverfront location was too risky. Boxed in by the river on one side and a highway on the other, DeWitt felt the site would have limited access for fans. He preferred a suburban spot. Put the park where the people are, he argued.

But location wasn’t DeWitt’s only misgiving. He did not like the idea of a dual-purpose stadium. Baseball clubs and football teams have different needs, why force them to cohabit? DeWitt’s thinking went against the grain in 1966. Multipurpose stadia were being built or planned in cities throughout the country. These facilities saved the taxpayer money; it was the two-birds-with-one-stone philosophy.

While DeWitt may have come around to sharing the new park with a football team, a long-term lease without an escape clause was unacceptable to him. He was civic-minded—to a point. If this was what the city wanted, he wouldn’t stand in the way. Instead, on December 6, DeWitt announced he would sell the team. A diverse group of local businessmen and companies, including _Enquirer publisher Francis Dale, James and William Williams, Louis Nippert, and Dave Gamble, were part of the new Reds ownership group. Also among the investors were prominent members of the football assemblage: Bill Hackett, Dutch Knowlton, and John Sawyer. The new ownership agreed to a 40-year lease on the day of the sale, eliminating what appeared to be the final obstacle for Brown’s goal.

By all indications it was a done deal. Cincinnati would now be granted the AFL expansion outfit. But months dragged on with no movement or official word. At home in La Jolla, Brown spoke with Jack Murphy of the _San Diego Union in mid-May. He was guardedly optimistic, but the wait was killing him. “I have sort of a precedent of not living it up until a thing is completed,” he said. “It’s too early to say anything fancy…I must not build up my hopes about this Cincinnati franchise. I don’t want it to break everybody’s heart.”

ON MAY 23, 1967, the AFL search committee came to Cincinnati along with Rozelle. The league invited Governor Rhodes to sit in on their discussions, joining City Councilmen Eugene Ruehlmann and Myron Bush, as well as Utilities Director Wallace Powers and City Manager William Wienman. Through the course of the day, the committee stalled, then hemmed and hawed as hour ran into hour. Rhodes finally spoke up. “You invited me up here,” he grumbled. “Do something. I came here to hear Cincinnati awarded a franchise and I won’t leave until it’s done.”

Despite the presence of the AFL owners, the NFL—more specifically Pete Rozelle—was calling the shots. Finally, the search committee passed the resolution granting Cincinnati the 10th AFL franchise. The new team would pay $8 million for the privilege of joining the exclusive club. The entire fee, as per the merger agreement, was to be split among NFL teams. Rozelle promised that the ownership group would be named in a month.

Though Brown had dominated the headlines for the previous 18 months, his wasn’t the only group vying for control of the franchise. Two anonymous factions came forward immediately following the city’s approval. The only information given on either of these groups was that one was composed of Texans. A third conglomerate was headed by Len Troglio, a food broker from Columbus. But Brown’s chief competition was headed by John A. “Socko” Wiethe. Though his pedigree paled in comparison to Brown’s, Wiethe had his fair share of experience in the game. Following three years of lettering at Xavier University, he turned pro and played briefly with the Cincinnati Bengals (an earlier iteration of the team, which existed from 1937 to 1941) before spending time with the Detroit Lions from 1939 to 1942. After he retired from football, Wiethe joined the bar and made a name for himself locally as an aggressive attorney and the Democratic chairman of Cincinnati, a position that allowed him to exercise substantial political power in Hamilton County. Wiethe hoped that his political influence would persuade the football power brokers to select his group over the more glamorous Brown contingent.

To try to match Brown’s credentials, Wiethe needed to hire a powerful football personality, one who could rival Brown’s reputation. He claimed to have talked with 15 potential coaches, among them Woody Hayes, Bud Wilkinson, Ara Parseghian, and Bear Bryant. What Socko wasn’t telling the media was that Bryant had verbally committed to coach the team. “He’s going to be the first millionaire coach,” Wiethe told confidantes.

Unlike the other groups competing with Brown, Wiethe’s wasn’t a fly-by-night venture. He had a name for the team—the Romans—as well as a logo, which featured a gladiator. Most important, he had significant capital behind his effort, including money from Charles Fleischmann’s yeast fortune. No one on the national level was taking Socko seriously, but he was homegrown, a Cincinnatian through and through, a fact that he never failed to tout. But even if the press and the public were overlooking Wiethe, Pete Rozelle wasn’t. If nothing else, Wiethe provided the league with leverage when dealing with Brown and his backers.

In the last week of August 1967, Brown was in New York to meet with Rozelle and AFL President Milt Woodward. Some issues had already been resolved. To counter critics’ complaints that the group didn’t have enough of a Cincinnati connection, Brown’s group expanded to include a new, native group of investors: Francis Dale, William and James Williams, David Gamble, and Louis Nippert. This addition pleased Rozelle, but there still were other concerns left to resolve. First, Brown’s remaining stock in the Browns needed to be disposed of. Second, the AFL had made some significant alterations concerning television revenue. For their first two years, the Cincinnati owners would not share in television receipts, a loss of an estimated $1 million. In addition, the system for creating the new team had been changed appreciably. Cincinnati would choose from the remnants after each AFL club “froze” 29 players.

Brown did not accept such limitations graciously. These rules would force Cincinnati to field an inferior club, and interest in the team would disappear quickly if the league insisted on tying his hands in this manner. Brown was so adamant that he threatened to withdraw his group’s bid. His obstinacy threw the whole process into chaos.

Finally, in mid-September, Brown was given an ultimatum—sign on to the franchise agreement as-is or get out. The AFL meant business. Socko Wiethe was contacted and told to stand by. Brown’s hands were tied. Publicly, he decried what the league had done. Privately, he accepted the terms. But he also made it clear: Don’t expect him to do any more for the next expansion club to come down the line.

On September 26, 1967, in front of a packed ballroom at the Sheraton Gibson, Governor James A. Rhodes stepped to the podium and declared, “This is the greatest step in the history of the city.” Rhodes had reason to bask in the spotlight; he had championed the endeavor from the beginning. But he knew who everyone wanted to hear from, and after a few words of self-congratulation he introduced “Mr. Football himself” to the crowd.

Sporting a glowing smile, Brown stepped forward and shook the governor’s hand. He then turned and addressed the crowd. “This is like coming home. I’m living again. It’s a happy day for me and I hope it turns out to be a happy day for Cincinnati and its environs.”

Brown then fielded a handful of questions from the reporters present. “Will you coach the team?” The query wasn’t so peculiar. Many wondered if Brown, at his advanced age of 59, would return to the sideline. “I’ll go through the tough part at the beginning,” he responded, “but I have no timetable on how long I’ll coach.”

There was much work to do. Finding an office, a training camp site, signing the stadium lease, selecting a team name, creating a radio network, and choosing a practice location…the list was extensive and diverse. Periodically, the city’s utility director, Wally Powers, would check with Brown concerning stadium construction. The Reds were full of demands, including the color of the ballpark’s seats (red). Brown, however, worried little about such trivial matters. “I don’t care what color they are,” he told Powers. “I want them filled with asses.”

From Paul Brown: The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Football’s Most Innovative Coach by Andrew O’Toole. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission of Clerisy Press.

Originally published in the September 2008 issue.

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