The Inheritance

Paul Brown didn’t buy a football franchise—he created it. The stubborn, standoffish style of his progeny? That’s all part of keeping it in the family.
The Browns

Illustration by Jesse Lenz

There’s a small but visible water stain on Mike Brown’s black-and-orange striped tie as he settles in front of a horde of reporters at the annual Bengals media luncheon, held each July to kick off the team’s training camp and upcoming season. Condensation droplets roll down his soda glass in the East Club Lounge of Paul Brown Stadium as sunlight pours in through the massive wall of windows overlooking The Banks. He projects barely veiled discomfort, the look of a man who does not suffer fools gladly. Wrinkles radiate out around his soft, deep-set eyes, which have a way of staring through whatever is directly in front of him. The stern lines on his forehead and smooth bald pate signal no nonsense. His hesitant smile does its best to mask the fact he’d rather be anywhere but here.

As reporters flip over fresh sheets of notebook paper, one of them asks Brown about the inherent challenge for teams in today’s National Football League managing the ever-increasing cost of their top players.

“Well, you know me,” Brown mutters, the creases of those eyes spreading as his smile slowly turns more genuine. “I just don’t like to spend money.”

The quip is a rare jolt of self-deprecating humor from the 79-year-old Bengals owner, a man well-known for keeping his emotions in check and his management decisions as close to the vest as possible. The luncheon is one of the few (if not only) times Brown speaks with the media each season, granting a handful of television interviews and a few minutes of group questions before resuming his customary seen-but-not-heard position—watching practice from the sideline of the practice field, often seated alone in a golf cart, or taking in the games with his family on Sundays from the owner’s box. That same quiet, private persona has long defined the Brown family, and it’s part of the reason they remain something of a mystery in the city of Cincinnati.

They’re outsiders in many ways, a family from northern Ohio who moved here to found a professional football team in the late 1960s and watch it evolve, with the help of some deft business acumen, into an NFL franchise currently valued at just shy of a billion dollars. Through it all, they’ve remained the same: taciturn, closed off, and aloof when it comes to the fans and media; largely invisible when it comes to civic philanthropy and involvement; and aggressively obstinate in dealing with local government over the stadium deal. As a result, there’s no love lost between the family and those in the community, most of whom know only enough to loathe them. But the truth is, even after nearly 50 years of owning one of the city’s most visible and valuable institutions, we really don’t know much about them at all. And that’s just the way they like it.

I was drafted in 1968, and the first meeting when Paul Brown walked in, he had the old ‘CB’ hat on, a white T-shirt, tan pants, a black belt, black shoes, and white socks. He was my head coach for the first six years of my career, and he started every meeting in the same damn outfit.
—Bob Trumpy, Bengals tight end, 1968–’77; longtime radio and TV broadcaster

By 1967, Paul Brown was itching to get back into professional football. Four years had passed since Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, had fired him as coach and general manager of the team that bore his surname. For a man who spent his entire adult life coaching the game of football, it was the worst possible disgrace  Brown the Elder could endure. It took him only a few years away from the sideline to realize he wanted back into the game, but he also resolved something equally important: He would never allow what took place in Cleveland to happen to him again. He needed—demanded—complete control. And starting his own team was the best way to accomplish this.

His son, Mike—a Dartmouth- and Harvard-educated lawyer who provided legal counsel in his father’s final seasons with the Browns—conducted a very pragmatic study to see which major cities offered the most attractive location for a pro football team; ultimately, he settled on Cincinnati. Paul then found local investors—John Sawyer and Austin “Dutch” Knowlton, most notably—who were wealthy enough to put up the majority of the money yet still willing to relinquish control of the franchise to him. In September 1967, Paul Brown and the city of Cincinnati were officially awarded the 10th franchise of the American Football League (AFL), which was already slated to merge with the NFL and become a single league by 1970. Paul owned only 10 percent of the $8 million franchise, but with the approval of the other shareholders, he had what he truly wanted: autonomy over the business and football operations.

“He was not going to have what happened to him in Cleveland with Art Modell happen again,” says Andrew O’Toole, author of Paul Brown: The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Football’s Most Innovative Coach. “He was adamant about that.”

Not that it bothered anyone. This was Paul Brown, a football icon; his tenacious attitude was part of the package.

“Paul Brown was always the ultimate authority,” says Reggie Williams, a linebacker for the Bengals from 1976 to 1989. “I was actually in respectful fear of Paul Brown as a rookie, because I had heard from the veterans that he cut a punter at halftime, in front of the team, on the road. He had to find his own way back to Cincinnati.”

“We had to be the only team that practiced how to stand for the national anthem,” recalls Trumpy. “And he was dead serious about it.”

PB—as everyone called him—was clearly the man in charge, but the ownership was a family affair. Mike and Pete, two of Paul’s sons, were constantly around—games, practices, coaches’ meetings—despite the fact that few players or media members knew what their actual job descriptions were. “[Mike] played no specific role that I recognized,” says Trumpy. “He was just there, and we knew he was Paul’s son. Pete: same thing. We knew he was a scout, but we didn’t know where he scouted, who he scouted. No idea.”

For all of his straitlaced, small-circle tendencies, Paul Brown’s personality and success endeared him to both his players and the fans. He led the fledgling Bengals to the playoffs three times as head coach between 1968 and 1975, and served as president and general manager during the team’s Super Bowl runs in 1981 and 1988.

“When I came back as head coach, my office was in one end of the old Riverfront Stadium, and his office was at the other end,” says Sam Wyche, who had been a backup quarterback for the Bengals in the late ’60s and went on to become head coach from 1984 to 1991. “My one regret is that I didn’t walk down to the other end of the hall with a Styrofoam cup of coffee every morning and just say, Whatever is on your mind, PB, just talk. I’m listening, I’m soaking it up. I did that a lot, but I didn’t do it every day, and I should have.”

Still, his exit from Cleveland had a significant influence on his time in Cincinnati, as well as a deep and lasting impact on the way the family ran the franchise after his death. “Paul used to say that the most important word in sports is loyalty,” says Wyche. “If you were loyal to Paul, he was loyal to you. No doubt about it.”

ike is just buttoned-down and not outwardly sentimental. He doesn’t expect anybody to be nice to the family when they screw up, and doesn’t really need the praise when they don’t.

—Paul Daugherty, longtime sports columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer

Of the little we know about Mike Brown, not much of it is particularly laudatory. Paul Brown passed away in August 1991 at the age of 82, a handful of weeks before the season kicked off. The father had been grooming his son to take over; with his death, ownership and the final say on all team matters officially passed to Mike, the Ivy League–educated lawyer and former Dartmouth quarterback. Like his father before him, Mike elected not to hire a general manager, choosing instead to handle all of the team’s football operations on his own. The results, however, were vastly different.

“He took too much on himself and was not very good at it,” says Daugherty. “[The Bengals] were not only the worst team in the NFL, they were arguably the worst team in professional sports. And it was entirely Mike’s show.”

From 1991 to 2002, the Bengals racked up a collective record of 55–137, recording zero seasons with a winning record and zero playoff appearances. In November 2010, following a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football, Mike Brown attained the dubious distinction of being the NFL owner to reach 200 losses in the fewest amount of games. “There was a decade where this franchise had no idea what it was doing, where it was going,” says Trumpy. “I thought decisions made by the front office were foolish decisions. I heard privately a lot of things that were done and said that made no football sense whatsoever.”

What made matters worse was the way Brown handled a decade of abominable seasons. He rarely revealed any remorse or disappointment over the team’s performance, or even acknowledged the franchise’s ineptitude. The bad press that came from a revolving cast of despondent head coaches (Dave Shula, Bruce Coslet, Dick LeBeau) and draft-pick busts (David Klingler, Dan Wilkinson, Akili Smith) was exacerbated by tone-deaf, ham-fisted management. There were hard-to-defend accusations of nepotism, too. Aside from Mike and his brother Pete, who became senior vice president of player personnel, Mike’s daughter Katie was made the executive vice president, his son Paul (whom everyone refers to as Paul Jr.) became vice president of player personnel, and Katie’s husband Troy Blackburn was given a position as vice president involved in business development. (All NFL and team finances are kept private, but a lawsuit regarding a 2007 court ruling on Dutch Knowlton’s estate revealed that those five members of the Brown family earned combined salaries of $3.9 million in 1999 and $3.6 million in 2001.)

Add to that the epic tales of the franchise’s miserliness—charging players for breakfast at the stadium; taking agents out to lunch at Wendy’s when negotiating player contracts; providing such low-quality locker room towels that in the mid-’90s, running back Ki-Jana Carter paid out of his own pocket to replace the team linens—and limited charitable involvement in the community. The criticism never appeared to bother Mike Brown. This is the man who once chuckled after fans lowered a sign in front of the owner’s box at Riverfront Stadium that read, “If it’s Brown flush it down.” Worst of all, in the eyes of many, was the lopsided lease agreement the team struck with Hamilton County in 1996 to build Paul Brown Stadium. After cynically threatening to relocate the Bengals to a new city, launching an all-points PR campaign to simultaneously scare and cajole the voters, and hiring a legal team that ran circles around the county’s own counsel, they (and we) got what The Wall Street Journal famously dubbed “one of the worst professional sports deals ever struck by a local government.” In subsequent years, the Brown family’s reputation has not been burnished by their inflexibility in dealings with the county over various terms and covenants in the lease, despite substantial blows to the local economy that were beyond the county’s control.

“I would always think to myself when I would go to cover games, Why would anybody be a Cincinnati Bengals fan?” says Josh Katzowitz, a football writer for CBS Sports and former sports reporter for the Cincinnati Post. “Why am I going to spend all of this money for no hope? For many, many years, it didn’t appear that Mike Brown cared about winning.”

Two things were of obvious importance to the Brown family: controlling as many shares of the team as possible, and reaping the benefits. Despite owning just 10 percent of the team at its inception, Paul Brown utilized profits to buy out minority owners during the franchise’s early years. Then in 1983, he sold 117 of his 118 shares to investor John Sawyer (while still retaining control of the team), with the proviso that Mike and Pete Brown could buy back all of Sawyer’s shares for $25,000 apiece as early as March 1, 1993. The deal also called for the Bengals to funnel all of the team’s profits from 1984 to 1993 (a total of $66 million) to its shareholders—which meant Sawyer and Knowlton got most of that money. Ten years later, when the magic date rolled around, the Brown family purchased 329 of Sawyer’s 330 shares for just over $8 million—less than a quarter of their value at the time—and assumed majority ownership. In 2011, according to Forbes, the Browns paid $200 million in cash to Dutch Knowlton’s estate for his 30 percent stake, giving the family more than 500 of the 586 franchise shares.

Two decades after his father’s death, Mike Brown ensured that what happened to his father would never happen to the family again. It was the epitome of family loyalty, the quintessential example of a son’s willingness to fulfill his father’s utmost desire, even if it perpetuated the team’s failure on the field. Still, it paid off. In August, Forbes calculated the franchise value of the Cincinnati Bengals at $990 million.

My favorite memory of Mike Brown: He was in my hospital room before my last season. I’d just had an appendectomy, and the week before I had my left knee operated on for a meniscus tear, and it was three weeks before the opening game. Mike is sitting there with Sam Wyche, and they were going to put me on the injured list to start the year. It would have ended for me a string of [seasons] starting at linebacker for the Bengals. And I asked Mike to give me one more chance: On that Thursday before the first game, if I can practice, let me start on Sunday. And he gave me that one last chance, even though I’m lying in the hospital bed with one leg up and a fresh set of sutures in my stomach, and I had an allergic reaction to the penicillin and had hives all over my body. Somehow he believed and trusted me enough to give me one chance to practice on Thursday and prove that I was capable of starting my last year in the NFL—which I successfully did. That one moment of trust will outweigh any periodic spat I’ve ever had with Mike Brown.
—Reggie Williams

To hear some people tell it, the Mike Brown we don’t know is the Mike Brown we wish we did. Those who do know him, who have worked for him, who have interacted with him over the years, consistently paint him as a smart, funny, friendly, and generous person. Not without faults or mistakes, but also not the villain he’s perceived to be by the general public.

“Mike is very publicly private, but very privately engaging,” says Williams. “I’ve seen Mike laugh uproariously, turning red, falling over in enjoyment.”

It’s the “publicly private” trait that overshadows the other attributes—funny, smart, generous—words a lot of fans would never associate with Mike Brown or other members of the family. This is largely a fate they have chosen. The Browns politely declined any on-the-record interviews for this story, as they do with just about every media request, stating through a Bengals spokesperson that they “preferred to have attention directed to the accomplishments of the team’s players and coaches.” Which just paints them all the more gray. In good times or bad, the family prefers isolation to acceptance, obscurity to understanding.

The legend of Mike Brown’s deep frugality goes beyond the stingy contract negotiations and flying free agents in on coach. He and the franchise as a whole have long been chastised for their lack of charitable giving, community outreach, and civic responsibility. The team participates in a handful of NFL-friendly organizations—the United Way, Boys & Girls Clubs, Toys for Tots—and has always had a steady stream of players and coaches who are very active in their own personal foundations. But the Bengals don’t operate on the same level as the Reds, a franchise with its own outreach division (Reds Community Fund) and among the best in all of professional sports in terms of giving back to its city and fans. The public feud with the county over the stadium lease hasn’t helped this perception, either. Yet among people close to the team and familiar with the family, the Browns are consistently described as benevolent, though mostly on a personal scale and usually on the QT.

“The Bengals suffer in that the Reds under [owner Bob] Castellini have been great, publicly charitable citizens,” says Trumpy. “P&G is, and Cintas is, and Western & Southern has been, and the Lindner family has been. There are an awful lot of charitable givers in this town, and the Bengals don’t make that list publicly. But privately, with the people they know, they’ve been very generous.”

The family is widely praised for the loyalty and respect they show the organization’s non-football employees in terms of compensation and benefits. They funnel personal financial support to foundations led by Bengals players and coaches (Marvin Lewis, Andy Dalton, Anthony Muñoz, among others), as well as local high school programs. There’s even a rumor that Mike Brown once gave $1 million to the Miami University football program, with the understanding that if they publicized where it came from, they’d never see another dime. And this past January, when the team was struggling to sell out its home playoff matchup against the San Diego Chargers—putting the game in danger of not being aired on local television—Brown walked into the ticket office at Paul Brown Stadium and bought 1,000 tickets to distribute to fans, but demanded it be kept discreet.

“Mike quietly puts money where his heart is on a number of causes,” says Williams, who saw this first-hand through the recent establishment of the Reggie Williams Award for Dartmouth football. “He quietly made a very significant contribution to Dartmouth College in the name of the [award].”

The Bengals owner has a noticeable soft spot for reclamation projects as well, but because of his hermetic ways, the public usually only sees these as second chances for troubled athletes with questionable backgrounds and/or criminal records who may pay dividends for the team on the field. But Brown has consistently made efforts to help those players and their families off the field, too. He paid for treatment for Greg Cook’s substance abuse during the quarterback’s tenure with the Bengals in the early ’70s. After star-crossed receiver Chris Henry died from injuries sustained in a car crash in 2009 following a domestic dispute, Brown paid for flights and hotels for the family during the funeral arrangements, and may have even paid for the entire funeral service. And this season, after defensive tackle Devon Still’s 4-year-old daughter Leah was diagnosed with stage-four pediatric cancer, the organization stepped up in a number of ways, including raising more than $1 million for pediatric cancer research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center through sales of his team jersey.

“I talked to [the family] when I first got back with the team after finding out that my daughter had cancer,” says Still. “Mike Brown basically told me that they were going to stick by me through this whole process and make sure I have everything I need out here to deal with everything that is going on back home. They’ve just been beyond helpful.”

Despite Brown’s well-publicized faults, a number of people who have worked for and gone up against him describe a man whose true colors aren’t accurately reflected in his public persona. Granted, being the president of a billion-dollar corporation carries with it the weight of public scrutiny, and the public can only judge what they see. But there’s also something to be said for a person whose most admirable qualities are displayed behind closed doors, expecting little in return.

Oh, you can tell I’m getting old. I’m a grandfather, and my granddaughters are in college. When you get old, your children get impatient with you. That’s just the way it works in life. I have been blessed to work with my two kids and my father. That’s something that is unusual in America these days. And I realize that roles change. My role changed with my father, just as Katie’s role with me changes. One time I went up, now I’m going down and that’s just the way it is.
—Mike Brown, at the Bengals media luncheon in July

Here’s the shocking news: Mike Brown has changed. It’s been subtle, and it’s taken time, but it’s true.

The most obvious impetus is Marvin Lewis, who was hired as head coach of the club in 2003. After a decade of futility, the Bengals rebuilt under Lewis, reaching the playoffs five times since 2005, including each of the last three seasons. Katie Blackburn, Mike’s oldest child, is a big reason for that as well. Petite and wiry, with her grandfather’s slender, pointed nose and her father’s hesitant smile, Katie spent most of her childhood in Cincinnati, playing tennis for Cincinnati Country Day and graduating at age 16. After earning degrees in math and economics at Dartmouth—not to mention a varsity letter playing goalie for the women’s hockey team—she returned to the University of Cincinnati and earned a law degree in 1989 before joining the Bengals front office in 1991, a few months after her grandfather’s passing. Along with her husband, Troy, she has taken on more of a decision-making role with the team the last few years, overseeing all aspects of the business side, including team marketing, financing, ticket sales, player contract negotiations, and salary cap management. It’s something that has been in the works for a while—there were stories of her role as Mike’s successor as early as 2000, when the new stadium was unveiled—but as Mike has stepped back in recent seasons, conceding on-the-field issues to Lewis and off-the-field decisions to his daughter, the team has steadily improved in both areas.

“The people they’ve hired have been good, competent people, and [Mike] has kept his hands out of the cookie jar, so to speak,” says Daugherty, who has covered the team since 1988 and been extremely critical of Mike Brown’s management in the past. “I think [Katie] has had a big influence. She’s a very shrewd negotiator, very smart. I think she’s added a bit of a human element.”

That’s not to say she’s a media darling; in fact, she’s often described as more private than her father and is painfully shy when dealing with the media. But she is warmer, friendlier, and more patient when interacting with people in a business context—traits Mike Brown has credited to his own mother, whom Katie is named after. Over time, that warmth has rubbed off on him. When the Blackburns’ two daughters were younger, kids at school would tease them about their grandfather and how awful the team was. Katie was understandably hurt and troubled by it, and it almost certainly affected Mike.

“I think Mike’s softened,” says Trumpy. “I think he can see that he’s no longer as important to the franchise as he used to be. He’s leaving the football part of it to somebody else, which is something he should have done a long time ago.”

The changes have permeated the organization. Lengthy and substantial contract extensions for key players have muffled the old cries of frugality. Fan relations have improved through simple PR wins—things like instituting “family days” during training camp and the Devon Still story. And perhaps the biggest eye-opener of all happened in April when the team agreed to pay $2.5 million toward the cost of a new scoreboard (which the lease states the county is 100 percent responsible for funding) and waived air rights that paved the way for the forthcoming GE Building at The Banks. Ultimately, the Bengals agreed to pay $4 million toward projects that the stadium lease requires the county to fund—not a huge concession in the big picture by any means, but a concession nonetheless.

“I really am genuinely happy that the posture the team adopted in all of this was reasonable,” says county commissioner Todd Portune, a long-time adversary of the team. “It was big for the region, and we all had to come together, and we did. We both expressed a desire to work together and put the fighting behind us.”

More important for the fans, the team is no longer the laughingstock cellar-dweller of professional sports. It’s what the Brown family has always wanted, even if it took far too long for them to foster that positive transformation.

“You have to adapt with change, and maybe we didn’t adapt as fast as we should have,” says Jim Anderson, the Bengals running backs coach from 1984 to 2012, tiptoeing around the obvious. “I think [the family’s] main objective, contrary to what other people may say, is to bring a world championship to the people of Cincinnati. I know one thing: that would give Mike the greatest joy.”

As PB would say, ‘All of us are useful, but none of us are necessary.’ As you go through life, you have to hand that baton on to someone else.
—Jim Anderson

Mike Brown is a simple guy. He enjoys bird watching and despises air conditioning, turning it on as sparingly as possible at home. He sips his morning coffee from a Styrofoam cup. He wears New Balance sneakers and old crewneck Bengals sweatshirts from the ’80s. He eats at the Frisch’s Mainliner on Wooster Pike once a week with his wife, Nancy. It’s an old-school sensibility that should by any rational measure endear him to a city like Cincinnati, which extols the genuine and bristles at ostentation. Yet after five decades of owning the franchise, he’s still viewed as an outsider by most folks in town. His reclusive nature amplifies this, but it’s also due in part to the distinctiveness of the team’s origin. The Browns weren’t local businessmen like Powel Crosley or Carl Lindner or Bob Castellini, men who used their fortune to augment their influence in the community. In fact, they weren’t businessmen at all. In a sports-industrial complex full of multi-millionaires who became owners, the Browns are a football family who became multi-millionaires.

“I don’t think you could find another team who came into ownership like this,” says O’Toole. “Art Rooney made money on the race tracks. Tim Mara was a bookmaker. Art Modell had money in ad agencies. And they all bought their own team. Paul Brown was just a football coach. And it’s amazing what that team is worth now.”

To the family, simply having a team was always more important than the city that housed it. Yet over time, they’ve developed ties. Katie and her brother Paul Jr. grew up here. The Blackburns’ girls are Cincinnatians, born and bred. Mike Brown is immensely proud of the rebirth of the city’s riverfront and the role the Bengals have played in that—including his daughter’s recent appointment to The Joint Banks Steering Committee, a collaboration between the city and county that oversees all development at The Banks. And as the state of the team continues to improve, the more that curtain separating the family from the city lifts.

“I think once they left Cleveland, there was a void in their life,” says Anderson. “The people of Cincinnati gave the Brown family the opportunity to get back into football and do something they really love and cherish. That’s a big thing. They appreciate that opportunity.”

Public opinion toward the family notwithstanding, that last part is undeniably true. Football is their livelihood, a truth Mike Brown has ensured for the foreseeable future. And regardless how much of the decision-making he surrenders, he’ll remain a part of that livelihood for as long as time allows—watching practice from the sidelines, sitting in his sun-soaked corner office high above Paul Brown Stadium, smiling and tapping his feet in the owner’s box as his wife sings along to the Bengals fight song after touchdowns—always seen but rarely heard, fending off the day when he’s no longer necessary.


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